If someone asked you where you were and what you were doing on a certain day, would you know? Could you give them exact details and describe how the day progressed? For most people, the answer is probably no, but there are some days that are unforgettable for one reason or another. For those days, it’s likely that you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing.
For many millennials, Sept. 11, 2001, is the first time they paid attention to the news. They can tell you how old they were at the time, who their teacher was that year, what happened as parents started coming to school to take their kids home, and recount over and over again how images of the towers collapsing are seared into their minds. That day, and the months and years that followed, a lot of millennials became more aware of the world — and our country’s place in it — through news coverage.
Undoubtedly, the attacks that took place that day are also unforgettable for people of different generations, however they also have their own first memories of a news event. But for those generations, we wondered if there was a common event that stood out for each of them, or if there was one event everyone would remember. We wanted to know, so we asked.
It turns out there’s no one major event for each generation. Still, a lot of the events were historic milestones that had a lasting effect on the country and, at times, the world.
The Columbine Shooting
April 20, 1999
When Brynn Hoffman was a sixth-grader, her older sister was a freshman at Columbine High School, which was about a quarter of a mile away from the family’s home in Littleton, Colo. On April 20, 1999, Hoffman remembers her teacher getting a panicked phone call from her daughter, who was a journalist. Reports were coming in about a shooting at the high school, but at the time, no one knew exactly what was happening.
Eventually Hoffman’s school went into lockdown mode. Three hours later her mom came to pick up her and her brother up from school, and her sister was in the car. She had been in one of the first groups to get out of Columbine, where two students killed 13 people before killing themselves.
“We went home and we were very close to the high school, and so we had all of the news coverage and I remember watching it on the TV and everyone trying to figure out what was happening and what was going on because they just didn’t have any context for it, they just didn’t know what was going on,” Hoffman says.
She says the news coverage was chaotic, with initial reports being wrong, and not being able to get near the school despite the proximity. Hoffman now works as an outreach coordinator for a non-profit in Raleigh, N.C., but she says what happened that day has affected her life.
“I think that I have really, really strong feelings about gun control, and that I just don’t think that civilians should be able to purchase guns and I have a very, very harsh view of that and I think that that’s part of it,” she says. “I also think that community really came together in the wake of all of that and that high school became an incredibly inclusive place to be.”
The Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal
As the details of the improper relationship between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were unfolding, Anna Herriman was in the fourth grade in Portland, Mich. She says she remembers the adults around her talking about it, but being “hush, hush” about it and just telling her that the president had done something bad and then lied about it.
“I remember learning more about it when an article came out in Time magazine for Kids that got sent to our school,” Herriman says. “I just thought back about how awkward that would have been to write about for a child’s perspective.”
Herriman says when she learned the details later she was shocked at what had happened.
“I really felt like ‘Oh wow, this is really something scandalous to have happened by the president of the United States.’ ”
Now 28, she lives in Marquette, Mich., and works as an accountant for an environmental engineering firm. Herriman is a Democrat and says her politics align a lot with Bill Clinton’s policies, but doesn’t agree morally with the things that happened between him and Lewinsky.
Princess Diana’s Death
Aug. 31. 1997
When Rachel Wilson went downstairs on Aug. 31, 1997, she found her mother crying in the office of their Carlton, Ore., home. Her mom told her that Princess Diana had died, but at the time Wilson was 8 and thought Diana was just another Disney princess.
“I’d never seen my mom so shaken up before. It kind of hit me at the time,” Wilson says. “Looking back retrospectively, I see how much Princess Diana meant to my mom and how much my mom related to Diana. At the time I didn’t have any attachment, but looking back it was the most memorable news event to me. Just seeing the humanity that Princess Diana had and the lives that she touched and the connections she made with people on a very real level.”
Wilson is 28 now and living in Johnson City, Tenn., working as a design coordinator for a men’s fashion brand. Recently, the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death passed and Wilson said she found herself thinking about Diana’s humanitarian efforts, but was disappointed that others were still talking about the size of the princess’ waist.
The Destruction Of The Berlin Wall
Nov. 9, 1989
Rachael Armstrong was 5 years old in Pennsylvania when she remembers being struck by a color photograph at the top of the newspaper.
“It was people on a Ferris wheel… My parents were talking and talking and talking and I asked them about the picture, and that’s when they told me that something really good had happened and people who used to not be able to do fun things like go to a carnival could do that now.”
It was Nov. 9, 1989, and the Berlin Wall had been struck down.
“And the reason that they were so excited about it, a lot of my mother’s family is from Germany. I was actually born in West Germany in 1984. My dad was in the military so he was stationed there. So it was very meaningful to them. … I just remember that clearly. A wall coming down had no meaning to me at that point, but that picture of people on a Ferris wheel and being able to do something fun that they didn’t used to be able to do.”
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Collapses
Oct. 17, 1989
Rachel Buckle, a 34-year-old financial specialist who currently lives in Washington state, still won’t drive across a double-decker bridge. That’s because when she was 6, she had her first news memory — the San Francisco-Oakland Bay double-decker bridge collapse.
“I was just some little kid toddling around in my grandmother’s living room… I remember looking at the TV and I saw all these cars and mangled concrete … and I remember seeing the rebar and the crushed cars and people were crying and screaming and there was smoke and people had search dogs, I mean it was just utter chaos. And I was just horrified that these structures that everyone had traveled on had completely crushed them. It failed them.”
The fear she felt as a 6-year-old has stuck with her. When Buckle went to Manhattan, she was too afraid to ride on double-decker buses or trains.
“I still will not go on any kind of double-deck anything… Scarred me for life.”
Oct. 14, 1987
When 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell down an abandoned water well in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas, she would be trapped there for 58 hours as people around the nation watched crews work to rescue her.
Watching that coverage unfold is the first memory Malissa Perkins Summers has of seeing news happen. At the time, Perkins Summers lived in Brownsville, Texas.
She remembers thinking — as a 6-year-old — “‘Oh why can’t they get that baby out of the ground? What’s taking so long? What’s going on? Why can’t they just throw a rope down there?’ I don’t think at the time I understood that she was a baby either,” she says. “I remember them sending a bottle down the hole and I was thinking, ‘Well, why are they sending a bottle?’ I had a baby brother at the time, but I would have been too young to understand. I just don’t think I understood how deep the hole was either.”
At 37, she now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and works as an attorney. As she grew up she says she understood the logistics of what happened, but did wonder why a well like that would be uncovered in a residential area.
The Challenger Explosion
Jan. 28, 1986
Cassandra Geib, 43, is an operations planner with a chemical company in Swansea, Ill. When she was in grade school in O’Fallon, Ill., her classroom was abuzz about the space program. Part of that was due to her teacher, who had applied to be a part of the Challenger space mission. While he wasn’t accepted, Geib says he spent months educating the class about NASA and the launch scheduled for Jan. 28, 1986.
“We had televisions in the classroom and we were watching it, and you know, me and all the other students were really psyched to see it. I had never seen one before, so I didn’t know exactly what it was supposed to look like, but when we saw that explosion, I knew something was not right. The whole classroom just got real quiet and the teacher did too.”
The shuttle launched, but 73 seconds after it left the ground, it exploded. Geib says after the explosion, “there was just this weird kind of depression that consumed us all.”
She says it’s a foggy memory now, but one that has stayed with her and that it was her first experience with seeing an unexpected loss of life.
“I was very aware at that age then of the frailty of life and that something that is supposed to be so exciting with exploration, can end tragically no matter how well you plan and no matter how many well-educated engineers you have working for you,” Geib says. “If it had not been a teacher on that ship, I probably wouldn’t have felt an impact in the way that I did … but knowing that there was this teacher on there and this was just supposed to be a one-time experience and knowing that she had never really gotten to fulfill it and had died tragically in it — I do remember thinking about her students watching it and how they felt in the moment.”
Reagan Assassination Attempt
March 30, 1981
The first news event 43-year-old environmental scientist Hilary Stevens of Washington, D.C., remembers is when she was 7 and living in Fairfax County, Va.: the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.
She was in the backseat of a car with her friend Susan after elementary school, when she remembers Susan’s mom becoming very upset. She told the two girls to quiet down and turned the radio up — something bad had happened.
“When an adult becomes alarmed, it’s always very shocking to a little kid. So we immediately stopped talking and we were trying to figure out what was going on and she told us that the president had been shot… We couldn’t really hear the radio very well, so she was relaying to us what she was hearing and she said ‘Oh my God. It sounds like he’s been shot in the chest. He may not survive that.’ It was shocking. Frightening. Any time as a kid, the adults around you become upset you pick up on it very quickly. And despite the fact that we lived very close to Washington… when they were talking about where these events were happening it wasn’t very meaningful to us as kids. It was just picking up on the shock of the adults around us and honestly we were only in the car for 5 or 10 minutes.”
“Her mom dropped me off at home and I ran inside to talk to my parents about what was going on, and this was long before the days of the Internet, so everyone was just putting on the radio and the television to try and get news and find out what’s going on. And I remember my parents talking in very somber tones about it. And as parents do, trying to explain a baffling and horrifying event to young children. I have young children now and it just gives me a totally different perspective [on] what it’s like to try and explain something like this to a kid who just doesn’t really wrap their head around what’s going on.”
The HIV Epidemic
Joe Franklin is a 43-year-old mental health counselor in Illinois. He’s studying to become a nurse. His first memory of a news event, when he was about 8 years old, was “wrapped up in what [he] knew [his] sexual identity to be as a young child.”
“As a kid I had really long blonde hair and I was always mistaken to be a girl … When I was a little kid, I knew that I was gay. I just didn’t necessarily have words to put to it. I was aware of all the negative words: f*****, pansy, light in the loafers. I just knew those words applied to me somehow. And I distinctly remember sitting on the floor.”
The carpeting of his family home was brown, and there was a ’70s-style cloth frumpy couch.
“I was always the one who had to get up to change the channels on the console TV, and we watched the nightly news every night. And I just clearly remember that news story of this gay man dying of this disease.”
Franklin’s first news memory was the HIV epidemic.
“I just remember one of my parents saying something like, ‘They deserve that.’ And not necessarily in a horribly malicious way, but in a really matter of fact way. And I still remember to this day what that meant to me. I just right away connected the dots. Like, I’m different. This is who I am. And this is what happens to all gay men.”
John Lennon’s Murder
Dec. 8, 1980
John Lennon was just returning to his New York City apartment with his wife, Yoko Ono, when he was shot four times in the back. Later that night, Lennon died from his wounds.
Six-year-old Helen Hewetson was living near Manchester, U.K., the night Lennon was shot.
“[The Beatles] were the first band I ever knew and the first band I could name all the people in and all that and they were very influential,” she says. “I remember it being a really big deal and just everybody being aware. It was just the first event of my life that I remember happening. I just remember the gravitas of the situation was notable even to a little kid.”
Now 43, Hewetson runs a travel agency in Toronto, but says Lennon’s death was the first one she was aware of: “It was my first consciousness that important people could [die.]”
Mount St. Helens Erupts
May 18, 1980
Emily Craddick was a 3-year-old in Oregon when Mount St. Helens erupted. It was her first-ever memory of a news event, but it was also her first memory ever. It was a really clear day when her folks started heading out into the street. They didn’t watch a newscast or listen to the event on the radio. Instead, they saw it firsthand.
“That event was actually my first memory. I don’t remember seeing the mountain explode, but I remember vividly my parents’ and my neighbors’ reaction to it. There was a lot of everybody gathering in their yards, people trying to go around the yard to get a good look, go out into the street to get a good look. I just remember a lot of movement and people congregating and excitement. I wasn’t scared, I remember that. I remember the excitement… I remember thinking ‘Oh this is so cool. Look, all my neighbors are here.’ It was just something different.”
President Jimmy Carter’s Election
Nov. 2, 1976
Julia Latham, 48, was 6 years old and living in Hawaii when Jimmy Carter was elected.
“My family at the time [was] Republican. And I just remember as a 6-year-old kid having this feeling that you get when your team loses something. This dread and disappointment, but I also remember being concerned. Not fearful, but concerned that this was a bad thing for our country and the wrong thing had happened.”
Latham was a Navy brat, and her father was worried that President Carter wouldn’t be a strong military leader, which unsettled Latham. Even at 6, she says she worried it might not be good for her family.
“When I was 9, I wrote President Carter a letter because I was upset that we had terminated our official relationship with Taiwan in favor of a diplomatic relationship with China… To my 9-year-old self it sounded unfair. You don’t give up one friend to get a better friend… I had a sense that that was an unfair and an unkind thing to do.”
But since then, Latham has changed her opinion on Carter.
“The irony now, is that I view President Carter as a compassionate and wise statesman who has done amazing things internationally and nationally. No one in my immediate family is Republican anymore… My politics from my 6-year-old self have changed a lot, but I’ve always been very interested in what’s going on in the world and what the U.S.’s impact is globally.”
Aug. 9, 1974
During the summer of 1974, Roy Anderson was 8 and vacationing with his grandmother in Dauphin Island, Ala. One night in August, Anderson’s grandmother fixed him a dinner of catfish and black-eyed peas, then sat him down in front of the TV and turned it on. She told him it was a moment he should always remember, and he watched President Richard Nixon resign from office.
“I didn’t understand the context of it at the time because I was very young,” Anderson says. “I had seen some moon launches and stuff, but that was the first time I had had an adult try to relay to me the gravity of the situation, so that always stuck with me.”
At the time Anderson says he didn’t really have a lot of feelings about it and didn’t understand completely what was going on, but as he got older he looked back and saw it as a defining moment for his generation.
Now 50, he lives in Pensacola, Fla., and works as a sports writer and editor.
“I think I always had a love for news growing up after that,” Anderson says. “I think maybe that set me up to try to be more aware of events going on and to tune in more and try to get context historically for the things that were happening around me.”
The Watergate Scandal
June 17, 1972
Marian Cole, 51, was one of the only 8-year-olds she knew following the Watergate scandal. Unlike many of the other stories NPR received, Cole’s first news memory wasn’t a single event, it was the whole package. She remembers the hearings on TV and the stories in the paper, all the way to Nixon’s eventual resignation.
“Back then they showed the hearings on TV in the middle of the day and I remember my mother being upset that it interrupted her soap operas. I was a pretty precocious kid at the time, I sort of started reading at 2 or 3, so by then I was already reading the papers. I just remember everybody had such strange names like Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Archibald Cox. I had never heard such names before. And they talked about plumbers. I didn’t know what plumbing had to do with the government.”
Cole says her confusion didn’t end at the stories in the paper or the hearings on TV. Soon, she would start learning about a new president, one she had never heard of: Gerald Ford.
“I remember when Nixon resigned. It was in the summer and we went to get ice cream afterward.”
The Moon Landing
July 16, 1969 – July 24, 1969
Sarah Diebel, 51, was 3 years old when she saw the contrast of the black and white moon on her TV, and the black and white moon from her porch in St. Paul, Minn. Her first memory of a news event was the moon landing.
“Being in the living room at night with the black windows and this black and white TV. And then the next image is being out on the screen porch and looking out at the black and white moon. So these two black and white images are kind of connected in my mind. And so that, essentially is what I remember, those two images. But then there’s also a sort of feeling connected with it as well. And I think at the time I didn’t really understand the momentous event that was taking place, but it was just this very kind of comfortable feeling with the family at home.”
To Diebel, it sprouted something she found to be an interesting memory that repeated throughout her entire childhood and into her adulthood: watching the news.
“Through my entire childhood, and leading up to the person I am today, watching the news was always a very important event growing up.”
The Beatles’ British Invasion
Feb. 9, 1964
Growing up in Buena Park, Calif., Debra Twardowski didn’t have a lot of connection to the outside world. She had a transistor radio and her family got the newspaper, but there wasn’t a lot of coverage of music or stuff beyond their community. But one night when she was washing dishes, her mom yelled to her, “Oh come in here — you have to see these boys, they’re so cute!”
And they were cute, looking nothing like the boys she went to school with who were button downs and corduroys with crew cuts.
“The first time I heard about The Beatles was on Ed Sullivan and I didn’t even know they were coming,” Twardowski says.
She was 11 at the time, but as soon as her family was introduced to the band, whenever new music came out they would get the records. Twardowski says the music was pivotal in her relationship with her older brother, and they would listen to the albums together in his car.
“I don’t remember going anywhere when White Album came out that it wasn’t playing,” she says.
At 64, Twardowski says she is still a huge Beatles fan and has collected memorabilia over the years.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
Oct. 16, 1962 – Oct. 28, 1962
For 13 days in 1962 many Americans feared for their lives thinking the Cold War would escalate to a nuclear war. Diane Cavaness was 6 during what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and living in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
“I just remember the awareness of it being everywhere and as a first-grader, I thought I was going to die and I just kind of expected the fact because everyone was talking about the world blowing up, so I went to my room and calculated how old I would be when I died of a nuclear explosion,” she says. “When I look back at it, there’s no way I could have — I was in first grade. I just remember doing this and it was kind of a matter of fact thing. I don’t remember being really terrified.”
At 61, Cavaness lives in Brookings, Ore., after retiring from a career as a science teacher. She says growing up with nuclear bomb drills at school didn’t do anything but “scare the crap out of a whole generation of little kids.”
“Looking back, I never really lost that fear because, like I said, my entire childhood was within the Cold War and it was always hanging over our heads,” she says. “One of the things that it did was make us feel totally helpless, like there’s this giant force out there and nothing we can do about it, so as I grew up I took action about other things.”
Oct. 4, 1957
Mimi Whitney, 73, was a high school in Central California when the race for space was at its height.
“When I think back I’m smiling. It was very humorous. Because you’re so young at that age. And just entering high school is big. We had a class, I’m not sure what it was called, but it’s sort of an initiation to high school to help kids along. Sputnik has just, ya know, floated, and everyone was talking about it and I remember something from the adults — the concern that they had that Russia would pull out ahead of the United States and that somehow we needed to retool and re-school and we needed to come up to some other higher level. And they were so concerned about it. I picked up on that concern.”
Whitney says her class began a discussion: not only about Sputnik and other current events, but about what kinds of jobs were needed to get ahead of Russia, and what kind of education you’d need to get those jobs.
“I remember to this day that I was going to be a nuclear physicist. I had no idea what it was, but I felt compelled because the adults were so concerned.”
Mimi recently retired after working a long career as a city planner.
“Needless to say, I never was really interested in becoming a nuclear physicist. I’m glad there are some in the world, thank goodness, but that was not to be.”
“But it had a lasting impression because we all have memories. But what an interesting memory to have.”
Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation
June 2, 1953
Marjorie McLaughlin is a 69-year-old retired librarian in San Diego. When she was 5, Queen Elizabeth was crowned. McLaughlin lived in a tenement flat with her brother, parents and grandparents just outside Glasgow, Scotland, when she heard the news.
“There was no broadcast television in Scotland up until that point. So there was a real push to get television available for the coronation that June. And my father was fairly handy, so he apparently bought this kit. And he built a television… And he had it finished in time for the coronation. So this not terribly large living room in the tenement flat was just filled with family and neighbors and people coming to watch the coronation. So it was a pretty big deal. I remember the television. And I can remember everyone coming over and everyone being all excited watching this, but my strongest memory of that day is that my aunt Maj bought me a little coach and horses that were the same as the queen’s coronation coach. It was this tiny little thing. And I sat and played with that all day. Just all day… I do remember the energy excitement in the room that day.”
She remembers being proud of her father building the television set. She also remembers it being the first steppstone in her support for the royal family.
“I also have a recollection when I was in school … after the coronation. I can remember all of the children lining the street because the queen and Prince Philip were coming through our small town. And we all stood with flags and we waved. And I remember being quite annoyed because it was Prince Philip who was on my side of the car and not the queen and I wanted to see the queen.”