Where Were You When…?

I failed to write something on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall yesterday, partly because I think the other six million blog posts on the subject had it pretty well covered. Another factor, though, was the fact that I don’t have the sort of crystal-clear recollection of where I was and what I was doing on that night. I can reconstruct where I must’ve been– I was a college freshman, so I would’ve watched it in the tv room on the second floor of Fayerweather– but I don’t clearly recall the event itself. It’s all mixed together with the endless discussions of What It All Meant that came in the weeks that followed, to the point where I don’t recall what was the event itself, and what was a later recap of the event.

This is a little embarrassing, as it is one of the Epochal Events of my lifetime. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I have a clearer recollection of where I was when Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson that same (academic) year (we were in the same tv room, and George D. flipped the tv to HBO (which we didn’t get), so we got the sound without the pictures). But memory’s an odd wossname.

This does seem like a decent excuse for a reader poll, though. So here’s a partial list of Important Events from my lifetime (at least the part that I can recall clearly– I was around 3 when Nixon resigned, so that doesn’t make the list). These are events that I’ve heard at least one person use in a “I remember where I was when ______” type essay or discussion. Which of them do you remember that way?


I’m sure I’ve left something big off the list, too– probably several somethings, so you get an “Other” blank to add one of your choosing. If you have more than one event to add to the list, you know where the comments are.

Comments

  1. #1 ajw
    November 10, 2009

    I suspect you won’t get too many votes for the American invasions of other countries; those were announced long in advance, so when they came, it was no surprise. Same goes for the launch of the first Space Shuttle. It’s events that strike out of the blue that are remembered in this way: the killing of a president, the destruction of a Space Shuttle, or the sudden and shocking demolition of highly symbolic buildings.

  2. #2 catgirl
    November 10, 2009

    This poll makes me feel so young. I was either not born or very young when most of these things happen. The only day I remember clearly is Sep. 11. I agree with ajw that it’s harder to remember days that aren’t surprises, such as an election or the start of our recent wars. That’s why I clearly remember the day of the 2000 presidential election, but not the 2008 one.

  3. #3 bobh
    November 10, 2009

    The things I have the most vivid memories of that you didn’t list were the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK. Perhaps one of us is showing his age.

  4. #4 speedwell
    November 10, 2009

    The percentages seem weird. What we really want to know is the percentage of respondents who answered a certain way, not a percentage out of a 100 percent total of all responses that a certain choice got…

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    November 10, 2009

    The election of Barack Obama was recent enough that I remember what I was doing that evening: sitting at my laptop following the election returns.

    The other events that I remember follow the pattern that the other posters mention: traumatic events that struck from out of the blue. In two of the cases, the event coincided with something of significance in my life: the Challenger explosion (the musical group I was touring with was en route to Astronaut High School in Titusville to do a clinic and concert–the clinic was cancelled, but the concert went on as scheduled, to the relief of our audience who got to spend an hour or so thinking about something other than the Challenger disaster) and the Tiananmen Square protests (which coincided with my college graduation).

    Bob @3: Of course Chad doesn’t remember the assassinations of the 1960s, as he wasn’t alive at the time. Neither was I when JFK was shot, and I was still an infant when RFK and MLK were shot. But those who were old enough to remember the JFK assassination remember where they were at the time.

  6. #6 Thony C.
    November 10, 2009

    The shooting of John Lennon!

  7. #7 Pablo
    November 10, 2009

    To a first approximation, use the number of votes for 9/11 as an estimate of the number of people who have voted. Most people are going to remember that one (I would be curious about those who don’t, actually)

    I should note however I realized I just messed up. I see that the option is “start of the second Iraq war” – I might have checked that by mistake. I remember the FIRST Iraq war very, very well. I was in grad school, and was pretty distressed about it. Like many others, I went out to put gas in the car before prices went up, and then went to visit a friend who was also very distressed.

    I remember working in lab the next day listening to the radio all day to get news updates. This was all pre-www of course (for the most part)

  8. #8 Pablo
    November 10, 2009

    “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”
    “Ted Kennedy was shot?”

    (When Harry Met Sally)

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    November 10, 2009

    The percentages seem weird. What we really want to know is the percentage of respondents who answered a certain way, not a percentage out of a 100 percent total of all responses that a certain choice got…

    Yeah, that’s a bug in the poll software. It always does that.

    That’s part of the reason why Obama’s election is on the list– since it’s just one year ago, I figured nearly everyone would click that, and I could use it to normalize the results. Of course, I’ve been thwarted in that…

    As for other “scheduled” events, I included them because they’re events that I personally remember that way. My parents let me stay home from school for the first shuttle launch, and all three of the wars on the list are events that stick in my mind (I was playing pool in the Pratt rec room when the first Gulf War started, for example…). It’s interesting to note that the 1991 Gulf War is ahead of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

  10. #10 Pablo
    November 10, 2009

    It’s interesting to note that the 1991 Gulf War is ahead of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

    Not surprising in my case. The Berlin wall coming down was when I was in college, and my life was a lot more sheltered. I don’t even know when the Tieneman Square uprising was, and so I’d estimate that during college, too.

    I don’t remember the first space shuttle launch, but I do remember a test landing they did beforehand, where they released it from a 747.

  11. #11 Vagueofgodalming
    November 10, 2009

    The Tiananmen Square protests unfolded over several days, including a visit to Beijing by Gorbachev, and for a while it was unclear how the authorities would respond. When they did so with violence, it was hardly out of the blue.

    In fact, my recollection of 1989 was of several months worth of significant events across the Communist world – Solidarity, the Velvet Revolution, the opening of the Austrian border by Hungary, blood in Bucharest at Christmas, etc. and while the fall of the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square were prominent, my sense of that time was not ‘Shock! I’ll never forget this day’ but ‘What exciting new development will I read about on opening my newspaper today?’

  12. #12 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 10, 2009

    Yipes! All of the above.

    The most important to me, in your order, and why, briefly:

    The shooting of Ronald Reagan. I was in a Boeing Aersopscae Company cafeteria. The people who built weapons of mass destruction didn’t much like Reagan being attacked with puny little bullets.

    The first space shuttle launch. I was hooked on space travel by Asimov, Bradbury Clarke, Heinlein, Willy Ley, Chesley Bonestell et all. I watch every manned launch.

    The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Even more important to me. I lost my (correcting for inflation) $180,000/year job in the Space Transportation Systems Division of Rockwell for actually doing tasks I was assigned, which included trying (and failing) to stop the Columbia from fatally failing.

    I shall not go into the rest of the list. I am overwhelmed with strong emotions, from the recollections.

  13. #13 Clay B
    November 10, 2009

    I remember hearing that Elvis died, and asking, “Who’s Elvis?”

    We interrupted class to watch the coverage of the Challenger. I don’t remember that happening with any other unscheduled events, although maybe it did when Reagan was shot.

    Princess Diana’s death was quite a shock to me. I was driving a car full of sleeping people back from a rafting trip and I remember telling them about it after we got back and everyone woke up.

  14. #14 CTReader
    November 10, 2009

    The first step on the moon; watching on a 17″ B&W TV. Trying to keep the kids awake so that, someday, they could say “I saw that”.

    The JFK assassination; listening to a “desk-top” radio at a company that no longer exists.

    I clearly remember, at the age of 5, hearing the announcement that WWII had ended in the low countries. But, that was mainly because I was there.

  15. #15 Rod
    November 10, 2009

    Death of King George VI…. I was in school (about Gr. 1)and we were marched down to a room where we all had to stand at attention and listen to a radio… don’t remember what it said, but I sure remember the mood, the teachers brooking no chat or disrespect.
    Clearly I’m a lot older than many here….

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2009

    I was in Israel for the start of the GW I air war, and the Congo for the start of the ground war, and the Kennedy School of Gov. for the fall of the Berlin wall, and watching TV at a bar waiting for a tow (out of a New York Blizzard snow drift) for the Challenger explosion, and giving a lecture during 9/11 (whispered to me by TA). Those were the more memorable.

    As for the Kennedy Shooting, I was no where near the grassy knoll. Honest.

  17. #17 John Novak
    November 10, 2009

    I decline on principle to check the box for remembering where I was when Obama was elected because I will not consider the orderly election of a United States President to be that particularly special.

    Yes, in a way it is, considering how many other countries can’t, won’t, or don’t. But, I am an American, and this is how we do things. I wouldn’t even check a box for when Bush v Gore was decided, or Gore’s farewell speech (even though I remember that one pretty clearly) because I never had any doubt that the case would be settled in time for the transition and inauguration.

    (Also, there are a lot of events there, where I remember watching footage no more than half a day after the events started, but I don’t have a clear memory of actually receiving the news.)

    As for the Berlin Wall, I was coming home from class or from dinner (I don’t quite remember which) in college. In those days, my roommate and I kept the TV on CNN most of the time, because CNN didn’t suck, then. I remember basically not believing it. Yes, I believed the footage I was seeing, but I figured the Soviets would get control of the situation the next day. The next day, I figured they’d get control back in a week. It took quite some time for it to penetrate that the entire Soviet system was failing, because I had been raised on a steady diet of how strong their system was and how fragile ours was.

    If I had been as interested in history and international relations then, as I am now, I might have grasped the signifigance sooner.

  18. #18 Steven
    November 10, 2009

    No mention of O.J.’s chase in his white Ford Bronco? I remember vividly where I was then, but I have no idea why.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2009

    visiting friends in Conn, watching bronco on TV. Rack of lamb for dinner, drinking Samuel Smith’s ale.

  20. #20 Markus Mencke
    November 10, 2009

    On November 9th 1989 I was reading, when the host on WDR 2 (radio station in Northrhine-Westphalia, were I was born) suddenly went nuts. I went into town and had a nice long party night (4 or 5 in the morning). Didn’t have to pay for a single beer.

    And almost one year later, October 3rd, I was in Berlin, in front of the Reichstag, celebrating with people I never met before.

    One hell of a party.

  21. #21 Pteryxx
    November 10, 2009

    I’d forgotten all about Princess Diana’s death until #13 mentioned it. I was online in an MMO (Diablo) at the time, and as the news spread, players from all over the world spontaneously came together in-game to grieve. We take such connectivity for granted now, but back then it seemed a small miracle unfolding, that we could grieve together with hundreds of strangers separated from each other by timezones, continents and oceans. I remember it still, though I barely knew who Princess Diana was.

  22. #22 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 10, 2009

    I remember Jesus Mohammed Chang taking the first human steps on Mars in 2029. I was just arguing with my grandchildren about my hacked Brainbook Haptic Hologram. “You did that with your DNA Neural Net computer?” I asked? They sighed. “No, granddad, with our RNA Quantum computer.”

  23. #23 Tracey
    November 10, 2009

    I was pretty young or too young for many of these, but I was a weird little kids. For Tienamen through Columbine and several others, I was sitting in my living room watching CNN which I did pretty much nonstop from the ages of 5-17.

    For 9/11 I was in my first ever college class.

  24. #24 David Wren-Hardin
    November 10, 2009

    I guess it dates me that when I saw “War in Afghanistan” my first thought was the Soviet invasion.

  25. #25 chris
    November 10, 2009

    I added the assassination of Anwar Sadat. I was a junior in HS and the TV in the common room was on some game show when it switched over to a news break. Everyone groaned and wanted to shut it off, but I made them keep it on. Mostly because my mother had met Sadat (and the Shah, FWIW).

    The other two that have interesting backstories (to me anyway) are the first Gulf War and Tiananmen Square. During the Gulf War I was living in Tucson, near Davis-Monthan AF base. I was working at Pizza Hut and we had the TV on in the kitchen during the afternoon. Since a lot of the drivers and waiters were AF folks making an extra buck, they all stoppped to watch, and cheered every time a squadron of fighters zoomed over the desert (the Iraqi desert-fighters zooming across the Sonoran was nothing unusual there).

    During Tiananmen I was working at Arbitron as a Titles Editor. It was my job to match the projected daily TV schedules for 8 network stations in major markets around the country with the actual programming aired. Any time there was a breaking news interruption, we had to document the change manually. My hand was cramping by the end of day 1 with all the break-ins.

  26. #26 Bob Hawkins
    November 10, 2009

    O.J. in the white Bronco. I remember what I was doing then for an odd reason. I was listening to an audiobook of a new translation of the Iliad.

    I took a break, turned on cable news, and there was the white Bronco. And I got a weird deja vu feeling: cable TV and helicopter cams had given us all the Olympian view. And, confirming the claim that great writers have transcendant insight, we reacted just like the Homeric gods, deriving the most trivial of amusements from the tragedies of mortals, pulling for one outcome or another for the most idiosyncratic and inadequate of reasons.

    Homer had us pegged, millenia in advance.

  27. #27 Alan B.
    November 10, 2009

    I remember the important events of my youth (JFK/MLK/RFK/Kent State) more clearly than many of the events since then. Maybe they were more shocking because I was much less cynical then.

  28. #28 eNeMeE
    November 10, 2009

    Only one I remember is the 9/11 one, and I don’t know why – I think becuase I had been thinking about kinetic energy. Moon is a Harsh Mistress, maybe? Maybe an alternate history book about aliens that invade and then don’t bother to use their superior position to drop things on us and instead fight on the ground?

  29. #29 mingfrommongo
    November 10, 2009

    For most folks, where they were for these events was in front of the TV.

  30. #30 Paul W.
    November 10, 2009

    Chad,

    Be aware that answers about “flashbulb memories” like this are very often wrong.

    People who think they clearly remember where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing are commonly vividly mistaken—they don’t in fact remember.

    Decades ago there was a spate of psych papers trying to explain flashbulb memories. Then a while later there was a spate of papers demonstrating the unreliability of memories that people had assumed to be as reliable as they were vivid.

    Arguably, the vividness of the memories often comes from after-the-fact recollection and reinforcement, because people often discuss such events. Given the way human memory works, the vividness of the recollection is not well correlated with actual accuracy.

    (We generally don’t remember things in as much detail as it seems we do, and unconsciously fill in the missing details when we recall the rough sketch. What appears to be a vivid, detailed memory is often a sketchy, unreliable memory with details filled in incorrectly. Successive recollections, elaborations, and re-storings of the memory may cumulatively corrupt it, while making it increasingly vivid and seemingly reliable.)

  31. #31 Katherine
    November 10, 2009

    Need some less American-oriented answers. Can’t think of anything I’d ask people though other than 11/9 and 12/10. Wasn’t alive or old enough to remember most of these though. Or it wasn’t as big a deal to us.

  32. #32 anon
    November 10, 2009

    I was in a meeting discussing civil aviation security with a variety of federal government types at a legislative branch agency. Someone came in with news and flipped on a tv and while the news reporters were still talking the possibility of the planes being commuter planes, several people were able to identify them as the specific model of jets, then those of us who did not have a need to know were kicked out of the room.

    I was at a meeting for a community group with the guy who was running point on the war in Afghanistan for Bush right before we started bombing. Several people were saying that the war hadn’t started yet because he was still there. He left and by the time I got home we had invaded Afghanistan.

    I’m no one important or anything. DC is just an awfully small town with one industry.

  33. #33 Keith Harwood
    November 10, 2009

    Everyone who was around at the time can remember when JFK was assasinated. Except me. You know what that means? I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t have an alibi.

  34. #34 Tina St. Sebastian
    November 10, 2009

    The only ones I remember are 9/11 and the election. For the latter I was in front of the TV.

    When I first heard about the attacks, my friend was sitting in front of the computer, browsing the news and he said “some idiot” had crashed a plane into the WTC. We thought he meant a small plane, and it wasn’t until he refreshed the browser and said another plane had hit that we started paying attention.

    I was also reminded of Diana’s death by comment #13, and my memory of that has something in common with my 9/11 memory. My mom came into the living room and told me that Princess Diana had been in a car accident in Paris. I barely noticed, as I was busy playing Snood (!) but later I turned the TV on and the first news item was Diana’s death, and for some reason I was completely shocked.

    I was about to turn five when the wall fell, so I was probably busy eating worms or something. I have absolutely no memory of the event or anything to do with it, not even an adult mentioning it.

  35. #35 Tina St. Sebastian
    November 10, 2009

    The only ones I remember are 9/11 and the election. For the latter I was in front of the TV.

    When I first heard about the attacks, my friend was sitting in front of the computer, browsing the news and he said “some idiot” had crashed a plane into the WTC. We thought he meant a small plane, and it wasn’t until he refreshed the browser and said another plane had hit that we started paying attention.

    I was also reminded of Diana’s death by comment #13, and my memory of that has something in common with my 9/11 memory. My mom came into the living room and told me that Princess Diana had been in a car accident in Paris. I barely noticed, as I was busy playing Snood (!) but later I turned the TV on and the first news item was Diana’s death, and for some reason I was completely shocked.

    I was about to turn five when the wall fell, so I was probably busy eating worms or something. I have absolutely no memory of the event or anything to do with it, not even an adult mentioning it.

  36. #36 Miss Cellania
    November 11, 2009

    The fall of the Berlin Wall wasn’t a surprise. And it wasn’t a moment. It was a process, begun the previous year in Gdansk, Poland and it continued through the next year with a change of government in Russia. There were people getting through from East Germany for days before the wall was physically breached, and once it was, celebrators pounded on it for weeks. I remember when those things happened, but I don’t recall any one moment that stood out over the others. It was an exciting time, though!

  37. #37 MadGastronomer
    November 11, 2009

    I was standing in the schoolyard watching Challenger go up. All the schools on the Space Coast did that — stopped classes and let everyone go outside to watch. We’d all seen many launches. I swear that exhaust trail looked wrong to us all. We all went back inside when we couldn’t see it with our naked eyes anymore. It was only a minute or two later that the principal came on the loudspeaker to tell us what had happened.

    Most of the kids I knew were, like me, the children of scientists in the aerospace industry. Some of us had relatives at NASA itself. I even had a cousin in the program. She hadn’t gone up yet — and wouldn’t for years afterwards, of course — but she was a certified astronaut.

    We were all crushed. I don’t think we got anything done the rest of the day. I still tear up every time I think about it.

  38. #38 Roman
    November 11, 2009

    My earliest childhood memory is the Chernobyl disaster. Poland was in the fallout area and the Communist government (at the urging of Polish doctors) reacted with surprising efficiency. All kids were given Lugol’s iodine to block the intake of radioactive iodine. I remember being woken up by my mothe early in the morning and taken to the kindergarten to get my dose.

    Somebody jokingly called my age group “the Lugol generation” ;-)

  39. #39 natural cynic
    November 11, 2009

    For many of the events, I can recall vividly, like taking a test in Mr Friedel’s Modern European History, 4th period, when the radio broadcast was turned on over the loudspeaker system for the JFK assassination. For Lennon’s assassination, I remember Howard Cossell announcing it during Monday Night Football.

    Paul W

    Be aware that answers about “flashbulb memories” like this are very often wrong.

    People who think they clearly remember where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing are commonly vividly mistaken—they don’t in fact remember.

    You must be referring to the Maurice Chavalier – Hermione Gingold duet, Ah, yes, I remember it well in Gigi.

  40. #40 CCPhysicist
    November 11, 2009

    I draw a distinction between remembering watching the event and remembering everything about when it happened. I also watched as many launches as I could, but only have a vivid memory of the one I saw live. But I can see the concrete block wall in front of my desk when I got a phone call that told me about Challenger.

    I can still see, vividly, the fading afternoon light in the yellow kitchen when I came in the back door and my mom told me about JFK. Not only that, I can repeat, in perfect rhythm and timing, the drum cadence (including the pause) from the funeral procession whether I ever hear it again or not.

    Ditto for the moon walk. I also remember quite clearly watching the bombing start at the start of the second gulf war, live during the news, but the others just happened.

  41. #41 Susannah
    November 11, 2009

    I remember where I was when I heard that Elvis Presley had died. I read it in a newspaper headline as I left a restaurant after a breakfast on the road. I felt a strange sense of loss and desolation.

    Which was weird, because I never was a fan of Elvis, even when I was a teenager and he was the rage of the moment. (Yes, I’m getting on in years.)

  42. #42 Susannah
    November 11, 2009

    Rod #15;

    I remember the death of George VI, too. Like you, I was in school.

    Fast forward to Charles’ and Diana’s wedding; I remember where I was then, too.

    No, I don’t remember Noah’s ark; must have slept through it.

  43. #43 Susannah
    November 11, 2009

    Back again. Reading comments reminds me of other things.

    OJ. I was at my desk in a cabin in the woods when a friend phoned to say OJ had killed his wife. (Insert umpteen ! here to represent her spate of words.)

    My comment at the time? “Who is OJ?”

    I guess I’m just not into sports celebrities.

  44. #44 truth is life
    November 11, 2009

    Like catgirl, I am much too young to have lived through some of these things. The ones I remembered were either things that were just *big* news (September 11/Obama) or happened to be something that really personally interested me (Columbia).

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