We remember good times. We remember bad times. But there are some events that are etched into our collective memory. Each of us knows precisely where we were, and how we found out, when it happened.
November 22, 1963, was a Friday, so I was in school — fifth grade at Adams Elementary in Davenport. Everything was normal, until, suddenly, everything was not.
I have no idea how the teachers were told the news that President Kennedy had been shot. What I recall is that all the students were dismissed early. I suppose they assumed our moms, at least, would be home. Life was still more like the 50’s than the 60’s, though that was changing fast.
So I walked dutifully home, where everyone was glued to our black-and-white TV. We didn’t normally have it on during the day, but this was no ordinary day. Two days later, the whole family witnessed Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald dead, in real time. I’ll never get the picture of his contorted face and body out of my mind. And I’ll never forgive Ruby for robbing us of a chance to hear, maybe, Oswald’s reasons for killing our president.
All Baby Boomers remember that event. My friend Dan was in first grade, home with chicken pox or mumps. His mom’s soap opera was interrupted with the news. “I don’t know how or if my parents explained why the world was spinning crazily,” he recalls, “but for a little boy it was a rude introduction to the reality of evil.”
As a professor, my husband remembers vividly what happened on October 3, 1995. The “trial of the century” had wound down, and he was teaching a class at Loras when the O.J. Simpson verdict was broadcast on a classroom TV. “As the words ‘not guilty’ sounded, there was a collective gasp in the room,” he recounts. “Many shook their heads in disbelief, while a smaller group clapped and cheered. The debate raged on around the nation for months.” He says now, “The O.J. sideshow ushered in the era of celebrity journalism and cable reality shows, the ‘tabloidization’ of mainstream American media.” As a survivor of domestic violence, I was appalled at the college women who couldn’t see past O.J.’s stature as a football/movie star.
My children know about the assassinations of the 60’s (JFK, RFK, MLK, and more) only as history. As my son Dan puts it, “The defining tragedy of my generation is definitely 9/11. I was in my dorm and woke up hearing people in the hallway talking about a plane crash. I turned on the TV and watched with my girlfriend and roommate as the second plane hit the towers.” When he went to class, “Most of the lab was spent talking about what had happened and speculating about who was responsible.” He also called his mom. Countless people checked in with family and friends that day, as if to ask not only, “Are you okay?” but also, “Will we ever be okay again?”
My daughter Allison, three years older than Dan, considers herself on the edge of Gen X and the Millenials. One big difference — she didn’t grow up with the Internet. She asks, “How would JFK’s assassination have impacted people if it had been streaming live? How would 9/11 be remembered if we hadn’t been able to watch it live with millions of others, from so many perspectives?” She remembers Matt Lauer “struggling for words as the second plane hit, saying, ‘We don’t really know what’s happening.’” Her earliest national tragedy, though, was the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, when she was in second grade. “I didn’t really understand it, but I knew that Something Had Changed.” Years later, she helped deliver the newspapers that announced the beginning of the Gulf War, “happening in a part of the world we hadn’t yet talked about in school.”
My friend Deanne tells me, “The defining tragedy of my life was watching Soviet tanks spear through crowds of citizens in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. I couldn’t even sit while watching the TV; I had to stand up. Apart from the horror, it made no sense. There had been no civilian uprising, no riots to be met with such force.” Now we know that President Dubcek’s reforms ushered in the Prague Spring, as bloody and awful an awakening as the violence in the Mideast we now call, perhaps too hopefully, the Arab Spring.
Mary Ellyn has lived through all of these, and more. As my oldest friend (someone I feel honored to know), she shared a memory from 1945. “I lived in Des Moines, and the Register put out an extra paper. I heard newsboys hollering, ‘Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima!’ I didn’t know where Hiroshima was and at 15, certainly didn’t know what an atomic bomb was, but in some innocent way, I knew the world had changed.”
Many years later, she and her husband were on a train in Japan, visiting a grandson teaching there. When the conductor said, “Next stop, Hiroshima,” she remembers “sitting in silence as the train rolled through this very large city.” A tear ran down her husband’s cheek, and hers as well. The silence, she says, was “almost prayer-like.” Amazingly, a Japanese acquaintance told them later not to feel guilty, that the leaders of that war were “crazy,” and the U.S. bomb had, after all, stopped the war.
So it goes, to quote Kurt Vonnegut’s searing novel of WWII, Slaughterhouse-Five. I can’t help wishing that future generations will have memories of only good things. Of peace agreements, not wars; of lives saved, not lost. Amid all these dreadful memories, we need something good to remember.