When I was young, I would often hear my parents and grandparents talk about days they would never forget. Some were linked to a family tragedy, like the day a loved one passed away. Others were more upbeat, like a first job, or a first car.
I have lived long enough to compile a list of unforgettable days, but I will not burden you with the personal ones. Instead, I’ll touch on memories of three days shared by many of us.
I was in first grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. As you know, first graders rarely discuss current events. Our principal, a very kind man named Mr. Maples walked into our classroom that afternoon and spoke quietly to the teacher. He was making the rounds, informing each teacher about what had happened in Dallas that day. Teachers didn’t have instant access to breaking news in the 1960s.
Our teacher told us the president had died, and that it was a very sad time for America. I got home later that afternoon, and a crowd had gathered to watch the news in our family’s store. The president was very young, people kept saying. Far too young to die.
Walter Cronkite said that a man named Lyndon Johnson would be the next president. He went on to say Mr. Johnson was riding three cars behind President Kennedy when the shooting occurred. For quite a while, I believed that Mr. Johnson simply volunteered to be president. Keep in mind, I was in first grade. I figured that when President Kennedy died, someone said, “We need a president!” So, this man who was nearby, three cars behind, said, “I’ll do it.” Sometime later I learned that Mr. Johnson assumed the presidency because he was vice president, not just because he was nearby, ready, and willing. Oh, the innocence of childhood.
I began keeping a scrapbook of the JFK newspaper clippings over the next few days and weeks. I sure wish I still had that today.
Fourteen years later, we were rocked by the unexpected death of Elvis Presley, who was only 42. I was a teenage disc jockey at the time, playing a lot of Elvis records on radio stations in South Pittsburg and Chattanooga. I was also going to college at night, and that afternoon I was working on a school assignment with the TV on in the background. The news didn’t come on until 6 o’clock, so when a newsman broke into a “Brady Bunch” rerun at 4:30, it got my attention. It was just the newsman’s voice, accompanied by a “News Bulletin” graphic, and I missed the first part. I heard someone died at Baptist Hospital in Memphis, but that’s all.
I went back to my homework, and ten minutes later, the bulletin came on again. Once more, I missed the beginning, but I knew it had to be a big story. I turned on the radio and heard an Elvis song. That wasn’t unusual, so I switched to another station, hoping the news would be on. There was another another Elvis song. Quickly I found another station. Elvis again. Soon I heard the sad news.
Elvis had gained weight as he got older, and he wasn’t exactly the picture of health. Still, this was a shocker. The outpouring of sorrow was overwhelming. One local newspaper, which had ignored him during his life, would soon cash in on the frenzy, printing special Sunday editions that were instant sellouts. Elvis books were soon on the shelves, and many radio stations were all-Elvis for days. The fact that he is still imitated, and that people pay big bucks to tour Graceland reflect his continuing popularity, more than four decades after his death.
Finally, I’ll never forget September 11, 2001. I was speaking to a group of teachers in Chattanooga. This was a few years before smartphones would alert us to breaking news. Some of us had mobile phones, but they were only good for making and receiving calls. One latecomer to the meeting arrived with an ashen look on her face. She said, “I hate to interrupt you, but my husband is watching TV. He just called to tell me there have been two attacks on New York City.”
She described what he had told her about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, followed by another, proving the first crash was no accident. We quickly adjourned the meeting, knowing our lives would never be the same. The tragic events of 9/11 haunt us to this day.
Next, I’ll recall another memorable couple of days: March 12th and 13th, 1993. We had an unforgettable snowstorm in the South that weekend, and the 25th anniversary of the “Blizzard of ‘93” is upon us.
It can’t happen again, right?