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Flashbulb Memories: When We Remember Exactly Where We Were for Certain BIG Events

by Ellen Blake

What are flashbulb memories?

Which are the big events seared indelibly in your mind? Are there times that you remember exactly where you were when you heard the news? These memories, called flashbulb memories, refer to the circumstances when you first learned of a consequential or emotionally arousing event. These events that stick in our brains are not necessarily just the negative ones, but often that’s the case.

Flashbulb memories from a 90 year old 

Asking people in different generations about these memories provides interesting insight. I asked my Dad for his two earliest flashbulb memories and here’s what he told me.

December 7, 1941 – Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941 was the day before Dad’s 11th birthday. He remembers sitting around the kitchen table with his parents listening intently to the news on the radio. The next day the U.S, declared war on Japan, thus entering WWII.  As Franklin Roosevelt said, “it was a day that would live in infamy.”

November 22, 1963John F. Kennedy assassinated

Dad heard the reports of JFK’s assassination on the radio in the car when returning to work after lunch. He told me about the empty desks and eerie silence in his usually bustling office that greeted him when he walked into the building. Most of the staff huddled around a table in the back room; no one was working and many were in tears. He said it felt as though the whole world stopped that day. 

Flashbulb memories from a 60 year old

Next, I sat down to think about the two events that impacted me most in my younger years. These are my flashbulb memories.

July 20, 1969 Apollo 11

Though only eight years old in 1961, I vividly recall our entire family settled in around the TV in our small den waiting with anticipation to see the first human footprints on the Moon. We all clapped when we heard Neil Armstrong’s now-famous quote, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”. I don’t remember if I actually saw the wood pieces from the Wright Brothers plane that Armstrong brought with him on his journey,or just heard about them. In any case, I’ve seen them since as they now reside in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The moon landing was a critical landmark in history and its significance still resonates today. 

September 11, 2011 (9/11)

I walked into the gym at 9:30 am after dropping my kids at the local elementary school the morning of September 11th. I recall noticing on the drive that it was a particularly beautiful clear day. When I entered the facility, no one was at the front desk, which was very unusual. Looking past the check-in area, I saw every piece of equipment in the room was empty. There was no friendly chit-chat or music playing in the background. The silence was deafening.  More than 50 people gathered in front of a TV over one of the treadmills watching a shocked news reporter detailing a story about a plane that struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 am followed by a second jet that hit the South Tower sixteen minutes later. While we watched with horror, the reporter announced that another airliner hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Va at 9:37 am. 

I did not stay to work out that day. Scared, sad and sick to my stomach, I went home to continue to watch the news. Both 110-story World Trade Center Towers collapsed within two hours, significantly damaging surrounding buildings. Not understanding what was happening or why, I decided to pick my children up from school. I felt the need to have them close to me to make sure they stayed safe. I kept the family room TV off so the kids would not see the horrific images of the planes crashing into the Towers playing over and over again on every news channel. Later that day I learned a fourth plane aiming to hit a federal government building in Washington D.C. crashed down in a field outside Shanksville, Pa due to a passenger revolt that thwarted the attack.

I knew nothing about Osama Ben Laden or al-Queda prior to that day, but both are ingrained in my brain forevermore. That incident remains the deadliest terrorist attack in history with almost 3,000 deaths and more than 25,000 injuries. It’s hard to believe this event took place more than 20 years ago as it still feels very recent.

Flashbulb memories from a 28 year old

I then asked my now 30-year-old son. Here are his responses.

September 11, 2011 (9/11)

I wasn’t at all surprised that 9/11 was also a flashbulb memory for my sweet and sensitive son. Even at age nine, and despite our best efforts to shield him from the events that transpired, he was acutely aware something really bad happened that day. He had a lot of questions based on the fearful sounding whispers he overheard at the school. Those questions were very difficult to address because we did not have answers at the time; no one did. He told me later that he turned on the TV upstairs before bed and saw the dreadful images of the planes flying into the Towers. He said he can quickly conjure up those images in his mind all these years later.

March 12, 2020 (NCAA tournaments cancelled)

The years-long Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lock-down affected us all, albeit in different ways. And some of us understood the severity of the situation earlier than others. My son, a healthy young adult living in Wisconsin, largely ignored news of the virus as he felt it would not impact his life in any real way. He went about his business with few concerns, wearing a mask only when forced, certain the virus would go away shortly.

My basketball-obsessed son shared with me that it was on March 12, 2020, that he realized the seriousness of the virus. That was the day he heard the news of mass cancellations of the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournaments while eating dinner while watching the news in his apartment. For you to get why this moment stands out for him, you need to understand how big a deal March Madness is in my family. Not just for my husband and kids, but for most of our extended family as well. They all do a lot of research on the players and look forward to filling in their brackets all year. They love the sport and the friendly competition between family members, but mostly they enjoy the close connections created between family members of all ages that participate. 

The day before, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus, the National Basketball Association suspended its season. This development was also upsetting for my son, but not as devastating as the NCAA basketball tournament cancellations. March 12th was definitely his flashbulb memory, and the day he acknowledged the virus was not going to disappear on its own.

What are your flashbulb memories?

Which events are ingrained in your brain? Please share them in the comment section below!



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