JFK Assassination: The Day Before; what life was like for Americans on Nov. 21, 1963

Many people still remember where they were the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated -- Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 -- but what about the day before? What was life like for Americans on that Thursday, just before so much changed for the nation and the world?

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A time of anxiety

Many Americans may not recall just how scary it was in 1963. The country was deeply immersed in the Cold War. A nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union in Cuba had ended barely a year before.

On Nov. 20, 1963, a high-flying spy plane returning from a mission over Cuba crashed into the Gulf of Mexico 40 miles northwest of Key West and 188 miles north of Cuba. The Lockheed U-2 sank to the seabed and its pilot, Capt. Joe Hyde Jr., was killed.

"The country was deeply immersed in the Cold War. There was almost a constant anxiety about the possibility of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union,'' said Robert Dallek, a respected Kennedy biographer.

Even so, Dallek said, "Kennedy was in high cotton." He had gotten Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev to back down on missiles in Cuba and agree to a nuclear test ban treaty. "There were the beginnings of détente, but Vietnam was also coming front and center. A lot of things were in flux."

U.S. by the numbers

The United States had about 189 million people in 1963. The unemployment rate was 5.5 percent. Inflation was 1.24 percent. The median family income was $6,200.

Gas averaged 29 cents a gallon and a new auto's price averaged $3,233. One of the hottest cars that year was the Corvette Stingray, which came with a split rear window and a $4,257 base price.

The average cost of a new home was $12,650. A loaf of bread -- white, of course -- sold for 22 cents. A stamp cost a nickel, and addresses began including the new Zoning Improvement Plan --ZIP -- code.

In national headlines

The president's trip to Texas merited no mention on Page One of The New York Times. Instead, a report by David Halberstam focused on conflict abroad, headlined: "Saigon's Control of 2 Provinces Periled by Reds ... Top U.S. Aides Report Gain in War." The United States had more than 16,000 troops in Vietnam supporting and training the South Vietnamese army.

Other lead stories in that morning's Times included an announcement that AT&T planned a stock split. Earlier that week, AT&T had introduced the touch-tone phone. Successor to the rotary dial, it had only 10 buttons; two more would be added later.

On Nov. 21, 1963, Robert Stroud, better known as "the Bird Man of Alcatraz," died at age 73 at the federal prison on a rocky outcropping in San Francisco Bay. He had been incarcerated for 54 years, 42 of them in isolation.

Texans prepare for presidential visit

President Kennedy's two-day tour of Texas, with his wife Jacqueline, was front-page news in Dallas, where the Times Herald noted the chance of rain on his parade. It added that former Vice President Richard Nixon had preceded him in town on a business trip.

In Fort Worth, the Star-Telegram also reported on preparations for the Kennedys' arrival that evening, but said rain was unlikely. It featured a long, front-page story about a rematch between a nearly blind checkers champion and an IBM 7094 computer.

Uncivil challenges to civil rights

Civil rights became the overwhelming domestic issue of 1963, with Alabama the scene of some of the most dramatic struggles. For eight days in May, the world watched as police in Birmingham turned attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses on protesters including children. In September, four young girls were preparing for a Sunday sermon at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church when a bomb planted by the Klu Klux Klan went off, killing them and injuring 22 others.

The civil rights bill that Kennedy had proposed in June had yet to be debated by Congress -- Southern segregationists on the House Rules Committee had held it up. Howard W. Smith of Virginia, the committee's chairman and an ardent segregationist, did all he could to delay action.

"There was a lot of anxiety on [Kennedy's] part that his support in the South might be lost because of this," author Robert Dallek said. "That was why he had gone to Texas to do political fence mending."

Entertaining the masses

The blockbuster "Cleopatra" was still showing in some movie theaters after a months-long reign. Elizabeth Taylor, cast in the title role, became the first actress to earn $1 million for a single film. The year's other top releases included "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Great Escape" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

In Hollywood's Revue Studios, Ronald Reagan was filming "The Killers," his last movie before he turned to politics. He played a mob boss, the only bad-guy role of his career.

On the small screen on Thursday nights, CBS' "Beverly Hillbillies" -- introduced in 1962 -- had struck ratings gold, winning viewers with down-home humor, talk of possum pie and scenes with curvy Elly May by the cement pond. That night's TV fare across the three networks included "The Flintstones," "My Three Sons," "Dr. Kildare," "Perry Mason" and "The Jimmy Dean Show."

Topping the music charts that week: Nino Tempo and April Stevens' "Deep Purple."

The sporting life

Baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers had swept the New York Yankees in the World Series that October. The Boston Celtics were NBA champs. On the gridiron, the Chicago Bears were well on their way toward winning the NFL Championship and the San Diego Chargers were charging toward victory in the American Football League. (The Super Bowl wouldn't start until 1967.) In the boxing ring, Sonny Liston beat Floyd Patterson in a rematch that July, noteworthy also because it was the first purse over $1 million. Each man collected $1.4 million.

Healthy developments in medicine

Surgeon James Hardy performed the world's first lung transplant at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in June; a month later, another medical pioneer, Michael DeBakey, treated a patient with an early artificial heart pump. Both of their patients died from other medical problems within days. Also in 1963, millions of young Americans began receiving the Sabin oral polio vaccine via a sugar lump.

Flashes of ingenuity in pop culture

Eastman Kodak Co. introduced its revolutionary Instamatic camera, a pocket-sized device that people could carry almost anywhere to capture snapshots and moments. Lava Lamps went on sale, oozing into the public consciousness. Toymakers released the game Mouse Trap and Hasbro's Easy Bake Oven, which heated food with a light bulb. Troll dolls, created in 1959 by a Danish woodcutter, became a full-fledged U.S. fad in the fall of 1963.

Aluminum manufacturer Alcoa rolled out the pull-top can tab. Coca-Cola introduced its first diet drink: TaB. And Oscar Meyer began airing the radio jingle, "I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener."

'Beatlemania' spreads to America

What is believed to be the first U.S. news story on the Beatles ran on NBC's "Huntley-Brinkley Report" the evening of Nov. 18, 1963.

The morning of Nov. 22, the "CBS Morning News With Mike Wallace" ran a story on the group. The network planned to repeat the five-minute segment on Walter Cronkite's evening newscast. But just a few hours later, Cronkite was on the air reporting the breaking news that shots had been fired at President John F. Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas. All regular television news programming was canceled for almost four days while the networks covered the assassination and funeral of the president.

"CBS Evening News" finally aired the Beatles segment Dec. 10.

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(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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