Note: This article was originally published on my TypePad site.
(Ad from TV History) In a little row house in Philadelphia, we watched history tick by at the knee of my father. He would bellow, “this is History In The Making, you need to see this.” A pack of 10 children, we piled around a ~14” rabbit-eared Bakelite RCA black and white TV. We were right there as history unfolded. We watched with wonder and amazement – as things that could never happen – happened.
In, 1969, I was 5 years old. I sat piled together with my brothers and sisters to watch Neil Armstrong’s “one small step.” My father, a boisterous man known to talk to the television, watched in awed silence. The Eagle had landed! Who thought we could put a man on the moon?! Days later, my father was singing along with Dorris Day: “Que Sera Sera” and turned to me suddenly and asked “what do you want to be?” “I don’t know, Daddy, what should I be?” He replied “President of the United States!” He sat me down and told me about the greatest President we had. Someone named Kennedy. The one who started the race to the moon. The one who had said “Ask not what your country can do for you…” and acknowledged the need for equality. And if that boy could be president then by God, his own daughter sure could too! *I* could make history?!
That same year, my oldest brother joined the marines and shipped off to some place called Viet Nam. Television in the early 70’s defined my life. After all, my family spent 6+ hours a day for the next couple years looking at little boy soldier faces, searching to find my brother in the crowd. We watched the morning news, the afternoon news, the evening news and the nightly news. My father would lean forward in his chair, his chin jutted forward in a stern setting. His eyes squinting. After the news he’d wipe his hand over his eyes and sigh. Who thought he’d see more little boys go to war.
I was ~10 years old in 1973. A big year as I learned new words like “impeachment” and “Watergate,” which I naively thought was a “water gate.” Watching TV, I learned that power corrupts and saw the downfall of President who’s self-declared that he was NOT a criminal. During the evening news, my dad shouted at Nixon telling him about his oath of presidency, his honor, and the honor of the country. Then he dropped his chin to his chest and shook his head in disgust. Our president impeached?!
My father was Polish Catholic (and, of course, so were we). He was a first generation American. Many of my siblings, now married and with children, started considering themselves Italian from their husband’s side of the family. Back in the day we had a saying. If something was obvious, we’d say “Is the Pope Italian?” In 1978, I watched smoke the smoke change on TV. Black smoke. Black smoke. Black smoke. White smoke! My father explained that the college of cardinals came to a decision and the new Pope was, of all possible things, Polish. My father shouted at the television, pumping his fit in the air. Hoorah! A Polish Pope!
Older, on my own, I moved to California after graduating from college. It was 1986. I was 22 years old, an adult, and on my own. I was living in a hotel and daily watched TV with breakfast. Over Frosted Flakes and toast, I looked up at the TV the moment the Challenger exploded. I called home to my dad. We talked about it. Not just the explosion but goodness, a woman astronaut! My father reminded me that “History tells us that all things are possible.” He asked me to reconsider my career… it wasn’t too late, was I sure I didn’t want to be president?
In 1989 my father turned 77 years old. I happened to be back east for a business trip. The most amazing thing happened while we watched TV. We saw the fall of the Berlin wall. The end to the Cold War! My father explained in detail the building of the wall, the split in Germany, the nuclear policies of Ronald Regan. As the crowds broke through the wall, a gasp left his lungs and my father was propelled backward in his chair. “Now, I’ve seen everything.” (photo from TIME)
I moved back east in the early 90’s. Visited my parents monthly or quarterly. And in 1991, I happened to be sitting next to my father as America announced we were going to war. The Gulf War. Who knew a war could be so brief. For a couple months, my father and I talked together about the world and war. We also talked about technology, my specialty. Desert Storm was a feat of technology. My father reached over and put his hand on my cheek and patted it. “Well, even though you’re not president, I’m proud of you.”
At the time, I didn’t know that this would be the last time we watched “History in the Making” together. He died in 1994. After my father passed away I continued to be there, glued to the TV, anytime something historic showed up.
I was living in Paris in 2001 when my oldest sister, IM’d me…TURN ON THE TV NOW … and I switched on the TV just in time to watch a plane collide with Tower 2. My godson, who is her son, lived in an apartment in the next block. Hours trickled past as we watched TV together, IM’d and waited to hear if he was safe (he was). Over the next days, my friends in France asked why I appeared to be grieving as my family was safe. I said, “You don’t understand. That moment was historic. My country has just irrevocably changed.”
Mere months ago I watched the Inauguration of President Barack H. Obama on a 52” flat-screen TV mounted in a conference room in an office. The screen was meant for teleconferences and made you feel like you were in a meeting with the people on the screen. I rounded up people saying, “whatever side of this you are on, you really need to come see history in the making.”
August 2009, here I sit again. I am clinging to the TV. Stuck in another moment of history in the making. The door to the Kennedy era has been swinging shut for the last decade or so. Jacqueline Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy-Shriver, and Teddy Kennedy. I felt more impacted by this last historic moment than any of the others. This one hit home. I felt close to the Kennedy’s, though I never met them. We, Polish-Cathloic. They, Irish Catholic. We, originally 11 children. They, 9 children. A bunch, a clan. We, with David and Walter– brothers with disabilities. They with Rosemary–a sister with disabilities who ended up institutionalized. Our families both had suffered tragedies, lost battles, siblings, and parents. Suffered yet kept going forward, fighting harder, and never giving up. My father, Phil, used to motivate us with “llegitimum non carborundum.” I am certain that their father, Joe, had shared that expression too. In the same decade both our families became activists–fighting for equality for the under-privileged, the overlooked, the pushed aside. Teddy Kennedy represented my life history, all 45 years of it, both personal and societal.
A “moment in history” defines that distinguishable chasm between then and now. It may be decades in the making. There is, however, a pivot point when the doors of the past close and the future stands on the other side. Not here yet. Sometimes we stand on that precipice overcome by the sadness of what we’ve lost. Other times we stand in awe and in hope of what might be. Today I am sad. Tomorrow I will march toward hope.
You know what I learned from the Kennedy’s?
We are in charge of the history that is made.
What will your legacy be?