I am old enough (barely) to remember November 22, 1963. Back in those days, before working mothers, school lunchrooms, and buses, we all walked home long enough to have a sandwich and a bowl of soup before walking back to school for the afternoon. I was sitting in front of the black and white television and watching Bozo’s Circus when a serious (male) voice cut into the show.
“We interrupt this programing to bring you an important bulletin.”
I remember being afraid and confused. I recall pictures of adults crying. I stared at pictures in Life Magazine of the funeral procession with the riderless horse. I know that I was terrified for years every time a program was interrupted.
A whole generation of us knew exactly where we were and what we were doing the moment we heard of Mr. Kennedy’s assassination. It tied us together and started conversations. For better or worse, it gave us all a common moment in time – a touchstone – that could blend our experiences into one.
For decades, few other moments came close to a creating a moment which was so universally overwhelming. I was working on a project in a research laboratory at MD Anderson Cancer Center the morning the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. Perhaps the experience was intensified because we were living in Houston at the time, and the television stations had many opportunities to explore local angles. Despite the passage of 23 years since that day in 1963, the sadness rolled over us as it had so long ago.
On September 11, 2001, I was performing surgery when one of the anesthesiologists popped into the room to tell us that the first tower had been hit by a plane. A few minutes later, he returned to tell us about the second plane and, not long after that, he brought news about the attack on the Pentagon. I begged him to stop. I needed to concentrate on my patient and his surgery. The sense of shared grief, which would certainly come, just had to wait.