Robert M. Kelley

is an Inquirer editor

Saying you remember exactly where you were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated has become something of a cliché, but you won't hear it from me: I don't remember exactly where I was, except that I had recently turned 7 and was in school.

What I do remember was the world seemed to be turning into something shockingly different in that period of history.

On that terrible day, we were dismissed from school early, and our school bus driver, who had a pencil-thin mustache and belted out show tunes like "Hello, Dolly," was somber.

When I got home, my mother was in front of the TV crying. I remember wondering why she was crying since it was the president who had been killed and not someone we really knew.

Years later, I came to realize that JFK was more than just the president to her and many others. He seemed to be leading us into a fresh way of looking at our nation and the world.

It's a gross oversimplification, but I think of the 1950s and the early 1960s as a world in black and white, when almost no one had a color TV and the fashions, at least for men, leaned toward charcoal suits and white shirts. The cars had tail fins, and there were more than a few still on the road with the 1940s-style pontoon fenders.

Our local barber offered three - and only three - choices of haircuts for boys: a crew cut, a flattop, and the "John-John," with bangs inspired by those of John F. Kennedy Jr. With the "John-John," he cut the bangs diagonally, explaining that it looked better this way if you parted your hair and combed the bangs to the side. No one did this, so we had diagonal bangs.

Children idolized John F. Kennedy as a war hero who had been lionized in a popular movie, PT 109, telling the tale of his heroism aboard a patrol torpedo boat in the South Pacific during World War II. A large group of young children from my neighborhood walked en masse over some distance and across a major road to see it, for a quarter.

My father had been a Navy junior grade lieutenant in Korea. During show-and-tell at school, I brought his khaki Navy cap, which I sometimes wore even though it covered most of my head. In my mind, I entangled wartime photos of him as a very skinny young man in khakis with similar photos of JFK.

Dad never missed an opportunity to tell me war is a terrible thing that should never be romanticized, and I would imagine Kennedy felt the same way. My father didn't even want me to have toy guns or real knives, but my mother intervened in my favor on that issue.

Kennedy stood for progressive thinking, but he kept his Cold War credentials in order when he faced down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis.

Similarly, he led the nation in the space race with the Russians. We had lost the bragging rights to putting the first man in orbit, but soon had two men in orbit aboard the Gemini spacecraft, and we laid the groundwork for the real glory of landing on the moon in 1969.

When Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy, the nation was moving in the direction that would eventually lead to the explosion of rock music, garish colors in fashion and on cars, young people protesting the Vietnam War - which Kennedy got us into - and a general air of free expression and antiestablishment posturing.

But in November 1963, the Beatles were still a couple of months away from their first U.S. radio hit. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and two other Beatles songs held the No. 1 spot for 14 weeks, before finally being dethroned by Louis Armstrong's "Hello, Dolly" - and the two styles sounded as if they came from different planets.

Classroom photos from the period show children looking as if they are still in the Eisenhower era.

Yet something was stirring in the air. A folk-music craze had swept the country, in a dramatic turnaround from when some folksingers had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era for their leftist politics.

Earlier in 1963, the massive civil rights march on Washington, and the "Dream" speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., exposed the racial injustices in our nation - at least to white people, because black people were living with the situation every day.

During the civil rights struggle in the South, President Kennedy's younger brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, played a key role in bringing the authority of the federal government to bear on forces of bigotry as African Americans faced segregation and violence.

Then on Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was gone.

Five years later, RFK and King would also be killed by assassins.

But by then we were living in a different world.