Life is made up of milestones, moments in time we remember in detail. Many times these moments change the course of history like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the morning of 7 December 1941. Sometimes these moments change how we look at our society such as the assassinations of President John F Kennedy (22 November 1963) or Dr. Martin Luther King (4 April 1968). Sometimes these moments signify the end of a bad time in our society like 20 January 1981, or the beginning of something new and wonderful like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. At other times, these moments signify the end of an era like 9 November 1989.
What were you doing on …
- … 20 January 2009, when the first black president was sworn into office?
- … 1 February 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on its landing approach?
- … 11 September 2001, when the world trade towers fell?
- … 25 December 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved?
- … 9 November 1989, when the Berlin wall came down?
- … 12 June 1987, when Reagan gave his “ … tear down this wall!” speech?
- … 28 January 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff?
- … 30 March 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was shot (first president shot since JFK)?
- … 20 January 1981, when the Iranian hostages came home?
- … 9 August 1974, when President Nixon resigned (first presidential resignation in history)?
- … 4 April 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated?
- … 20 July 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon?
- … 22 November 1963, when President John F Kennedy was assassinated?
Some dates are shared by the world, some by just one nation, others by just one family or group of friends. Whatever the event, worldwide or personal, the memories tied to that event are personal and involve our family and friends.
Two events from my family’s collective memories mark the beginning and the end of the 1960’s.
Anyone who has parented, baby-sat, or stood in line behind a two-year-old boy knows they are in constant motion. Little boys seem to be grabbing, pushing, pulling, and throwing everything within their grasp; and telling everyone and no one in particular, about it while they are in action. Sleep is the only thing that seems to arrest their verbal and physical assault on the world.
This fall afternoon in the early 1960’s began like so many others. My father was at work, my mother was busy in the kitchen, and I was in my playpen in the living room. The TV was on nearby while I trashed about safely in my playpen exercising my vocal cords. Suddenly all was quiet, my mother rushed into the living room to see what had happened.
She found me standing quietly in my playpen in the corner absorbed by the equally quiet TV. She followed my gaze and saw a black screen with the following words in white, “We interrupt this program for an important announcement.” Next, she saw Walter Cronkite tears flowing as he looked into the camera.
“President John F. Kennedy was just shot in Dallas, Texas …”
My mother still tells the story of how her 22-month-old son told her the president was assassinated. The next event was the culmination of nearly a decade of work by thousands of people, the completion of a goal set by President Kennedy.
My bedtime at age seven was 7 pm; this particular evening was no different. What was different was that by the time I had fallen asleep; my parents were waking me up and bringing me down stairs to watch TV for a few minutes before putting me back into bed. I was not very happy about this at the time I was tired. Again, the master of ceremonies was Walter Cronkite, an excited and happy Walter Cronkite.
However, unlike the earlier Cronkite appearance, Walter shared the airtime; the other person was dressed in a white suit that made him look like the Pillsbury doughboy and clumsily walking across a dessert. This other image was not very good quality either. Soon after we heard, “… one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind …” I was sent back to bed.
Throughout our lives, we confront events that sometimes shape who we are, and sometimes proclaim to the world who we have become. Many of the events in our lives we cannot control, but how we respond to them we do control. Those reactions that seem to contradict our experience, or place others above ourselves are the moments that define our character. When you trust a stranger, when previous strangers have proved their unworthiness to be trusted, when you share your last dollar with a beggar on the street at a time when you do not know where your own next meal will come from; that is the moment when you build your own character.
Have you ever found a small child left alone in a car at the mall? What did you do? Did you make a comment to yourself or companion and continue on your way? Did you call the police and wait for them to arrive? You do not know the circumstances that put that child in the car alone. It could be a parent shopping for new shoes that left that child, or it could be the first time in days that the child has finally slept and the parent is getting medicine from the pharmacy for the child; most likely the reason is somewhere in between. The best reaction may be to keep the car in sight, looking out for the child, until the parent gets back. You do not have time for that you say. No, but you have time to wait for the police. That haggard look on the young mother’s face may be from partying all night the night before, it may be she has not had any sleep the last several days as she walked the floor with a sick child.
What you do and why you do it is a combination of things; your personal experience, personal knowledge, the environment under which you grew to adulthood. However, there is also a part of you that is inherited; we are not talking DNA (though that may be part of it). There are things families share from generation to generation that scientists cannot explain (but they are trying). Years after my maternal grandfather died, I am still finding things I have in common with him.
My grandfather started his adult life before most people do. He joined the navy, wanted to be an architect, worked on the railroad, and eventually worked for himself. He lost a daughter, was married twice, and along the way he collected coins, became a great observer and respecter of people. He always had a paperback in his back pocket when he left the house and wore a snap-brim hat in public. He drew beautiful sketches for the rest of his life, all but a few never survived. Bernerd E. Goodykoontz also had one daughter with his second wife when he was middle-aged.
I never saw my grandfather in public; he was retired when I came along. Except for the work on the railroad and the coin collecting I never knew those things about my grandfather. The coin collecting I found out about after I painstakingly put together a birth year coin set for him (it was expensive for a ten year old he was born in 1905). All the other things I found out about after he passed away. All of those things I have in common with my grandfather every single one (except the railroad). Some may say, “That’s DNA”, but DNA does not explain all of it. It also does not explain why the Goodykoontz men going back 250 years (in my direct line) became fathers in their 40’s and 50’s (Bernerd was the exception, he was 38 years old when my mother was born).
The most striking difference between my grandfather and me was that he kept his personal life hidden inside, while I hide very little, if anything, of myself. We were even of the same physical stature (his suits fit me without additional tailoring).
Here is my point. You are important. Regardless of the particulars of your birth, you were no accident. Someone in the future, one of your descendents, will take an interest in you. It may not even be a direct descendent, it could be a descendent of a brother, sister, or even a cousin, but someone will take an interest. They will identify with you; they will see you in themselves.
At a point in their lives when life seems to have given them a rotten apple, they will draw encouragement from you. They will look to you to discover how to handle their predicament. Maybe they will look to see what they should do, or see what did not work for you, but they will look up to you. That connection that they feel with you will also give them a sense of belonging in the world; you will make them feel like family, even if they were orphaned at a young age. You will give them the strength to continue, when so many others have simply given up.
Give that person a chance; give them the encouragement they deserve. Talk with that person; record your voice for them, or write a letter. Tell them “what you were doing when …”, tell them about your daily life, the things you love and the things that irritate you. The things you say may not seem like much to you, but it will be worth more than silver and gold to them. Though you will never get a chance to meet that person, you may just be the only person who can help them in their hour of need.