Where were you when….

Neil Armstrong, first man to plant a foot on the surface of the moon, died today. I got to thinking about where I was on July 20, 1969 when that event was taking place. In many ways it was the equivalent of Christopher Columbus landing in North America. An historical voyage of exploration.

That afternoon I was at a family gathering that was honouring my upcoming marriage three weeks later. I had been Best Man at the wedding of friends the day before. We were all 21 years old. So young when I think about it now. But unmarried young couples didn’t openly live together back in the sixties. If you wanted to live together and be socially accepted you were obliged to get married. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

It was a summery afternoon and we were all sitting on webbed lawn chairs in the back yard of my future wife’s Aunt Una, drinking beer and preparing a barbecue. We shared with the rest of the world as Neil Armstrong gave his “One small step for man“** sentence and later that night marvelled as we looked up at the moon and thought that there was indeed a man up there.

One of the other powerful things about that event was that it was broadcast live on television. Bear in mind this is long before the days of the Internet and even home computers. Transmission of a live TV signal from the moon so everyone could watch this historic happening was remarkable in itself.

I wrote last week about “turning” 65. Part of my reflections around that birthday were also centred on all the things that had happened in my 65 years – the first step on the moon being one of them.

What were some of the others and where was I when they happened?

November 22, 1963. That afternoon as I sat in the row next to the inner wall in the upstairs classroom of my high school, Jackie Kennedy was leaning over her assassinated husband in the back seat of a limo in Dallas.

I remember exactly where I was sitting in Miss Allison’s French class at London Central Collegiate Institute when news came over the intercom that President John F. Kennedy had been fatally shot. I remember walking home from school in a daze and spending the weekend in front of my grandparent’s TV as the rest of the weekend happened, including seeing Jack Ruby emerge from the crowd shoot Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being transferred somewhere.

I remember where I was when I learned that Elvis Presley had died. It was the day before my 30th birthday. I was feeling like part of my past had disappeared and I remember sharing that thought with a young woman who was in the hospital with metastatic breast cancer. “He was so young“, she said. She was less than 40 with three kids and was dead within the month.

Even earlier I remember the day that Marilyn Monroe was found dead. I know it was a Sunday. I was a teenager then, spending the summer at Bluewater Beach near Goderich, Ontario. A friend and I had a job peeling potatoes for french fries in a local restaurant (that is a story in itself) and the news happened to come on the restaurant radio as the owner of the restaurant scraped fat off the big iron grill to make fried eggs for the patrons…and for him and his wife who sat in the back booth smoking and eating between customers.

It is intriguing to me that many of the triggers for these very distinct memories are around the deaths – Elvis, Princess Diana, JFK, Martin Luther King, the Challenger Astronauts, 9-11. They all call forth distinct pictures of where I was exactly when I heard the news. Perhaps the passing of someone famous triggers a landslide of thoughts and reflections that are all bound up in one moment of information. Death events mark a finite irreversible transition point in history.

In contrast, the Moon Landing was one of celebration and achievement. And to be a witness to it with the rest of the world was pretty special.

My experience of the inauguration of Barack Obama was also influenced by memories of race riots in the U.S., Martin Luther King and segregated drinking fountains.

More recently, I shared watching the inauguration of Barack Obama with a bunch of students all gathered around a television in Nairobi, Kenya. It was a very special way to experience that historical event given that Obama’s family hailed from Kenya. Downtown in Nairobi the students at the University gathered to watch. They all stood up when the Oath of Office was administered in Washington. Respectful and touching. I did wonder, however, if my take on the first African-American President of the U.S.A. being sworn into office was different from the young students with whom I watched it. I remembered apartheid and segregated washrooms in the U.S. and Martin Luther King as well.

Do you have some moments that had so much impact that you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when they happened? Want to share them with me? Enter your significant historical moments in a comment, I’d love to hear about them.

**Apparently Neil Armstrong was supposed to say “One small step for a man” but he left the “a” out when he made his step off the ladder onto the moon surface. Imagine the excitement for him of that moment.