Thursday, July 27, 2006

Walter Cronkite

A PBS special last night on the CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite sent me on a trip through my past. For two hours I watched the major world events of my life parade by me. It was amazing how the reactions I had then were repeated in almost equal intensity to the real thing, albeit much more briefly. I relived the night Mike and I tried so hard to stay awake for the results of the Eisenhower-Stevenson election. Democrats all, my parents and grandmother were up all night, in those days prior to immediate tabulation by computers, agonizing over every report that came in from every state as the votes were counted. When I woke in the morning to a pervasive atmosphere of doom, I knew that the our country would not survive, that my life would be short, and that my end would come in the inferno of a nuclear blast.

As it was in my own experience, last night's show moved on to the relative prosperity of the fifties with images that could have come from "Father Knows Best," and "Leave it to Beaver." Everyone was happy and carefree. Although our family did not experience it, I still see it as the way life was then. I was so brainwashed by television and Look and Life magazines that I failed to notice that I was not part of the "fifties lifestyle." It was difficult to reconcile the apparently idyllic life on TV with the bi-monthly civil defense drills we had at shcool. At the sound of a teeth-shattering clanging bell we were taught to dive under our desks, or sometimes to walk in a quiet and orderly fashion to the bomb shelter in the basement of the school. The conflicting views of our times cancelled each other out to the point where I was mostly numb to it all. I focused on my Roy Rogers ranch set and had nightmares of death.

Then Walter Cronkite moved into the "Turbulent 60's." I define the sixties by the assassinations that took place and by my first, and possibly only, love. Both took place in 1963. My political awakening took place during Kennedy's campaign. I was an avid, vocal supporter. I still had my straw hat and Kennedy poster until a few years ago. When he was killed I was glued to the televsion for three days, watching the assassination over and over again. I was there when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. I saw it live. I watched the funeral procession, the black horse with backwards boots in the stirrups of his empty saddle. I saw John-John salute the casket. I saw the lighting of the eternal flame (which significantly blew out a few hours later and had to be re-lit). I saw it all over and over again and still couldn't get enough.

When Martin luther King was assassinated, I was relatively unimpressed, though I must say that the constant replaying of his "I have a Dream" speech finally reduced me to tears. Bobby Kennedy's death left me shell-shocked and bitter and my idealism slid away, never to return. But that was later, and the other part of 1963 found me madly in love and happy. My senior year of High School, contrary to every other school year of my life, was full of social and socially acceptable events and behaviors. Ball games, dances, movies, parking in the dark and making out until the early hours of the morning--these were my nods to conventionality. The war in Viet Nam, the race riots, symbols of the 60's, did not move me much except in retrospect. The images shown on the nightly news were registered in my brain despite my indifference, to be replayed many times over in later years.

The seventies were my years of marriage and childbirth, my hazy existence in Hartford, my remote life in a lonely farmhouse in Newburgh. Life outside myself barely existed. My first notice of the world beyond took place in 1987 when we all oved to Bangor again. I was in time for Jesse's childhood illness and the accident of the Challenger spacecraft. The show about Walter Cronkite ended before then, though, when the space program was still appropriate and wonderful--a source of pride of accomplishment. Our competitive race against the Russians was almost a game then, one for them, one for us.

So, I lived all of those years again last night, in fast forward. I ran up the roach infested starway to our apartment in Portsmouth to watch "Superman." I saw Alan Shepherd circle the earth, glancing up from a book I was reading while babysitting on Ohio St. I sat at the litchen table and listened, of course, to a younger Walter Crinkite announcing the death of the president. I cried over Kennedy, sitting in a recliner pulled up in front of the TV on Boynton Street. I smiled and cheered Armstrong, the first man on the moon. I watched, transfixed, the repeated images of the challenger spacecraft blowing up, the horrified looks of the on-lookers as we all imagined the same thing--the unimaginable end of the astronauts on board.

Those horrified looks are so familiar now. Human beings reacting to disaster after disaster blend into one great picture of life. How can we help but feel hopeless? Well, I do it right now by looking at blueberry fields.

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