The conversation started yesterday with Highwaygirl discussing flashbulb memories in relation to the 18th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. I never knew this idea of “where were you when” had a name and scientific research to boot, but it’s good to be able to pin a title to the pile of mental minutiae I have stacked in the back corner of my mind.
In my free moments yesterday, I started ticking off the big moments others had listed: Challenger disaster, Persian Gulf War, Oklahoma City, Elvis, September 11, 2001, Reagan shot. Throw into the mix several others: Watergate, Nixon resigning, Iran-Contra hearings, O.J. Simpson car chase and subsequent trial, etc. etc. For some of these, I have clear recollections. Others are more hazy.
When the Challenger exploded, I recall leaving work at noon, going home and watching television. The 73-second flight seemed to be on permanent replay status: Lift off – Soaring – Explosion – Grief – Lift off – Soaring – Explosion – Grief. You half expected that even during the commercial break you’d still be able to see the footage of the accident replayed as a faint image behind the ointments and the frozen pizzas. I remember the television playing for hours and hours on end.
My recollections of The Persian Gulf War are that it was not unlike a media event. Although I am well aware that it was anything but, my flashbulb memory is a compilation of CNN news reporters on hotel balconies discussing the military attacks while the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air provided the appropriate audio and visual backdrop. Even CNN Reporter Arthur Kent earned the nickname “The Scud Stud”, making the entire affair seem very Hollywood. I can remember thinking the world had gone mad.
September 11th was a different matter. I was up north teaching, and didn’t even hear of the accident until my 11am student arrived for a lesson. She told me she was upset, and my first thought was “boy trouble.” Finally, she asked me if I had seen the news, and I told her no, I had been teaching all morning. And then she told me. My overwhelming feeling that day was one of helplessness. I couldn’t leave because I had to teach, and I had no idea what was happening. I grabbed every spare moment I could to phone family in Michigan and Washington, DC. I called the public schools to see what was going on. For the entire day I was at the mercy of my student’s words and my own worst imagination.
At home that evening I watched my worst fears realized. On every channel it was shown over and over again: airplane – building – explosion – grief – airplane – building – explosion – grief. Hour after hour it was played, discussed, agonized over, and then played again. I watched. And watched. And watched. Even when I gave in to sleep, it played on.
The next day at work, I watched. The next evening at home, I watched. I was exhausted and saddened, and still I watched. It felt strangely disrespectful not to. Thankfully, my family and friends were safe, but for countless others, this event was now on permanent replay. They couldn’t turn off the television and make this nightmare go away. How could I?
Following the attacks, National Public Radio began to play selections of music that gave comfort during times of crises. Various members of the artistic community offered their suggestions and gave commentary. Listeners sent in their ideas as well. They were as varied as a patchwork quilt, ranging from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms to The Beatles. It was something new to think about. It was a way to soften the flashbulb that had blinded our lives.
Today, as it has been for so many other tragedies of my lifetime, television is ever-present. It informs and educates, but too often gets bogged down in the images of despair and anguish. Thankfully, music is also present, but it isn't imprisoned in a purgatory of pain and suffering. It may be borne of grief, but it also embraces solace, compassion, and most importantly, hope.
Having flashbulb memories means always remembering the tragedies of the past. But I'm all the more grateful for my soundtrack memories that remind me to never forget the possibilities for the future.
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