It is a common conversation to have. “Where were you when……?”
…. when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon
…. when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded
…. when the World Trade Centers towers were destroyed.
The conversation is a way of identifying the shared events that have shaped our collective consciousness if not our individual lives. All the events do not have equal importance. The relative importance of the events in history is somewhat objective but we may need the perspective of time to fully understand them. The significance to us personally is subjective and, for most of us, decreases over time. And yet for subsets of the population these are events that create a bond between us. Despite all of our obvious, and important, differences; we have these memories in common. These are things we share.
Of course, the conversation also highlights things we don’t share. As I get older it becomes a way of stratifying people into age groups. People under 50 do not recall the JFK assassination. People under 30 do not recall the Challenger exploding.
I think one of the defining moments of my parents lives was the attack on Pearl Harbor. Much of the world was already at war before December 7th, 1941 but for them this is the day WWII began. And 2-3 generations of Americans would come to think of their lives as divided into “before the war”; “during the war”; and “after the war”.
One of the defining moments of my childhood was the assassination of President Kennedy. I was only 7 years old but I remember hearing the news in my Second Grade classroom. I remember rushing home to watch the coverage on television. I don’t know whether I truly remember the images of the funeral or have just seen them so often that they’ve blended into memory. I’m not sure it matters.
At age 12, I was at the beginnings of my political awareness when Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F. Kennedy were killed. Their deaths affected me more personally than did JFK’s. I was old enough to have formed, albeit naïve, opinions about these people and I felt the loss of them affected me more directly than the Presidential assassination 5 years earlier.
Neil Armstrong’s first steps onto the moon were mesmerizing. The Stonewall Riots the previous month would ultimately have a greater impact on my life but it would be years before I even knew of that event. I could see the moon. I knew how far away it was. This was wonderful in the most literal definition of that word.
President Nixon resigned from office the month before I went away to college. I was working second shift at a factory job for the summer and heard the news at work. The national trauma that had come to be known as “Watergate” was ending. I think of this as the end of the Vietnam War as well though that is not historically accurate. For a naïve and idealistic Liberal kid about to leave home for college, and in many ways ‘for good’, it felt like a personal victory.
The clock radio awakened me with the news that John Lennon was dead. It was the week before I would turn 25. I was out of college and dealing with all the realities of adulthood. I was also finally, far too late, beginning the struggle of coming to terms with my homosexuality. I had never been a particularly avid fan of Mr. Lennon’s but the Beatles were an iconic image of my childhood and one of them was dead. I felt like my youth had ended.
A business meeting I was in was interrupted with the news of the Challenger explosion. There was no television in the place where the meeting was being held so I did not see the images until that night’s news. One of my colleagues was tearful at the news. Most of us were just silent. We wrapped up the meeting quickly. I called my office to let them know before I got in the car to drive there. They team had already heard from customers. When I got to the office I lowered the flag to half-staff. Oddly, while the memory is vivid, I don’t recall ever discussing the event with anyone other than that first call to my team. It just seemed like “news”.
A friend was coming over for brunch. I turned on the television while getting things prepped and heard that Princess Diana had been killed in an auto accident in Paris. My friend had not heard when he arrived so we spent the morning eating breakfast food and watching the news coverage. I swapped notes with a friend in London. He said people were crying in the streets, himself included. I did not feel particularly emotional about the news. She was such a public figure that I felt like I had seen the entire arc of her life through the media. And now it was over…. and she was 5 yrs younger than I was at the time.
The memories of September 11, 2001 are vivid. It was not that long ago and it changed our lives in ways we are still coming to understand. I was managing a Call Center at the time and one of the team leaders called me to come to his desk. He was watching the news on the internet. It was before the second plane struck so people were still assuming it was a tragic accident. As the news developed it became clear that was not the case. I went around and talked to the teams individually. Some people wanted to go home to be with their kids which we accommodated. We juggled people around to cover. In the days to come we had more juggling to do. Some of the team members had names that sounded ethnically middle-eastern and they were confronted with some ugly behavior from callers.
The anniversary comes in the heat of a divisive political process. Much of what I’ve read today online and on Facebook has been opportunistic at best and horrendously ugly at worst. I think it is a day to reflect and remember.
I’ve made the commitment to myself to respect everyone’s patriotism today. Tomorrow I’ll go back to wading through the hyperbole of the left and the xenophobia of the right. Tomorrow I’ll care again about marriage equality and reproductive choice. Tomorrow I will try again to care passionately about what America should be and what kind of country and world I want us all to live in, while rising above all the diversionary noise about birth certificates and fast-food chicken restaurants.
Today is a day to see each other as ‘fellow Americans”; to make the choice to see each other that way.
America did not lose any of her greatness 11 years ago today but Americans lost some of their illusions. It is worth taking a few hours to mourn that loss in addition to mourning the loss of those who died that day; many quite heroically.