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Mass memories

Andy Stone
The space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off from Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. All seven crew members died in the explosion, which was blamed on faulty O-rings in the shuttle's booster rockets. The 20th anniversary of the disaster was Saturday, Jan. 28, 2006. (Bruce Weaver/AP)
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“I remember where I was when it happened.”Last week, as we watched the replays of the Challenger space shuttle disaster from 20 years ago, it almost certainly triggered very specific memories for most of us. Where we were, what we were doing when we first heard the news.Certain events in all of our lives carry that weight of sharp, specific, unfading memory. For each of us, most of those memories are very personal – perhaps private, perhaps trivial. Love. Loss. Triumph. Embarrassment. Among all the events of our lives, a certain number, for whatever reason, remain forever brilliant.And then there are those moments, a tiny handful, which we all share. Events for which we all say, “I remember where I was when it happened.”For my generation, the assassination of President Kennedy was the first. That moment, 42 years ago, is still clear in my memory. I was in my college dormitory, cleaning up the room in anticipation of visitors coming to town for a big football weekend. I was standing in the living room of our suite, holding a dirty sock in one hand and looking around for its mate, which was bound to be somewhere in the room. A boy from down the hall ran in. “They shot the president!” he shouted.The rest of the day is a blur, spent huddled by a radio and, later, a television, waiting for more news.But that first moment remains clear in all its details.Just as the impact of a bullet often carries threads of a shooting victim’s clothing deep into his body, so the impact of a moment like that can carry insignificant shreds – like the dirty sock in my left hand – deep into memory.But there is more to these moments than the enshrinement of trivialities.There is also, in this electronic world of ours, the creation of a sudden community, as we are all linked in our focus on that one searing event and its aftermath.

It was that way with the Challenger disaster. We all have our personal memories of where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news and then, in an instant, we were all swept up into a single nationwide audience watching that same video replay of the rocket taking off, soaring and then exploding, as its clear trail of smoke and flame, etched against the sky, suddenly stalled and blossomed and one small fragment twisted off to the side and hooked downward.And we all sat and watched.And though the world in 1963 was much more primitive in its electronic communications than the world we live in today, nonetheless, on Nov. 22, the entire nation – indeed, much of the world – was focused on the events in Dallas.Stunned by the news, we all sat and watched.

It is in the nature of our modern world that, although we may be scattered widely, we can all be linked, in what we now call “real time,” to a single event.In fact, I first felt that happen in a very simple, small way just a few weeks before the Kennedy assassination.It was early October 1963 – Oct. 6, as a little research now reveals. I had left my dorm room and was walking across the freshman quadrangle. It was a large open space, a vast courtyard, two city blocks long, one block wide, with dormitories around the outer edge surrounding it completely.I was perhaps halfway across that space when suddenly a shout rang out. It came from all around me. Short. Sharp. Hundreds of voices from all directions. A single burst, then silence.I stopped short. What was that? What had happened? There was nothing more. Just silence.Then I realized. As I had left my room, two of my roommates were sitting, listening to the World Series. It was the last inning of the last game of the Series. I didn’t care much about the Series that year, so I didn’t wait around for the game to end. I’d gone on about my business – and then, in that instant, the game had ended. A batter had swung and missed, perhaps, or a fly ball had been caught or a throw had beaten a runner to first base. Whatever had happened, it was the third out. The inning was over, the game was over, the Series was over.And in several hundred rooms in those dormitories surrounding me, several hundred young men had shouted – in triumph or in defeat or in simple recognition of the moment. Alone in their rooms, or in groups of two or three or half a dozen, they were all tied together by the broadcast of a baseball game being played nearly 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles.They all shouted in perfect synchronization.And I, somehow for the moment all alone in that vast courtyard, not knowing exactly what had happened, was the only person who heard that haunting shout, coming from everywhere, from nowhere, hanging in the air for a moment and then … gone.

And I am sure that in the very next minute that audience dissolved, as people switched off the radio or the television and went back to their studies or, more likely, went out for a beer.It was almost 30 years later – after the Kennedy assassination, after the Challenger disaster – that I witnessed another ghostly audience, this time for a very different event. It was 1991. It was the first Gulf War.I was in Rome on a magazine assignment. I had flown there in early January, when war seemed inevitable but had not yet begun. The city felt oddly empty. I had been there before, but only in the summer months when the streets were filled with life and jammed with tourists. Now no one lingered in the streets. Romans hurried about on their business, bundled up against the cold. And there were no tourists. Certainly there are always far fewer tourists in Rome in the depths of winter, but this year even the few who might have been there had stayed home. No one wanted to travel with a war about to begin.The war began on my third day in Rome. The world held its breath as bombs rained down on Iraq. But, with limited time, I hurried from appointment to appointment, gathering information for a travel story, ignoring the war.Early the next afternoon, I went to see the Sistine Chapel.I had been there before in midsummer. It had been an unpleasant experience. Tourist season was near its height, and the wait to get into the chapel was more than an hour. Two, perhaps. The line snaked endlessly through the halls of the Vatican museum. We waited patiently in the chattering mob, inching through the gilded halls, past amazing art treasures, ignoring them all, of course, as we focused on our goal.Scattered along the way there were souvenir stands, perhaps one every hundred feet. They sold trinkets to the captive audience in line – postcards and posters of the great art, guidebooks to the museum, videotapes of the Sistine Chapel. Each stand had a television, endlessly showing videos of the chapel. I remember those same video images repeated again and again, on screen after screen, as we shuffled through the vast galleries.

The scene was very different on my midwinter wartime visit.I was almost alone in the museum. It may be a cliché, but my footsteps really did echo in the marble halls. The building itself is magnificent, and this time, without the distraction of the mobs, I could actually see that magnificence, the columns, the arches, the frescoes, the paintings, the sculptures, the marble, the gold, the inlaid woodwork.But my attention was caught by those same souvenir stands. On my summer visit, they had been part of the scene. Now they stood out, painfully inappropriate in those gilded halls.And yet, the only people in the museum were gathered in small knots at those misplaced souvenir stands. As I looked down the long hallway, I could see them, one after another, lined up into the distance. At every stand, the television was on, but every set had been disconnected from the videotape player and was tuned to CNN.And there, at the heart of a great repository of the art of the ages, ignoring the treasures that surrounded them, the guards and tour guides of the Vatican museum crowded together, their faces illuminated by the flickering images on the television screens as they watched the bombing of Baghdad.Andy Stone is the former editor of The Aspen Times.


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