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Flashbulb Memories: Where Were You When…?

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Flashbulb memories are those vivid, autobiographical memories that form when we learn of a particularly surprising, traumatic or impactful event. These kinds of memories burrow themselves deep into our memory banks, and often remain dormant until triggered to resurface. An image. A sound. A scent. Anything, really, can be the catalyst that sets the wheels in motion to bring that memory to the forefront of our minds. A simple question like, “Where were you when…?” can have the same effect. The level of detail in these flashbulb memories is striking. People are sometimes able to share not only where they were, but what they were doing, how they felt, what they were wearing or eating, as well as how the people around them reacted. The human brain is an amazing machine.

April 4th marks the somber 52nd anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, I’ve seen pictures, watched several documentaries and read tons of stories about that fateful day, but I was yet to be born then, so I don’t have a flashbulb memory attached to that tragedy. Yet, I still acknowledge it in some way every year. I do, however, remember being in Mr. Howell’s English class on January 28, 1986, when another student, Teresa Brown, yelled from the hallway that the Space Shuttle Challenger had just exploded. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my pajamas nursing a sprained ankle and watching television—“Little House on the Prairie” in fact—when news broke that an airplane had hit one of the twin towers, and then the other.

Color photo of man in a posed squat in front of a tent. He is wearing a white t-shirt with green military uniform pants and black boots.
Daniel Burress in the tent area of Chu Lai, Vietnam. Daniel Edward Burress Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/1811.

Vietnam veteran Daniel Burress was 21 when he joined the U.S. Marines. As someone with a self-described “gung-ho” attitude, Burress quickly learned that survival was the name of the game once he arrived in-country. During his Veterans History Project (VHP) interview, he shared his own flashbulb memory, as he recalled where he was and how he felt when he learned that his hero, Dr. King, had been gunned down. In the jungles of Vietnam, news didn’t reach Burress until several days after April 4, 1968. King’s death illuminated for Burress the irony of an African-American man fighting for a country that didn’t treat him as equal. He said the enemy constantly preyed on those feelings, but he found a way to fight on nonetheless.

…you feel like you’re fighting for someone else’s freedom and you don’t have your own…They drop leaflets and pamphlets, and they always say things like, ‘Black man, why are you here, you don’t have your own freedom in the United States and you’re fighting here.’ And, you know, they try to just demoralize you, do you know what I mean? And after seeing a lot of dead that day, it’s easy to be demoralized, do you know what I mean? But you’re a Marine, you forget all that.

Color photo of man standing on the deck of a military ship headed to Vietnam. He is smiling, giving the thumbs-up signal and has one foot propped up.
Daniel Burress on a ship to Vietnam. Daniel Edward Burress Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/1811.

Burress shared many other memories from his time in Vietnam, not just flashbulb ones, which stuck with him over the years, like the fact that “good” and “bad” were relative terms. He learned to really appreciate a day without torrential downpours. He never forgot the unrelenting effect that six or seven months of constant wetness has on one’s skin, particularly in the most sensitive place on a man’s body. Simply put, he said, “A dry day was a good day.”

On the other hand, he said:

Oh, a bad day was when you’re stacking bodies. When you go and see what happened during the night. When you see the body count. When you’re asked to stack bodies, and you stack bodies like maybe four across, four across this way, just like you have a sack of potatoes. And then they take them to the refrigeration truck. That’s a bad day.

I’m sure he wanted to forget the stacking, and so much more.

I have a sense that by next March, if not sooner, VHP interviewers will begin using the “Where were you when…” question as it relates to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. By then, and in subsequent hallmarked years, there will surely be news stories recounting death tolls and economic losses, memorial services or something else that will trigger our flashbulb memories. Some of us will have funny stories of creative ways we found to pass the time [stuck!] in the house with the people we love most. Others will be reduced to tears at the thought of the wedding they had to postpone, the job they lost, their own battle with the illness or the loved one’s virtual funeral they were forced to host, sans the much-needed hugs of comfort from friends and extended family members. Was “virtual funeral” even part of our lexicon two months ago? I can’t say I’d ever used those two words in the same sentence until my cousin, a mother of five little boys, lost her husband to cancer last week.

The “Where were you when…” question is one that VHP highly recommends to volunteers planning to conduct veterans’ oral history interviews. That open-ended inquiry almost always results in a rich and interesting, if not emotional, response. Depending on the veteran’s age, that question can pertain to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the end of World War II, the assassination of a political or Civil Rights leader, a catastrophic accident like the Challenger explosion, a natural disaster like an earthquake or major storm, a terrorist attack like those from September 11, 2001 or any other event that had a broad impact on society such as the election of the nation’s first African-American president or the passing of a particular piece of legislation.

Whatever those flashbulb memories are for the veteran in your life, be sure to ask “Where were you when…?” when conducting an oral history interview. If you are self-quarantined with your veteran, now is as good a time as any to finally get that interview done. Then, whenever it’s safe to do so, use a commercial carrier to ship the unedited, 30-minute or longer recording to VHP along with the required forms from our how-to field kit. In the meantime, continue to stay healthy and safe. And whatever “good” memories you are able to make, cherish them.

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