You know the moments: A friend calls to tell you, you catch the news on TV or—more recently—the Web. Perhaps you hear something on the radio. It's big news. Monumental news, in fact. It's a moment you'll never forget, along with the details—where you were, who you were with, what you wore, even the exact time or the weather—all of which are seared into your memory.
To mark the end of AARP's 50th-anniversary year, editors from AARP's media outlets looked back on the last 50 years and compiled our top-10 "Where were you when?" moments.
It was a challenge keeping the list at 10; many other moments very well could have made our list and surely will make yours. But bear in mind that these are not necessarily the most important events of the past 50 years, although some events on our list have changed the world in significant ways. Instead, we chose the moments of unexpected news that jolted us out of our daily reverie—"flashback" moments that still prompt us, years later, to remember exactly where we were.
We discarded events that were not totally a bolt out of the blue; the timing of Neil Armstrong's moon walk was well planned, for instance, so most people were already plunked down in front of the TV set. The same is true for presidential elections.
In putting the list together, we found—somewhat to our dismay—that bad news predominated. We'll leave it to the psychologists to explain why unexpected good news seems less memorable.
Here, in chronological order, is our list—with recollections of where some of us were and what we remember. Now it's your turn. Tell us what you think of our list: What would you take off? Add on? Perhaps most important, tell us where you were at the time of one of the moments on our list—or another of your choosing. Let the discussion begin!
November 22, 1963: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated.
"Sister Maria Claire came to the door of my third grade class at St. Mary's school, summoned my teacher, Mrs. Quinn, to the door, and whispered something to her. Mrs. Quinn turned white, staggered back to her desk, and collapsed into her seat. 'President Kennedy has been killed,' she said in a tone I'm sure was meant to soothe us, yet succeeded only in leaving us terrified. 'He was shot to death in Texas.' To this day, I can see in my mind’s eye the image that flashed to my consciousness at that moment:
President Kennedy on a horse, riding through a rocky pass, cut down by masked men in black cowboy hats."
–Bill Newcott, entertainment editor, AARP The Magazine
April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr., is assassinated.
June 5, 1968: Senator Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated.
May 4, 1970: The shootings at Kent State University.
December 8, 1980: John Lennon is killed.
"I was celebrating a friend's birthday at a Mexican restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. A group of us were eating dinner in a back room, a private room reserved for parties; at another table was a group of people speaking Spanish.
In the spirit of the season, we began serenading each other's tables: They sang 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas' to us in English, and we responded with a brave (but hopelessly flawed) rendition of Jose Feliciano's 'Feliz Navidad.' About 8 p.m., I happened to glance up at the television in the far corner of the room to check the score of Monday Night Football and was perplexed to see, between plays, still photographs of the Beatles, and John Lennon in particular. I nudged one of my friends and said, 'Something’s not right here.' Then came the news crawl along the bottom of the screen: John Lennon had been shot dead in New York City. To this day, I can't hear the holiday joy in either 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas' or 'Feliz Navidad.'"
–Bernard Ohanian, vice president of content integration, AARP Publications
January 28, 1986: The U.S. space shuttle Challenger explodes 72 seconds after takeoff, killing all seven crew members.
November 9, 1989: Borders between East and West Germany open—leading to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.
August 31, 1997: Princess Diana dies.
"On the last night of my summer in East Hampton, I ventured out to a nightclub—The Swamp, home to a swirling, mirrored disco ball left over from Studio 54. I stood restless at the bar; for some reason, I couldn't sit still that night. CNN played in the background, but no one paid the television any attention. My stomach sank when the music stopped as a talking head mumbled above the din and people pointed to the screen, though no one could hear the man on TV. Word-of-mouth in the form of fast, whispered waves crashed across the room: Princess Diana. Paris tunnel. Car accident. She's OK. Dodi's dead.
I waited silently, holding on to hope, with the other patrons as updates flooded over the room. Then at 11:35, the sad news: Princess Diana has died.
If this happened today, I'd pull out my cell phone and call a friend. Instead I did what everyone did back then when faced with overwhelming, surreal news: I turned to the people beside me, as much to make the unreal seem real as to help absorb the shock. Two older men on my right let out pained exclamations, and the three of us huddled together for a few minutes, strangers connecting over an abstract but profound grief. We talked as if we knew her personally, and, in my case, it turns out that the two of them did. It took me a minute to realize I was talking to Calvin Klein and Barry Diller."
–Dave Singleton, director of planning and promotions, AARP Publications
April 20, 1999: The Columbine High School massacre occurs in Littleton, Colorado.
September 11, 2001: There's terror in the skies at the World Trade Center.
"I awoke at the Newark Airport Marriot Hotel and rushed to make my 7 a.m.
United Airlines flight from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco. I hurried through security and boarded the plane in the nick of time. Well into the seemingly routine flight, the pilot—voice shaking—announced that he was circling to land in Lincoln, Neb., 'due to a national emergency.' As we circled the Lincoln airport, I checked news headlines on a PDA, learning of airliners crashing into buildings and falling from the sky. It would take me a few days to fully comprehend that the tears in the eyes of our flight attendants that day were probably due to the fact that they knew the personnel on the ill-fated 8 a.m. Newark-to-San Francisco flight (United Flight 93), which had crashed outside Pittsburgh; both crews had spent the night before at the Newark Airport Marriott. I also realized that had I arrived at my gate a few minutes later, I probably would have been bumped—to Flight 93."
–Rick Bowers, director of creative initiatives, AARP Brand Management