Friday, November 22, 2013

Where Were You?

Unless you've been living in a cave, by now you're aware that today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. I'm not going to go into the historical, political, and social ramifications of his assassination, other than to note in passing that it was a watershed event in our country's history. For starters, just imagine how different things might have turned out if JFK, who would be considered a moderate-to-conservative today, had remained in office instead of being replaced by LBJ, a sleazy scheming liberal by anyone's standards, then or now. (And BTW, what's with all the 3-initial identifiers from that era? JFK, RFK, LBJ, MLK ... but I digress.)

What I wanted to discuss today is the "Where were you when..." question. JFK's assassination is the first date that I can recall where I was and what I was doing when I heard about it (7th grade band class - the announcement came of the school's loudspeaker that the president had been shot. No further details were provided, so we had no idea how serious the incident was.)

What I remember most about the assassination and its aftermath was how everyone was glued to the television. Back then there were only three TV channels. For several days it was nothing but coverage of the shooting and the subsequent events, from sign on until sign off. (Remember how TV channels used to sign off the air around midnight by playing the National Anthem? If you do, you're an old fart like me.)

Eventually, of course, things got more-or-less back to normal. Then came the RFK and MLK shootings, and nothing was ever quite the same.

The next date that's fixed in my mind is January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after liftoff, killing its crew of seven. I was working in Houston at the time. We were gathered in the break room to watch. At that time shuttle launches were still a big event, especially in the Houston area, where NASA was headquartered. To say we were all stunned would be a massive understatement. Watch the short video of the launch below, and notice how quiet it gets after the explosion. No one knows what to say. They probably can't believe what they just saw. The NASA PAO (Public Affairs Officer) narrating the launch finally came up with "Obviously there was a major malfunction."


The next 15 years are a pleasant blur for me. Getting married to my current wife, the birth of our two children, a career change from industry to academia, all these milestones in my life were marked and celebrated at the time. But the memory of them is softened by a pleasant, golden haze. The stark details have faded over time. Then comes a date that I'm sure I share with most of you - September 11, 2001.

I was just about to begin teaching a class when I heard a fragmented and preliminary report concerning an airplane possibly hitting one of the World Trade Center towers. I headed into class thinking that it was probably a light plane sightseeing over Manhattan and accidentally flying into a building. When class was over I learned the horrible truth - that we were at war with a bunch of barbaric savages who deserve to be wiped from the face of the earth.

I still feel that way.

My final "where were you" date is February 1, 2003.

Another space shuttle - Columbia - was returning to earth early Saturday morning after completing its mission. At the same time I was driving down a country road in Central Texas. It was a beautiful winter day - crisp and clear, a deep blue sky without a cloud in sight. I saw a brilliant white contrail pass overhead, heading from west to east. All of a sudden that one contrail became multiple smaller contrails. I had no idea what had happened until a couple of hours later, when I heard the news. Again, it was a feeling of shock and disbelief.

Watch the video below and you'll see that shock and disbelief mirrored on the faces of the NASA personnel in Mission Control, followed by tears as the truth slowly dawns on them.

So there you have it - four dates that are indelibly etched in my memory. I wish they were happier events, but evidently my subconscious prefers the tragic and dramatic.

Sometime today, when I have a quiet moment, I'll say a little prayer for all those affected by these four tragedies. If you're so inclined, I'd be honored if you'll join me.


Mel said...

50 years ago I was a junior in high school science class.

January 28, 1986 at work just sitting down for lunch when the news broke.

September 11, 2001 getting ready to leave for DFW airport.
Plans cancelled.

February 1, 2003 I walked out on the deck to watch the shuttle. When the contrail went from one to three I knew what happened went in and turned on the television and waited about ten minutes for the breaking news.

We'll keep you company in your quiet moment.

CenTexTim said...

Thanks for the company, Mel.

Interesting, isn't it, how we share those moments.