Sociologists, psychologists, economists and other members of the academic community have developed elaborate models to define generations. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project divides us into six generation: G.I. Generation (born before 1936); Silent Generation (born 1937-1945); Older Boomers (born 1946-1954); Younger Boomers (born 1955-1964); Generation X (born 1965-1976); and Millennials (born 1977-1992). No term is offered for those born in 1993 or later, although I have many sitting in my classroom at Davenport University. The classic study on this topic is William Strauss’s and Neil Howe’s “Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069.”
A newspaper announcing the Armistice ending the First World War on Nov. 11, 1919.
I take a somewhat different approach to generational definition. I define generations by their ability to answer several key “where were you when you heard” questions, focusing on the earliest dated question that they can answer from their memory.
My father, Paul Rinker, was born on July 3, 1905. My mother, Josephine Alta Prosser Rinker, was born on Sept. 1, 1907. The earliest “where were you when you heard” question they were able to answer was: Where were you when you heard the First World War ended? This event took place on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. The odd thing is that my parents never shared their memories with me. They died before I had enough curiosity to ask them.
The “where were you when you heard” question about which I do remember them talking is: Where were you when you heard Lindbergh landed in Paris? Lindbergh landed in Paris on May 21, 1927. My father was 22; my mother 20. Lindbergh’s feat astonished them as young adults.
“Where were you when you heard Pearl Harbor was bombed?” was the primary question that dominated my parents’ generation. Its impact was far more profound than Lindbergh’s accomplishment. My father was 36; my mother 34. The consequences of Dec. 7, 1941 impacted them for the rest of their lives.
Although I was born on Oct. 1, 1941, I obviously have no memories of Dec. 7, 1941. It was just another day to me. I know where I was. I was in a crib in Dundalk, Md. My father, who worked for Bethlehem Steel, had been transferred from Bethlehem, Pa., to the company’s plant at Sparrows Point, Md.
Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris on May 21, 1927, after the first solo trans-Atlantic flight.
Everyone experiences dozens, if not hundreds, of “where were you when you heard” questions in their lifetime: where were you when you learned one of your grandparents or parents died? When the Korean War ended? Or your parents were getting divorced? Ninety-nine-point-nine-percent of these questions are personal, not major in scope. The “where were you when” questions that define a generation are those that impact the national, or better yet the international, consciousness.
More often than not, “where were you when” questions involve tragedy rather than accomplishment. For my generation, the dominant question is: Where were you when you heard JFK was shot?
Nov. 22, 2013—and the days that follow—will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the period of mourning that led to his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. For those who remember, it seems as though it happened yesterday. The memories associated with the event are so deeply entrenched, they will never fade. Republican or Democrat, believer or non-believer in the vision of Camelot, made no difference. The nation and the world mourned.
In September 1963, I began my graduate studies as a Danforth Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. I was working in my basement carrel of the John M. Olin Library when an individual ran by and announced that JFK had been shot. Rumors spread quickly. Upon hearing a rumor that Lyndon Johnson had been shot as well, one of my fellow history department graduate colleagues said, “My God, this means John McCormack is president.” McCormack, a Boston politician, was Speaker of the House of Representatives.
My wife worked at a branch of Famous Barr, a large department store in University City. I walked from the university to the store to make certain she heard the news. Classes were cancelled until after the funeral. Like millions of Americans, I spent the next several days glued to the television set.
A U.S. battleship sinks during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec.7, 1941.
The major “where were you when you heard” questions since Nov. 22, 1963, are:
• July 20, 1969: The first Moon Landing;
• Jan. 28, 1986: The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster;
• Sept. 11, 2001: The Series of four terrorist attacks, including the two on the World Trade Center.
My list may differ from that of others. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., (April 4, 1968) and Robert Kennedy (June 6, 1968) impacted large numbers of people. Death dates, while important at the moment, fade quickly. When did Princess Diana die? I had to research it. The date is Aug. 31, 1997. I have no idea where I was when I heard about it.
TRIVIA QUIZ: When did Elvis die?
Military dates are complicated. Did the Fall of Saigon (April 30, 1975) or the peace accord that went into effect on Jan. 28, 1973, mark the end of the Vietnam War? Does Desert Storm start with the arrival of the first troops in Saudi Arabia or the day the counterattack was launched? What about the debate between Jan. 1, 2000, and Jan. 1, 2001 marking the date of the new millennia? The only thing I remember about these dates is that I was in bed and asleep before the clock struck 12.
CBS stalwart Walter Cronkite chokes up as he is announcing Kennedy’s death on Nov. 22, 1963.
Generation definingl “where were you when you heard” questions are global. Although the events described above are American in origin, they had a tremendous impact on individuals throughout the world. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, America entered the war on two fronts—Pacific and European. President Kennedy had a world presence. He was the West’s Cold War president. His failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was quickly forgotten following his victory in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Moon Landing was directly connected to the Cold War. It was a victory of the West over the Soviet Block.
The 9/11 attack on the One World Trade Center was an attack on western values. The large number of foreign nationals who died confirmed the growing level of internationalism that hallmarks the 21st century.
I am writing this “Rinker on Collectibles” column during a visit by my friend, Udo Helmke and his son Ulf, who live in Halstenbek (just outside Hamburg), Germany. I shared my thoughts with them over dinner. Udo, who is almost seven years younger than me, shared his story of where he was when he heard President Kennedy was assassinated. President Kennedy had made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech on June 16, 1963, a little more than five months earlier. Ulf had no memories of the event, since he had not yet been born.
On July 20, 1969, as Commander of Apollo 11, Neal Armstrong became the first man to step on the moon.
Although Ulf admitted the “where were you when you heard about 9/11” question did help define his generation, he joined Udo in stressing that for Germans, the dominant “where were you when you heard” question for the present generations is: Where were you when you heard the Berlin Wall fell? The date was Nov. 9, 1989.
Udo and Ulf’s point is well taken. Americans have a bad habit of assuming that their perspective is a world perspective. It is not. The “where were you when you heard” questions I am discussing have limited applicability in Central and South American, Africa and Asia.
For those who have 9/11 memories, 9/11 is another event which seems to have occurred yesterday. Its 10th anniversary has come and gone. Sept. 9, 2013, marked the 12th anniversary. If historical memory begins around the age of 6, a person has to be 20 or older to answer the “where were you when your heard about 9/11” question.
For those who have 9/11 memories, 9/11 is another event which seems to have occurred yesterday. Its 10th anniversary has come and gone.
My three grandchildren, Sofia (age 8), Ian (7), and Marcelo (6), will only read about 9/11 in a history book. They were born later.
Some “where were you when you heard” questions can be anticipated. For example, the world knew that eventually man would land on the moon. Those involving national/international calamities are unpredictable. Their occurrence is known initially only to the perpetrators.
When will the next “where were you when you heard” generational question occur? The longest time between the questions I identified as significant is 18 years, the shortest six years. If this pattern holds, something of international consequence that has a generational impact will occur in the next 10 years.
What will it be? I would rather not think about it. There is a part of me that hopes it will never occur.
TRIVIA QUIZ ANSWER: Aug. 16, 1977.
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