The average age of people in the United States is 38.4 years. That seems young, but in fact we’re on average older than at any other time in our country’s history. (I suppose a caveat is in order: this number is from 2019, so it doesn’t include any demographic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which numbered the elderly disproportionately among its victims.)
I was drawn to look up the statistic after I remembered an event that took place 40 years ago next Tuesday. Many of us remember it well, but it turns out that it happened before most of us were born. Reflection leads to the observation that much of what we consider the modern era happened a long time ago by current standards.
The event some of us will remember next Tuesday is the attack by John W. Hinckley, Jr., on President Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. The president and his press secretary, James Brady were badly wounded, as were a Secret Service agent and a policeman. Reagan’s wound was far more serious than initial reports indicated. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, at the White House, weirdly declared himself in control of the country, which came as a surprise to Vice President George Bush. The assassin was reported to have shot the president and the others in the belief it would gain him the affections of the actress Jodie Foster, which if true seems not to have worked. He was declared insane. He was released from a St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. in 2016.
(Some months later, when a recovered Reagan faced stony opposition from Thomas P. O’Neill, speaker of the house, a joke was passed around the national press corps: “John, this is Ronald Reagan. I’m calling to tell you that I’ve granted you a full pardon. Oh, and Tip O’Neill is dating Jodie.”)
On Monday, March 30, 1981, I was at the offices of WOR Radio in New York, even though it was my day off. I’d been asked to come in by Jack Franks, the special projects editor there, in his role as the shop steward of the Writers Guild of America East. It was one of the two unions there (the other being the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or AFTRA) to which I was required to belong –WGA for writing and AFTRA for on-air work. Contract negotiations were underway and were not going well. We hadn’t even taken our seats in the conference room when a call came from Reg Laite, the news director. The president had been shot. There would be no negotiating that day.
I grabbed a tape recorder and headed to Grand Central Station, a good spot to get “man on the street,” or MOS recordings. (I wonder if it would now be called “person on the street,” what with the POS acronym already taken. Probably, now it would be called “Twitter.”) The reactions I got were useful, in that most people hadn’t heard about it yet, and those who had were reveling in wild and inaccurate speculation. (Some of us referred to MOS material as IOS, for “idiot on the street,” but that acronym, too, is taken.)
Those who were alive and cognizant in 1981 will remember the year as frightening. It began just weeks after the murder of John Lennon. Then came the Reagan attack and six weeks later the shooting of Pope John Paul II (who himself had ascended to the See of Rome after the strange month-long papacy of John Paul I less than three years earlier). In October, progress toward peace in the Middle East was hindered when the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was killed by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
We weren’t, I suppose, as shocked as we should have been by all of this. Just six years earlier, Manson-family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme had tried to kill President Gerald Ford, but couldn’t figure out how a Colt Model 1911 worked; a little more than two weeks later a woman named Sarah Jane Moore shot at and nearly hit Ford. Three years before that, a guy named Arthur Bremer shot and paralyzed George Wallace, a Democratic presidential candidate.
Those just a few years older remembered the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I hope we can be forgiven for having concluded that this was now how things would be.
All of this contributed to the jarring sensation I experienced when I saw that our average age is 38.4. It means that to most people alive today those momentous, world-sobering events are as distant as World War I (and World War II and the Korean conflict, and even the Vietnam war) are to those who are in the older-than-average group.
This year’s high school graduates weren’t yet born on September 11, 2001, a day remembered vividly though not fondly by most of us.
That matters. The attack on Pearl Harbor cannot be fully appreciated by those who did not experience it, or the news reports of it, when it happened. Attempts to depict the D-Day invasion of Normandy, as vivid as some of them have been, fall short when the fate of the Western World is no longer at risk.
The Vietnam war gets the sharp edges ground off when you did not watch color film footage of battle, made several days earlier, somehow gotten to Saigon, flown to the U.S., processed and edited, and finally broadcast. Experiencing that era required waiting with interest for the next issue of LIFE magazine, with its incredible still pictures of that war, sometimes accompanied by reports of the deaths of the magazine’s own photographers.
There’s a lesson in all this: Pay attention. And remember. Those older then you (and older even than me) talk about how rapidly time passes. That doesn’t seem true when we’re young, but I guarantee that the speed increases the older you get. What seems to have happened relatively recently will soon enough turn out to have been five, 10, even 40 or 50 years ago, and all that is left of it will be how accurately you remember its every detail and how well you can pass along those memories. It’s a skill that can be cultivated.
It’s more difficult now, when much of what passes as news and conversation is little more — if at all more — than the speculative ravings of the folks in my Grand Central Terminal IOS recordings from 40 years ago next Tuesday. But that makes it even more our duty.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Wednesday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.