Unprecedented

I’ve lived through unprecedented times. I was sixteen years old when Richard Nixon became the first president to resign from office on August 8, 1974. It was a hot summer day in New England. I was sitting in a chair at a Main Street barber shop getting a much needed haircut. I just got my learner’s permit and I was studying for my driver’s license test. I wasn’t in a rush since there was an oil shortage. Lines of cars at gas stations spilled onto the streets as people waited to fill their tanks and hoped there would be some left at the pump when it was their turn. The government issued orders for consumers to purchase gasoline on odd/even days depending on the last numbers of their license plates. In a few months not only would I have my driver’s license, but I’d also be the proud owner of a used 1966 Ford Mustang. I would also have my first job at the Giant Value grocery store to pay for gas and auto insurance. I was going to need that job. Gasoline was already 55-cents a gallon, and prices were climbing because of all the political unrest in the Middle East. 

At age 16, I only had a passing interest in politics. My brother Michael was ten years older than me. He was the political activist in the family. Somewhere in the attic boxes of family photos is a framed newspaper clipping from the front page of the Boston Globe with a picture of Michael leading the demonstrators with fists raised as they chanted “Stop The War”. Social justice was in the news even back then. 

As a teenager, I got most of my political news from the headlines of the Record American newspaper. The tabloid had graphic photos and attention-grabbing headlines that made me want to read the stories inside. And this was way before the internet. 

I remember sitting in the barber’s chair, not really paying attention to the black-and-white television with the rabbit ear antenna that was playing in the background. The barber stopped cutting my hair and was staring at the television. I looked at the screen and saw an embattled President Nixon reading his resignation speech. The president of our country was stepping down after months of political pressure. This was a momentous event at the time as it had never happened before in the history of the United States. A somber looking President Nixon was telling the American people he didn’t want to leave office but, “The interest of the nation must always come before any personal considerations.” My how times have changed.

I was too young to grasp the gravity of the situation, but I could tell something big was happening. Time stood still in the barber shop. The barber was in a frozen pose with comb and scissors in hand above my head. Waiting customers who sat while flipping through magazines stopped and stared at the television screen. Everyone wondered what was going to happen next.

In those days, it was a huge event when the president appeared on television to address the nation. It was a sign that something important was happening, and it was usually not good. There was no 24-hour news cycle back then. The public had a day to digest news stories before all the facts were printed in the newspaper the next morning. Facts were checked before stories were released for publication. Editors were held accountable (something unheard of on the internet). Imagine a time when people on the street had discussions about news stories and explored all the angles before forming opinions. The world was better off with a little breathing room between catastrophes.

Today’s instantaneous unfolding of political events in “real time” on the internet is comparable to being hit over the head with a sledgehammer every hour. There is no thinking, only reacting. I wanted to write about this year’s inauguration day. Unfortunately, even though the event is happening today, there’s no telling what will happen. And whatever I write about will be already bumped from the headlines by whatever happens next. 

Instead, I chose to go back in time to recall memories of an earlier time in our history, when grave situations still happened and horrific events captured the headlines. There were moments when our country stood still collectively while we caught our breath. Back then we were one nation, under God (which I’m not sure I’m even supposed to say because it might offend someone).

America has been through so much in its very short history. This past year alone the word “unprecedented” has been used so many times, it’s lost all meaning. There’s no time to be shocked at anything anymore. Life happens fast in today’s world. Even though there’s no going back, I’m glad I’ve held onto memories of a simpler time. Reflecting on the past is the one advantage of growing older. Learning from the past seems to be much more difficult.

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