September 8, 2021

Bringing the past to life

It isn't often that I use one of your comments as the focal point for an article of my own (also known as "theft" in some corners, but we're all friends here), but last week a reader named "Toad" left a comment on something I'd written five years ago, and I was afraid it wouldn't be seen by enough people if I didn't bring it to your attention.*

*I'll bet many of you didn't know I actually pay attention to your comments. I don't respond to them often enough, but I do read them. 

There's another reason I want to share Toad's comment with you, though. He'd read my 2016 story about ABC's as-it-happened coverage of Robert F. Kennedy's shooting. It brought back a lot of memories for him, in a way that books, movies, and even newspapers aren't able to. "Watching this particular non-stop footage puts you in the moment, almost as if it is still happening live somehow, on a continuous loop," he wrote. "I had the feeling I get while watching actual live moments, like if you wished hard enough, you could help control the outcome."

Ever since I started this website, I've maintained that television should be regarded as an original source document, a form of entertainment that serves to place events in context, to give the viewer an idea of how things were "back then." Programs made in the 1950s and 1960s show what those decades were like in a way that period pieces like Mad Men are incapable of doing. Watching the final game of the 1965 World Series, played in the afternoon with the shadows acting as an hourglass, creeping across the diamond as the innings wear on, you're transported back in time, and things come alive. And when you watch breaking news, as was the case with Toad, you allow yourself a few moments to hope, that this time events might end differently. 

In short, Toad, you've justified the reason I've spent more than ten years writing "It's About TV." It's the nicest thing anyone's done for me in a long time.

Here's what Toad had to say:

I watched all 7 hours of the ABC footage throughout the week upon hearing the news that Sirhan Sirhan may be released from prison soon. I was born in 1969 so I have only heard or seen things associated with the Kennedy assassinations way after the fact. My grandparents loved the Kennedys so I learned a lot about them growing up. And I have always sought out new documentaries or footage I hadn't yet seen. Watching this particular non-stop footage puts you in the moment, almost as if it is still happening live somehow, on a continuous loop. I had the feeling I get while watching actual live moments, like if you wished hard enough, you could help control the outcome. Even knowing that RFK would be dead in a number of hours, I got a feeling of hopefulness watching the doctor tell us that all was not lost. Kennedy was shot in the head, sure. But it was the best possible spot to be shot if one had to be shot in the brain. This particular location of the brain was a non-vital area. Perhaps Bobby could be out of the hospital and back on the campaign trail in a week or two. After all, his pulse was strong and he had a good heart. He was not unconscious right after being shot and he said a few words and squeezed hard on the rosary beads that were placed in his hand.

After watching the ABC broadcast, I found color footage from inside the Ambassador Hotel. This CBS footage was recorded but I guess it wasn't broadcast live when the shooting occurred. But while watching this on a big TV and with all surround sound speakers going, I did FEEL what some of the attendees described: that immediate shift in mood. "Kennedy, Kennedy, Rah Rah Rah! Kennedy, Kennedy Sis Boom Bah!" Then everything SUDDENLY and disturbingly turned to horrific screams and it seemed like the entire ballroom was shaking and on the verge of exploding. People OUTSIDE the kitchen seemed to realize instantly that their world just caved in on itself. The TV cameras didn't pick up the sound of the shots. ABC thought they did. But it must have been balloons popping or some other noises. On the CBS tape, nothing resembling gunshots was heard. And reading descriptions of the shooting by the ABC newsman that was also shot, actually made me chuckle. He said he thought he was dying. He was bleeding a lot from his wound and what he said he distinctly remembers most vividly was looking up and seeing how the kitchen door would open up to reveal a hysterical woman standing in the doorway, screaming a blood-curdling scream, only to shut and then be opened up again by a whole different woman, screaming in the same disturbing way. Then the door would shut again, open again, new woman, same scream, over and over and over again. I pictured his description in Looney Tunes animation and found it amusing. But of course there is nothing funny about any of this. Our minds need to go someplace absurd because the weight of this tragedy really drives home the fact that no matter how happy you are one moment, everything can be turned upside down the next. And there is no way to predict it or to prepare yourself for it. And the course of history is irreversibly changed forever. Nixon, more Vietnam, Watergate, and on and on.

I'm only sorry we weren't able to watch it together, Toad. We could have talked about it for hours.

If you haven't watched it yet, take some time over the course of a few days and do so. Does it bring back the same kind of memories? Does it help you appreciate what it was like to be alive during those days? History books and documentaries may wind up being more accurate, with access to information that wasn't available at the time—but can they make you feel, in the words of Walter Cronkite's old program, that "You Are There"? What a magnificent time machine it is. TV  

1 comment:

  1. The RFK assassination was burned into my 14 year old mind, just as November 22, 1963 is. AS an 11 year old, I got to meet Bobby Kennedy when he visited my small town during the NY Senate campaign in 1964. Growing up in the late 1960's, one understood that the unpredictable was commonplace, especially in 1968 when the draft was looming for all of us in 4 years and assassination, riots and other violence became the way to disrupt the status quo. Watching ABC's "real-time" documentary brought this all back to me. Like Toad says, history was irrevocably changed forever. With RFK in charge rather than Nixon, we can endlessly discuss the fallout of a single act of violence. History fractured into a thousand pieces at that point and we could arguably trace many of the events of 2020 and 2021 back to that one action.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!