Fifty years ago this month President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in full view of the citizens of Dallas, Texas, and the American Camelot crumbled. This past summer we observed the fiftieth commemoration of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, and the Civil Rights Movement soared. Two years ago marked the tenth anniversary of 9-11 when this country was brought to its knees.
We meet the remembrance of each of these events by asking, “Where were you when you when it happened? Do you remember?” And then we tune in to others, especially to those with marquee names, as if we can’t trust our own memories.
Politicians, journalists, actors, athletes, musicians, moguls, news anchors, ringmasters, clergy – they all tell us where they were and what they remember when It happened. We believe their status will focus what we could only see through the blur of our tears. We hope their descriptions will make full dimension of what we witnessed on flat screens or read in newspapers and magazines. We listened, watched, and read, glued to screens of all sizes, gripping slick pages, hoping for intelligent interpretation and profound insight that would explain the ineffable, the unbearable, the sublime, the astonishing, the horrific. We held onto each other, the touch of another person sometimes the only thing holding us to earth.
Yet I remember first hand each of these events. I know how I felt. I was rehearsing a school play when we got the announcement about JFK. The theater company been called to sit in the pews so our director could tell us that the man who had inspired me to think beyond my personal desires was dead. None of us moved. I read part of King’s speech in the newspaper and later the entire article in a magazine, moved by words that transcended ordinary thought. I was in the university union five years later when a sobbing friend told me he’d been murdered. Only a few months after that, I was at the university again, stunned and stumbling around campus with friends as we processed the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy, the man running for and likely to be elected President. I was getting dressed to go to my teaching job when my son called and told me to put on the news, so I watched TV as the second plane crashed into the second World Trade Center building, the first already consumed by smoke and fire. The buildings I’d craned my neck to see two years earlier at a visit to NYC had become rubble. The people inside were gone with not so much as ash left behind. I tasted ash in my mouth.
I remember as well, even younger, when Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table at the United Nations building, sullying that great place and making a fool of himself. When the Russian Sputnik stole the space race, amping up the Cold War. When we launched Ham the chimp as the first living creature into space, and when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, establishing American superiority in space exploration. When the Apollo I caught fire on earth and the Challenger blew up on lift off, each killing astronauts, and testing American resolve for space exploration. My earliest memory of a momentous event occurred when I was four, living in Hawaii at Tripler Army Base. The army sent notices that weekend to the physicians who were to be deployed to Korea, and the entire medical community wept as husbands prepared to leave their families. Even when my mom realized my dad would not be going, she still cried. I remember the salt of her tears on my cheeks.
Anniversaries and commemorations. We are loyal in our homage to these events. Most are somber tributes to hellacious events as we try years and decades later to come to terms with our human propensity for violence and hatred. We search our own hearts and souls, hoping that we are not so bereft of moral fiber to commit such deeds, wishing we had the foresight to prevent heinous acts from others. We watch the documentaries on TV, switching channels for closer close-ups, for wetter tears. Flamboyant headlines incite us to grab newspapers and magazines off the stands, and we pore over images, read captions, hoping for the latest word, the newest explanation, the most decisive theory. Interviews with Those-Who-Were-There (even when they weren’t) dominate the broadcasts, the anniversary editions, the special reports.
But their words, those of the rich and famous, the powerful and infamous, are tainted by their public persona, by the on screen delivery of practiced speech, by the makeup and dress that cover the real them. They perform, and we, all fools us, take it for the first and final true word. They must know more and better than we ordinary mortals.
Yet, what need do we have to confirm our feelings, our understanding, our experience of momentous events? Mine are not only just as good, they are better. They are sincere and raw. My presence at the moment, my authentic vision and voice, lend to truth, and that truth informs my writing.
I may never write about any of the assassinations that splattered blood across the news. I will probably not write about the Space Race, not even the fact that Ham died in space, a sacrifice to competition. But that which I felt at all those moments comes to the surface and informs my writing. My feelings are just as valid and my memories often more profound, more real. As a writer, it’s my job to convey authenticity to my work. That comes from being vulnerable and present in the world.
The very best person to interview for your work may be yourself. Confront that witness in the mirror. Be tough with questions and kind with comfort. Then use that honesty in your writing. Your commemoration of global events is every bit as significant as What’s-His-Name’s. Just get the story. We speak truth.