Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Stories From People Who Became Witnesses to History

From the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the death of a princess, these ordinary people lived through extraordinary events

spinner image president john f kennedy and jacqueline kennedy in dallas on the day of his assassination
President John    F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy in Dallas on the day of his assassination.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Jenyce Gush was a teenager skipping school in Dallas. Dean Kahler was a college kid walking on campus to class. Clara Jean Ester was a young woman hoping to meet a hero in Memphis. Each was an ordinary person who lived through an extraordinary event. Read on to learn about people like us who saw a page or even a chapter added to the history of our time.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

Death of a president

Jenyce Gush, 73, director of volunteer services at the Suicide and Crisis Center in Dallas, on the JFK assassination

On November 22, 1963, a friend and I decided to skip school. We knew that the president was visiting Dallas and that his motorcade was going to come right down Lemmon Avenue. I was 15 years old, going to Rusk Junior High. The whole city came alive. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. I was standing on the curb on Lemmon Avenue, wearing big pink rollers in my hair, when I saw the governor of Texas, John Connally. And then there they were — the president and the first lady — in an open Lincoln limousine.

I was in awe. This was the Camelot era. There had never been a president like John F. Kennedy or a first lady like Jackie. I was surprised to see them in an open car, that there was no bulletproof bubble. But mostly I was thinking about how attractive he was. He had on a pinstriped shirt, and he had these bushy eyebrows. I looked at Jackie, who was the epitome of beauty, with lipstick that matched her pink suit. I waved at them, and President Kennedy’s eyes fixed on me because I looked funny wearing these big pink rollers in my hair. He waved.

About a half hour after I saw the president, suddenly I saw this lady hysterically screaming in front of what was then Skillern’s Drug Store. She was yelling, “They shot him! They shot him!” I thought she was talking about someone she knew, a family member or something.

“They shot who?” I asked.

“They shot the president!”

“No, no,” I said. “We just saw him.”

I went into Skillern’s Drug Store and saw people huddled around a TV. No one spoke. It was surreal. That is when I heard Walter Cronkite say those haunting words: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”

I thought, This can’t be happening.

For days, it was all anyone could talk about. It was such a dark time for the whole world. My mother had previously worked as a waitress for Jack Ruby, at the Carousel Club. So when Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested and Jack Ruby was captured on a television camera shooting Oswald, it was just unbelievable. Within a short period of time, the FBI showed up at our door. I answered, and there were these two agents with badges. I panicked, shut the door in their faces and ran to get my mother, who was asleep. “Mother!” I said. “My God! The FBI is here! Did y’all kill the president?” Somehow, my young mind had made that leap. Of course, she had nothing to do with it.

Looking back, it was something you never dreamed could happen, and certainly not in your own hometown.

spinner image diana spencer when she was nanny to mary robertsons son patrick
Diana Spencer when she was the nanny to Mary Robertson’s son, Patrick.
Photo by Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

Ballad of Lady Diana

Mary Robertson, 78, unlikely friend of the princess, on the day of her funeral

In 1980, my husband got transferred to London for his job at Exxon, and before we left, a neighbor gave me the name of an agency she had used when she was in London, to find a babysitter. I was going to work for a bank part-time and needed help with my 6-month-old son, Patrick. We got to London and I rang the agency, which was called Occasional & Permanent Nannies. “Here’s someone,” the woman on the phone said. “Her name is Diana Spencer.”

So, this young woman showed up for an interview. She was 18. The name Diana Spencer meant nothing to me.

She and I hit it off, and I hired her on the spot — didn’t even check her references. For the next year, she came to my house two days a week. We had a very intimate relationship. I called her Diana, and she called me Mrs. Robertson.

One day I found a bank deposit slip sticking out of a sofa in my living room. The slip was from Coutts, the bank for the aristocracy and the royal family. And the name on it was Lady Diana Spencer. I knew that this was an important title. So, I took the deposit slip to the bank where I was working, and there we looked up Lady Diana Spencer in a book on the aristocracy. It just seemed impossible, and one of the British bankers said, “We think you’re great. But there’s no way that someone with her pedigree would be working for an ordinary American like you.”

She had been taking my son to “Kensington” to play with her sister’s little girl. She did not tell me that Kensington meant Kensington Palace, because her sister was married to the queen’s assistant private secretary. When our family moved back to the States, these little blue airmail letters started arriving. She wanted to share what was going on in her life and to tell us how much she missed Patrick and me. Of course I was reading in the newspapers about her relationship with Prince Charles. Then, one day in February 1981, my phone rang. It was a friend from London. She said, “Your girl made it!” I literally jumped for joy. Then came another note. “Of course,” Diana wrote, “you will be receiving an invitation to the wedding.” We went to the wedding and also to this fabulous party at Buckingham Palace two days before. Prince Charles could not have been more gracious. I believed in the fairy tale. I thought this was going to work out wonderfully.

For the rest of Diana’s life, we wrote letters and saw each other when we could. I knew she was having a hard time. The last time I saw her was at a private lunch at Kensington Palace, just her and me and my two children. The food was not kid-friendly, but Diana cut my daughter Caroline’s chicken puff pastry for her. Caroline fell in love. This was a real-life princess.

One night in August of 1997, I was awake at 2 a.m. because we’d had a family party. A friend called. “Mary,” she said, “go turn on your television. Diana has just been killed in a car crash in Paris.” I rushed downstairs, turned on CNN and watched for hours. It all seemed so unbelievable. I’ll never know who thought to invite us to the funeral. Diana was the only person in the royal family that we knew. But I got a call from Lord Chamberlain, inviting me.

spinner image david patton hammering out a chunk of the berlin wall
David Patton hammers out a chunk of the Berlin Wall.
Courtesy David Patton

Fall of the Berlin Wall

David Patton, 58, of Connecticut College, on the barrier’s crumbling

In September 1989, I got to West Berlin. I was 26 and a Ph.D. student at Cornell University. It was a time of great change. People were trying to leave East Germany. Protests were going on. In October, East Germany’s leader, Erich Ernst Paul Honecker, resigned. It was clear something important was going on, but nobody was talking about the wall coming down. That seemed a long way off, if it was to happen at all. On the afternoon of November 9, I was listening to a press conference. A communist East German official was reading a new policy on how East Germans could leave the country, and he kind of messed it up. From what he was saying, it sounded like the Berlin Wall was going to open up, although that was not his intention. Crowds began to gather in East Berlin. I was in the West, so I couldn’t see these crowds, but I knew the pressure was building. Eventually, some border guards opened gates, and the crowds from East Berlin poured into the West.

The following morning I went down to the wall. I have a picture of myself standing on the wall that day, celebrating. West Berlin was full of East Germans, and they were welcomed. There was a party atmosphere. Many from the East were driving their smoky East German cars — the Trabants. Everyone was delighted, because nobody expected it.

Over the next days, the wall came crumbling down, and I have pieces of it. You could tell who was from the East by their clothing — they didn’t have Western jeans, for example — and by their hairstyles. Little details stand out. I remember the West Berlin newspapers had inserts with free maps in them, because East German maps showed West Berlin as basically uncharted territory, so the newspaper map inserts showed the East Germans where the streets were and how to get around. Many East Germans saw food items they had never seen before; bananas were talked about at the time, because you wouldn’t have been able to get bananas in East Germany.

I stayed in Germany for nearly another two years. I ended up moving to a cheap, dilapidated apartment in what was formerly East Berlin, and I was in Germany on October 3, 1990, when the country reunified. I was there researching German foreign policy, and I was able to include my experiences in my dissertation and later in a book. What I remember, most importantly, I think, is how unexpected the fall of the wall was, how quickly it happened and the lesson we can learn. Circumstances that you can take for granted can change so quickly. Just because things are the way they are today does not mean they will be like that tomorrow.

spinner image gail wise standing with her ford mustang the first of its kind sold in america
Gail Wise with her Mustang — the first sold in America.
Photo by John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images

Birth of the Mustang

Gail Wise, 80, a former schoolteacher, on a car story like no other

On April 15, 1964, I went with my parents to Johnson Ford, a car dealership on Cicero Avenue in Chicago, to buy a new car. I was 22 years old and had just graduated from Chicago Teachers College. I’d gotten a job in the suburbs, but I still lived at home, so I needed a car to get there.

“I want a convertible,” I told the salesman. “Come in the back room with me,” he said. “I have something special to show you.”

We went into the back room, and there was this car, under a tarp. He pulled off the cover, revealing this marvelous skylight blue automobile. It looked sporty and small, and it had bucket seats. I loved it right away. The salesman explained that he wasn’t supposed to show anyone this car, that it was going to debut two days later. But he let me buy it. It was a convertible and had all the bells and whistles, and I paid $3,447.50. My parents loaned me the money. Many years would pass — decades, in fact — before I would learn that I was the first person in the U.S. ever to buy a Ford Mustang. That day, when I drove out of the dealership, people were waving and asking me to slow down so they could see the car. Even police officers. The day after that, when I drove to my job, the seventh- and eighth-grade boys gathered around the car. They were so excited! I felt like a movie star. I wrote a letter to my boyfriend, Tom, now my husband of 56 years, about the car. He was in the Navy, out at sea, and when he wrote back to me, he told me he had never heard of a Ford Mustang.

On April 17, two days after I’d bought my car, Ford Motor Company debuted the Mustang at the New York World’s Fair, in a ceremony with Lee Iacocca, who became known as the Father of the Mustang. Suddenly there were Mustangs everywhere. The car became so popular that Ford could not make them fast enough.

My husband and I drove that car for 15 years. Then one day he came home from work and said, “There’s something wrong with the car.” He put it in the garage and said he would fix it “next week.” That next week turned into 27 years. Tom saw a guy online claiming to be the first Mustang owner. He said he had bought his Mustang on April 14, 1964, in Canada. But I had bought mine on April 15, and I had all the paperwork. Eventually, Ford verified that my Mustang was the first one sold in the U.S.

spinner image students running from the national guard at kent state university following the may fourth shooting
Students run from the National Guard at Kent State University.
Steven Clevenger/Corbis via Getty Images

Horror of Kent State

Dean R. Kahler, 72, retired civil servant and schoolteacher, on surviving the shootings that changed America

I started at Kent State University in the spring of 1970, at 20 years old.

I had never been to an anti-war demonstration, because if you worked on a farm or in a steel mill, as I had, there was no time for such things. I was the son of a World War II veteran, and I was involved in my church. On the night of April 30, I was in a pub in the town of Kent, listening to President Nixon’s speech. When the president announced that U.S. troops would be invading Cambodia, the pub erupted in boos. It seemed like this was going to be an expansion of the war instead of a reduction. Students were angry, me included. I went home for the weekend, and while I was gone, protesters burned an ROTC building. When I returned to campus Sunday evening, the place was like an armed camp. National Guard troops were everywhere. It was shocking, because this was rural Ohio — not exactly a hotbed of liberal thinking.

See more Health & Wellness offers >

The next day, May 4, I figured I would go to the protest that was to start at noon. There were two or three thousand people gathered, shouting anti-war chants. The National Guard troops were there, putting on their gas masks and helmets. At one point, some troops came out in a Jeep with a campus police officer holding a bullhorn. If we didn’t disperse, he said, the National Guard would disperse us. That didn’t go over well. So, the National Guard troops got into formation and began firing tear gas. There was chaos. I ended up in a gravel parking lot wiping tear gas out of my eyes and nose.

I remained about 100 yards from the troops. I watched as they formed two lines, with their rifles and bayonets forward. They began to march toward a crowd of students, who cleared a path for them. The troops reached the top of a hill. I was at the bottom. They turned in unison and aimed their weapons down the hill. I thought, My God! They’re going to shoot!

I jumped down and covered my head, and all of a sudden, I heard bullets hitting the ground around me, making this zoooop sound. Then I felt something like a beesting in my back, and I felt my legs tighten up, then relax. When the shooting stopped, there was this awful silence. Then people started seeing the bodies, and the chaos resumed. Four young people were killed by National Guard troops, and many more lay heavily injured.

I ended up at Robinson Memorial Hospital, still conscious. They put me in an induced coma after surgery. When I awoke days later and learned of my fate, I was angry. But when the doctors told me what they had told my parents, I felt truly thankful to be alive. They told my parents to pray for me to survive one hour. And if I did, then to pray that I would survive two hours. And if I made it 12 hours, I would probably survive.

I have lived 52 years as a paraplegic. I have had a rewarding career, and I am a wheelchair runner currently training for my third marathon. I still feel today the way I did when I awoke in the hospital: thankful to be alive.

spinner image doctor martin luther king junior delivering a speech on the eve of his assassination
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., on the eve of his death.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

‘I’ve seen the promised land’

Clara Jean Ester, 74, a community organizer, on the last moments of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life

The church was packed. There were people standing in the aisles of the Mason Temple. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis, but there was a tornado watch, and he had been advised to stay at the Lorraine Motel. Ralph Abernathy would do the talking this night. There were so many people! Somebody called Dr. King and said, “The people didn’t come to hear Ralph. They came to hear you. You need to get dressed and come down here.” I was a junior at LeMoyne College in Memphis and very engaged in the movement. There was a sanitation strike going on, and Dr. King had come to lead a nonviolent protest in support of the workers. When he came to the Mason Temple that night to speak — April 3, 1968 — I was there. No one could know that this was the last speech he would ever make. He started to talk about his life story. In retrospect, it was like he was giving his own eulogy. He said he knew there had been threats on his life, but that didn’t matter. “Because I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he said, “and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” The feeling in the church when he said these words was indescribable.

The next day, Dr. King had catfish for lunch at the Lorraine Motel, and fellow organizer James Orange said that this catfish was so good, he wanted to treat everyone. I was at the Clayborn Temple, and I got in my car to drive to the Lorraine Motel, with my car full of people. When we got there, we headed for the lobby entrance. Dr. King came out of his room (just above us on a balcony), and I could see him talking to some people and smiling. Someone told him to go back and get a coat because it was going to get a little cooler at night. He turned, but Ralph Abernathy stopped him and said he would get the coat.

Suddenly, I heard what sounded like a truck backfiring and people saying, “Get down! Get down!” I took off up the stairs. Dr. King was flat on his back. I tried to grab his wrist to take his pulse. I was on the side where the wound was. He was losing a lot of blood. I could see his chest rising, so I thought, That’s a good sign. He’s still alive.

His eyes were open and looking upward. All I could think about was his speech from the night before, when he said, “I may not get there with you.” Soon police officers arrived and the ambulance got there with the stretcher. The police wouldn’t let us leave, and as we were waiting there, it came on the news that Dr. King was dead. I didn’t talk about it for a long time. I never went back to the Lorraine Motel until it became a museum. I picked up my life and kept on going. Every year, I celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday, because he was a gift from God. Every April 4, I mourn, because that gift was taken away.

spinner image fans reacting to bobby thomsons home run
Fans react to Bobby Thomson’s historic blast.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

‘The Giants win the pennant!’

George Hirsch, 87, founding publisher of New York magazine and chairman of New York Road Runners, on baseball’s greatest home run

On October 3, 1951, my friends and I were sitting in our homeroom class at New Rochelle High School, north of New York City — bored and frustrated 17-year-olds. That afternoon, at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Dodgers were taking on the New York Giants in a game that would decide the National League pennant. You could not overstate how important baseball was at that time in American culture. Or how important it was to us. My buddies and I had a brainstorm. What are we doing here in class? Let’s hit the road! We snuck out of school and headed for the Polo Grounds. New York was the center of the baseball universe. All season long, the Dodgers had held a commanding lead in the standings over the Giants. But the Giants salvaged their season with a 16-game winning streak. Incredibly, the regular season ended in a dead tie. I was a Dodgers fan, and these players were my heroes — Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo.

We stood in line two hours for our tickets and paid $2 apiece. The game was so close, all 34,000-plus fans held their breath through every pitch. But in the eighth inning, Sal Maglie, the Giants’ pitcher, weakened, allowing the Dodgers to take a 4-1 lead. I’ll admit, I celebrated too early. In the bottom of the ninth, the Giants scored a run and had two men on base when Bobby Thomson came to bat. On deck stood Willie Mays, the 20-year-old rookie for whom I would later name my son. The Dodgers summoned Ralph Branca from the bullpen to replace the starter, Don “Newk” Newcombe. Branca’s first pitch was a fastball down the middle. Thomson didn’t move. The time was 3:58 p.m. In his novel Underworld, Don DeLillo describes Branca’s next pitch: “Not a good pitch to hit, up and in, but Thomson swings and tomahawks the ball and everybody, everybody watches.”

“All I can remember was the pure shock of it,” recalls my friend Steve Goddard, sitting next to me at that moment. “And then I was crying.” My friend Buster Grossman, also sitting next to me, along with our buddy Greg Dillon, recalls hearing the now-famous refrain from a nearby radio, from the announcer Russ Hodges: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” We watched in awe as Thomson circled the bases, jumping up and down. I left the Polo Grounds that day feeling like I’d been struck by lightning, and Bobby Thomson’s home run has since become known as the shot heard round the world. Today, over 70 years later, I’m still friends with the three guys I went to see that game with. My late wife, Shay, gave me a photo autographed by Thomson and the pitcher Branca, which hangs in my office. I remember that night, when I got home, after the game. “Someday,” my father told me, “you’ll get over it.” Maybe someday I will.

spinner image firefighters cleaning the alaskan coast following the exxon valdez oil spill
Firefighters clean the Alaskan coast following the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma via Getty Images

‘This is the big one’

Gary Shigenaka, 68, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) emeritus scientist, on the Exxon Valdez spill

On March 24, 1989, I was working in the offices of NOAA in Seattle when I heard a commotion down the hall. People from our Hazardous Material Response Branch were scrambling, and I heard the head of that team say the words, “This is the big one.” That’s when I learned that the supertanker Exxon Valdez had run aground off the coast of Alaska. The hazmat team was dispatched as the first responders, and my scientific research group quickly followed. The federal government is not known for getting things done quickly, but in an amazingly short time, NOAA took an old mothballed hydrographic-survey ship called the Fairweather, which was outfitted to gather information for nautical charts, and turned it into a scientific-research vessel.

In May, I flew from Seattle to meet the ship in Cordova, Alaska, and our mission began. The first time I grasped the magnitude of this catastrophe was when I saw the Exxon Valdez, which had been moved from Bligh Reef, where it ran aground, to an anchorage off Naked Island. This ship was longer than three football fields.

Eleven million gallons of crude oil had been dumped into this pristine body of water. When you looked at Prince William Sound’s shoreline, you thought, How can this environment ever recover? My team began its work, moving through the sound on a launch, taking samples of water and fish. Early in our work in 1989, the crew aboard the Exxon Valdez noticed that schools of fish were swimming into a cargo space that had once held oil but had been ripped open. I was part of a team that boarded the ship to catch these fish and study them.

One of the most important things we discovered was that our cleanup methods were not what we had hoped. We needed scientific research, and I took over a program to study how the shorelines recovered not just from oil exposure but from how we remedied it. So, in effect, the Exxon Valdez determined the direction of my career for the next 20 years, studying how to respond better to spills in natural habitats. That research — not just by me, but by many others as well — changed the way first responders do their work.

I have a collection of memorabilia from the Exxon Valdez, including glasses used during the christening, with “Exxon Valdez, September 20, 1986” etched into the glass, and a jar of crude oil gathered off an Alaskan beach. When I look back, it amazes me how much the Alaskan ecosystem recovered. If you went now and kayaked off the shores of Prince William Sound, you’d never know this catastrophe happened here. The resiliency of the natural world continues to inspire me.

spinner image the beatles arrive in san francisco
The Beatles arrive in San Francisco in August 1964.
Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images

The Fab Four arrive in San Francisco

Jesse Bravo, 83, freelance photographer, on the day the Beatles first landed on the West Coast

I was a photojournalist, and a friend of mine was a writer at the San Mateo Times. The Beatles were coming into town for their first West Coast appearance.

“We’d like to cover the kids, the audience,” my friend told me. “It might be hard to do, but I’d love to have all four of the Beatles in one picture.”

I said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

So, I got to San Francisco Airport early. Already, there were packs of girls and some boys crowded onto the tarmac there, waiting for the plane to land. This was a different era, when people could walk onto the tarmac at the airport.

The Beatles landed, and they walked out of the airplane in single file, on a set of stairs rolled up to the plane. I noticed right away that they all looked tired. I thought, How am I going to get a photo of all these guys together?

So, I had an idea.

spinner image membership-card-w-shadow-192x134

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP The Magazine.

I walked up the stairs, blocking their way down. I said, “Guys, stop.” So they did. I said, “Guys, get together.” So they did. They hadn’t even gotten their feet on the ground yet.

And the manager, in the back, said something to them. They started laughing. I had one shot. I had the camera prefocused. The cameras were all manual in those days. And I knew that if I had any chance to get this picture, I was likely to be 8 to 10 feet away from them.

I always used a flash in my outdoor photography, to get the shadows out of the eyes and so forth. All the other photographers used 35s. I had a Rolleiflex camera with a strobe, and I had to carry a battery pack, a pretty good size in those days, for the strobe. The pack weighed about 6 or 8 pounds. It was heavy.

The date was August 19, 1964.

The Beatles were big. Huge. The phenomenon was new. They were the first ones to attract that many people.

I got to like their music later when they came out with Sgt. Pepper. But at the beginning, they just played the pop stuff. I got to appreciate who they were later.

At the Cow Palace, where they performed, I have pictures of the crowds, girls screaming and yelling. There’s a picture that I have on the floor; kids were throwing jelly beans at them. Because in England, they’d throw jelly babies when they performed. But in England, jelly babies were soft, like gummy bears. But here, jelly beans were hard, like rocks. They’d throw those at them. The floor was covered with them. I picked one up and put it in my pocket, and I gave it to my younger sister, who was a Beatles fan. She kept it for years.

We Still Remember the Miracle on Ice

The Miracle on Ice

When the U.S. beat the Soviets in 1980, Steve Yianoukos, 73, now a retired Clarkson University athletic director, had the best seat in the house

A couple weeks before the Olympics started in Lake Placid, New York, in 1980, I got a call from a friend who was in charge of the arena. “I’m short on Zamboni drivers,” he told me. “You want a job?” So, when the U.S. Olympic hockey team was scheduled to play the U.S.S.R., I was in charge of the ice. There was so much excitement, because nobody expected the U.S. team to get this far. The Soviets had the best team in the world, and they had not lost an Olympic game since 1968.

When the players came out for warm-ups — the Americans on one side of the rink, in red, white and blue, and the Red Army (as the Soviet team was called) on the other — that’s when the crowd started the chant: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” You have to remember, at that time the U.S. was at a low point. The Soviets were in Afghanistan. We had the hostages in Iran. And the American Olympic hockey team hadn’t been very good. I came out on the Zamboni and did the ice right up to the minute the game started. I’d been to the World Series, to Final Four basketball, to the Stanley Cup Final. But I’d never experienced anything like the intensity in that arena.

As the first period was played, the Zamboni was off the ice behind a curtain, so I couldn’t see much. But in the final second, when Mark Johnson scored for the U.S., tying the game 2-2, my job was to come out to do the ice. When Johnson scored that goal, the crowds were going ballistic. I did my job, motoring around the ice like it was any other game.

After the second period, I had another guy doing the ice, so I could sit and watch. Visualize an ice rink. There are double doors that open to let the Zamboni onto the ice, and to the right of that is this area where, during figure skating competitions, the announcers do their broadcast. This is where the skaters get interviewed. But for hockey games, the announcers Al Michaels and Ken Dryden were up in the press box. So, I had a seat in this area, right behind the Soviet goal.

The Red Army was leading, 3-2. When Mark Johnson scored the tying goal and Mike Eruzione scored the go-ahead, I was right behind the net. The ABC cameraman was a friend of mine. At one point, earlier in the week, I’d helped his wife get a seat for a game and he’d said to me, “I’m going to get you on TV.” So, when Eruzione scored the go-ahead goal — the most famous hockey goal in Olympic history — the camera cut from him to the U.S. bench, where you see coach Herb Brooks, and then directly to me. I’m wearing a red, white and blue sweat suit. You can see it on YouTube.

When the game ended, fans littered the ice with bottles, shirts and programs. There was another game scheduled, so out I go to clean the ice. But when I finally got outside that night, the scene in Lake Placid was like Mardi Gras. You have to remember how much people did not like the Soviets at that time. It seemed like all these other countries — the Swedes, the Germans, everybody — wanted the U.S. to win.

It remains one of the greatest sports upsets in history. That’s why they call it the Miracle on Ice.

spinner image Mark hamill Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in a scene from Star Wars Episode 4 A New Hope
Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in a scene from 'Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.'
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away

Artist Chris Canole, 75, on attending the 1977 premiere of Star Wars

In 1977, I moved from California to New York, to become the city’s first artist in residence, working for the Parks Department. I was new in Manhattan when the film critic at the Village Voice newspaper gave me a free ticket to this movie that was coming out. So, on May 25, 1977, I went to a matinee by myself.

That afternoon, I stood on line at the Loews theater in Times Square. The line was a half-block long, and I do not believe the theater had sold out. Nobody had any idea of what we were about to see. I’d seen George Lucas’ hit movie American Graffiti, so I figured his new movie was going to be pretty good. But there was no hype. None at all. A New York Times photographer was there taking photos, which I thought was odd. Why the photog? There didn’t seem to be anything newsy about what was happening. We were just a bunch of people lined up to see a movie.

I grabbed a seat near the front row. Then suddenly everything went dark, there was an explosion of sound, and the words “STAR WARS” appeared on the screen. Within one second, this film had already made cinema history. Nothing like this had ever been seen. Then the iconic title roll started. Here again was a movie first for me. We were all on the edge of our seats, focused on reading the title roll as the words moved up the screen, because there was a lot of information to digest. When the first Star Destroyer flew into vision, everyone went nuts. Then we were all dropped into this world, where a battle was occurring and soldiers were firing laser blasts from pistols, and here were these characters, C-3PO and R2-D2, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. We were transported into this fictional universe, and I was overcome with emotion. You have to realize: I was a 30-year-old man. But these were not the emotions of a 30-year-old man. These were teenage emotions.

When the movie ended, there were so many questions left unanswered, so I knew that there would be more films. That, too, was exciting — the idea that you weren’t just watching a movie but entering into a story that had no end in sight. Everyone in the theater wandered out without going anywhere. We were all just stunned. But when we got outside, I saw that now there was a line around the block. It seemed like the word had already gotten out — that this wasn’t just a movie but something indescribably more.

Ever since, Star Wars has played a role in my life. At one time I owned a cape worn by Alec Guinness in his portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi. My last name sounds the same as the Italian pastry “cannoli,” so people started calling me Obi-Wan Canole. In 2015, I created a character called Dude Vader, and I’ve attended hundreds of charity events in my costume, which has been trademarked by Lucasfilm.

This May 25th marked 45 years since that wonderful day. Just as I thought would happen back in 1977, the story hasn’t ended and the films keep coming. I feel so blessed to have watched it all happen from the moment it began.

spinner image space shuttle columbia blasting off
The space shuttle Columbia launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in 1981.
Heritage Space/Heritage Images via Getty Images

First flight of the space shuttle

Astronaut Robert Crippen, 84, on witnessing the flight of the Columbia, from within the cockpit

In 1973, I was assigned by NASA to a new program developing the space shuttle, which would be the first winged and reusable spacecraft ever built. Being a test pilot, I found the fact that this vehicle was going to have wings and was going to land on a runway appealing. For nearly eight years, I followed the development closely. So, you can imagine how excited Commander John Young and I were to launch the first space shuttle, Columbia. John was a veteran of the Apollo and Gemini programs and had flown in space before. I had not.

On April 12, 1981 — launch day — we awoke in crew quarters on the third floor of the Kennedy Space Center. They fed us too big of a meal — steak and eggs. Doctors did a cursory check to make sure we were healthy. We climbed into our space suits and went through all our protocols. When it was time, we went downstairs and a little van took us to the launchpad. Already, we’d had an aborted launch, so it wasn’t until the countdown got under one minute that I turned to John and said, “I think we might actually do it.”

At that point, my heart rate went up to about 130. We had been waiting a long time to do this. We knew that the whole world was watching, but we never focused on that aspect of it. This was a complicated vehicle, and we were focused on making sure the flight was successful. The final seconds seemed to stretch out forever.

“Three … two … one …”

Earlier rockets accelerated kind of slowly from the pad. Not so with these big solid rockets. When the Columbia launched, we felt an almost instantaneous G and a half. The solid rockets put out more power than we had planned for, so we flew significantly higher than the trajectory we had agreed upon. After about two minutes, we jettisoned the solid rockets. From zero to 17,500 miles per hour took about eight and a half minutes. But once you’re in orbit, up around 120,000 feet above the Earth, you don’t feel any sensation of speed. It’s a delightful feeling to be weightless and floating around. We were circling the globe every hour or so, and the view of Earth from the windows was indescribable.

That first space shuttle mission took a little over two days, as it was largely a test mission, to see if we could get this vehicle into orbit. When we were coming down, John took the control and we banked left to line up with the runway at Edwards Air Force Base. Through the window on his side, I could see that thousands of people were standing in the dry lake bed watching us.

“I hope they’re not standing on the runway, too,” I said.

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?