Where were you when? Historical events energize our flabby memories

President Kennedy and Jackie in Dallas

“Where were you when?…” It’s a fascinating memory game. Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated? When World War II began?  When those planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11?

Adolf Hitler

It illustrates the fact that most of our days are not significant enough to recall. Memories have to be jogged by some event, a war, disaster, or a murder. But just recalling the event isn’t enough.  Our event has to be so stunning, horrifying, or thrilling that  you can remember where you were at the time and often what you said or thought.

I can’t answer for anyone else, but the moment President  Kennedy was shot I was in my basement, sitting on the floor.  I had stepped through the basement door into the dark interior, and my foot landed on the tines of a carelessly placed rake whose handle rose swiftly and smacked me smartly between the eyes. I collapsed and assumed the sitting lotus position for what seemed like ages, counting the comets and stars shooting before my eyes.

Suddenly there was Charlotte in the doorway, looking terribly dramatic as she does when there’s an announcement in the offing.

“Jerry,” she said, “the president’s been shot.”

“Big deal,” I replied. It was the only comment I could muster at the moment.

Not all my historical recollections were that violent. The news of the shooting of former Alabama Governor and presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972 came as I was leafing through books in a library branch. Someone had left a radio on in a nearby office and it broke the news.

When man landed on the moon I was watching television like everyone else.

When Jonas Salk announced his invention of the polio vaccine, I was reading an Associated Press teletype machine and caught the first AP flash.

Massive explosion during Pearl Harbor attack

The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1968 was a tad more interesting. I had been teaching two of my young sons how to build a crystal radio set, a device popular in the 1920s which requires no batteries or electrical connections. We had finished the work and I was tuning in stations when I heard the bulletin of King’s death from Memphis. The kids got to listen to the story as it developed on a replica of the earliest radio receiver.

The start of World War II in 1939 was not thunderous enough to impact my 10-year-old intellect. The fact that Adolf Hitler had invaded Poland I learned later from overhearing adult conversations. But when Hitler went roaring into France in 1940, ah, that was different. Our teacher had studied in France and was definitely pro-Allies. Her stirring speech informed us the French were in mortal danger and we must send them “thousands and thousands of airplanes.”

All that proffered aircraft didn’t seem to help much. The Germans just kept invading and finally the French surrendered, which caused great indignation among us school kids. We had been reared on heroic tales of World War I, the gallant fight against the Huns which the Allies waged until final victory. It seemed this younger generation that Britain and France fielded wasn’t up to the standard of its fathers.

But for sheer assault on the memory lobes, nothing can top Pearl Harbor. Even after all the years that have passed between today and December 7, 1941, the sights, colors, tensions, smells and tactile sensations of that Sunday are still with me. I had come home from church, and lay my 12-year-old frame down on my mother’s red velveteen couch to listen to radio. The really entertaining programs like Jack Benny and Fred Allen didn’t come on until later on the day. Meanwhile, I had to be satisfied with big band music from the Hit Parade. Mother was cooking up Sunday dinner; the delectable odors of pork chops, mashed potatoes, field peas, and banana pudding wafted through the house.

George Wallace

Then came a break in the program and a news bulletin which carried shock, awe, and confusion. Where was Pearl Harbor and why should the Japanese want to bomb it? I let out a whoop which brought the rest of the family running. Throughout the rest of that day and into the night we listened to news from Hawaii plus analysis and background from Washington and New York.  And as we listened we grew more angry, fighting angry. So when President Franklin D. Roosevelt went before Congress the next day with his “Day of Infamy” speech, the Proctor family had already voted for war with Japan.

Strangely enough, I can’t recall what I was doing when hearing of President Roosevelt’s death . The shock to my nervous system must have been too great. He was the only president we kids had ever known; I remember discussing it later with friends who were as sad and confused as me. What were we going to do? What would happen to the country? It took days and weeks for the black miasma of despair to lift. It helped that we had a new president in office and that we were winning the war like gangbusters.

Dr. King

The day the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan is an easy one to recall. I was sitting on a park bench in New Orleans trying to not look like a bum. On a teen whim I had hitchhiked from Wynne, Arkansas, to The Big Easy with only $50 in my wallet (yes, you could do that back then even with wartime inflation).  But the enticements of New Orleans had quickly left me flat broke.

While waiting for the family to wire me enough money to return home, I made the acquaintance of a soldier who had a few bucks in his pocket and was willing to share. After a breakfast of hard French bread and coffee we headed for the only free entertainment in town, a park bench. Uncomfortably we noticed police were drifting through the park, arresting sleeping transients and hauling them off to the drunk tank.

I grabbed a discarded newspaper from a trash bin and we began learnedly perusing the front page. My ruse worked; the cops passed us by. Then I noticed the huge main headline on page 1 informing us that the U.S. had dropped an “atomic bomb” on a Japanese city that I had never heard of – Hiroshima. What was an “atomic bomb?” The soldier confessed himself at a total loss. I guessed it must have been a frightfully small bomb, because atoms are unbelievably tiny.

Normandy Invasion, one of my favorite jolts

We gave up speculating and went to the Western Union office where I picked up my wired money and paid the soldier back. After a few more days of vacationing I caught a train to Memphis which offered an unexpected luxury – a seat for the entire ride. I arrived of all times on VJ Day, just as the city went totally mad. Drunken mobs were roaming the streets whooping that the war was over; Japan had surrendered. There wasn’t a hotel or a boarding house room to rent for any amount of money. I spent the night sleeping under a bush in Riverside Park before catching a train home the next day.

All in all, my favorite “where were you when” episode occurred on June 6, 1944, D-Day, the invasion of Nazi Europe. The government had built a small prisoner of war camp in my home town to incarcerate German soldiers. We kids were fond of dropping by the camp to chat with American guards and those Germans who spoke English.

Anxiety had been rising among Wynne’s citizens the past few months with anticipation of D-Day. One of my teachers, whose husband was with the Army in Britain, grew so tense as the great date approached that she broke out in a rash from head to foot. Everywhere one went there was only one topic of conversation: when is it going to happen? It was certainly weighing on my mind that day as I stood in the camp guard house, swapping tales with the GIs as the radio played soft tunes in the background.

`Suddenly there was a station break on the radio and we heard the long-awaited announcement: the largest invasion in world history was on. I was stunned for a moment, unable to think or move. Then details began gushing from the radio, and the thought hit me: ‘I’ve got to get the news to Dad.’ I loped out of the guard house, through the gate, and ran the whole mile back to downtown. Covered with sweat and heaving for breath I burst into Dad’s store roaring the good news.

He looked at me calmly and said, “You know, I’ve got a radio here, too.”

It was my introduction to the omnipotent efficacy of modern electronic communication.


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