Starting the year after we come back to the United States from Germany, this man came to dinner almost every night. He never ate anything, but he did regale us with tales of the twentieth century’s most important events. He kept me caught up with the last doings of my first heroes whose names were Shepard and Schirra, Carpenter and Cooper, Grissom and Glenn, and the not-to-be-forgotten Deke Slayton. This man had an authoritative air about him; sort of a more serious version of the man who always showed up at breakfast time. Mom pointed out one day that the man had come from her hometown of Kansas City; Dad countered that the man had really grown up in Houston. A son of Missouri and Texas—just like me.
The man’s presence at dinner every night was, a psychologist or sociologist might say, a stabilizing factor in an uncertain world. But he would tell us frequently of distress in places like Cuba and Vietnam and the Congo. And my family’s only reason for being in the ironically idyllic calm of our “ultimate gated community”–the semi-secret atomic weapons installation known as Sandia Base, New Mexico,–was because of the worldwide anxiety that the world could be destroyed by the ultimate weapons.
Reassuring as it was to find the man at dinner every evening, it was quite disconcerting one Friday to find him there when I came home from school for lunch. Another man, a man from Oklahoma, was usually there at lunchtime. Dad would be sitting at the end of the table eating a bowl of soup, while the dulcet Tulsan baritone sat on a ledge above him and told us what had happened that morning. Another reassuring presence.
But this particular Friday in November, I walked through the door to find Dad standing with his hands on his hips staring at the man from Missouri who should have been there at dinner time. The man was seated just inches away emotionally describing what would become the worst event in my lifetime for the next 40 years. It was November 22, 1963.
About six years later, the man turned up in the middle of the night, to tell us about the most thrilling thing that would happen in my lifetime perhaps forever ever. It was July 20, 1969. In between the worst day and the best, it seemed that the man’s visits came more and more frequently at times other than dinner. The days of which he would show up other than at dinnertime are emblazoned on my mind like a calendar of horribles.
Most of the summer of 1968
He described events of The Twentieth Century in a way that made us feel, for better or for worse, as if we were present at each one. “What sort of day was it?” he would ask rhetorically. “A day like all day is filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times… and you are there.”
To someone who never experienced this manner of getting information, it’s difficult to convey the full import and meaning of the passing of Walter Cronkite. With the end of this era in American history, as another of the secular saints in our civic theology passes on, thing will never be like they were:
When there were only three nightly newscasts… when the nightly news was only 30 minutes… when two decades were filled with the most thrilling and most shocking events of recent history… when a journalist was considered by some to be “the most trusted man in America”… That’s the way it was…
July 19, 2009 Sunday at 4:21 pm