Thursday, June 27, 2013

Arm chair witness to history Part II

Continuing the musings on being an arm chair witness to history.

The Democratic Convention (1968)
By 1968, my political affiliation was beginning to turn toward the Democratic Party (and it fully turned to my registering as a Democrat when Richard Nixon revealed his true nature).  So, once again, I was glued to the television watching the raucous, highly entertaining and downright scary Democratic Convention in Chicago.  All but lost in this chaotic convention was the actual nominee—Hubert Humphrey (who was defeated by Richard Nixon in the general election).  

What riveted me and the country was the rioting in the streets.  The country was gripped with full blown dissension over the war in Vietnam.  Richard Daley, Mayor of Chicago, had ordered the police as well the National Guard to suppress any kind of demonstration.  Daley had bragged that no demonstrators would take over Chicago’s streets.   Predictably, the demonstrators rose to the challenge and streamed into Chicago.  The result was full scale rioting in the streets of Chicago with the demonstrators chanting “the whole world watching.”

I was watching the scenes unfold late at night, waiting for the important speeches, which by now were far past prime time coverage.  Senator Abe Ribicoff was actually nominating George McGovern—when Ribicoff deviated from prepared remarks and looked straight at Mayor Daley and blasted his handling of the demonstrators.  Daley rose to his feet, shouted back, and could clearly be seen mouthing obscenities.  The Democrats went on to lose the election.  While being a witness to the unfolding of this history was exciting, there was also something very sad about watching the unraveling of hopes of people to bring the ill-advised destructive war to a close—and to know that the demonstrations likely doomed any chance Humphrey had to win the general election.

The “Explosion” of the Challenger (1986)
Sometimes the location where we watch the video of an event unfolding is sufficiently unusual as to magnify our sense of the event.  I was attending a meeting of a governmental board, and during lunch break went to a department store to pass the time.  As I walked past the television section, I saw people standing watching some evident catastrophe. The look of their faces conveyed the gravity of what they were seeing—the space shuttle Challenger had blasted off on its mission—and had “exploded.” 

People may now recall that they watched the Challenger blow up, but in fact what we all saw was a video replay of the event.  The networks had begun live coverage of the launch, but by 1986 space shuttle launchings had become. . . routine.  Just a few short minutes into its flight, it quickly became apparent that something disastrous was unfolding, and the networks switched back to cover the disaster.  The shuttle had begun its ascent with the usual thunderous roar of engines, but less than two minutes into the launch, it began to break up resulting in two white plumes.  What had actually happened was that the “external fuel tank had collapsed, releasing all its liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants. As the chemicals mixed, they ignited to create a giant fireball thousands of feet in the air.”  (Source: National Geographic).

Of course, in addition to being horrified and riveted with the endless replay of the disaster was the fact that seven people died, including the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe.


I had planned to add a final disaster most recent in our memories—that of the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, but I suspect you have your own recollection of watching those events unfold.  The September 11 attacks were to the 21st century what the attack on Pearl Harbor was to the 20th century.  Many people of my father's generation can recall exactly where they were when they heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor--of course what they experienced was hearing the news, not actually watching the event unfold.  With September 11, 2001, we heard the news and watched the news unfold, complete with each of the World Trade Center towers collapse.  What a horrific seemingly slow-motion disaster that was--as the towers began to implode, floor collapsing on floor, then watching the rolling cloud of debris engulf parts of lower Manhattan.


Television has made us arm chair witnesses to so many events.  Some events are simply not important—e.g. watching the slow police chase of O.J. Simpson—and are obviously fueled by the 24 hour 7 day television marathon that runs on a constant loop.  Other events have been defining ones—ones that we can truly say we will never forget where we were when we first watched the event of _____ unfold.  We are arm chair witnesses to history, true enough, but making sense of it all—now that’s another story all together. 


Arlene Dunn said...

I am loving these!!

Harriet said...

I too remember the Democratic Convention, although I don't think I watched much of it on TV.

The other event you didn't mention that I remember watching on television was the moon landing in July 1969. I was teaching summer school at Messiah between my two years of graduate school and living on dorm as a resident assistant. A number of us gathered in the basement of the dorm where the only TV in the building was housed and watched the landing.

NCmountainwoman said...

Making sense of it all. Indeed that is another thing altogether.

Liza Lee Miller said...

Those moments of where you were and sharing your own stories of disasters are so important. Making sense of it, sharing those memories, bearing witness. I remember watching Challenger as a college student. It consumed my whole day. The dream of space (as a SCIFI devotee), the teacher on board, all of it. Overwhelming. I could only watch. There have been too many other days like that where one can only watch and bear witness. Thanks for sharing your memories.

Anvilcloud said...

Yes to 9/11. I don't know where I was with the other two. I remember Challenger well but was always vague on the convention.

Peruby said...

I also remember where I was when Reagan was shot and where I was when I heard the news about Princess Di.

KGMom said...

I am enjoying all of your additional recollections.
--Moon landing
--Reagan being shot
--Princess Diana's untimely death

Of course, these are of varying degrees of consequence to our history.

Now with the 24/7 news cycle, almost every event with video gets streamed across the television or internet. I wonder if we will have the same sense of the importance of an event when EVERY event gets broadcast?

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Of course I remember all these. I wish you had mentioned that the riot in Chicago was officially ruled a "Police Riot". Even when we think we see these things correctly we do not. They need evaluation. "Rioting" can be shown while just outside the camera boundaries all can be calm. I recently read a book on the eruption of Mount Krakatoa in 1883. It was the first great disaster that the whole world became aware of almost right a way. The telegraph had been invented. Otherwise news of it would have taken a three month sailing voyage to bring the news to Western Europe. It puts our instant communication into perspective.