“And you are there!” These the words spoken by so many reporters in their 3-piece suits with hats cocked to side and fountain pens in their pockets, delivered in stilted news guy staccato fashion, back in a day when the headlines were still brought to the masses via black and white news reels prior to Friday evening or Saturday matinee shows at the local Odeon. Many of our parents (well, maybe your grandparents adjusting for Generation “Y” readership) discovered the horrors of WWII concentration camps this way, or saw the Hindenburg fall burning to a New Jersey cow pasture, or even learned of Joltin’ Joe D. hitting safely in 56 straight baseball games.
When we witness a spectacular event or disaster or learn of it from a friend, we remember exactly where we were for better or worse. When I was a boy, my little brother Chad and I would visit our much older brothers for several weeks each summer in San Diego (when your mom has 11 kids including step-siblings, she’ll do anything to get rid of a couple for a few weeks). I was 11 yrs-old sitting in my brother Rob’s old beater truck (he had gone into the store) and can vividly recall listening to the radio and hearing that Elvis Presley was dead. They played a few songs of his and I remembered that I liked his movies, the ones where he was a race car driver with an ascot around his neck in Vegas, or as some helicopter pilot wearing a leis in Hawaii, or dancing up against and singing to Ann Margaret again with the ascot or neckerchief in some jail house. Dude was the king, and he was dead, and I was sitting in a 1971 beater pickup truck parked in Oceanside, California in 1977.
In these grave matters of import, it matters who delivers the news and it especially matters how they tell us. When Walter Cronkite reported on the shooting of JFK on live television in black and white from a bureau in Dallas, he pulled off his Clark Kent frames, looked at the clock, and with perspiration on his brow and lip, this reporter's reporter allowed his voice to crack just a bit as he announced that our president had indeed succumbed to the assassin's bullet. He was one of us, feeling the pain that our parents were feeling. I’m still upset about the way my older brother told me about my little brother Chad’s death (we were 18 mos. apart). I was in law school, and sitting in my house in Virginia, in the living room with the unfortunate green carpet, and he just sort of blurted it out over the phone. What made it worse was that the deliverer of this news of our brother’s death had been angry with our now-deceased brother. Bad news delivered by a begrudgeoned brother is badly brought. Receiving or telling bad news is not fit for anyone, exactly because it is so memorable and we don’t forget.
You say "first-kiss" or "car-accident," and I say, “back porch on the washing machine” or “Disneyland onramp.” I say 9/11, or Challenger Shuttle disaster and you say the exact place and time of day and who you were with and what you were eating. We Americans are a united tribe in that regard, and our collective memories of our historical or pop-culture tragedies are important in their binding, community and nation-building sense.
We remember the Alamo, Gettysburg, the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, and World Trade Center. We remember Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Elvis, or even Aaliyah or Selena and their impact on our lives as well. If there’s beauty to be found in tragedy it is that we are stronger in our recovery, restoration, and remembrances. We grow stronger, like a mended bone set after a bad fall. We might limp for a short time, but at least we do it collectively, healing together as a family, fire house, army unit, or a nation, in which case we are all there.