The Top Ten: “Where Were You When…?” Moments Of The Past 30 Years

We’re heading into a weekend of orgiastic patriotism, when on September 11, 2011, Americans will mark the ten-year anniversary of the most shocking national moment that anybody reading this blog remembers.

Any of our memories of 9/11 is doubtlessly colored by all that came after… the wars, the patriotic piety, the craven co-opting, the things that were justified in its name. 9/11 is now shorthand for all sorts of things, apt or not depending on the eyes of the beholder.

But, those who witnessed it, lived through it in some small way, will always hold on to a glimmer of the feeling they had when it happened, that mixture of shock and confusion that burned the moment into their brain. It wasn’t just the significance of the event or the level of the violence that makes them remember, it’s the way it instantaneously changed the way they saw the world.

9/11 is obviously the recent champion of “Where Were You When…” moments. But what else has stopped people in their tracks over the past 30 years?

10.) Kurt Cobain/ Dale Earnhardt Die:

If you drew a Ven diagram of Americans who cared about these two events, it would cover almost everybody with almost no overlap. Since the past 30 years has seen a constant process of stratifying Americans into demographic groups, it’s fitting to kick off with two deaths that meant everything to certain people and absolutely nothing to everybody else.

Where Was I?: Cobain: I was traveling back on a bus from a Habitat for Humanity Spring Break trip in Appalachia, cut short because a high school classmate was electrocuted in South Padre Island. When we stopped at a McDonald’s, my buddy Half-Brit Screenwriter spied a USA Today headline in the dispenser. It was a silent ride back for us.
Earnhardt: The Musky Canadian, the future Mrs. D.S.C. and I stopped for some beers in Lake Arrowhead. When the waitress came over, she looked at us forlornly and asked, “Have you heard about Dale?” We were confused.

9.) Princess Diana Dies

Another hallmark of the past 30 years… the super celebrity who’s only really famous for who they are. But, criticizing Diana for most women is like dissing Oprah, so it’s just not worth pointing out what a shallow, self-serving dilettante she was.

Where Was I? I was visiting the Ukranian Republican at Georgetown. It was surprising in the way it is when something that has always been there disappears. While waiting to get into The Tombs that night, a spirited chant of “Di Is Dead” broke out. Stay classy, Hoyas.

8.) John Lennon Dies

The moment when the Baby Boomer generation realized their youth was over (it always takes them longer to make these types of realizations). Especially shocking that he was taken down by such a walking cliche. (Note: I love that when Howard Cosell broke the news to the Monday Night Football audience, he kept emphasizing that Lennon was “probably the most famous Beatle”. He wanted to make clear that he wouldn’t interrupt the game for Ringo.)

Where Was I? I was 4, but I actually remember listening to the memorial on the radio with my parents… the moment of silence seemed excruciatingly long. Probably my earliest memory.

7.) The Berlin Wall Comes Down

More of a process than a single moment, but the live shots of regular citizens taking sledgehammers to the wall were unthinkable only six months before. An important lesson that when revolution comes, it comes more quickly than anybody could have predicted.

Where Was I?: In my parent’s living room, watching the endless coverage. Although, I have to admit that my memories are mixed with the hundreds of times I saw the Jesus Jones “Right Here, Right Now” and The Scorpions “Winds Of Change” videos.

6.) Reagan Gets Shot

For a country still raw about assassinations of the ’60s, the hours when it wasn’t clear if Reagan would make it were gripping. Unlike Kennedy, there was instantly available video of the shot, which was replayed over and over (the Zapruder film wasn’t seen publicly until 12 years later… try explaining that to a 20-year-old).

Where Was I?: I was 4 years old for fuck’s sake… obviously, Reagan didn’t rate with Lennon in my household. But I do remember painting him a get-well card and getting a thank-you letter in return. I was adorable.

5.) Magic Announces He Has HIV

Both shocking and perspective-changing. When Magic announced he was HIV-positive in 1991, he pretty much announced that he’d be dead in a couple of years. That it was coming from a black basketball star in his prime just wasn’t how we thought about HIV then. Say what you will about Magic (such as that “attained” probably isn’t the best way to describe catching HIV), but he publicly took it on, rather than disappearing or saying he had cancer or whatever as every other celebrity had done up to that point. It’s an underrated act of courage.

Where Was I? Walking through an empty hallway after school, when a classmate passed by and gleefully told me the news. Stay classy, Chicago sports fans.

4.) The Columbine Massacre

Still the undisputed champ of U.S. school shootings, this one was amplified by unfolding live on television. It also happened at a time when both gun rights and violence in media were on the agenda, so the illegally purchased guns and the Trenchcoat Mafia were both popular boogeymen.

Where Was I?: Sitting with the Lanky Hippy, the future Mrs. D.S.C., and our other housemates in Vermont. We sat there all day watching.

3.) The Challenger Explodes

Even back in 1986, interest in the Shuttle program was flagging. So NASA decided to send up a New Hampshire school teacher to get kids, parents, and teachers all excited. One faulty O-ring later, that definitely happened.

Where Was I?: My teacher stopped class and rolled in a television so we could all witness the launch. It was rolled out shortly thereafter.

2.) The O.J. Chase

I feel like it’s getting hard to explain to a 20-year-old just how fucking big the O.J. thing was. First of all, you have to remember how unbelievably famous he was for being a “good guy”. Second, you have to remember how small tabloid culture was before that. And third, and most importantly, you have to remember how raw racial tensions were in the U.S., and especially L.A., during those years.

Where Was I?: The Ukranian Republican and Half-Brit Screenwriter make the list again… we were with a group of guys trying to watch the NBA Finals. Greatest night of television ever.

1.) 9/11

One of the top-three most shocking moments of the century, between Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy Assassination. Anything that can be said will be this week.

Where Was I?: I had just moved back to Chicago, and was living in an apartment without television or internet. That afternoon, I decided to take a break from moving in to call my buddy the Quiet Realtor to say I was back in town. He said, “I didn’t expect to hear from you today,” which seemed odd. It took at least ten minutes before I wrapped my head around what the fuck he was talking about, at which point I headed to the nearest bar to watch their TV. Hence, I became the last person in America to find out about 9/11.

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