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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Events that Shaped Generations by Kait Carson

Just before the turn of the new year, an article in The New York Times caught my attention. “What Events Most Shaped America in Your Lifetime?” A Pew Survey Tries to Answer.[1]  It was one of those articles that you read as you are looking back on one year, and forward to a new year, or perhaps, looking back on a life and forward to a future. What struck me was how different my list was from the list in the Pew Survey. Sure, there were some similarities. 9/11 and the assassination of JFK, but the Orlando shootings? The election of Obama? Defining moments to be sure, but life-shaping? Can the definition of life-shaping vary so much among the generations?

The article set me to thinking about what events shaped my life. I am a mid-boomer, raised with three channel television in a town where the local newspaper was titled The Rutherford Republican. We were proud to support the first Catholic presidential candidate as students at St. Mary School. Three years later, word filtered through the same classrooms that our president was shot and we were to pray the rosary before dismissal. At home, we turned our TV sets to Walter Cronkite and saw him wipe tears from his eyes. America lost its innocence that day. November 22, 1963. And eleven-year-old children knew if a president was at risk, so was the world. Literature in the coming year reflected both the fear of Russia who was believed to have set the assassin up on us (John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) and the disillusionment with the world around us that would allow something so awful to happen (Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Mary Mc McCarthy’s The Group, Saul Bellow’s Herzog).

Two assassinations in 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, further increased our sense of insecurity, but by then, the world knew that anything was possible, and literature had morphed from reflecting the horror of real life to reflecting the tenor of society. The popular books of the day were Jacqueline Suzanne’s The Love Machine, and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, bracketed by Helen MacInness’s taut WWII based thriller The Salzburg Connection, and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

A number of years passed with a number of wonderful and/or horrific, but not necessarily life-shaping events in the national sense, at least not for my generation. We rejoiced in the moon landing. Shed tears following the Viet Nam war on television. The tragedy of Wounded Knee tore at us all. Watergate is still a conundrum. Nixon’s resignation both expected and shocking. Amnesty for draft dodgers, I don’t want to delve into politics so I’ll leave it at that. The horror of seeing the giant Y shaped contrails of Challenger piercing the Florida sky. The firestorm of Waco. Hurricane Andrew and the Iraq war both personal experiences. So many events. Events that marked and changed the lives of those that participated in them, but not the nation as a whole. Not until 9/11.

The world stopped again on that awful day. And again, literature followed suit by offering solace and sympathy. The January best seller of 2002, most telling was John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas. The rest were a mixed bag of mystery, thriller, short story, horror. In short, we seemed to draw comfort from books, however we best found it.

Life changing events are apt to be generational. What were yours? Did literature, television, or movies offer ways to help make sense of the inexplicable, or provide escape?

[1] It is important to note that this survey was conducted between June 16 and July 4, 2016, well before the election of President Trump although the article appeared after the election.


E. B. Davis said...

It must have been a event that shaped my life--I remember when and where I was when I heard John Lennon was killed. A sad moment, which took the air from my lungs and made me pause mid-step, thinking of the senselessness.

Another happened this week--a boy who used to live across the street from us--just as cute as a button--woke up to find his dad stabbing his mom repeatedly. He pleaded for him to stop and then barricaded himself in the bathroom and called the police. When the cops showed up, he ran outside to them. They said he was covered in his mother's blood. The cops entered the house. When the father refused to put down the knife, they shot him dead. I can't help but think of the nightmarish visions this boy carries in his head. When we knew him, he was eight-years-old. They were transferred to Texas where the murder occurred. He's eleven years old. It brings me great sorrow to hear of the weight he must now carry, but I'm also glad he survived. We never liked the dad much--guess our gut instinct was correct. You hear about events on TV, but when you actually know those involved--it's so much worse.

Kait carson said...

Oh, Elaine, that is so sad! Life changing moments. Personal or national, or global. After I wrote this blog I thought of so many more. Then I finally realized that what distinguished a life changing moment from a wonderful or horrific moment is that in a life changing moment you are on a pinnacle and when you look behind you life was one way and when you look ahead, it's completely different with no chance of going back to the way it was before. Does that make sense? The experiences of that little boy are heartbreaking. There should be some kind of test for parenthood!

Wrapping my head around John Lennon's death was nearly impossible. The why of it still confounds me.

Gloria Alden said...

Elaine that is sad. His life will always be changed.

The biggest life changing event in my life was the death from cancer of my eighteen year old son in my arms. Up until then I'd led a pretty normal life even though having four kids in five years was quite an experience with accidents - some of them serious - but ones they always survived. John didn't survive. So many people said they couldn't go on if they lost a child. Well??? What can one do but go on? I did and it was his death that made me decide I wanted to make a difference in life so I went to college for the first time in my early 40s and got a degree in elementary education and taught third grade for twenty years. Teaching was a life saver for me. I loved it and found so much to energize me by teaching. It's not that I don't miss my son, in fact I write a poem every year for him and on the anniversary of his death it's published in our local newspaper.

KM Rockwood said...

Elaine, I remember an incident from when I was teaching in Baltimore. One of the students showed up, obviously distraught. When he couldn't stop crying, someone called home to ask that he be picked up from school and have some medical attention. Turns out his father had shot his mother (in front of him) and since school was his "safe place," he had gotten dressed and gone on to school.

I vividly remember when Kennedy was shot. I was home from school (I think I'd just had a tooth pulled) and heard it on the radio. When I went and told my mother, she punished me for "Lying and making things up to get attention."

Warren Bull said...

Kait, I remember the same events. I would add two more. First, I remember the "duck and cover" drill of getting under my desk for protection against nuclear bombs. Second, I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis when we nearly had a nuclear war.

Jim Jackson said...

Warren -- The first event I really recall was the Cuban Missile crisis because of the palpable fear emanating from the adults.

I think one of the most defining moments for me was the publication of the Pentagon Pages. They crystallized my growing recognition that those in political power are not representing the people they are representing the power structure and will lie through their teeth if it suits their purposes.

~ Jim

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

So many funerals: JFK, Churchill, MLK, Bobby Kennedy, plus my grandparents.

Kait carson said...

Gloria, that is the definition of life-changing. What a wonderful, sad, and inspiring story, thank you so much for sharing.

Kait carson said...

Oh KM, how awful about that child, but so understandable. School can be a safe place. So sad that the child didn't confide in a teacher as to what happened, though.

I've heard a lot of stories similar to yours about when JFK was shot. Since it was a daytime event, kids heard the news before parents, either as you did on the radio, or at school. I wonder who notified the teachers and principals. Was there some kind of network? Was it part of Civil Defense? I never knew the answer to that question.

Kait carson said...

Oh Warren, me too! And they told us that if we couldn't find something to duck under, to cover ourselves with newspapers. Thinking about that now always brings a rueful smile. I too remember the Cuban Missle crisis. The memories are all mixed up with rolls of wire on Smathers Beach in Key West, and ships on TV with pointers at maps and my brother turning 18. Not sure which of those are actual memories, though. It was a very frightening time. And I'm sure a life-changing event for a lot of people.

Kait carson said...

Jim, did the Pentagon Papers radicalize you or make you cautious? It's an interesting choice as something that would change a life.

Kait carson said...

It seemed like a daily event, didn't it Margaret. Such a sad time, each were highly principled people who strove to leave the world a better place. The greatest generation.