Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Where Were You?

A news commentator remarked, in reference to the naming of the new pope, that historical moments like this would be burned in your mind such that in years to come you would remember where you were and what you were doing on this day. He compared it to other moments in our history, specifically the day Kennedy was shot and September 11th.

I was in sixth grade in 1963, living in Gary, Indiana. Friday, November 22nd was just another day. We had Thanksgiving coming up the next week and we always looked forward to the time off. We were on the playground at recess that afternoon, not doing much of anything. The boys were running, pestering the girls, and some were on the swings while others jumped rope. There was an outdoor public address system they used for fire drills. Suddenly, the principal was saying, "Attention, Attention...Teachers get your classes together and back in the building." There was a sound of urgency in her voice. Recess time wasn't over but we lined up and went back in. When we got into class, the principal came on the intercom again and announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas and that we would be dismissed early. I think she was frightened, confused and sad, it came across in her voice. You must remember that this was at the height of the cold war and we had been through the tension with Cuba and nuclear warheads pointed at the US. We had learned about bomb shelters and having to have provisions to stay there for at least a year. The civil defense testing had started on television. We were scared. Maybe the Cubans killed him and were attacking our country. Maybe missiles were coming, maybe that was why we were to go home early. What did we know? We were just little kids.

It was right that they sent us home early and right for them to call school off until after Thanksgiving. As children we felt safer with our parents, although in the event of a nuclear attack we weren't. There was no CNN or cable, just black and white television, Walter Kronkite and nothing but news on all channels for two weeks. We saw Jack Ruby murder Oswald, live. We saw John-John salute his father's casket. The images were forever burned in our memory but more than that the feeling of shock, disbelief and then fear.

Who could have known that years later I would live in Dallas for eight years, walk the halls of Parkland hospital as a medical student, hear the myths that "Kennedy wasn't really dead, they just kept him on life support in the basement of Parkland" (basement avoided by med students), see the memorial at the book depository and be chief resident in Pathology at Baylor Hospital the year they exhumed Oswald's body to put to rest a rumor that someone else was buried in his grave. My response as a sixth grader would have been..."NO WAY!"

Fast forward to Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. I had to do a frozen section in Starkville at 8 AM Central time that morning. As I walked in the lobby of the hospital, I paused and saw a group of people looking up at the television screen in the waiting area. There were the twin towers with a little wisp of smoke coming out near the top of one of them. The announcer was saying that something had crashed in to the tower, no one was sure what it was. Witnesses thought it was an airplane, but the announcers, probably thinking this was impossible, were saying it might be a single engine plane. I went upstairs and the frozen was delayed so I made my way back down to the lobby. I saw the cameras on the towers. The announcers were still talking when I noted a black object coming in from the right behind the towers. I thought it might be a news helicopter but then there was a large explosion and a big ball of flame came from the other tower. The news people seemed to be in shock, they couldn't comprehend what they saw. It took several moments for them to even acknowledge that something else had just slammed into the building. Then they broke in and said that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon and no one had to tell us, we all knew that we had been attacked.

Still, I never considered that the towers would fall. I went back to the lab, did the frozen, told the techs and nurses what was going on and prepared to leave. As I walked down and through the lobby on my way out, I saw the first tower fall; it seemed like slow motion and reminded me of the demolition of stadiums or casinos I had seen on the news before. People in the lobby groaned, many of us just stood there with our mouths open in disbelief. I knew that if the first tower fell, the other would not be far behind. On the drive back to Columbus, I only wanted to talk to my daughter. This would be the event for her, similar to the Kennedy assassination was for me. She was in school, the country was attacked, what would happen next? Now there was CNN, MSNBC and FOX along with over 100 cable channels....all showing the airplanes crashing into buildings, the burning, the terror, the falling towers, the frantic relatives, the brave firefighters, the loss.

The schools did not close, the kids weren't sent home early. Only the military kids were picked up early. The airbase in town was on alert and all families living on base had to be back in as it went to highest alert and shutdown. But the silence. No airplanes overhead for several days, no commuter planes from Atlanta and no military planes doing flight training. Nyssa was horrified, sad, a little scared. Not as frightened as I was in 1963 but then we did not get the news so fast, it was not as "instantaneous", the unknown seemed to loom larger.

Other things concerned us though, different things. My brother had friends in Brooklyn, he thought one was to have had a job interview at a company near or in the towers. He called from Europe, couldn't reach them by phone, would I try. I couldn't reach them either. I couldn't reach my parents in Virginia Beach, not that far from Washington DC, a huge navy presence, a perfect target. Phone lines were jammed and it took over eight hours to get a line through to them. Stephen's friends were safe, although they had to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to get back to their apartment. My folks were fine. The naval base went through the same procedure of alert and shutdown to the public. I'm sure the stillness of the skies in the absence of air traffic were more noticeable here than in Mississippi. Once immediate concerns were taken care of I settled in to that time of contemplation. We had pictures from our New York trip, at the Statue of Liberty with the towers in the background. We had friends who had honeymooned in New York, the year before and had pictures taken at the top of the towers on September 11th 2000. Surreal....it was then, it is still now.

Both events are burned into the memory of the whole nation. I can't personally equate them with the naming of a new pope. It's a point in history that will be remembered for a while but not branded or seared into memory like the events above or others such as Pearl Harbor, D-Day, or the first landing on the moon.

Wouldn't it be interesting though to have a book written, a collection of the memories people had of significant events....Where were you the day Kennedy was shot?

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