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Beacon Senior News

We asked seniors, "Where were you when..." Here's what they said.

Feb 22, 2021 03:40PM ● By Melanie Wiseman
where were you when the challenger exploded

Seniors recall memories that shaped each generation

Why do we retain some memories of events in our lives like they were yesterday, but instantly forget the name of someone we meet?

One of my earliest memories is of my 5-year-old self retreating from the losing end of a snowball fight with a bloody nose. At 10, my dad, two sisters and I shook hands with Richard Nixon and his wife Pat at a Milwaukee rally during the 1968 presidential campaign. Pat patiently listened as I explained that my mom had to stay home with my brother, who had the chickenpox. The next year, it was a big deal getting to stay up late and watch the moon landing.

But I couldn’t tell you what I did last weekend.

Scientists continue scratching their heads for concrete answers, but suggest that experiences that stir an emotion, the senses, beliefs, life goals and unresolved issues affect selective memory. Since we don’t file all the days of our lives in our brain in equal amounts, we only remember ones that were in some way meaningful to us.

Sounds of our youth

While Fred Crabtree claims he can’t remember a joke for the life of him, he holds on to certain vivid, timeless memories from his childhood.

“June 6, 1944, D-Day, I was 10 years old,” said Crabtree. “Our public school stopped everything, and stood in silent prayer for the best ending possible.”

Additionally, he recalled having front row seats for the Pasadena Rose Bowl Parade and ducking to avoid getting hit by the bass drummer’s mallet.

“I will never forget a Memorial Day celebration in 1944 when they played ‘Taps’ at the end of the ceremony,” said Crabtree. “A trumpeter was behind the bushes playing an echo.”


Sometimes all it takes is the first notes of a song to take us back to our youth. For my older sisters, their childhood infatuation was The Beatles. They were beyond excited when their heartthrobs appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time on February 9, 1964.

“I was so into The Beatles that three other girlfriends and I dressed as their look-alikes, made cardboard guitars and performed in front of our whole class,” said my sister Becky. “I was Paul McCartney!”

When news spread that John Lennon was shot in New York City in December 1980, Diana Woods was waitressing in Whitefish, Montana. 

“Everyone in the restaurant was crying,” said Woods. “It was very personal because The Beatles had such an influence on us. Business as usual stopped and we all reminisced about how much they meant to us.”

In August 1969, Alan Barrington and three friends piled into a Chevy van in Chicago and headed to Woodstock in upstate New York.

“All I had with me was what I had on—flip flops, shorts and a blue polka dot shirt,” said Barrington. “Luckily some cash, too.”

He distinctly remembered activist Abbie Hoffman jumping on stage during The Who performance. Guitarist Peter Townsend ended Hoffman’s ranting by hitting him over the head with his guitar, after which Hoffman fell off the stage.

A nation in shock

Some memories are shared collectively. I’ll never forget the Challenger explosion in 1986 when we lost the teacher, Christa McAuliffe. Or watching TV in disbelief as tanks mowed down student democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square just six months after I’d been there myself. 

 Don Aust was in his university dorm when word spread that President Kennedy had been shot. Students converged around a common area TV, frozen with the rest of the nation.

“We were entranced,” said Aust. “I may not remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I’ll always remember Walter Cronkite saying ‘President Kennedy has died.’”

Linda Rocco was attending a Catholic school at the time.

“All of the nuns were crying, and we had to get on our knees and pray,” Rocco recalled.

Likewise, mention Vietnam to men who graduated high school in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and their first instinct is a numeric reply.

“164,” said Barrington.

“351” said my husband, Dan. “342 for my brother.”

Their draft numbers are forever etched in their brain.

“A friend of mine’s draft number was 1,” said Dan. “Grand Junction businesses came out in support of him with lots of gifts. Then he didn’t pass the physical because of flat feet, even though he was a member of the state champion cross-country team.”

The day the world stopped

 On September 11, 2001, no one remembers where they were better than Michael Gallegos. He had just spent a long weekend enjoying the sites in New York, and the day before had walked the grounds of the Twin Towers under clear blue skies. On the morning of 9/11, Gallegos was at LaGuardia waiting to fly home to Grand Junction. The mass exodus, chaos and confusion that took place immediately after the announcement is forever ingrained in his memory. 

“It got so quiet after all the screaming and crying,” said Gallegos. “It was like a bad nightmare, yet it was all real. I had a clear view of each tower as they fell. It was hard to put into words the feeling that ripped through everyone watching the horrific scene.”

Nancy Barrington remembered a close friend escaping two close calls. First, she was bumped from the flight that ended up crashing into the Pentagon, and then 11 years later, she finished running the 2013 Boston Marathon minutes before the terrorist bombing.

As vast as our lives are, so too are the memories that shape who we are. While some moments are specific to our life stories, others can resonate with the music, culture and tragedies of the time. 

Asking the question “Where were you when…?” is guaranteed to stir up some fascinating conversations with family, friends and strangers alike.