Thursday, December 08, 2005

Where Were You?

Each generation of young adults has its own touchstone moment in which nearly every person, when posed with the question, "Where were you when you heard that [blank] happened?", will be able to answer with vivid and precise detail.

For my grandparents' generation, that moment was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, commemorated yesterday. And for most of that generation, the death of President Franklin Roosevelt nearly four years later is nearly as prominent.

For my parents and their cohort, the date November 22, 1963, is forever embedded in their memories, and not because that was the day C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, died. No, on that day the assassination of President John F. Kennedy became the stuff of legend (and unending theories of paranoid conspiracy).

Today's generation, of course, remembers the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with the same precision. The generation 10 to 15 years older may think back to the Challenger explosion in January 1986.

For my generation, those who were teenagers in the late 1960s or the 1970s, that touchstone moment came on December 8, 1980, that is, 25 years ago tonight. That was when we heard that John Lennon had been murdered in cold blood outside his apartment building, the Dakota, in Manhattan.

I was pulling an all-nighter when I heard the news, typing a research paper for the course "Case Studies in American Diplomacy," taught by Professor Henry Kissinger. (Whatever became of him?) At the time, I was working for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and I was using my boss's IBM Selectric that night because he had a radio in his office. So I was listening to a local D.C. rock station, when the disc jockey (this was before all music stations were totally automated) came on the air to say: "I have grave news. We have just learned that John Lennon was shot and killed earlier this evening in New York. The news just came across the wire. Repeat: Ex-Beatle John Lennon is dead."

Shocked, I paused in my typing and immediately telephoned my friend, David Murphy, in Milwaukee. (David was really the first great crush of my young life, and he was also a devoted fan of the Beatles and all Beatles wannabes, such as The Knack.) I asked, "Did you hear the news?" He had. In his case, he learned it from Don Meredith or Howard Cosell, who reported the news during the ABC Monday Night Football game.

We commiserated but I had to return to my work: I still had to type a paper of nearly 100 pages (including endnotes and appendices) in order to turn it in the next morning. (I did get an "A," by the way.)

The next few days were filled with news of Lennon's murder by disaffected fan, Mark David Chapman. We learned that Yoko Ono witnessed the murder at close range; that Lennon had been returning home from a recording session; that Chapman had stalked him earlier and even got an autograph. It slowly sank in that the long-awaited Beatles reunion would never take place.

When Lennon's "official" memorial service took place at Strawberry Fields in Central Park in New York (a location shown and discussed in the new but sparsely distributed film, Little Manhattan, a sweet treatment of first love and childhood on the Upper West Side), we had our own memorial at Georgetown University's Dahlgren Chapel, led by Father Jerome Hall, S.J., who both sang bass and played the bass cello in the chapel choir. We then drifted to Healy Lawn while people sang "Imagine" and then we had a moment of silence before dispersing.

Lennon's murder was followed quickly on its heels with the attempted assassinations of President Reagan, in March, and Pope John Paul II, in May 1981. But, perhaps because those attempts were unsuccessful, they lack the quality of memory that Lennon's death and similar incidents possess.

Our culture is resilient, however, and it wasn't long before the Lennon murder (combined with the failed Reagan assassination attempt) became fodder for comedy, in the famous Saturday Night Live sequence about the murder of Buckwheat. Who can forget Joe Piscopo's supercilious anchorman saying over and over, "Let's go to the video"? This became a catchphrase: "I repeat: Buckwheat is dead."

Tragic events come and go; in fact, they occur every day, somewhere in the world. Sad things happen to individuals and families, but few of them are shared by the nation. Sometimes the experience can be both intimate and shared more broadly (as it was by those people featured in the AP article, "John Lennon's Death Lingers for Witnesses"). The broadly-shared few are the memorable moments that can be conversation-starters -- not at the time, or soon thereafter, but years later.

So, I ask those of my generation: Where were you when you heard that John Lennon was killed?


I'm Not Emeril said...

I am apparently about your age, but I was never a "real Beatles fan". I truly don't remember where I was when John Lennon's murder occurred.

I do, however, remember I was traveling through Flagstaff AZ when I learned of Elvis' death. (August 16th, and it was snowing at the crest of the continental divide at 6:00am)

Reagan's assination attempt, I was pulling into my aunt's driveway. Can't remember why I was paying her a visit.

Kennedy's assination, third grade. Came home from school to find our insurance agent sitting in our living room, no one else at home, watching the news feeds from one of the only three networks. He had dropped by and finding no one home, but the door unlocked, decided that would be the perfect place to "get informed".

Robert Kennedy. I was in the eighth grade. Heard it on one of those "three networks" when I got home from school one day. Date does not stick in my memory.

Challenger, I was living in Florida, Bradenton, on the west coast. On a clear day a shuttle launch was a spectacular sight. That was a clear day, and it was obvious something went horribly wrong. My office was in a strip mall and one of our neighbors was a Radio Shack. I went immediately inside the Radio Shack and watched for hours.

CreditGal said...

I remember that day clearly. My 15-year-old brother said: Lennon is dead! That was when I got the first idea that someone called Lennon is an extaordinary person.:)