November 22, 2019 was the fifty-fifth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Do you remember where you were when you heard the news on that fateful day? That is, if you were even born yet? And, what about some other much-publicized events?
November 22, 1963 – I remember exactly where I was, on the air at KSTT radio in Davenport, Iowa. The studio door flew open and the news director, Bob Moore came in. “Kennedy’s been shot,” he said, “join the network, right now. They’re reporting live from Dallas.” One by one, KSTT staff members came into the studio and just stood, heads down, listening to ABC Radio. I remember as if it were a week ago. That’s how it is with certain catastrophic events. We all have those memories and are stuck in our heads forever. Here are some of mine.
July 26, 1956 – A Swedish ocean liner, the Stockholm, rammed an Italian ship, the Andrea Doria, and sunk it. Ironically, I was in Stockholm when it occurred, on the final leg of a Europoean tour with my parents. A few days later we boarded the RMS Carinthia, sister ship to the Andrea Doria, for the voyage home.
February 3, 1959 – I was a senior in high school, sitting in study hall. Over the intercom came word that Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens had died in a plane crash. Heads dropped down onto the wooden school desks, and some students started to sob. The three immensely popular stars were killed when their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza plane crashed in Iowa a few minutes after takeoff from Mason City on a flight headed for Moorehead, Minnesota.
August 5, 1962 – I was doing the sign-on shift that day on KSTT. Before going on air, I would “rip the wire,” that is pull the paper off the Associated Press teletype. One story stood out. Marilyn Monroe had been found dead in her home in Los Angeles. She was discovered lying on her bed, face down, with a telephone in one hand. Empty bottles of pills, prescribed to treat her depression, were littered around the room. L.A. police concluded death was “caused by a self-administered overdose of sedative drugs.” It felt strange, knowing people would be waking up to this news. And I would be telling them.
July 16, 1969 – The historic launch of the Apollo 11 mission carried three astronauts toward the moon. Two of them would set foot on the lunar surface for the first time in human history as millions of people around the world followed their steps on television. It happened as I, along with several other Army Reservists, were en route, returning to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin from the Quad-Cities where we had enjoyed a weekend break from summer camp. Knowing the landing was imminent, we did the only thing good soldiers would do. We pulled into a bar in East Dubuque, Iowa, where we watched the landing. We were forgiven by our commanding officer for being a few hours late returning to the base.
August 16, 1977 – I was now Program Director of WISM in Madison. News director, Wayne Wallace, came in my office almost in tears. He was a huge Elvis fan. He told me the King was dead. After Elvis died, thousands of fans traveled to Memphis, causing traffic jams and other problems. The National Guard was called into the city in the days surrounding his funeral, which took place on August 18, 1977.
December 8, 1980 – It was my mother’s birthday. I was thinking of her as I watched television at my home on Lake Waubesa in Madison. A bulletin came on telling us John Lennon, 40, was shot in the back four times by Mark David Chapman. Lennon died in the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital. His wife, Yoko Ono scattered Lennon’s ashes in Central Park where the Strawberry Fields memorial was later created.
March 30, 1981 – Barely four months later, on my birthday. Another bulletin. President Ronald Reagan was shot and seriously injured outside a Washington hotel by John W. Hinckley Jr. Also wounded were the White House news secretary James Brady, who was left paralyzed, a Secret Service agent and a District of Columbia police officer. I remember first hearing of it while driving my car from somewhere to somewhere.
January 28, 1986 – WISM News Director Wayne Wallace, in my office again, “The Challenger blew up.” The world had watched in shock as The NASA space shuttle Challenger exploded, just 73 seconds after liftoff, bringing a devastating end to the spacecraft’s 10th mission. The disaster claimed the lives of all seven astronauts aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire who would have been the first civilian in space.
April 19, 1995 – The Oklahoma City bombing was an act of domestic terror by U.S. military veteran Timothy McVeigh and his accomplice, Terry Nichols. The bombing destroyed one third of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168 people and injuring 680 others. I watched the early TV coverage from a bar in St. Joseph, Michigan, where I was attending a radio station group meeting. A couple years later I would learn about another tragedy via a bar’s TV…
August 31, 1997 – I had been on a road trip to a riverboat casino in Dubuque with friends. Upon returning to Madison, decided to stop for a night-cap. The bar was crowded, impossibly quiet, the mood was somber. Everyone was staring at a TV mounted high in a corner above the pool tables. Diana, Princess of Wales, had died in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel in Paris, France. Her companion, Dodi Fayed, and the driver of the Mercedes S280, Henri Paul, were pronounced dead at the scene.
September 11, 2001 – Two planes, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, were crashed into the North and South towers, respectively, of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. Within less than two hours, both 110-story towers collapsed. I watched the early TV coverage at the studios of WISM and Magic98 in Madison. I had just arrived for work, and as I passed through the lobby, I was told by the receptionist about the first airplane hitting one of the towers. I distinctly remember, the next day, sitting in a swing at a neighborhood park near my home and looking dolefully at the barren sky. All air traffic had been grounded.
January 8, 2011 – U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others were shot during an event held in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. Gabby Giffords was critically injured, and six others died. Andrea and I had flown to Tucson the night before to visit Andrea’s sister. We witnessed a city in shock as Tucson went numb. Two years later we moved to Tucson, and every time we drive by the intersection of Oracle and Ina we remember that somber day.
November 13, 2015 – Attacks in Paris by gunmen and suicide bombers hit a concert hall, a major stadium, restaurants, and bars, almost simultaneously – and left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. The satanic stupidity of it all angered the world. Strangely, I heard about it first on Facebook, reading a comment by a good friend, who happened to be in Paris for the weekend. He was letting folks know he and his wife were okay. There have been far too many catastrophic events to discuss them all, I remember so many but cannot always recall where I was when I heard the news. The ones which I do clearly and sadly recall are outlined above.