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There’s a story my mother used to tell about the day she heard that President Kennedy had been shot and what happened when she conveyed that news to the woman behind the desk at the local library. The librarian didn’t believe her. She actually told my mother “she didn’t find that type of joke to be funny” and asked my mom to leave.
For years, I thought my mom recounted this tale because she was shocked and offended that the woman had been so rude. From my point of view, it seemed the encounter had taken place so many years back, my mom should let it go already.
It wasn’t until some 20 years later — at the start of the first Gulf War — that I finally understood why my mother told that story over and over again.
It had nothing to do with the other woman’s behavior at all. It had everything to do with the news being so shocking, so impactful, so life changing, that my mom would never forget exactly where she was and what she was doing on that awful day.
I imagine that all of us have had similar experiences … a handful of events and dates in our lives when we know exactly where we were when we first heard the news.
For me, those events include the first Gulf War. The Challenger explosion. The day the Trade Towers fell. And to a lesser extent, the day man walked on the moon.
Admittedly, Neil Armstrong’s lunar walk stands out, not because of its historic significance — which was entirely lost on my brother and me. But rather on the fact that we were allowed to stay up way past bedtime and watch TV, in our pajamas, from our bedroom doorway. Like many parents across the country, our parents had set up a TV in the hall so we could watch the historic event. For us, it was just plain fun, as bedtime rituals were strictly enforced and this was clearly not part of our routine.
The bombing of Iraq during the first Gulf War, on the other hand, was a seminal moment for me.
I heard the news over the car radio — exactly the same way my mom learned of Kennedy’s assassination. I distinctly remember parking my car at the grocery and walking through the store’s automatic doors. A woman was exiting, directly opposite me, and I had this overwhelming urge to stop her and ask if she’d heard the news.
I didn’t ask. But, it was a feeling I’ll never forget, like this is “It” … a moment in time that will remain with me forever.
And that’s when I suddenly realized that this must be the same feeling my mom had had. And, it was why she would remember and retell the story of that library encounter, time and time again, decades later.
The topic intrigues me and comes to my attention, now, because of a superbly written article in the December / January AARP magazine about the Challenger explosion and, more specifically, its impact on our psyche.
Hard to believe, January 28, 2016 will be 30 years. Chuck Klosterman’s article, “Challenger Disaster: Fire in the Sky” dives into the psychology of why the event touched us in the way it did … reminding us of how, at that time, the space program was seen as so routine, so safe, and even so boring, that we hardly gave it a second thought.
Do you recall where you were when you first heard the news of the Challenger explosion? If you’re old enough to have lived through the event, chances are you know exactly where you were when you first heard.
I was working freelance at Silver Burdett, (now Silver Burdett Ginn), a school textbook publishing company in northern New Jersey. One of our writers, a 50-ish, slightly balding man, came running down the aisle and exclaimed, “My wife just called. The Challenger blew up!”
In his AARP article, Klosterman recounts how he was in school that day and, upon hearing that same news, a classmate asked: “What do you mean by ‘exploded?’ ”
I remember wondering exactly the same thing. And wondering if the astronauts were safe. After all, space travel was perceived as so mundane that, on this flight, NASA was sending an elementary school teacher — an ordinary citizen — into space. Our publishing company was making hay of this windfall educational opportunity and planned to prominently feature the Challenger on the cover and throughout the chapters of their new textbook. In fact, several dignitaries from work had just returned from an exciting, but ultimately disappointing, week at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, where they had expected to witness the liftoff. Cold weather had intervened and eventually our representatives returned, unable to wait any longer.
So the news that the Challenger had blown up didn’t, at first, sink in. Surely everyone on board was fine, including the smiling, waving, schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe. Right?
But, as you well know, that wasn’t the case. That night, we watched the clips of the horrific explosion over and over, coupled with stories of Christa and the other six astronauts, in what seemed like an endless news loop. It was gut wrenching.
And 9/11? Once again, I was at work, this time at one of the world’s leading laboratory equipment manufacturers located less than 25 miles, as the crow flies, to Manhattan.
My husband called to inform me that he’d just heard a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. Knowing my colleague’s brother flew small planes, and still unaware of exactly what had happened, my friend and I struck off down the hall to the President’s office, which housed the only TV in the building, and got permission to put on the news.
By then, two or three others had the same bright idea, and so together we stood around in horror as we watched the second plane smack into the tower.
My mother called throughout the day, relaying the latest updates and sharing her shock and sadness. “Did you hear? The tower just collapsed! … There are papers floating everywhere … They’re saying the second tower may fall too …” And so the news trickled in, in an ever more sickening flow.
Our company was one of only a few in the state (it seemed to me) that chose not to release employees early, that day. So, by the time I drove home that night, the roads were deserted. The sky, empty. The silence, eerie.
Of course, once home, the news repeated. And repeated. And, we couldn’t get enough. We were glued to the TV, stuck watching the same clips and bits of commentary over and over, in hopes that some new piece of information would be revealed. Who was behind it and why? How many planes were hijacked? And, on and on … .
Of course, ask anyone you know, and they’ll surely be able to tell you with equal sharpness of memory, exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard.
One of the oddest things about 9/11 is that despite living within such close proximity to Ground Zero, and having actually been in the those towers on a few occasions, and even having sucked up the endless television and newspaper news feed, the true impact of that day didn’t hit me, full force, until I saw a 9/11 photo exhibit at a small college in Florida (of all places), while on vacation. Their collection of stills — black and white photos — just got to me.
I never realized it before then, but the frozen moments in time captured by the photos were so much more powerful than the action-filled film clips we’d watched on TV.
I guess it’s akin to the very idea that there are certain events that we will always remember … moments in time seared into our brains because of the powerful way they impacted us. And those are the events for which we’ll always remember just where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news.
I’m certain you have a handful of events that struck you in similar ways. Maybe even the same events? If so, you may want to read Klosterman’s article. I found it fascinating. Insightful. And perhaps you will, too.
Suzy Kedzierski is a freelance marketing communications writer, Associate Producer of Spotlight On stories airing on PBS affiliates, and author of “10 Secrets to Powerful Public Speaking … Even if You’re Deathly Afraid of Being the Center of Attention, (available at Amazon).