Where Were You When?

Where were you when?

It’s a question we ask about iconic historic events. Where were you when … we landed on the moon? You heard Kennedy was assassinated? The plane hit the second tower?

Where were you when?

It’s a way to place ourselves in history. To show that we have borne witness to things that matter. To connect our experience with the experiences of others around the world.

Where were you when?

I thought about the importance of this question as I read All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The novel tracks several lives in Europe during the years leading up to and during World War II in both France and Germany. The central characters are a blind girl in France and an orphaned boy in Germany, both coming of age in the midst of the conflict. By continually providing complex answers to the question “Where were you when?” for these two young people and others connected to them, Doerr tells the story of lives intimately shaped and transformed by global conflict.

Much of the story told in this novel takes place during the summer of 1944 as the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner ultimately come together for brief moments. In a chapter titled “The Simultaneity of Instants,” Doerr takes the question of “Where were you when?” very seriously. The short chapter begins and ends with Marie-Laure and Werner in a tall house in Saint-Malo, France on August 12, 1944. Between these points we glimpse the instant in the lives of others. And these glimpses remind us of how the forces of history connect us.

If you haven’t read this book, you should. If only for this stunning chapter.

As I read about these simultaneous instants in the midst of World War II, my thoughts turned to where my father was on August 12, 1944. Not a surprising turn for my thoughts, as I wrote a book (War Makes Men of Boys) about his transition from boy to man during his service during the war. I’ve thought a lot about “where he was when” in those years.

Dad was at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi that August. He didn’t like it there – it was hot, he had few friends during this second phase of his training, and the camp was thoroughly unpleasant – he repeated a joke in one letter that if God was giving America an enema, the tool would be inserted at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi. After D-Day he was hopeful that the war was coming to an end, and that the worst that could happen would to be part of the Army of Occupation.

And once I started heading down this rabbit hole of simultaneity, I thought of all the women journalists I’m writing about. Where were they in the summer of ’44?

  • Marie Anderson was volunteering at the Serviceman’s Pier in Miami, entertaining soldiers on leave and their families.
  • Dorothy Jurney had just moved to Washington D.C., taking a job as assistant city editor at the Washington Daily News.
  • Vivian Castleberry had just graduated from SMU and started working for the Petroleum Engineering Publishing Company – and she was corresponding regularly with her platonic high school friend, Curtis.
  • Maggie Savoy had resigned from her job writing for Red Skelton and was moving to Phoenix to open her own public relations firm.
  • Carol Sutton was enjoying her summer vacation – she’d return to elementary school in the fall to continue editing the grammar school newspaper, Rumors are Flying.
  • Gloria Biggs, married to a real estate executive and concert pianist, was writing technical manuals on aviation.
  • Marj Paxson and my mom had both just graduated from college (Marj in Missouri, Mom in Detroit) and were beginning jobs with national wire services.
  • Colleen “Koky” Dishon had just covered the Republican National Convention for the Zanesville News

Why do all these “where were they whens” matter? Because where – and what, and who, and why – they were then is shaped by history and shapes the future. My mom and Marj would not have been able to get jobs at national wire services if not for the war. Marie’s volunteering at the Serviceman’s Pier led to a job offer in journalism after the war and affected the rest of her career. Vivian probably wouldn’t have married childhood friend Curtis if the relationship hadn’t built up over months of wartime correspondence. Dad’s time in the final European Theatre battles of World War II influenced his subsequent attitudes about family, relationships, and morality. Indeed, the late Andy Rooney – of 60 Minutes curmudgeon fame – made this point with regard to the whole of the “Greatest Generation,” noting that their greatness had little to do with special qualities and everything to do with having “had a Depression, a World War II, and a Cold War against which to test their character.”

I’m not just talking about the butterfly effect here. Yes, we can trace important outcomes in our lives – and in the world – to minute causes. But it’s even more important to understand that the trajectory of our personal lives are embedded in and powerfully shaped by social history.

Every generation looks with derision at the generations that follow. My mom once told me that her parents shook their heads at her social life (the words “sexually promiscuous” came up in the conversation) and her political beliefs (Grandpa apparently never forgave that her first vote was for FDR). In the 1960s, the term “generation gap” was invented to describe conflicts between establishment parents and their hippie offspring.

Today, it’s the Millennial generation that takes the heat. They’re narcissistic. They’re not team players. They’re entitled. They’re coddled. Feminists can be especially pointed in this trashing. Young women don’t understand or appreciate what their mother and grandmothers did for them. They don’t care about systemic change. By God, they don’t even understand what being a FEMINIST is!

But we should take a step back and ask the “where were you when” questions here. My daughter’s life has been lived in a world shaped by terrorism and economic uncertainty. My daughter’s feminism developed in a world where many battles had already been fought and won and when issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender identity were coming to the forefront. Why should she be the same kind of feminist as me any more than I was the same kind of feminist as my mother?

Learning about history is undoubtedly important. But for me, it’s not about the dates or the events or the large sweep of social and political change. It’s about the private lives being lived in the midst of that history. It’s about where you – and they – were when.


  1. Where’s the “love” button? This narrative winds beautifully, connecting many points of where and when. The private lives seems to make history more real and history can make us better understand those private lives.

    1. Yes! It’s the connections between private life and what’s going on in the world that fascinates me and animates my work … we can learn so much from ordinary lives in the past.

  2. A riveting read, Kathy. Your writing is as connected as the history and private life connections you portray. Well done!

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