Major historical events play tricks on the mind. It’s hard sometimes to remember how it actually was rather than how it’s been played and replayed in the media. It’s kind of weird sometimes. But that doesn’t really keep us from remembering.
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
If you discount the memorable assassinations that took place in the sixties—all in my true childhood, before I reached the age of six—the first major event in my lifetime was probably the whole Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of President Nixon. But, really, the only thing I remember about that entire fiasco is that people were always talking about it. The news, my parents, really, all the grown-ups. I wasn’t quite eleven by the time Nixon left office, and it’s when I learned the word impeach. Though, at the time, I misunderstood what was happening and thought he was leaving office because he had officially been impeached.
The first event I remember more clearly was the Iran hostage affair. Sometimes it makes me feel old that I remember a time when there wasn’t a Nightline program, and when all it did was cover the hostage situation. Still, though I was certainly old enough to understand more fully, I have never been a particularly engaged person when it comes to current events; they tend to be sort of peripheral for me. I was in high school when all of this happened, and I clearly remember the day the hostages were released and they made an announcement over the PA system when they crossed into friendly skies, and again (the next day? two days later?) when they landed back in the U.S. But the weird memory thing is that my mind pictures me in my middle school when I heard that announcement. I’m not sure why, and I sometimes wonder if maybe I was visiting my old school for some reason that day, but I have no specific memory of that, so I think it’s probably just faulty recollection.
Then there was President Reagan’s attempted assassination, though I remember it with what they like to call “flashbulb memory”. I was having lunch with my mom that day; she’d picked me up from school for a girls’ afternoon break, and I was planning on returning for the final hour of class. We were going to make a quick stop by my grandmother’s house for something and were driving down her street when we heard the news on the radio. My mom decided I could skip the last of the school day and we watched the news coverage for the rest of the afternoon. I remember she was convinced that Reagan was going to die, as she said the earliest reports of the Kennedy assassination had also been only about a “shooting” and an emergency trip to the hospital. Thankfully, she was wrong about that, but I don’t have too many other memories of the event.
Which brings us to the event that happened 27 years ago today, the loss of the shuttle Challenger. I was working at our local Orange Julius at the time, and a manager from the jewelry store walked across the mall to ask if we’d “heard about the shuttle”. I knew it was launching, knew that Christa McAuliffe was onboard, but beyond that, didn’t know much about it. He was the one who broke the news to us. It’s kind of weird, in today’s world of instant information, to think about how things were then and how delayed information could be. I’d guess it was at least an hour before we got the news, unthinkable today, with Twitter and Facebook and news alerts delivered to our phones. For an hour or so, my co-worker and I tried to get news from the radio and took turns walking across the mall to the jeweler, where they had a TV in the back room, but, finally, I made a quick run home (about a five minute drive) to pick up my own portable television so we could keep tabs on what was going on. Not that there was really anything to keep tabs on, of course—it was going to be months before the world would know about faulty O rings and the flawed decision-making processes at NASA that caused the tragedy. Still, it is in moments like those that we seem to find some measure of comfort in simply listening to people talk about things. I’ve never understood that, but I know it to be true. I remember going home that day and continuing to watch the coverage on CNN, a channel that was not one of my favorites, but I was glad to have it that day. As an aside, I know intellectually that we had cable at the time of Reagan’s shooting, but I have absolutely no memory of watching CNN that day. Because it was too new to us? Or because we were just still more comfortable with the networks? Who knows, but whatever it was seems to have shifted in the intervening five years.
And, just to close the circle on the technology of of historic events, years later, I was again working when our first African-American president was sworn into office. We had many televisions in our center, but they were always silent, so I was sitting at my desk, watching it on the computer so that I could hear the audio. And, my team was being inundated with calls from customers who were unable to watch on their phones because so many people were trying to do the same thing, the network simply couldn’t keep up. (Heck, even cnn.com was having some difficulty.)
But, whatever the event, and however it was communicated to me, these moments are fixed firmly in my mind, even if they are skewed, or maybe even simply misremembered entirely. They’re not only part of my nation’s history, but part of my history, and they make up part of who I am.
What are your memories of the major moments of history?