Sunday, June 23, 2013

Arm chair witness to history (Part I)

For all the excesses and waste of television (a subject on which I sometimes muse), there is an undeniable benefit: television gives us the opportunity to be arm chair witnesses to history.

One  of the almost trite statements is “Do you remember where you were when you heard the news that …” (you can fill in the blank).  The most recent that struck me as almost irrelevant was Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, intoning “We will remember where we were when we learned that James Gandolfini died.”  Now, I grant you Gandolfini may have been a fine actor—I was not one of the legion of viewers of “The Sopranos” so I can’t say.  And by all accounts, he was a genuinely fine man.  But, really, was his death earth-shaking? I think not.

In the course of my lifetime, thus far, there have been earth-shaking events.  And many of them were televised as they happened, so that I was an arm chair witness to history.

Here’s a sampling.

The Assassination of JFK’s killer (1963)
One of the ironies of events being televised is that even if they are not televised “live” people who see a video believe they saw the actual event.  Such is the case with the assassination of JFK.  When Zapruder came forward with his famous 8-mm film, and when that film was shown, there were thousands of people who swore they saw JFK’s assassination live.  Of course, Zapruder—who was a witness in Dallas, who happened to have his camera handy—filmed the assassination and that film was then shown after the fact.  Its constant replaying and its verisimilitude is what gave people the sense that they saw JFK’s assassination live.

What we did see live was Lee Harvey Oswald being led from jail; we watched Jack Ruby step up close, then suddenly produce a small gun and shoot Oswald in the stomach.  We saw Oswald grimace, and grab his front, and then collapse.

As it happened, that event occurred on a Sunday.  I was a college sophomore, and was touring with our choral group. We had just sung in a church service, and then went to various homes of members of that congregation for a Sunday dinner.  It was in such a home, where the television was turned on, that I saw this snip of history unfold.

The Republican Convention (1964)
…or the short-lived effort to have someone other than Barry Goldwater become the party standard bearer.

During the summers, while I attended college, I was employed as a maid and/or cook in the homes of wealthy U.S. citizens who had summer homes along Lake Erie, on the Canadian side.   So, that meant I was live-in at these homes, with specific work tasks but a fair amount of free time.  

During the summer of 1964, the Republican Party held its convention to nominate its candidate to run against President Lyndon Johnson.  That was in the days when party conventions really meant something, and actual ballots were taken that would result in a candidate that was not a foregone conclusion.  While I was too young to vote, I was intensely interested in politics. Plus I hailed from Pennsylvania, whose then Governor William Scranton was an honorable and decent man.  

Since the groundswell clearly favored Senator Barry Goldwater, who I thought had disastrous policies on Vietnam, I was thrilled to watch as a sudden flurry of activity on the convention floor made it appear as though Scranton actually had a chance.  And all of this activity was occurring right before my eyes as I sat glued to the television.  As it turned out, he didn't—he wasn't nominated, Goldwater was, and in the fall election, Goldwater was soundly defeated.   

The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy (1968)
It was the first day of summer vacation for me, in my first year of teaching college English.  So, I slept in.  When I awakened, I turned on the television, expecting to watch a few minutes at the end of the Today Show.  Instead, I turned in to the late-breaking news that, immediately following his victory in winning the California primary, Senator Robert Kennedy had been shot and had died.  

Of course, like so many people during the turbulent 1960s, I had mourned the untimely deaths of political leaders—of course, JFK was the “first” followed by Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and now Robert Kennedy.  The song, recorded by Dion, “Abraham, Martin and John” captured the deep sadness these assassinations evoked in many people.  And, of course, the final stanza captured the horror of one more assassination including Bobby.

I don’t recall what I did the rest of that day—all I can recall is sitting for a long long time trying to absorb and make sense of yet another senseless death.

To be continued


Climenheise said...

I will be interested to see what other events qualify in your historical memory. I don't remember the Goldwater-Scranton race. I do remember the shooting of JFK--we were just arrived home from Malindela Youth Club in Byo: nine hours ahead of Dallas time I think, probably a Friday evening, and we heard the news. Rocked my 13-year old world, although I little understood why. His brother and MLK similarly. The ubiquity of communications media notwithstanding, only a few events do really rock our world.

NCmountainwoman said...

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool fan of The Sopranos. Yet I totally agree with you...the death of Gandolfini, while very tragic, will not be a day stamped into my memory.

Statements like that of Brian Williams are why I do not watch network "news."

Anvilcloud said...

I was home sick on the day JFK was shot. The others I don't remember where I was. The other thing I remember clearly was the first lunar landing. no, James Gandolfini does not rate.

Ginnie said...

You've brought back so many memories. I remember being heart sick over JFK and Martin Luter King and then not being able to get my mind around the killing of Robert Kennedy ... it just didn't seem possible.