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VOL. 45 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 10, 2021

What are the defining events of your lifetime?

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One of those significant-number anniversaries of an unforgettable event is almost upon us: 20 years since 9/11. This is not a column about 9/11. I can’t bring anything new or insightful to the table on that topic.

Instead, I ask you to consider your personal inventory of events you rank along with 9/11, major inflection points in history that imprinted themselves on your consciousness and provided markers along your life’s path.

For most Americans, nothing remotely comparable has taken place since 9/11. Except – and this is a big exception – the subset of people for whom Hurricane Katrina became one of those inflection points. I’m also excluding the COVID-19 pandemic, since it’s proved a seemingly endless struggle rather than a definable single-day trauma.

With 9/11 approaching, I wondered how my personal version of such a list would square with that of someone who goes even further back than I do.

My parents aren’t around anymore to give me their take. So I asked Roland Harper, a fellow from my Mississippi hometown who is of my parents’ generation, to tell me what he considered the major events of his lifetime.

Roland is in his 10th decade of life. We should all live so long and retain such mental agility.

We had some overlap on our lists, like 9/11, the moon landing and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (which, by the way, I’d probably rank No. 1 on my personal accounting). We differed in that I would not have included the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, as Roland did. I’d also add the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. (And maybe John Lennon’s.)

Roland also included something that predates my experience but that I am sure anyone of similar vintage to his would include: The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

As it happened, he included a lot of other war-related happenings:

• Jimmy Dolittle’s raid on Tokyo

• D-Day invasion of France by Allied forces

• VE Day, victory of Allies over Axis forces in Europe

• Dropping of atomic bomb on Japan

• VJ Day, Japanese surrender

It’s not surprising that World War II had a disproportionate impact on those who were around then. And Roland also included one event that predated him:

“Charles Lindbergh flight, New York to Paris, 5/20/1927. Before my birth, but an achievement long remembered by Americans.”

A few other items on his list: Sputnik launched by the Russians; first heart transplant accomplished in South Africa; speed of sound achieved by man.

He explained his choices as “events that happened and have registered in my mind, mostly as accomplishments, but with a few disasters thrown in.”

“But things of great significance that have had huge impacts on the lives of most Americans and our way of life should be emphasized,” he added. He put as No. 1 in that category the passage of the GI Bill which, among other things, provided tuition and living stipends for college or vocational programs.

“The impact of that action has produced an educated society that has made tremendous strides in developing things that have made our lives easier to endure,” he wrote, “among them, the computer and the technology associated with it.”

“And finally,” Roland added, “an important milestone to the thousands of Mississippi State fans and alumni. 6/30/2021: We won the National Collegiate Baseball Championship!”

As an Ole Miss grad, I don’t share Roland’s regard for that particular sporting accomplishment. But I appreciate the concept, as with his championing of the GI Bill.

Let’s always give 9/11 its due. But let’s also not lose sight of the many good things that life has offered up, as well.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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