July 19, 1999
“Anniversary journalism” is a phenomenon in which ordinary people are grilled by reporters about what they remember concerning a event of either world or local significance that happened ten or twenty or even fifty years ago. Often the reporter is too young to remember the event himself, quite possibly because the assignment is an unpopular one and usually devolves upon rookie staff members or student interns.
It’s been a busy and heavily-photographed century, and if you’re of a certain age, you’ve lived through (or at least during) some major events. Most people can tell you with precision where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor (my mother was driving down the hill into Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, on her way to see her newborn niece) or John Kennedy’s assassination (I was in 11th grade at Bishop McDevitt High School, specifically in seventh period chemistry class in Room 54A.)
If ever there was a summer for anniversary journalism, it’s this one. Just this week we had the thirtieth anniversary of the Giant Leap for Mankind and the tragedy at Chappaquiddick. In June those in my area recalled a tense period of racial unrest that same year that led to riots and a curfew. And next month there’s Woodstock.
I remember vividly riding the escalator at Pomeroy’s on my way to punch out from my shift as a fitting room checker (my last ever summer job). As I ascended, the bank of televisions in the appliance department came into view, all tuned to Ted Kennedy giving his version of what had happened out there on that bridge.
For the moon landing I was in the basement of my parents’ house with my sister and her boyfriend. My boyfriend was, I thought, toiling to end poverty and racism in a large city in our state. He wrote me a letter a few days later in which he said that he’d watched the moon landing with mixed emotions, aware of all the money spent on the space program that could instead be feeding hungry children or doing other good works. A friend who read the letter observed that Mixed Emotions had long blonde hair and looked a lot like the girlfriend before me, still an undergraduate at our college. He’d visited her that weekend and seen the moon shot along with everyone else at summer session on monitors set up in our old dining hall. That led to a fairly brittle exchange of letters, but doing something with “mixed emotions” has remained a catch phrase between us.
And now, in the third week of July of 1999, I find myself again watching the television with mixed emotions. John Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn, and her sister Lauren Bessette most surely lie dead in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard in the wreckage of their small plane that never arrived as anticipated Friday night.
Part of me wants to snap off the coverage, endless and overdone by a combination of too many all-news outlets with too little news to report and a ready supply of archival footage of this young man’s entire life as well as that of his beautiful and beloved mother, along with replays of the tragedies that befell his father and his uncles and the abundant numbers of people ready and willing to comment upon even the most tangential connection with this famous family. Leave these poor people alone!, I want to shout.
And part of me â€“ the part that wins this struggle â€“ watches in fascination as I remember where I was and what I was doing when he was 3, and 8, and 16, and 34, and on and on.
I wouldn’t want to comment on this event if I didn’t have something to say beyond “Oh. My. God.” In watching footage that I first saw when I was 16, and 21, and 29, and 47, I see with new eyes. I see a toddler at an event he cannot comprehend and his mother’s gentle guidance of him, but now I see as someone who has been the mother of a toddler.
I see him kiss his mother’s coffin and then brush a caress across the stone that marks his father’s place, and I see as one who has now buried both her parents. Our fathers, I remember, were born the same year, which made it difficult for me at 13 to understand what was meant by concern over Candidate Kennedy’s youth. My father died at 68, still too young.
Another little piece of my history is history now, an event likely to keep happening with greater frequency as my friends and I travel our second fifty years. It’s a thought that leaves me with mixed emotions in another steamy July.