Since the advent of television in the thirties and forties, each generation has had its’ very own date in history which can never be forgetten. The fifties had Sputnik; the sixties had the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK; and the seventies had Nixon’s resignation. My generation (growing up in the eighties,) actually had two such moments: the day Ronald Reagan was shot and when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the former. It’s a day I will never forget.
I was just five years old and living in a suburb of Miami, Florida. Like a typical Kindergartner, I was playing outside with some neighborhood kids when my Mom suddenly appeared at the front door of our house with a crestfallen look on her face. “Pauly, come inside now please,” Mom said in a tone of voice I’d never before heard. “Why, Mom?” I replied as I walked up to her. It was nowhere near dinner time yet and the sky was clear, so I was wondering what I had done. “Please come inside, the President has been shot!” I immediately started to cry and went inside as she’d asked, wondering why she was so upset. I now understand that the world had suddenly turned upside down and she wanted her youngest son close to her. In retrospect, I can’t blame her.
As was customary for me, I had a lot of questions for Mom that day. I was five and very inquisitive. As was customary for Mom, she eventually got sick of answering my volumes of questions and told me to go read a book. Instead, I glued myself next to her in front of the television. At the time, all I knew was that Reagan was the new President (he’d been in office less than three months,) and that he’d been hit once. I remember Mom crying a little when the television reported (erroneously) that Press Secretary James Brady had died at the scene.
Reagan was at the Washington Hilton that day when John W. Hinckley, Jr., the scion of a wealthy Texas family of Republicans, opened fire with a .22 caliber pistol. His motive (if it can be called that,) was to impress (lesbian) movie actress Jodie Foster, who had co-starred in the film Taxi Driver several years before. Hinckley, then 25, ironically shares a birthday (May 29th,) with the last President to die by an assassin's bullet, John F. Kennedy. Hinckley was later found not guilty by reason of insanity and remains at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D.C.
The shooting made the effervescent Reagan more popular with a once suspicious electorate. Gone were the concerns about his age (at 69, he was the oldest man ever elected President,) after he pulled through with flying colors and a hardy constitution. Reagan even managed to crack jokes with his doctors before surgery, reporting telling them “I hope you’re all Republicans!” The suspect suddenly became an eighties icon and spent nearly all of the rest of the decade in the White House.
In case you can’t tell from reading my blog posts, I am not a Republican … not even close. So, my memories of that day have nothing to do with any particular feeling for Reagan himself. I will never forget that day for one simple reason: it was one of the very few times I saw my mother truly vulnerable and frightened. Mom is a senior corporate executive and I’ve seen her intimidate men twice her size and multiple times her strength. She’s survived the death of two husbands and countless other bumps in the road of life, and always came out on top. But that day, I saw something in her eyes and I knew all was not right. It was a look of fear and uncertainty, the very same look she gave me that morning when the Twin Towers went down. For that reason only, I will never forget March 30, 1981.