Tuesday, September 13, 2011
When You're the Last to Know
My late friend and mentor Bud O’Brien used to tell this story on himself. In the fall of 1963 he moved from Redding to Watsonville to become wire editor of the newspaper and after a couple of weeks on the job he got a day off in the middle of the week.
He decided to finish unpacking and to clean his new apartment, so after running out for supplies first thing in the morning, he spent the whole day in the new place getting everything right. Finally, around 7 p.m., he was finished and headed to a nearby bar for a beer before grabbing some dinner.
When he got there, it was subdued, if not downright lugubrious. After a couple of sips of his beer he went over to an off-duty police officer he knew and said, “Kinda quite here tonight. Is something wrong?”
The officer looked at Bud as if he were a Martian, then after a pause decided he wasn’t being played. So he said softly, “You haven’t heard? President Kennedy was assassinated today.”
On any other day that week, Bud would have been writing the headline for that story, but because he was off work, home and unplugged (as we would say today), he was probably the last person in town to get the news. The richness of the irony was not lost on him.
I heard about the Kennedy assassination right away because we were in school, and it was promptly announced. But I had my own unplugged moment a decade ago.
On the day in question I had an appointment with the head of a nonprofit organization that provided counseling services to the public schools, to discuss a writing project I was doing for them. The appointment was at 9:30 a.m., and their offices were closer to my home than to my office.
So that morning I decided to go to the appointment from home. I slept a bit late, read the morning paper and had an extra cup of coffee. I never turned on the TV or radio, and my computers were all at the office, so I didn’t check e-mail or internet. At nine o’clock I left for the appointment, with the radio off so I could think over what we had to discuss at the meeting.
When I arrived, the office was grim and bustling more than usual. I announced myself to the receptionist, who gave me a quizzical look and said the executive director was out because of an emergency. My immediate reaction was that there must have been a violent incident at one of the schools.
At that point one of the counselors I knew came out from the back rooms with a frown on his face. I said something to him like, “I understand Linda’s been called out. Has something happened.”
He gave me that Have-You-Been-on-Mars look and snapped, “Haven’t you heard? Terrorists hijacked four planes this morning and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The country’s at war, and we’re going nuts trying to calm down the students.”
So I went home and turned on the TV like everyone else.
Generally speaking, there’s maybe one day a year the news can’t wait; the rest of the time it doesn’t matter if you learn it tomorrow or even a couple of days later. And thanks to the internet and cell phones, it’s harder than ever to get unplugged. But it’s possible for both to happen the same day, and if it ever happens to you, that feeling of not knowing what everyone else does is something you’ll never forget.