I was too young to remember the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, or the assassination of President Kennedy.
I’ve often wondered what my young parents were thinking as the United States teetered on the brink of thermonuclear war, and then watched as our nation’s leader was killed just a little over a year later.
I’ve pondered if they considered whether bringing me into the world had been a good idea. Pictures taken at the time in my grandparents’ front yard show my mom, dad, and me. They were smiling. But I have to wonder if their joy was narrowed to the moment.
They had to go on. Everyone did. That was the only choice.
The first national tragedies I recall are the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. The first U.S. military action I remember was Vietnam.
When I was in elementary school, the routine was the same. My dad arrived home in his brown 1952 Chevy truck promptly at 5:30. He parked in the short gravel driveway he made himself.
You could set your watch by the sound of the screen door opening. He came in, washed his hands, and we were waiting at the supper table. Everything was buffet style. The breaded fried steak, potatoes, gravy, vegetables, and biscuits, were all passed around.
Huntley / Brinkley updated us from the NBC affiliate that played on the RCA console TV in the living room.
“This footage was shot three days ago in the jungle. Today’s troop loss was…”
So went each report, day-after-day, week-after-week of my childhood.
It was all I knew. My parents talked about how long the war had been going on, and how long it might continue.
American troops were in Vietnam before I was born. I was 11 when they came home.
But during my youth it was one moment in time that seemed to define the lives of most.
Virtually every adult I knew talked about where they were when they heard about the assassination of JFK. Being too young to remember, I listened, fascinated that something had such an impact on all citizens.
During my senior year of high school, 52 Americans were taken hostage in Iran. I was in college when they were released.
Other crises would follow. More Americans would die defending our freedom.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. I remember exactly where I was when it happened.
I was standing in the studios of a television station, coincidentally an NBC affiliate, watching Dr. Billy Dan Carson do an interview I had set up. My job at the time was working for a health system as a media relations director.
I don’t recall the topic of the interview, but shortly after he finished and the sound tech was taking the microphone off of his lapel, I glanced at the network monitor and saw the replay of the first plane hit the tower.
We all stopped what we were doing and watched. Being able to hear the network anchors talk behind the scenes, speculation began as to how a commercial plane could get so far off course.
Then the second plane hit.
We all looked at each other and someone said, “This isn’t an accident.”
I called my wife and children and told them to turn on the news.
In 2001, the Internet was in its infancy. Radio and television were the fastest way to get the news.
It quickly became obvious that the country we’d once known was forever changed. Previously, we watched wars on TV. Now the enemy had attacked us at home.
The following months and years saw our country altered. In some ways for the better, in many ways not.
The same had been said about the country before JFK’s assassination, and after.
There’s a generation of Americans who are now grown, who do not recall 9/11.
It’s a bit of a disconnect to know that something so impactful to our country is a story you learn, and not something you lived through.
I pray for those who died on 9/11 and their families. I am grateful for the sacrifice of all of our soldiers and their families in all of our wars and crises. This sacrifice dates back to the birth of our country, and continues today.
And now, there’s Afghanistan.
Americans are tough and we do not quit. We value our freedom and will do whatever it takes to keep it.
We will step up and do whatever is necessary.
We have to go on. Everyone does. That is the only choice.
(John’s new book, Puns for Groan People, and his books, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, are available on his website — TheCountryWriter.com, where you can also send him a message and hear his weekly podcast.)