Bob Lutz: Too young to grasp, too old to be unaware

Today's college freshmen were third-graders 10 years ago, when terrorism changed America.

09/11/2011 12:00 AM

08/05/2014 4:26 PM

It was so long ago and I was so young when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

I was 8 on Nov. 22, 1963. I remember being on the playground at Pleasantview Elementary in Derby when I heard the news. I don't remember how I reacted and I don't remember the looks on the faces of the other kids. I'm sure we were all confused and terrified, though it wouldn't surprise me if I went right on playing during recess, because that's what 8-year-olds are wired to do.

Wichita State volleyball player Lauren Longbine must have felt some of the same things 10 years ago today — Sept. 11, 2001. It was a sunny day in Emporia and she was an 8-year-old third-grader.

Her memories of that terrible day are much clearer than mine from almost 48 years ago. How long they will remain so vivid is anybody's guess.

"I was in my teacher's class — her name was Mrs. Hastings — and we were working on multiplication,'' Longbine said. "I remember our principal, Mr. Warner, coming over the intercom and saying that our nation had been attacked, the twin towers had come down. Everybody was crying and freaking out.''

Maybe we were all crying and freaking out on the Pleasantview playground in 1963, but I don't remember.

As Longbine grows older, her memories will begin to fade, too. It's one of the fallacies of the brain. Keeping memories sharp after storing them for decades — even of monumental events — is difficult.

Kansas State football receiver Tyler Lockett, an 8-year-old third-grader at Barnard Elementary in Tulsa on Sept. 11, has already forgotten some details of that day.

But he remembers the chaos.

"It was just crazy,'' he said. "I don't think I was really sure of what exactly had happened, just that there were a lot of people who lost their lives that day.''

Lockett remembers how sad people were at his school for days after. Sad, scared and with a feeling that something had been taken from everyone that would never be returned.

One man lost his life in Dallas. But it was a popular young president who represented so much to so many people.

At 8, I'm sure I had some awareness of Kennedy's popularity. He was the personification of "Camelot," a vibrant president with a beautiful wife and two adorable small children. History, of course, has taught me so much about Kennedy and the events surrounding his death.

But on that day, being so young, what must I have thought? What did I do?

Kansas freshman basketball player Merv Lindsay, a third-grader at Sugar Hill Elementary in Marino Valley, Calif., 10 years ago, was preparing to leave for school when his mother told him what had happened across the country in New York.

"She said a plane had crashed into one of the buildings,'' Lindsay said. "When I got to school — everybody walks through the office to get to class — I just remember being shocked because we were finding out how serious this was. At 8, you're too young to comprehend something like that. I remember our teachers were trying to calm everybody down and continuing to tell us what had happened. But I don't think we were able to grasp the meaning.''

I remember being in my living room with my parents, glued to the television on the evening JFK was assassinated. But I was 8. Surely I was bouncing off the walls, unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time.

Or maybe the television was so captivating that it quieted even an 8-year-old.

My parents were Democrats and told me in later years about how much they admired and liked Kennedy. I'm sure they were distraught as we watched TV, then mesmerized two days later when assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered by Jack Ruby on national TV.

Much the same as when viewers 10 years ago realized a second plane had slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, verifying that terrorism was the culprit of Sept. 11.

"Some parents called our school early and said they wanted to pick their kids up,'' Longbine said. "Nobody knew if there was going to be another attack or how close it might be if there was. I remember getting home that day and my mother was really scared. She told us that we had to be really careful and that we were probably going to go to war.''

Unfortunately, historical events like Sept. 11 don't spare kids.

"I felt safe, finally, when I got home and was with my parents,'' Lockett said. "Being just 8, it's so hard to wrap your head around something like 9/11. I'm pretty sure I may have been a little bit nervous.''

Sometimes I wish life had a rewind button. I'd like to go back to Nov. 22, 1963, just to see how the events of the day affected me. When I think hard about that day, my memories only become more jumbled. I can't grasp them. When I think I'm grabbing hold of something clear, it fades as quickly as it appeared. It has been 17,461 days since JFK was killed.

Longbine, Lindsay and Lockett are so much younger. The horrific event of their relatively short lives happened only 10 years ago. They are better equipped to remember and I would advise them to write down their memories while they are still fresh..

I didn't write mine down. There are no reference points. I know the Kennedy assassination helped shape who I am, but I'm not sure how.

Mortality wasn't in my vocabulary. My mom and dad were healthy and nothing in my life had prepared me for the untimely, violent death of a president.

Just as nothing had prepared those 8-year-olds in 2001 for what they were about to witness.

"My father worked in a building near the John Wayne Airport in Orange County and they closed that building down that day because of fear,'' Lindsay said. "My mother was working for the fire department at that time, so her building was shut down, too. All I knew was they weren't at work.''

Once the second plane crashed into the South Tower, everybody stopped what they were doing. It was one of those rare days that changes people. Changes society.

Lindsay recalls his teacher leading the Pledge of Allegiance every hour and mixing in a prayer to go with it.

It was a long day at school, he recalls, filled with uneasiness.

"When I got home, I remember my mother trying to explain it all to me,'' Lindsay said. "But I was so caught up in just being a kid. I was like "Oh, terrorism, blah, blah, blah. It wasn't until I got to be 10 or 11 and we were really fighting the war against terrorism that I really started to understand what had happened.''

Understanding what happened is one thing.

Remembering it is another. I hope, for their sakes, Longbine, Lockett and Lindsay can retain their Sept. 11 memories as they graduate from college, find jobs, get married, have kids and someday watch their children have children of their own.

Life is a long journey and the longer it becomes, the more difficult it is to keep memories fresh.

Today, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, they will think back to a time when their lives changed.

It will, as Lindsay said, "be a somber day.''

Longbine will be returning from a tournament at Colorado State with her WSU volleyball teammates. She's sure they will reflect and observe a moment of silence.

Lockett said he plans to spend a quiet day being thankful for his life.

"I looked at 9/11 as kind of a wake-up call,'' he said. "You're having fun and taking each day for granted. But seeing what happened on that day was just crazy. You don't know what can happen on any given day. Tomorrow is never promised.''

About Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz has been The Eagle's sports columnist since 1996. A native of Derby, he has worked for the newspaper since 1974 and covered a variety of beats, from high schools to Wichita State to pro sports. If you want to get in good with him, mention the St. Louis Cardinals. Provided they're winning, of course.

Contact Bob at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com

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