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Monday, August 25, 2008

Yet another meme

Bob Innes has asked me to have a go at the latest meme to be doing the rounds in which we are asked to say what we were doing during some significant historical events. As it is still raining then here goes:

Princess Diana's death - 31 August 1997
I was in bed. The radio alarm went off at 6.30am or some other such unearthly hour so I went downstairs to watch the coverage on the television. The tragedy took place during the Assembly Referendum campaign, which was promptly suspended. I had planned to deliver leaflets that day and went out briefly but then changed my mind and came back into the house.

Margaret Thatcher's resignation - 22 November 1990
I was at home watching the television. To be honest Mrs. Thatcher's brief appearance in Paris shortly before in which she vowed to go on and on, despite not having secured enough votes to win in the first round, sticks in the memory more.

Attack on the twin towers - 11 September 2001
I walked into the Swansea East by-election headquarters in Woodfield Street in Morriston and the television was on showing the dreadful events as they developed live. I watched for a bit and then went home where I spent most of the rest of the day glued in horror to the TV.

England's World Cup Semi Final v West Germany - 4 July 1990
I was watching at home. Somehow I just knew before they were taken that England would lose the penalty shoot-out.

President Kennedy's Assassination - 22 November 1963
I was just three years old and have no memory of this event whatsoever. I do however clearly remember the shooting of John Lennon on 8th December 1980. I was in the Student Union offices in Swansea University when somebody came in and told me. I spent the rest of the day playing Beatles and John Lennon music and delivered a small tribute on my University Radio Show.

Wasn't born when JFK was assassinated, but I can just about remember Neil Armstrong getting off the Eagle during the moon landings.
Yes, I'm surprised the first moon landing wasn't included. The night the Berlin Wall started coming down sticks in my memory as well.

And what about the 30th July 1966? I was sitting in Roddie McKee's borrowed car in a car park in Reading, listening on the car radio, on the way to a pop festival. In retrospect, the Scotland supporter was quite generous.
In re Attack on the twin towers - 11 September 2001

At the time I was getting ready to go to work across the street from my 42nd floor apartment building to my employer’s office on the 38th floor of a building built over Chicago’s Northwestern train station. One of the windows of my lounge faced Sears Tower which was about 3 or 4 blocks west of my apartment building (Presidential Towers, “PT” as it is often called, a huge complex made up of four 50 storey apartment buildings covering two city blocks along with a running track, and a swimming pool blah blah.

I was obviously living for a time the American Dream, which unfortunately was about to come to a crashing abrupt end that was about to have a big impact on the US economy and was going to send America to war).

I had my TV on but had turned the sound off earlier while I was on the phone for a few minutes making long distance calls to Wales trying to track down my Welsh mother, I had rang her new place in Splott, Cardiff, but got no reply so I was ringing her best friend’s house in Splott where she often went for a chat to see if she was there and so OK.

My attention was also focused on downing a quick cup of Tetley tea and searching for things that I needed to take to my office on the 38th floor in another high- rise building just across the street. I turned off the soundless TV and headed out. Two express elevator rides later I was at work and walked straight to the firm's caf to grab a cup of coffee before heading to my office. Even as a wee law clerk I had my own office and a share of a secretary – something that would never have happened to me back home in the UK.

When contemplating, I would sometimes swivel my chair around and look out to watch the planes take off and land in the distance – I could just make out the runways at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (I could see Midway, Chicago’s second airport, from one of the windows in my apartment – I could make out planes taking off and landing. Then reality check. Debbie, the firm's office manager, seemed puzzled that I was in the office, she said: "Haven't you heard about the World Trade Center?" I replied: "No, but it's designed to take a hit from an airliner."

She quickly replied: "That's what's happened." I was in shock. I went to the firm's main conference room. There were a couple of lawyers who hadn't left - they there watching the TV. Then the first tower collapsed (I didn’t know for sure if it real - one of the lawyers told me it was real alright – he talked like he had grit in his teeth, probably seen service). It was surreal.

I headed out back across the street to my apartment building – which was only a few blocks away from Sears Tower – about a block or so from Chicago’s Union Street Station. It was an ideal local for me, just minutes away from my nighttime law school and my employer/office was just across the street, and two of Chicago’s biggest train stations were within a block or so of my apartment building, the other two Chicago main line stations were about ten minutes walk away.

Downtown Chicago around Sears Tower was being evacuated. Sears Tower is the largest tallest skyscraper in the USA and still one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world so you can only imagine the number of people on the street glued to cell phones and looking back up at Sears Tower to see if a plane was about to crash into it.

There was a shocking rumour on the street that a United Airlines airliner was "missing" air traffic control had "lost it" - for Chicagoans this was a VERY serious issue because Chicago O’Hare was United’s hub so naturally people thought it had flown out of Chicago's O'Hare and was flying back to crash into Sears Tower so the terrifying thoughts on the street were that the flight was heading right back to crash into Sears slap bang in the West Loop office district of downtown Chicago(where I lived and worked), but as it turned out the missing United flight in fact flew out of an East coast airport and later crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania (PA). In the aftermath the thought was it was heading for either the White House or more likely the nation's Capitol building (i.e., Congress) - why? Because The Mall/Constitution Avenue would ack like Columbia Pike - a line to fly along right into the Capitol building (yes, spelt "Capitol").

Back in my 42nd floor apartment I sipped tea and stared up at Sears Tower (stared up being the right words, Sears dwarfed my 50 storey apartment building). I wondered if this was the start of World War Three. A Law school friend with a nice suburban home were ringing me, one, he was (still is) my favourite American friend – we attended the same law school and we often sat next to each other in the same law classes and studied together in the school’s law library, Tom told me to head straight out to his place – he must have thought that Sears Tower was next and he was right, I lived very close to Sears Tower (I walked past it mostly on my way to law school). Just then the second WTC collapsed live on TV – while still talking to Tom. Tom is now a seasoned prosecution lawyer in Chicago, one of his work colleagues lost his daughter when the WTC came down, she was (if memory serves) just 22 years of age, probably her first job out of undergrad college. Her body was never recovered. She was gone along with nearly three thousand other souls. Then news came in of the attack on the Pentagon buillding, that a plane crashed into it. Then later more news as another building on fire and close to the WTC collapsed. The fire service had given up on it.

But I decided to sit it out – I figured Sears Tower was a much tougher building than the WTC towers, it was made up of nine tubes stuck together – an engineer explained to me soon after arriving in Chicago how it was constructed, I figured if the missing airliner turned up and struck Sears there would be stuff falling in the streets near my building, and maybe then I would do what I told Tom I might do, pull one of my two bikes out of storage and cycle ten miles or so west of Sears Tower and rough it for a while, maybe cycle as far out as DeKalb area of Northern Illinois – I knew people there who would take me in at a drop of a hat, I had helped one of their two young daughters get the right treatment for a serious medical disorder, for a time I was married to her sister.

I learnt later that my Welsh mother in Cardiff was trying to ring me, but couldn't get through, the international lines were not working properly. She wanted me to come home.

Meanwhile, I cranked my neck and stared up at Sears Tower and wondered if the sleeping giant (America) would awaken like in Frank Herbert's DUNE.

But this wasn't a dream, a movie or a piece of fiction, it was reality.

Office workers were back next day. For months afterwards I would bump into people out on the streets around where I lived – faces from law school, friends of friends, and I would ask them, ‘What it was like when the WTC was hit” – if they were at work, stupid questions, but I had to know how they reacted. It was like some kind of weird communal sharing of grief and shock. When I moved to work near Washington DC, near the Pentagon building I asked new friends the same questions and learnt that the new law building I was working in was right below the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, I found out that the plane flew down Columbia Pike where the law office was located and nearly took the roofs off a couple of midrise apartment buildings it was so low just before making the turn and flying into a side of the Pentagon.

It was no cruise missile, it was an airliner – my new workmates had heard it – it was so noisy it sounded it like it was just above the building’s roof. People along Columbia Pike (CP) saw it and heard it. A civilian airline pilot on stay-over in one of CP’s midrise buildings saw the airliner turn. One person saw it come over the Military Annex buildings at the end of Columbia Pike just seconds away from hitting the Pentagon.

After hearing this stuff I looked at the map of Arlington and spotted why the airliner made the turn, had it flow straight along Columbia Pike (which it was obviously using as as a form of snooker cue since it terminated a few hundred yards west of the Pentagon building, had it flown straight along and from CP it would have flown into the west facing corner of the and been sliced in two or struck the Pentagon a glancing blow. To hit an exterior sidewall head on it had to make a turn. Loads of people said the turn didn’t make sense – all they had to do was look at the Pentagon building and its relation to CP.
PS - all flights out of Chicago's two big airports were stopped, the sky emptied of planes; planes were only landing, not taking off - I could see Midway from my apartment - planes were not taking off from Midway. The sky was for the first time in decades devoid of planes. Mayor Daley later banned flights close to Sears Tower. I had friends working in Sears - they were very nervous working there - same goes for folks working in the WTC's sister building facing the northern edge of Chicago's Grant Park (same design, same architect, same construction as the two tallest towers at WTC in NYC. Post 911 I was nervous going into that building when delivering legal papers to a law firm there, same law firm that a current prospective first lady once worked at. I wondered how people stayed working in that building. But they had to, bills to pay, families to raise, etc.
Death of Diana

Saw the report on TV that night, and thought what a tragedy for the families involved, especially for two teenage boys who had lost their mother, and for a man to lose his eldest son.

Thatcher resignation

It is the 'We fight on..we fight to win' remark as she is walking down the Embassy steps that has lodged in my memory too. I remember thinking that I hoped she did just that, and that she did indeed win, as the TBW factor (remember that) was growing all the time. Nothing like the Tories in disarray to cheer one up!

WTC attack

I was in work, and got a phone call from a friend telling me to turn on the TV. I could not believe what I was seeing, and stood in front of the TV for minutes on end with my hands clasped at the back of my head - transfixed with horror. I kept the TV on, and kept returning to it time and again, always with the same feeings of horror and disbelief intensified by the fact that it was a beautiful sunny day here in Swansea as it was in NY.

I remember thinking three things. First, running through a mental list of family and friends trying to recollect if any were likely to be in NY that day; second, that this was clearly a terrorist attack and that the world would change irrevocably as a consequence; and third, Herbert Morrison's words from his eyewitness account of the Hindenburg disaster "Oh, the humanity!" as people leapt from the towers. That was the point I found myself weeping.

England's WC semi-final 4/7/90

Watched it at home. Knew England would lose all the way through. They didn't disappoint.

Kennedy's assassination

I was eleven. I can remember coming home from school, and hearing it on the BBC Home Service 6 o'clock news. It felt like the end of a dream. While I obviously didn't understand the politics, the charisma and sincerity of the man, the sense of a new direction, had communicated itself. I felt bereft. The feeling was even worse five years later with the assassination of Bobby. This time I understood the politics better, and this time I cried. Both men remain my principal political heroes to this day.
I was ten, and watching the TV with my mother when the news came through about JFK.
My mother got up to switch off the set, advising me that "Os ma'r Rysians nath o, mi fydd 'na Ryfel Byd" (if the Russians did it there'll be a World War.)

Fast-forward three decades and I'm watching the demolition of the Berlin wall on TV with my young kids and confidently predict that it meant there'd be no more World Wars.

I've since given up making predictions.
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