Monday, September 11, 2017

50 for 50, Day five: History

Today is September 11th. It is (among other things) the birthdays of several people I love and others with cultural weight including O Henry, DH Lawrence and Harry Connick Jr.; the anniversary of Krushchev's death; and the date upon which "The Star Spangled Banner" was first sung at a baseball game. It is also the anniversary of the September 11th attacks in the United States. This date has become a kind of secular holy day. The president will say something about it that will be broadcast on tv. If you knew people who died in those attacks, you'll think of them. If you were in any way affected by it, at some point today you will pause and remember. I cannot help but remember where I was when I heard. You'll probably think about that, too.

That's the thing about living long enough. You have personal memories linked to larger events. You have personal context.

I remember when I was little, asking my mother where she was when JFK was killed, how she found out. I asked about King's assassination, the moon landing, the bombing at Hiroshima, on and on. Every time I learned about a new 20th century historical event I would ask her where she was, what it was like and how she felt. I think I was hungry for both a sense of history as something in living memory, and some understanding of the personal impact.

I was a year old when humans first walked on the moon. I don't remember it. I have vague memories of the Vietnam war, Nixon and Watergate, and the Iran Contra scandal. The first moment that I know I can tell you where I was, what it was like and how I felt was when Elvis died. I was ten years old and in summer camp. The flag was at half-mast and we were told, "Mr. Elvis Presley died last night." I remember this date not because Elvis mattered to me but because I didn't know who Elvis was. I remember being mocked and feeling the shame of not being in the know. Later, when John Lennon was killed, I reacted personally and immediately (my mother told me as I was eating breakfast before going to school. I remember the cereal spoon pausing on its way to my mouth). Lennon meant something to me. I had learned to care at least a little about pop culture and this time it hurt. These memories are visceral, personal, and offer some context for my life and the larger moment.

The next broad cultural moment I remember is when the Challenger exploded. I was in the vegetarian dining hall during my freshman year in college. Someone had a transistor radio that we huddled around. I ran back to my dorm because I knew my friend, who was studying to be a rocket engineer, would be devastated. I spent the afternoon sitting with him, missing all our classes and not caring. We watched the coverage on a crummy black and white television. I had to hold the antenna for reception.

It didn't stop there, of course. Other memories, other where were you moments have layered themselves into me. Some were big and global (the start of the first Gulf War, for example) while others are smaller but no less important (my first email account and my first computer). Some have had a greater influence than others but they all are part of my personal history and context as well as the more general ones. Each moment has turned into a kind of litmus test, a shorthand I can use with others to place each of us into time and memory.

All of this helps me know who I am, where I have been, and gives me the tiniest bit of a path to follow when the next big moment happens. If nothing else, I know that the next big moment will happen.

I am old enough now to be part of history and to tell the where was I when stories. I think this is one of the gifts of getting older; personal meaning and context to broader histories. When we tell these stories we make the global personal, and we are able to say I am here. I am part of the world. You are, too.

So where was I on September 11, 2001? At work. In the kitchen, chatting with Clara. As I watched the news play out I remember thinking everything is going to change now. Nothing will ever be the same. I remember knowing at some point I would have to choose how I would react to people, events and the world. So it is, over and over again through history. Where were you. What was it like. How did it feel. We live through these moments and can choose to learn about ourselves and the world, or choose to forget.

This is what 50 looks like. Old enough to remember.

 (c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

No comments:

Post a Comment

True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Related Posts with Thumbnails