Summer television has been filled with programs reviewing the life and times of Diana, Princess of Wales. I recently watched one of them as well as the Helen Mirren film, The Queen, which depicted the royal response to the death of “The People’s Princess.”
This programming precedes the 20th anniversary of the well-documented tragedy in a Paris tunnel on August 31, 1997. Since her fairy-tale wedding, I had loosely followed the soap opera Diana’s life became, so I am not overly surprised that I remember hearing the news of her death.
On Sunday night right before Labor Day, I was asleep on the couch with the TV running. News of the fatal accident somehow broke through my slumber; and my next few days became a kaleidoscope of memorable scenes: flowers at Buckingham Palace, her sons behind the hearse, “Candle in the Wind.”
Still, it is a bit odd that I would so clearly remember the events of that Sunday night. The memory comes from a pop psychology phenomenon aptly referred to as a “flashbulb moment,” when somehow the mind makes a sudden, sensory recording of an unexpected event.
Unfortunately, each generation experiences at least a few such moments. My parents talked about where they were and what they were doing when a quiet Sunday morning in December of 1941 exploded over Pearl Harbor. I never really understood their detailed memories until the day of President Kennedy’s assassination was seared for all time into my subconscious.
Inexplicably, I experienced another “flashbulb moment” on August 16, 1977. Although I had grown up hearing “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender,” I never really went ga-ga over Elvis Presley.
As I slept in a small upstairs room at Ingrid’s house in Bennigsen, Germany, an insistent voice replaced the music on the radio I had left on overnight. Not sure I properly understood what the announcer kept repeating about Elvis, I dug the dictionary out of my suitcase to confirm: “The King of Rock and Roll” was dead.
Often tragic news occurs in clusters, causing us to wonder what has gone wrong with the world. 1968 was such a year. The radio in my sophomore dorm room carried the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4. Just two months and two days later, as I dressed for my summer job at the county library, my sisters and I learned that Robert Kennedy had been shot.
In similar historic repetition, I heard the news of the March 30, 1981, attempt on President Reagan’s life from my car radio as I neared the Wilson Road exit off I-70, enroute to a graduate class at OSU in Columbus. My only real memory of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II a mere six weeks later was that familiar but disturbing what-is-the-world-coming-to feeling.
In addition to tragedies, however, my collection of flashbulb moments also includes stored-away memories of happier life events. I need only think of October 24, 1968, to remember my telephone conversation in the lounge of Cochran Hall at Otterbein – the one in which my father told me that Mother had given birth to a baby boy. I had a brother!
There was another Otterbein phone call – this time in May of my senior year – when Mother shared this news in a teary whisper: “I hold in my hands a contract for you to teach at Graham High School.” Nowadays the tears are mine as I recall the pride I heard in her voice that afternoon.
However, events that make headlines are most likely to become flashbulb moments. Students coming into my classroom during a mid-morning class change on January 28, 1986, informed me of the crash of the space shuttle Challenger. And as I pulled from the GHS parking lot out onto Route 36 on November 9, 1989, news of the fall of the Berlin Wall – the German barricade I had visited so often with students – blared from my car radio.
The two most significant events of my generation will remain forever intertwined because of my location when each of their “flashbulbs” went off. In the early afternoon of November 22, 1963, I was sitting in Miss Iames’ sophomore English class when a voice from the loudspeaker informed us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. The dumbfounding shock at his death and the ensuing four days of national mourning flooded back almost forty years later during the horrific terrorist attacks on America.
It was the déjà vu quality of the incongruous announcement on a beautiful September morning in 2001 that lingers even today: I was with my German III students in that very same GHS classroom when news of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was delivered via the same loudspeaker – news that again changed the course of history.
I can only wish for us all that any future flashbulb moments be of the upbeat, optimistic kind, like that experienced last week by the family of Michael and Jane Ludlow. Almost the whole kit and caboodle – parents, kids, grandparents, grandkids – set out for St. Charles, Missouri, to experience the totality of the moon obscuring the sun. The memories they made will most likely never be eclipsed: the late summer day they spent together, uniting with millions of others to experience – if only for a few glorious minutes – the majesty of the universe.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.
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