Thursday, October 3, 2013

Family History -- Memorializing Your Personal Experience of Big Events

The burning USS Arizona after the attack on Pearl Harbor

First lunar landing July 1969 -- Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. Flag

As many have pointed out in the genealogy blogosphere, October is "Family History Month" . . . which got me thinking.

Family history and the greater subject of History writ large converge when incidents that are sure to become historic events are experienced by ancestors or other family members.  For example, everyone alive today with generational roots in America going back for say 100 years has a family member who had some experience of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941.  Very, very few had direct eye-witness experience of that historic moment, but everyone experienced it in some way -- just as so many millions of Americans experienced what is now known as 9-11 -- another day in infamy when the World Trade Center towers were attacked on September 11, 2001.  Wouldn't we all like to be able to read a first hand account of how events such as this affected one or more of our ancestors?  Wouldn't we like to know what they were doing when the event occurred?  Where were they?  What did they do or say -- and what did the people around them or other family members do or say?

I wish I had a diary, journal, letter or intentional memorandum written by my great great grandfather to describe his experiences in the Union Army during the Civil War, or a contemporaneous writing by my grandparents and my parents about what they went through on December 7, 1941and the days immediately thereafter.

I have lived through many events in my life that I should have written about when, or shortly after, they happened.  To name just a few -- the assassination of President John Kennedy when I was in grammar school; the terrible events (riots, assassinations, protests) of 1968; the moon landing in 1969; the Kent State shootings in 1970; the events surrounding Watergate; the advent of the digital computer age; Woodstock; the attack on the Twin Towers; the historic election of President Obama; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the random murder shootings at way too many locations around our country including the Washington Navy Yard where I work; the shutdowns or near-shutdowns of the federal government over the last couple of decades . . . and on and on.

I have written retrospectively about my experience of some of these events based on my memories of them, but I have also written contemporaneously of others to preserve as much as possible my particular viewpoint and experiences of events I know my descendants will one day read about . . . and perhaps wonder what their ancestors thought and experienced.

So during this Family History Month (and during my unexpected furlough from work), I am taking the time to write about and preserve my experience of historic events so that they become part of my family history.  We all have these stories to write about in order to speak to our descendants across time and generations.  This month is a good time to sit down and do so.  Make History part of your Family History!

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Photograph of the USS Arizona from .  The image is in the public domain because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the U.S. government as part of that person's official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the U.S. Code. 

Photograph of Buzz Aldrin saluting the flag during the July 1969 mission to the moon from .  The image is in the public domain because it was solely created by NASA and the NASA copyright policy states that "NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted."
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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  1. John,

    This is a wonderful post! And your idea to write about our experiences about historic events is wonderful. I'm so glad I did write how I felt about 9/11 back then. But, I haven't been as diligent as I should have been with my journal writing. I really need to be better at that. I didn't know you work at the Washington Navy Ward. Wow! Were you there that terrifying day?

  2. Yes. I was there the day of the shooting. My office is in a building two buildings over from NAVSEA HQ in Bldg. 197. I did not know any of the victims personally, but two or three of my colleagues did. We sheltered in place from 8:35 AM until about 3:00 PM. It was a bad day and twelve families will never be the same as a result. :-(

  3. Love your post! I have photos and wonderful memories of my daughter interviewing my uncle about Pearl Harbor for a school project(we still have the audio tape, and he has since passed away). That was the same year of Sept. 11th, her first week of high school, when we lost a dear friend on flight 11. Other than the her audio tape and written report, we haven't done enough to remember these event. I have to get my husband to write down his memories of the Americans walking on the moon. He was a little boy in Spain, and the whole village was at the pub to watch it on TV. His grandfather let him stand on the table so he could see the TV screen. That's his memory of Buzz and Neil walking on the moon in 1969, but he grew up to be an aerospace engineer. We've even met Buzz at MIT. Sort of a circle of life thing, isn't it?

  4. John, I'm very glad I didn't know where you worked a few weeks ago, I would have been terribly concerned and a wreck. Now that was an experience never to be forgotten, wow. Since I'm older, I also remember all the events you mentioned. There were several DC events I remember (worked near the White House for 12 yrs.), they will always be etched in my memory.

  5. This is a great post, John. I'm with you in wishing for journals of my ancestors who lived through and/or were involved in major events of history. Unless other descendants have them, there aren't any. My descendants will be like I am, wishing for memories of major current events. I keep a journal, off and mostly on, but don't often include current events or my thoughts about them. I love history but not current events, which is probably very strange.

    As a child I could not get my parents to talk about their memories of living through the Great Depression or their thoughts about any of the events of WWII. And the strange thing is, my mother was a current events nut.

    I'm sorry to learn that you were at the Navy Yard, John. It must have been strange to be "sheltered," as you call it, during the day. But I wonder how much you knew about what was going on, if you could see TV or watch events from the internet. I'm so glad you're safe but sorry for the individuals who lost their lives and their families.