I don’t remember what I was doing when John Kennedy was shot. I was probably in school. Rather, I vividly remember watching his funeral. My mother called us into the house. I was playing four-square, probably with the Scanlons or the Cherrys. I sat on the floor in the big living room on Whipple Street. My dad was leaned against the dining room archway, pale and drawn, knuckles white with rage. Jaw set. Mom was on the sofa, crying. She repeated Why? so many times it sounded like a mantra. The image of John Jr etched itself into my brain. Hand raised, tiny salute. Indelible. The four of us sat silently on the floor, the enormity of the moment was lost on us. But only ever so briefly. It seemed like it was a fast succession of deaths – rapid fire – on the TV screen: John, Bobby, Martin Luther King. Each giving me a greater understanding of that moment in the living room.
We were in Scituate when Neil Armstrong took that one small step for man. Again we were crowded around the living room TV. My brother, D, announced that he wanted to be an astronaut. My Uncle, who lived with us at the time, laughed. I can still see my brother’s eyes filling with tears. I tried to imagine floating weightless.
I was making coffee when I heard John Lennon died—was shot. It was early in the morning on December 9th. I dropped the coffee pot, it shattered on the floor. Shards of glass covered the tiled floor. The bouncing pieces of glass sounded like wind chimes at a great distance. Almost serene. I rushed from the kitchen to turn on the TV in disbelief. I sank to the floor in front of the set. Shot. Jamie sat down beside me. I just stared. Why? The whole universe was moving in slow motion. Jamie got a wash cloth for my bleeding feet. I still don’t understand.
I was living in Plymouth when the Challenger blew up. Jamie and Nick were in school. Chris and I had hiked to the small park near the village. The home of pilgrim springs. We had brought bread for the ducks, swans, and geese. Chris chased the ducks. The geese and swans chased Chris. We filled our water jugs from the same spring that William Bradford and Miles Standish had. We walked through the village and I rolled my eyes as tourists looked in awe at Plymouth Rock… rooted as it was in the mythology of America. We walked to the pier talked to an old fisherman and then headed home with water bottles in the flexible flyer. Mid-afternoon, I read Tarot Cards for someone. $40—cash on the barrelhead. It was an age before internet and cell phones. I had no idea what was happening in the world at large. Until Jamie and Nick burst through the front door – they had seen it all on TV. I sat on the sofa, pale and drawn. The kids sat on the floor and we stared at the TV, numb.
I can name society-altering events throughout the course of my life. I can pinpoint where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. I can hear Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, or Aaron Brown sharing drama, tragedy, and catastrophe. Voices cracking as they struggled to be professional. I remember Tony Conigliaro carried from the field on a stretcher, Sharon Tate, the LaBiancas, Charles Manson, Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate, Nixon resigning, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, OJ—Nicole Brown Simpson, Iran-Contra, Ollie North, OPEC, Monica Lewinski, Ken Starr…
All in my living room. All with measured commentary telling me how to react, how to feel, how to cope.
Osama Bin Laden. September 11, Saddam Hussein—shock and awe, Katrina… Suddenly words fail. Journalists muted by the magnitude of the images; watching the scenes as they unfolded. No time to edit, no commercial breaks. What could anyone say? I—we all—watched in silence.
Bad news travels like wildfire. Thousands, hundreds of thousands dead. Streaming video. Facebook. Twitter, text messages.
People are still searching for missing loved ones. We can names the place and time – but not the people, individuals. Perhaps that’s why images of people falling from the upper floors of the World Trade Center remain fresh: the gray suit, black shoes. Free falling.
Before. After. Walls of water. Cars. Fingers pressed on glass, desperate eyes. Video with no commentary. None needed.
The brain is seared. Witness to a life, a death. A tribute, a tiny salute. A moment. Where were you? I can already hear the echo…
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