Walter Cronkite: Speechless

In the wake of Walter Cronkite’s death, there’s been a lot of thoughtful commentary about the way “Grampa” channeled history for us– at least for those of us of a certain age. I’m 51, so the CBS Evening News was a constant throughout my childhood. I remember Cronkite announcing the deaths of RFK, and MLK, and the constant college unrest. I once told my parents, about 1970, that I didn’t want to go to college since clearly “going to college” meant burning down buildings.

And the space program, of course, which I was a huge fan of; Cronkite spoke of the way that, in spite of how much of the 60s made us downcast, that the mercury and gemini and apollo programs made us “upcast:” that each of us cast our eyes upward to the moon, and how that gave us hope.

But there’s also the memories of listening to Walter when nothin’ special was going on. That’s what I miss, and have missed, over the years– having, as they say on LOST, “a constant.” You’d think I’d be the last person in the world to lament the way so many things change, but it’s hard losing our constants, as if the stars themselves began to wander unpredictably across the sky.

By 1979 I was a senior at Wesleyan, and the hostage crisis in Iran dominated the news. I was the editor of the college newspaper, and lived in a co-ed frat, a huge old brick building with giant white columns. After dinner each night, i’d go into a small study, and there watch the CBS news. Walter was getting old by then, but even there, far from home, struggling with gender, afraid each day i was going to mess up at college, mess up with my life, I’d sit and watch.

And more often than not, i’d fall asleep in front of the TV, just as my father used to do during the endless reports of casualties and loss in Vietnam.

That frat was occupied by the first wave of punk rockers, some of whom were my friends, and they always wanted to watch Wheel of Fortune–or something– instead of the news. Since i was so self-important, I always prevailed. Until i fell asleep. Then, at the end of the news, I’d wake up, and look around.

Surrounding me on all sides were punkers in leather, with studs and mohawks. Watching Wheel of Fortune. Each night, they waited for me to fall asleep, and then they’d change the channel.

This has got to be one of the oddest Cronkite memories (my German mother always liked to remind us that ‘cronkheit’ means ‘sickness.’) But it’s the one I have that feels closest to my heart.

When Armstrong first stepped onto the moon, the amazing thing is that Cronkheit, after all those years, lost the ability to speak. He just sat there shaking his head, amazed. I’ve had that feeling, now and again, during my life, when miracles have occured– and sometimes when nothing was happening at all, except life rolling along. A lot of those times, Cronkheit was there.

Thanks, Grampa. I’ll miss you.

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One Comment

  1. jackie campbell
    Posted July 23, 2009 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    It’s sad we have lost a reporter who actually reported the news. Todays reporters and news broadcasters feet it is necessary to add an opinion. I never wanted opinions, I have my own thank you.
    Good by Walter Cronkite, the example you set will be sadly missed.

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