Where were you when...
President Kennedy was assassinated.
I was sitting at my desk in the 7th grade home room. It was just after lunch. Our teacher, Polly Alford, came in and she looked particularly grim. She normally looked grim but at this moment she looked Particularly Grim.
Mrs. Alford brought us to order and then rambled on about government and democracy and how great America was, and we were trying to figure out if we should be taking notes or hiding under our desks.
Then, she paused, looked out the window and when she turned around she looked less grim but very, very sad. She said quietly, almost in a whisper, “The President has been shot.”
There was a momentary pause and the kind of silence during which you could hear a pin drop. Suddenly, one of our goofier classmates started laughing and blurted out, “Good! My mom and dad voted for Nixon!” Many of us laughed, but Mrs. Alford didn’t laugh. No, Mrs. Alford drew herself to her entire six-foot height and hissed like the python I always knew she was, “Sssssssssilenssssse!”
The babbling stopped at once and before Mrs. Alford could unleash the tirade about Respect that we knew was coming the Librarian appeared in the doorway.
The Librarian was a nice, old lady with grey hair and librarian glasses. She stood in the doorway quietly like you’d expect a librarian to do, and then she took off her glasses and dabbed the corner of her left eye with a tiny handkerchief. My desk was nearest the doorway and I could see that the handkerchief was embroidered along the edge.
Mrs. Alford turned and faced the librarian who simply said, “He’s dead. The President is dead.”
I thought that Mrs. Alford was going to faint. She blanched, turned to her desk and sat down in her chair, heavily. After a few minutes of silence she looked up and said,
“The President has been shot dead. Can anybody tell me who will now become President? Let’s write on the board the order of succession. Who can name the Vice President?”
And, so, we discussed government in real-time and life went on.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon
I was in Titusville, Pennsylvania during a summer road trip around America. My high school buddy and I had set off from Phoenix in June, travelled and camped around the edge of the country and into Canada and ended up at his aunt’s house in Titusville for a week or so of decent food and a solid roof over our heads. We decided to spend a few extra days in Titusville because his aunt had a TV and the moon landing was coming up.
The moon landing was to be two events. The actual landing did not have a live video feed but the networks would broadcast the radio traffic as it happened. The next evening the networks would broadcast live video from the moon of the actual descent to the surface by Neil Armstrong.
For some reason I was the only person in the house when the landing occurred. The aunt was not too interested in the whole affair and my traveling companion was lukewarm also. I, however, always the geek, couldn’t get enough and was riveted to the TV even though it was a radio transmission.
I grew up with the space program and knew by heart all the terminology. So, as Neil and Buzz transmitted to Houston flight data I was right there with them. As copied from the flight transcript I heard the following:
Aldrin: 40 feet , down 2 and a half. 2 forward. 2 forward. That’s good.
Aldrin: 40 feet, down two and a half. Picking up some dust.
Aldrin: 30 feet, two and a half down. Shadow.
Aldrin: 4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. 20 feet, down a half.
Aldrin: Contact light.
Aldrin: OK. Engine stop.
Aldrin: ACA out of Detent.
Armstrong: Out of Detent. Auto.
Aldrin: Mode Contro, both Auto. Descent Engine Command Override, Off. Engine Arm, Off. 413 is in.
Houston: We copy you down, Eagle.
Armstrong: Engine arm is off. (pause) Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.
Houston: (pause) Roger, Twan (pause) Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You’e got a bunch of guys here about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.
We were all turning blue. I was turning blue. I could imagine the entire descent sequence because I had studied the procedures for years. Looking back, I had no concerns that there would be a problem. Of course they would land. Of course they would return home. What could go wrong?
To me the subsequent descent to the surface the following evening was anticlimactic. The hard part was landing. After that, what could go wrong?
Apollo 11 came and went and life went on.
On the morning of September 11th, 2001 I was sitting at my desk doing the usual: reading email, getting ready for staff meeting and going through some papers.
The phone rang. It was my colleague, Mike, in Odessa, Texas.
“Hey, Bill, are you scanning CNN,” Mike asked?
“Well, I was about 10 minutes ago but not now. What’s up?”
“Check it out,” Mike continued, “a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.”
“No shit,” I said, “like a Piper Cub or something? Did air traffic control send it there?”
I had no idea of what had really happened but as I surfed to CNN and brought up the live video feed I could see thick black smoke billowing out of one of the towers. I still thought it was a light aircraft that had been misdirected, somehow, to fly on course into the building.
“Mike, wouldn’t the pilot see the building and go around it or over it?”
Mike said, “I dunno. Maybe there was an engine problem or something.”
As we discussed what could have caused a small aircraft to fly into a building I surfed other news feeds for information and lost the live CNN video. Finally, I got a live video from the BBC News website.
I told Mike. “Hey, I can’t get back to CNN but I’ve got a live feed from the BBC. Man, that building is smoking. Do you think there are people on the roof?”
Mike replied that he didn’t know but there were helicopters circling and maybe they were trying to rescue people from the roof.
Moments later there was a flash and a huge fireball erupted.
“Oh, man,” I exclaimed to Mike, “did you see that? The fire just exploded.” I thought the eruption came from the building on fire. Seconds later it became obvious that the other building had exploded. Mike and I both thought that the fire had “leapt” to the other building.
Moments later the BBC reporters said that a second aircraft had impacted the other World Trade Center tower.
This was all very confusing.
“You mean air traffic control sent a second airplane through the middle of the city? What’s going on?” I asked Mike.
Then the reporters on the scene started to piece the story together. These weren’t light aircraft, they were commercial airliners and they were flown into the buildings intentionally. Within a few minutes there was video of the second plane circling over the city and heading directly into the World Trade Center.
Soon, the hallways were filled with people talking about the “attack” on New York City. We moved up to the conference room on the 8th floor where CNN was being broadcast over two large projectors onto two floor-to-ceiling screens.
We watched black smoke billow out of the twin towers, we watched helicopters and aircraft circle the stricken buildings and we watched people jump.
That was quite disturbing. Because of the telephoto camera shots of the buildings we could see figures plummeting from the open windows. We watched in horrified silence.
Then the first tower wavered, quivered a little, swayed ever so gently, and collapsed in a heap. There were screams on CNN. There were screams in the room on the 8th floor. Nobody expected to see that. However, in a room full of engineers soon the discussion went from horror to an analysis of what had happened and how the floors of a high rise would “pancake” down once the support structure was weakened enough.
All eyes turned to the second tower. It was burning fiercely and there was no hope of stopping the fire. It was only a matter of time and that’s all it took; a matter of time. The second tower swayed back and forth then collapsed into itself in a cloud of smoke, dust, fire and screams. Even though we had seen one tower go down, the sight of the second tower collapsing was just as horrific.
How many people were in the building? What about the people on the streets below?
We had lots of questions, no answers, and thought of work on that day in 2001 went out the window. I remember following the news during the day about the Pentagon attack and the flight that went down in Pennsylvania. The news finally pieced together enough of the story to announce that we were under attack by “terrorists” and my thought at that time was of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and how it galvanized this country to go to war. Awakened the Sleeping Giant came to mind.
And I thought, this is going to be bad. Very, very bad because you don’t tug on Superman’s cape and you don’t mess around with Jim.
It’s been bad and life has gone on.