I have a theory that in each generation there is a defining event that is burned into the memories of the vast majority of its members. This is true to the extent that most of the people from that generation can say precisely where they were and what they were doing when they learned of that event.
For the current generation of young adults (parents), the event was the attack by terrorists on September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center. For my generation (grandparents), it was the assassination of President Kennedy. For the World War II generation (great-grandparents), it was the attack on Pearl Harbor. I venture to guess that at least 80% of people of sound mind, who were of sufficient age at the time, can say where they were when those events happened.
Just to test the theory in my own case, I remember vividly Mrs. Durham coming into our classroom in the 5th grade and telling us that President Kennedy had been shot. The impact of the event was not fully appreciated by us students, but I remember distinctly that it affected her visibly. On September 11, 2001, I was in a class in Indianapolis, Indiana at our corporate offices. The logistics of getting home and the welfare of our families were on our minds the rest of the week. Needless to say, our level of attention during the balance of the instruction was severely restricted.
To get a sampling of the World War II generation, I contacted Meeka Harrison, Activities Social Director at the Greenhurst Nursing Center in Charleston. She very kindly arranged for me to interview a trio of residents who had memories of those momentous events.
Jerry Sharp was 88 years old when we visited. When the Japanese attacked the base at Pearl Harbor, he was a teenager living in Charleston. He remembers well the shock all of them felt upon learning of the event. He was too young to serve in World War II, but he joined the Naval Reserve at the age of 17, and later moved to the Marine Corps. He had moved on to the Air Force by the time of the Kennedy assassination. (You will not find very many veterans who served in three separate branches of the military during their careers.)
Cecilia Bauer (94) heard of the Pearl Harbor attack over the radio at her home six miles from Paris. She does not recall how her parents reacted to the news because, like many children, “I did not pay much attention to my parents.” She and her husband were living with his parents at the time of the Kennedy assassination. She was watching a soap opera, which was interrupted by the news. For several days that was all that anyone talked about. Then later she recalls watching on television live as Jack Ruby killed the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Hank Hauser (97) heard about Pearl Harbor after he walked home from a job cutting wood for a neighboring farmer. Like a multitude of other young American men, the event materially affected his life, as he was drafted at the age of 19. At the time of the Kennedy shooting he was working on a secret government assignment in West Virginia at a relocation point that was set up in case of nuclear war. On their lunch break he was watching live the parade during which the President was killed, and claims he was able to hear the fatal shot. He said, “It spoiled my lunch.”
Those of you who read this can put my theory to the test. Am I right? Where were you when these things happened? Some folks remember one thing and some another, but there are a few events that virtually everyone remembers vividly. Since all these things were tragedies of the first order, we can pray that the next generation has nothing of that sort to remember.