Sunday, 11 September 2011

Everyone remembers

I'm of a generation for whom it used to be said 'everyone can remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated'.

President and Mrs Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade prior to those fatal moments
I know where I was. It was November 1963. I was in bed. It was a Saturday morning Sydney time and I was a fourteen years' old schoolboy awaking to the prospect of having to play a game of school cricket that day. As was my practice as a teenager, I had my transistor radio by my bed which I tuned to my favourite station at the time. I immediately noticed that the station was broadcasting short wave rather than it's usual Saturday morning music. Short wave was a very distinctive, very distant type of sound in those days and it was so unusual to be hearing this sound on a local station on a Saturday morning that I immediately thought something must be very wrong. After a few minutes I realised the station was broadcasting directly from the USA - very unusual in those days - and that they were broadcasting the news of the assassination of President Kennedy.

My father was taking a shower and I banged on the bathroom door and shouted to him that 'the President has been assassinated'. I don't think that I even said it was President Kennedy; just the President. Australia doesn't have a President so in a sense I could have been referring to any President but those were the days in Australia when 'the' President could only mean one office holder.

In those days of comparatively ancient communications - nothing like today's instant global coverage - it was stunning to see, as my father drove me to the cricket a couple of hours later, the Saturday morning footpath newspaper banners already announcing the assassination and the live television coverage from Washington of the funeral by all the networks a few days later seemed like futuristic science fiction to my young mind.

That was almost forty-eight years ago and most of the world's population today was not alive then. Many would not even know who President Kennedy was let alone understand the impact of his death on people around the world. Perhaps think of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and you get some idea.

Fast forward to September 2001...

Attacks on New York's World Trade Centre
I was in bed (again!). I was in hotel in Canberra and it was nearly midnight. Earlier that day I had flown to Canberra for a national conference to be held the next day. I had dined with colleagues who had flown in from the other state capitals and we had adjourned for the night to our respective rooms. As is my practice I had the radio on snooze and was drifting off to sleep. Interesting how the radio remains a feature of my lifestyle over all these years.

The program I was listening to sleepily was Nightlife with Tony Delroy, a nationally broadcast program, that I also used to fall asleep to in Sydney and as usual Delroy was speaking to the nation's newspaper editors about their front pages for the following morning. Almost without exception these papers printed local issues which naturally varied from state to state. So even in my sleepy condition it dawned on me that something odd was happening. To each of the editors in turn, Delroy made mention that they would need to change their intended front page and then there was something about a plane crash.

When I realised that this odd conversation was being repeated over and over I decided to switch on the television to see whether it could throw light on what they were discussing. Those were the days when it was still relatively unusual to view CNN on Australian television but that was what was being screened with those awful, now infamous, images from New York.

I watched those images, a mix of awestruck and horrified, until about 4am when I thought I better have some sleep before our conference. All the time I was paralysed with indecision whether to ring and wake my parents in Sydney with the news and similarly whether to wake my colleagues elsewhere in the hotel. In the end I woke no-one.

Finally in the morning I made my way to the hotel's breakfast room where I found that my colleagues had also spent the night glued to the television. All of them filled with the same mix of horror, awe and indecision as myself.

That morning in the breakfast room was one of the strangest of my life. I have rarely experienced almost total silence in such a crowded public place as I did then. There were no words to describe, let alone explain, what we had witnessed.

I hope that there will be no more events in my lifetime that everyone remembers where they were when they learnt about them.

CORRECTION: Thanks to James (see comments) for the information that Nightlife on that September evening was probably hosted by Simon Marnie in Tony Delroy's absence.


  1. Hi Victor, actually Tony wasn't on air that night - he was in the United States at the time. He was also in Asia during the tsunami and in England when Diana died. It's a bit of a joke at work that if you want to avoid disaster, check Tony's travel plans first. Yes, seriously to all of the above. I'm reasonably sure it was Simon Marnie who was on air that night. James

  2. Well there you go, James; that's how sleepy I was!

    Thanks for that correction about the host that night.

  3. Maybe it is because we are of a similar age, but this is the best post I have read yet about the 9/11 anniversary. I am slightly too young to remember Kennedy's assassination, but I feel like I remember it, having seen the footage so many times.