History as Memory

Sit back and think …. what is the first historical event that you remember?

For me, the answer is easy:

November 22, 1963 … some 48 years ago.

I recall this event rather distinctly because that day I was in a play at Seaford Avenue School, as the second “N” in Thanksgiving for Miss Bayliss’s first grade class.  My grandmother (mother’s side) had come down from Great Neck to see my inaugural appearance on stage.  We did not hear about the shooting or the president’s death at school; the first I heard of it was when I arrived home after the usual noisy bus ride to see my mother in tears.

It was a tough week in the Simpson household, for that very week my grandfather (father’s side) had passed away.  I was not present at any of the funeral events that followed; however, I distinctly recall sitting before our large black and white television for the next four days as I watched the Kennedy funeral and the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.  For weeks to come one could not escape the impact of the assisination, from magazine covers with their color pictures through the early stages of the discussion of the assassination itself.

In the summer of 1966 we would visit Washington and make our way to Arlington, where we saw the Kennedy burial sight from the front porch of Arlington House.  It was far different then, for the current site was still in the planning stages.  The following year I recall becoming engrossed in one of the first adult history books I had a chance to peruse: William Manchester’s The Death of a President.  It’s still a tremendous read, and I think it’s stood the test of time rather well, although at the time several of the Kennedys were none too happy with some of what Manchester had to say, especially about tensions between the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson (after all, Bobby Kennedy was contemplating his political future).  It’s a point of some pride with me that when Manchester’s daughter Laurie joined our faculty as a professor of Russian history that she mentioned to me that her father knew who I was.

What’s your first memory of a historical event?


45 thoughts on “History as Memory

  1. Andy Hall November 22, 2011 / 9:19 am

    Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. I have recollection of seeing the grainy, black-and-white images of an ambulance, and the continual updating of reports on his condition.

  2. JMRudy November 22, 2011 / 9:30 am

    I have vague memories of Reagan on television, but nothing specific. My first real, “something is happening in the world,” memory is the Gulf War, with green night vision shots of anti-aircraft fire streaking over Baghdad. I remember Peter Jennings talking over the video coverage. And I remember having the war explained to me (as in, to kids) by both Peter Jennings and Linda Ellerbee.

    I miss Peter Jennings. He was the trustworthy voice of the adult world for my generation’s childhood, just like Cronkite was for the ’60s.

  3. Aaron B. November 22, 2011 / 9:33 am

    It might just be my morning haze, but I can’t remember any big historical moment before the O.J. Simpson trial. It was the first event that I remember that not only was watched on TV (seemingly all day) but was also talked about by all the adults around me. I also remember that for some reason I rooted for O.J. to be found not guilty, though let’s just gloss over that part of my memory.

  4. Khepera November 22, 2011 / 9:45 am

    My actual earliest memory of an historical event was the launching of the first Telstar, in 1962. I remember standing outside with my parents trying to spot it in the night sky. Telstar was not actually visible to the naked eye as I recall, but the earlier Echo satellite was visible.

    That said, the most vivid event, and the one that actually comes first to my mind, was sitting in my third-grade class on Nov. 22, 1963 and hearing Mrs. Foster tell us that the president had been shot. And sometime later telling us that school was dismissed as she tearfully told us that the president had died. I still remember all of the events and images from that time, including watching the funeral, part of which was being transmitted by the aforementioned Telstar.

    Even though I was only 10 years old, I was very much aware that this was a great tragedy. As you said, no one at that time could escape the impact of the assassination. I still tear up remembering the profound sadness of that time.

  5. Harry Smeltzer November 22, 2011 / 10:12 am

    Same one, here. It was 6 days away from my 4th birthday. It happened also to be one of my brother’s 10th. My mom and I took a bus downtown (McKeesport, PA) to buy him a present – a toy rifle, IIRC. Got the news just as we stepped off the bus. I really don’t remember much else about it. But I distinctly remember stepping off the bus and hearing the news from someone my mom knew.

  6. James F. Epperson November 22, 2011 / 10:14 am

    I’ll offer three:

    1—JFK: I was in 5th grade. The principal came over the PA system, “This announcement, please,” as she always did, then switched to a radio feed. I remember the girl who sat two desks to my left just burst our crying as the details emerged. We heard later that a boy in the other 5th grade class—he was generally regarded as having a great future in any of a number of prisons—spent the entire time laughing.

    2—Moon landing: This was 1969, pre-cable TV, and we had marginal reception in our house. My parents did not stay up to watch, but my two best buddies and I did, on a crappy little B&W TV on our back porch.

    3—9/11: I was at work, wandering about the building when someone told me the rest of the staff were in our kitchen watching the TV. Something about a plane hitting one of the Towers. I got there just as the second plane hit.

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 22, 2011 / 12:04 pm

      I would think that a mathematician would understand what I meant when I said “first.” Or are these multiple lives?

      • James F. Epperson November 22, 2011 / 12:20 pm

        To be perfectly honest, that line went unnoticed by me. First? Probably Alan Shepard’s flight. Our teacher brought in a TV to school so we could watch. I don’t remember many details.

  7. Robert Welch November 22, 2011 / 11:06 am

    For me, it’s the Iranian hostage crisis. I was 5-6 years old, but I remember the family tying a yellow ribbon around the tree in our front yard and seeing it on television. (Thankfully, I have very few memories of Tony Orlando or Dawn.) That’s about it.

    The first historical event that I remember that had anything close to an impact on my life was the Reagan assassination attempt. I remember watching it on television at the babysitter’s house, and telling her about it while she was wrangling kids.

  8. Will Hickox November 22, 2011 / 11:30 am

    The Berlin Wall coming down. Feel old yet??

    • Bill Newcomer November 22, 2011 / 4:20 pm

      Good one Will, especially when I can remember when it first went up….. Now who is old?

  9. Chris November 22, 2011 / 11:51 am

    I was 6 when the evacuation of the last Americans and Vietnamese by Air America on April 29, 1975, I remember the obtuse image of the helicopter and all the desperate people trying to get to it…

  10. Greg Taylor November 22, 2011 / 12:02 pm

    Oddly I have no early recollections of historical events even though my parents were both “news junkies” and discussed current events constantly. My first real memory was the suborbital flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space in 1961. I was 12. The next really big recollection was the Cuban Missle Crisis of October 1962. It truly scared the hell out of us.

  11. Corey Meyer November 22, 2011 / 12:28 pm

    I remember standing outside my house in Central Illinois in 1975…I was 5 at the time…and watching either the docking or undocking of the Apollo-Soyuz mission. This is the first thing I remember as being a historical event that I was “involved” in or witnessed.

  12. Marc Ferguson November 22, 2011 / 1:02 pm

    It was undoubtedly the JFK assassination.a classmate in elementary school told me in the hallway, he also told me we weren’t supposed to talk about it. I went home immediately and watched the tv coverage. I am not a mathematician, si I will add that the RFK assassination was also a big deal for me. I had just missed an opportunity to see/hear him speak in Stockton, California, outside of my father’s law office. My mom woke me in the middle of the night to tell me about his having been shot. A third would be the moon landing.

  13. Sharryn November 22, 2011 / 1:17 pm

    1948 election of Harry Truman…
    I don’t remember much except how upset everyone seemed to be,
    I grew up in this little Idaho town, they had the largest membership per captia of John Birch Society of any town in the US. Their now known as “Constitutionalists”

  14. William Underhill November 22, 2011 / 1:41 pm

    The historical event that I recall vividly was the death of FDR April 12, 1945.
    I was at a friend’s house and my friend’s mother came in the door to say the Roosevelt had died. My family was pro-FDR and when I returned home, it was all that they could talk about, how it was sad that he didn’t live to see the end of the war.

  15. Terry Walbert November 22, 2011 / 2:15 pm

    My first memory of a historical event was the execution of the Rosenbergs in June 1953. I was seven and had just finished the first grade. I don’t recall hearing about the Korean War even though my dad was a career soldier and we were living near Army bases from 1950 to 1952. Must have been more wrapped up in cowboys, Indians, and outlaws at the time.

  16. Steve Witmer November 22, 2011 / 3:22 pm

    I have vague memories of seeing Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter on the evening news but don’t remember anything particularly specific. The first real national news I can recall with any real detail is the coverage of the Three Mile Island core meltdown.

    • James F. Epperson November 22, 2011 / 9:46 pm

      You’re making me feel *old*. I was in grad school when that happened!

  17. Charles Lovejoy November 22, 2011 / 3:40 pm

    My first was the Cuban missile crisis, and second was the JFK assassination. I remember in the first grade taking part in nuclear missile drills. Going into the hallway tucking our heads between our knees and going into the hallways doing the same. Then I remember my father who worked for the DOD telling me, if a nuke hits Atlanta we are all doomed. A scary time for a 6 year old. The 60’s was a strange time to grow up in 🙂 The Cuban missile crisis, the JFK assassination, Malcolm X assassination, Robert Kennedy assassination, the MLK assassination, the shooting of George Wallace and the moon landing. And my 6th grade thought I was weird because I brought a Frank Zappa( Freak Out) record to school on record day? My synopses was the world as we knew it was a weird and strange place. Then is when I first questioned if humans belonged in the flow chat here?

    • Greg Taylor November 23, 2011 / 10:17 am

      We had “drop drills” in my elementary school classes in the mid ’50s. We were instructed not to look out the windows because we would be blinded by the flash of hydrogen bomb explosions. It was the height of the “cold war”.

  18. Charles Lovejoy November 22, 2011 / 3:44 pm

    Flow chart , I meant….. another typo I credit to my ADD 🙂

  19. Mike Musick November 22, 2011 / 4:06 pm

    The death of Joseph Stalin, 1953. I was in the auditorium of my elementary school outside Philadelphia, and there was an announcement that he’d died. No doubt I had almost no understanding of who he was. I recall jokes about his associates standing on his hospital breathing tube. Having now just read Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin,” I have a fairly good idea of how the man operated. What a monster.

  20. Roger E Watson November 22, 2011 / 4:19 pm

    Sputnick !!!! 10/4/1957. I was twelve. I must be really old now !!

    • JS, Horsham, PA December 4, 2011 / 9:44 am

      Another vote for Sputnik. I was ten. Sputnik and succeeding efforts in the Space Race led me to a life-long interest in technology _and_ science fiction. Historical interests came later.

  21. Lyle Smith November 22, 2011 / 4:46 pm

    The earliest vivid memory of an historical event that I have is of the Challenger explosion.

    I also seem to vaguely remember the Lennon assassination and the Reagan shooting.

  22. Mark Pethke November 22, 2011 / 5:33 pm

    Apollo 15. Dune buggies on the moon!

  23. Matt McKeon November 22, 2011 / 5:37 pm

    I remember being driven by my dad past the high school. I was maybe five or six. There was a fire. Dad told me that the students were burning a statue of LBJ because of the war.

  24. Richard McCormick November 22, 2011 / 6:19 pm

    I remember the 1980 Presidential election, as a classmate & I talked about it for our school election (I was in 2nd grade.) I was going to vote for Jimmy Carter just because that was the only name I knew but he kept telling me his mom said to vote for Regan. I think I ended up voting for Regan just to keep his friendship (until his family moved at the end of the year, anyway.)

    If that’ not historical enough, then the Challenger explosion in 1986. I was in middle school English class when we first started seeing coverage of it.

  25. Noma November 22, 2011 / 7:15 pm

    I remember that the Cuban dictator Batista was being overthrown by someone named Fidel Castro. Everyone was rooting for this Castro guy. He was going to set the Cubans free.

    I’m not a mathematician either. I also remember the Nixon-Kennedy election. My family was Republican. I was up north in Michigan, visiting my aunt and uncle’s hog farm, a fun summer visit. I prayed all night long for Nixon to become president. Eight years later, I was in Berkeley, voting in my first election. In spite of Chicago, I voted for Humphrey. But at last my prayer got answered.

    That taught me not to pray for political candidates.

  26. gregdehler November 22, 2011 / 8:27 pm

    The Bicentennial and it really got me interested in history. I was 8 years old. Of course, the Yankees getting swept in the World Series that year was a major downer!

    • Greg Taylor November 23, 2011 / 10:57 am

      If baseball counts as history, then my earliest recollection is the 1957 World Series where the Milwaukee Braves beat the dreaded Yankees in 7 games. I made a scrapbook of it and became a rabid Braves fan until the Dodgers moved to L.A. the next year.

  27. TF Smith November 22, 2011 / 10:15 pm

    RFK’s murder.

    If one is in mid-Wilshire in Los Angeles, visiting the memorial outside of the new RFK High School (built on the site the of the Ambassador) is well worth the time.

  28. Stephen Graham November 22, 2011 / 10:56 pm

    The moon landing is my first historical memory.

    The clumps of memory we have here are interesting.

  29. martin November 23, 2011 / 6:04 am

    The 1959 Democratic convention, we listened to it on the radio at the lake. I also remember the air-raid drills at school during the Cuban Missile crisis, although at the time I had no idea why we were doing it.

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 23, 2011 / 11:12 am

      That 1959 convention pales besides the 1960 convention when Kennedy was nominated.

  30. Jeffry Burden November 24, 2011 / 8:39 am

    Growing up in NoCal, my earliest recollection of a date-specific event (as opposed to ongoing things the Vietnam War, or campus unrest at UC Berkeley, or the Summer of Love) is the TET Offensive in early ’68. I suppose that says something about me…:-)

  31. Helga Ross November 24, 2011 / 9:24 am

    “My Sit back and think …. what is the first historical event that you remember?”

    Hi Brooks. I strongly suspect you will relate to my first historical event of memory with a wide smile and small surprise: The wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III, of Monaco, April 1956. Albeit I was an impressionable little girl, lest you think it prototypical of me, so-called ‘moonlight and magnolias Romantic’, you did ask for and stress the FIRST. It is not my fault that the Hungarian Uprising followed only a few months later and made equal and stronger impression.

    However, above all others, no event ever hit me as hard as John F. Kennedy’s assassination. (That degree of shock and amazement and dismay I felt can only happen once. That was when the princess in me lost her illusions about how the world works.) I was in high school (Gr 11) and it was a Friday, mid-term exam time. I was glued to the TV the entire time over that weekend and couldn’t get into studying for them. I wasn’t alone (lucky, as it turned out)–back to class to learn the exams were postponed for some days.

  32. Keith Harris November 24, 2011 / 6:17 pm

    The Watergate scandal and Nixon’s subsequent resignation. I was seven when Nixon left office – but I remember him addressing the nation and the news coverage of the scandal preceding it. I really had little idea what was going on at the time but recall quite vividly complaining to my grandmother that nothing else was ever on TV. I guess coverage preempted Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or something.

  33. Bob Huddleston November 26, 2011 / 9:12 pm

    I was walking out of the mess hall at Fort Sill when someone ran past shouting that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. We did very little training for the rest of that weekend; instead we sat around watching the TV in the Day Room and the PX. I saw Oswald killed and also the BBC edition of That Was the Week That Was on the assassination, which introduce American audiences to David Frost. And sometime either the weekend or Monday there was a mandatory formation where a message was read to all the troops from SecDef making certain that everyone knew the president was dead!
    Judy was attending Ohio State and she and several friends drove in her ten year old Buick – and a ten year old car in 1963 was in much worse condition than a ten year old auto today! – to Washington for the funeral. They got there in time to stake out a spot on the sidewalk and watch the cortege go by.

  34. Bob Huddleston November 26, 2011 / 9:14 pm

    Somewhere I have read that our long term memory does not kick in until about age 5 or 6 which is why we remember very few things of our early childhood. However, Wednesday we were sitting at a gate at Denver International Airport, waiting for a flight to take our grandchildren home to Sacramento. Nine year old (nine and a half, she would insist!) Jessica started asking me about what I did when I worked for United and I explained that I was a gate agent, like Dave Zanelli standing there. And Jessica remarked that she remembered sitting up on the counter one time helping me.
    Indeed, she had: she must have been 3, maybe even 2, and she and Gramma had flown in from Sacramento and were waiting at the Gate I was working for my shift to end. I called Jessica over and plopped her on the counter. She had great fun handing the boarding passes to the customers and saying “thank you!” I doubt we have mentioned this to her since – too many other things have occurred to bring up her one experience as an airline gate agent! And yet she vividly remembered and could tell me about it!
    Which is an introduction to what I think may be my earliest memory, but one I always assumed I “remembered” because family members talked about it. Thanks to Jessica, I now wonder if perhaps I really *did* remember the incidents!
    My Mother took me down to Kansas City’s Union Station for the VJ-Day celebrations: I was a little over 3 in August 1945. And a couple of months later Dad came home from the War, arriving after I was asleep. Allegedly I came into Mom’s bedroom the next morning, and loudly asked “Who is that in bed with you *this* time?” What saved the marriage was the fact that we lived with my grandparents when Dad joined the army! Do I remember those or did family talk about them and reinforce my memory? I do not know.
    What is indisputably my earliest memory was in 1947 or 1948: Dad worked for Republic Pictures and their top stars were coming to Kansas City and he was delegated to meet them. He took me and four or five of my friends (all boys, if I remember correctly!) down to meet the Super Chief which arrived about 6 am. I remember how dark it was when we drove downtown and how disappointed I was that Roy and Dale were dressed in business suits and were not wearing their six-shooters! They did have cowboy boots and hats on and they made up for it later when Dad took me back stage at the convention center to meet them again, this time better dressed to my tastes! The autographed picture unfortunately disappeared years ago but the memory has remained. Earlier this month Roy would have celebrated his 100th birthday and he gave me many, many happy trails!

  35. Sherree November 28, 2011 / 7:37 am

    Hi Brooks,

    That was painful to watch.

    Third grade. JFK assassination.

    The teacher had us put our heads down on our desks. The principal turned the intercom on. We listened to the entire broadcast. Then, it was home to a full fledged wake for our slain President in my household.

    I don’t think the nation ever fully recovered. It was our innocence that was shattered, along with JFK’s body, his life.

    Then Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy, Watergate……cry the beloved country….

    I lost a relative recently–a Korean veteran.

    I want to know what happened to him–why he never came home.

    Now I am sorting through different accounts of the Korean War by different historians and trying to figure out exactly what went on in the “forgotten war”.

    I have the vague sense that all wars are alike—that they are an absurd, totally ridiculous way to conduct business that always ends with dead men, women and children, and others who might as well be dead, because they are no longer alive. We’re looking at another generation of dead and wounded, with missing arms, legs, hearts.

    Well, back to your question–JFK’s assassination. It was heartbreaking.

  36. Chris Evans November 30, 2011 / 6:42 pm

    I would say the collapse of the Berlin wall.

    I’m glad you mentioned Manchester. He is one of my all time favorite historians. I believe his ‘The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972’ is just a magnificent book. It brings up the history behind many of the memories that many people have posted about on here in just a wonderful fashion.


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