People remember where they were when history happened.
It’s a good thing, too, because there will be a quiz: Where were you when Kennedy ... ? Where were you when Challenger ... ? Where were you when O.J. Simpson ... ? – though to be honest I don’t know where I was when O.J. Simpson. I wasn’t paying that much attention.
I’m realizing now, though, that while the “where were you?” questions start off making a person feel important and included (“I was somewhere when something happened!”), in no time they only make a person feel old.
Not right away, of course. At first, we all gather in clumps, discussing the news, updating and correcting each other and supplying details as they come in. Eventually, however, what happened begins to blend into everything else. Its significance doesn’t fade, but the sense of immediacy does. Television stops focusing solely on the event; newspapers begin to run unrelated stories; the people in clumps are no longer necessarily talking about the news. They might be talking about, say, the price of pluots, which is insane.
I understood this during the recent flurry of moon-landing remembrances. First came the “where I was” reports, and as I’ve mentioned before (“Yes, you have,” I hear my children saying), I was waiting tables at a Pocono Mountains resort whose owners allowed the lowly help to put foot in the lobby to watch Armstrong put foot on the moon.
While I was washing silverware, others were studying in France, interning in Chicago, learning Urdu or translating the Rosetta Stone. Who knew I’d be trotting out my lame summer job for decades?
But we all got our comeuppance when a younger friend posted beneath our “where I was” reports, thanking us for adding verisimilitude to what had been mere words in a history book.
That’s when I realized I had become one of the wizened voices in a Ken Burns documentary about “when electricity came to rural America” or “before indoor plumbing was a thing.”
“My diplodocus disappeared just after this object came streaking across the sky,” we might as well have said. Or, “We were milking the cows when a neighbor told us about the Industrial Revolution. We hid in the corncrib.”
Well, I for one plan to stop discussing my brushes with history. I’m shutting up about Woodstock and how I was mere miles from the now-iconic music festival that summer of the year I will no longer say out loud, though because it also was the summer of the moon landing, I’m not fooling anybody.
But wait. I just realized I have no idea what my mother was doing Dec. 7, 1941, or June 6, 1944, or Aug. 14, 1945. I never asked. How can I not have asked? Apparently, I lacked curiosity in my early years, and because I was only 18 when she died, I never had the chance to wise up.
If I had wondered, however, I too would have framed it as Youth interviewing Ancient One about Olden Days. “When Pearl Harbor was attacked, was the world still black and white?” I may have asked. “Were people standing all the way up on their hind legs then? Did you have fire yet, or just eat things raw?”
Children assume anything that happened before they arrived was mere prologue; now that they’re here, the real story can begin. This may be a healthy assumption. No one wants to be a walk-on in his own movie.
Still, I admire students who early on realize history is the story of us, a long, sensational tale that continues one era, one age to the next, an ever-changing, global cast of people bickering, warring, peacemaking, adopting fads, judging others, cheating the system, popularizing songs, defying authority, sitting on porches, digging graves, watching sunsets, adoring people, adoring people who don’t adore us, joking, joking too soon, disappointing those who love us and making grand gestures of one kind or another ... I know I further date myself, but as the song says, the movie never ends; it goes on and on and on and on.
I was at my newsroom desk when an editor said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. All of us who were somewhere that September day may insert our pushpins now.
Write to Margo Bartlett at email@example.com.