Friday, November 07, 2008

The "four bells" of history

After watching MSNBC Tuesday night and seeing the heartfelt reaction to Barack Obama’s election victory (as well as Eugene Robinson’s Washington Post column Thursday on the same subject – when he was was editor of that paper and I worked in the sports department), I flashed back to the days and nights at the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Michigan, when we would wait and watch for the world to change … for the better.
On that August night in 1974, but I was there at the Students Publications Building on Maynard Street, when the Associated Press wire machines in the back began to go crazy, announcing the resignation of President Nixon.
Aside from missing the unique sound those machines made, the clickety-clack staccato that often kept us going and alert when the nickel Coca-Cola buzz was fading away, along with the stream of cascading wire copy printout streaming down the back stairs to the composition room, I miss the signal of impending major news sent by AP – the bells.
I remembered that one bell signaled a news bulletin coming over the wires, two bells upped its importance and three bells meant you needed to stop and pay real close attention.
However, FOUR bells was the rarest of happenings – only a chosen few events offered the four bell treatment in our lifetime – JFK’s assassination in Dallas, Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. But on that night, the machines were eerily silent for a few moments when the bells began to ring as if Burton Tower was inside the Daily. Some of us rushed from watching the TV in the other end of the second floor and saw the simple bulletin: “Nixon resigns.”
It was, so we thought, a “game changing” event for the world; I guess only to discover that Peter Townsend was right, “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”
BUT … on that hot August evening, it was the biggest news story I had ever seen/heard and indirectly involved in as a newspaperman (albeit at such a tender age). Much has happened since, but when 10 p.m. rolled around here in Texas, and David Gregory and Keith Olbermann simultaneously announced Barack Obama had been elected as the 44th President, the first African-American to achieve the loftiest of goals, my head began to ring with those “four bells.”
To this day, I retain my copy of the Daily (the only complete issued I kept from those halcyon days) with the “Nixon resigns” headline in the biggest type Lucien could find. I am trying to collect as many front pages from various friends across the U.S. to preserve for my children and granddaughter – to show her and them that, yes, you CAN become president of the United States IF that is your ambition. Nothing can stop you now.
When Robinson told his 18-year-old son the same thing, yes, it was now the God’s truth, and, in the comfort of my living room, my composure was far less restrained at the sight of John Lewis’ and Jesse Jackson’s emotional responses.
I was just happy and lucky enough to be alive to see it.

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