An Event of Our Own

I like to use the present to reflect on the past. A vastly under-used and under-appreciated approach to history is to speculate on how an event from your life and mine connects back to the past. Let’s use US Air Flight 1549 to explain. As you know, it’s one of my most popular modules and sessions.

The fact that 155 people are aboard an airplane is unique to the 21st century and part of the 20th century. Before then, there were no such moments or events. That means that the experience we saw with Chesley Sullenberger and the other 154 souls on 1549 would never have happened before. The emergence of Sully as a folk hero and contemporary legend is completely our own event.

The people of, say, Philadelphia in 1823 lacked the opportunity to have this type of present. They couldn’t look at 1549 and find a story of bravery, inspiration, or a dozen other things. That doesn’t prevent them from finding such meaning in other events of their lives; they certainly did.

Two points here. First, their versions of 1549 had a smaller scale. One person saves two or three other people. Second, and this is the reverse, our versions often require much larger numbers in order to reach and hold our attention. The small-scale example of one person saving two/three people is something you’ll hear about every other day on local television newscasts. They just don’t stick with us for very long or they don’t expand beyond local audiences.

Had you lived before the mid-20th century, you would never have known an event like 1549.