11 September 2017

The Moments We Remember

Jim Howard, a former Hartford police officer whom I see more often than not at open mic gigs, is one of those rare people who can play harmonica and guitar simultaneously. Today, he turns 71 (Happy Birthday, Jim), which makes him almost exactly six months older than I am.

But that's not how I remember his birthday.

We all have a handful of days we remember, and they change from generation to generation. Some are good days: meeting your future spouse, for example, or the day you won some award.

There are other days we remember because they changed the way we look at the world. Forever.

One Friday afternoon in 1963, I sat in my Latin III class when the principal came on the PA to tell us that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The next few minutes are hazy. I remember feeling like the floor had dropped out from under me, and the gorgeous German exchange student whom I never had the nerve to ask for a date turning to the boy next to her and asking him what "assassinated" meant. He answered with tears pouring down his face and most of us cried along with him.

I was sixteen. That may be the moment when I began to comprehend what I now identify as "evil."
Years later, my wife and I met Laurent Jean, a fine actor and director with whom we worked on many theatrical productions. Laurent's mother went into labor on November 22, 1963 and he was born the next day. I remember his birthday easily, too.

Five years later, I was shaving for a date with, coincidentally, another young woman from Germany when my next-door dorm neighbor burst in to tell me Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. I watched the play that night, but I don't think either my date or I could have told anyone about it the next day. By the time I walked her back to her dorm, we could see the orange glow dancing in the sky over Pontiac, Michigan as the town went up in flames five miles away.

Barely two months later, Robert Kennedy was shot, too. The year I turned 21 featured both those killings and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (Where former CT Governor and JFK Cabinet member Ribicoff infuriated Mayor Daly with his comments about police "Gestapo tactics" against demonstrators), not to mention the escalating Vietnam War.

By then, most of the shaping had been done and I was probably about 90% of the person I am now, for better or for worse.

One of my former students was in pre-med classes at George Washington University hospital when the Secret Service rushed Ronald Reagan into surgery after John Hinckley wounded him. He wrote me later to tell of his shock and horror when men in suits rushed in waving weapons and badges. This was his first life shattering event.

In January, 1986, I was producing a play and sat in the lobby of a local theater trying to reach my set designer on the pay phone (remember them?) and watching a portable TV replay the Challenger explosion. My director, a former Vietnam pilot and then an aeronautics engineer, watched a dozen replays and finally called the local news station to suggest what might have gone wrong. The subsequent investigation confirmed his suspicions. We didn't rehearse that night. A few people may have wired up speakers or focused a few lights, but most of us sat in the half-assembled gallery and cried for the astronauts and their families.

In September, 2001, I was teaching five classes--two for the first time--and still learning the names of 125 students. I cut through the media center toward the teachers' lounge and saw dozens of people jammed around the TV set near the AV department. They were still telling me what had happened when we watched the second plane slam into the World Trade Center.

To my students in 2001, the World Trade Center was what Kennedy's assassination was to me, and I remember feeling the curriculum shift slightly for the rest of the year.

Every generation has a horrific event that shapes it. Right now, we're dealing with several natural disasters: Harvey and Irma, the earthquake in Mexico City, tropical storm Katia, the fires in the northwest (Nope, no climate change, uh-uh). But I tend to give the man-made events more weight. We know that Nature is immense and implacable, but the assassinations and explosions remind us over and over (and we never learn, do we?) of our own hubris.

And that's what we all write about. No matter whether we write crime, romance, sci-fi, poetry, or anything else, our material is the shattering events in peoples' lives. The events that force them--and us--to surmount and survive.

The events that make us remember for too short a time that we are all human.


  1. Steve, some of the negative touchstones of our lives resonate long after the actual events. And you've brought up a lot of those powerful touchstones here. Good piece.

  2. Steve, since we are about the same age, your words brought back memories of where I was for each of these events. November 22nd, 1963, also brings back the car accident that killed my nineteen-year-old brother on my birthday shortly after the JFK assassination. I can still tell you when and where I learned of every event you mentioned. My father told me that the military people on the ship with him sobbed openly when FDR died. As you said, every generation.

  3. And a good reminder of the role schools and teachers play in absorbing terrible events.

  4. Fran,
    How tragic that your brother's death is tied to an event everyone else knows, too.

    Our knowing where we were for each event may be a measure of how much they influence(d) us.
    And, Janice, it's interesting now that I look over this list, how many of the events do connect with my schooling. History and experience are great teachers, but too many people today seem to live out Santayana's comment that we refuse to learn from them.

    And, Paul, next Monday is the anniversary of Jimi Hendrix's death and my divorce. Smaller in the scheme of things, but I still remember them clearly, too.

    Think of the books that have come out of these events, too. Stephen King's 11/22/63 and S. J. Rozan's Absent Friends come to mind immediately and I'll bet people can think of several others. I guess we write to understand...

  5. Absolutely yes to this blog post, Steve.
    Probably the year that had the most impact on me was 1968:
    Between the 2 assassinations (Bobby Kennedy was my last political heartthrob; and I'd idolized Martin Luther King, Jr.), and the Democratic Convention, with all its televised contempt and violence, it was obvious that American politics could turn lethal in an instant.
    And the 1970 Kent State shootings confirmed it. From now on, it was obvious to my generation that if we went out and protested, we risked being killed. I remembered that at my first protest when the tear gas began to fly.
    I've never forgotten them.
    As for 9/11, I was teaching history and I spent the rest of my day talking my classes through what (for most of them) was their first traumatic experience...


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