Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Eye Witness - Major Events that Made an Impact on Me

I was prompted to write this article after reading Susan Petersen's  moving account  on Long Lost Relatives.net  recalling the Challenger Space Tragedy and her involvement as a teacher at the time.

It made me think back to other major national and international events that had an impact on me.  So here are my thoughts and memories of the Queen's Coronation, the assassination of President Kennedy, the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, the death of Princess Diana and 9/11. 
                                                          
2nd June 1953 - The Queen's Coronation.  I was nine years old  and had been busy making  red, white and blue decorations, creating  a coronation scrapbook, collecting my coronation mug (presented to all children)  and playing with the doll my mother made for me, dressed as the Queen with a long velvet purple embroidered train, and on the day itself watching the ceremony on our new 10-inch screen black and white television   I had put on my yellow taffeta party dress in honour of the occasion.  But there was a personal dimension to the day, as my mother was in hospital for three weeks around that time after a major operation.  For my younger brother and myself it was a strange uncertain time, especially as children were not allowed to visit the hospital.  The day she came home was emotional as we all burst into tears - and I wore again my party dress to welcome Mum back to the family.


22nd November 1963 - President Kennedy was Assassinated.  We were watching TV in the early evening when a special "over to our newsroom" announcement cut in,  and we heard about the shooting in Dallas.  During Kennedy's election campaign I was still at school and JFK was someone we admired and we poured over the photographs of Jackie's fashions.  We saw on TV his powerful inauguration speech, his meeting with Kruschev, his speech at the Berlin Wall and my father got up during the night to hear his statement on the Cuban crisis.  We felt part of a new era.   Young and energetic-looking for a world leader, he made such a contrast with our own Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who seemed to epitomise the Edwardian period  of 50 years past.   I had never lost anyone close to me, yet President Kennedy's death hit me hard.  I stayed off university lectures to watch the funeral on TV and wept at the sight of Jackie and her two young children. 

Only three years later I was in Boston, USA on a year's exchange programme.  With another British girl we travelled around the country on the Greyhound bus, with Dallas and Washington DC on our itinerary.  We also also saw  the unveiling in Boston  of the JFK Library, attended by Robert and Edward Kennedy.    I know the Kennedy legend has long since been tarnished, but  it left a powerful memory.

30th January 1965 - Sir Winston Churchill's Funeral.  I had grown up with my father's reminiscences of the war, (which included working in  London by the Cabinet War Rooms)  and his high regard for Sir Winston Churchill.  At school in my exams for French and German (bit of irony here),   when asked in the essay question to write on a famous person, I chose Sir Winston.  His death, although not unexpected, still was a landmark event which I shared in.   I was doing Modern History and Politics at university and some of my class took the overnight  bus down from Edinburgh to London to join the thousands walking past his coffin in Westminster Hall.  We  sat as a family to watch the state funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral  and the iconic image of the cranes alongside the River Thames bowing in salute as the  coffin was carried by boat  down the river.


31st August 1997 - Death of Diana.  Sunday morning 7am and the phone went, meaning  a  leap out of bed thinking "Has something happened to our daughter",  who we knew would be finishing  night shift in the Edinburgh police control room.  She gave us the news and of course we immediately turned to the television to watch the tragic events unfold - and it was tragic the sudden death of an attractive woman and mother  with so much potential but whose personal life had taken a sad turn before being cut short. You could not but be moved to see the two young princes following their mother's  coffin on its silent route through London.  Psychologists have written pages on the state of the nation at the time, "wallowing in grief tourism"  etc.  We were annoyed at the media calls for the Queen "to be with her people" i.e in London, as if being in Scotland meant she was out of the country.   It was a definitive moment in many ways.

11th September 2001 - I was working at Library Headquarters that day in the Local Studies Room when my daughter phoned to tell me  that a plane had crashed into the twin towers in New York.  I had visited the city many years ago, long before the twin towers were built and I was a bit hazy about them, but my first reaction was "what an awful accident".  I told colleagues and we logged onto the BBC website and saw  the dreadful news of the second strike.    There was an American visitor  in the Study Room and we broke the news to him - he immediately went outside to phone friends and family. We then dashed to the Training Room where there was a television.   Words cannot describe the horror.  What struck in my mind most  was the experience of those on the  planes who had left  Boston to discover  they were flying to their death - yet whose thoughts were to phone family expressing their love.
Celtic Cross on Iona looking over to the Isle of Mull

A  week later we were on holiday on the west coast of Scotland and took the ferry from Oban to sail to the Isle of Mull and then onto the Isle of Iona.  It was the most perfect September day you could have asked for - sunny blue skies, a calm sea, a  panorama of hills and the seals bobbing around the ferry.    There were a lot of Americans on the boat, and the atmosphere was quiet and subdued.  People were going up to them to shake their hand and extend their sympathy. 

Everyone talks abut the magical nature of Iona -  the seat of Scottish Christianity where St. Columba founded his Abbey in 563AD.  It is amazing that even though the boat seemed busy, visitors spread out on the small island and it seems as if you have the place to yourself.  It was so peaceful - a beautiful haven in what suddenly seemed  a very  evil world.


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Photographs - copyright Susan Donaldson

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