Monday, March 26, 2012

The Focal Point of History

The first attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II took place on Wednesday, May 13, 1981, in St. Peter's Square at Vatican City. The Pope was shot and critically wounded by Mehmet Ali Ağca while he was entering the square. The Pope was struck 4 times, and suffered severe blood loss. Ağca was apprehended immediately, and later sentenced to life in prison by an Italian court. The Pope later forgave Ağca for the assassination attempt. From Wikipedia

The amazing thing? That I was there. I watched the Pope arrive in his little white convertible jeep—the Pope-mobile—they called it, someone standing near Professor England—my BYU English professor—pointed a pistol and shot the Pope. He fell in a swirl of white robes and the crowd in the square turned from revered respect to bedlam. Screaming. Wailing. Running. Pushing.

Holding hands, my friends and I struggled to stay together as the crowd surged around us. And I remember thinking I’m a spectator in all this drama. I wrote to my then wanna-be boyfriend of the experience and he wrote back something like— being in the focal point of history. But it was the focal point of someone else’s history, not mine. I knew that then and I know that now.

Fast forward a few months. It’s Queen Elizabeth’s birthday and I’m sitting on a London curb watching the Beef Eaters in their strange hats pass by. Finally, the Queen on her horse—and gun shots. I admired how calmly the Queen quieted her bucking horse. It seemed that within seconds the parade continued as if without interruption, but I had to wonder why I happened to be sitting directly opposite of the Queen and her would be assassin.

1981: Queen's 'fantasy assassin' jailed
A teenage boy who fired blank shots at the Queen during a Trooping of the Colour ceremony has pleaded guilty.
From the BBC.

Many years later I’m standing on a corner in Seattle, waiting for a light to change. I’m alone—as alone as anyone can be on a city street. My husband is in business meetings and I had been poking through stores, wasting time until he can join me. A motorcade rolls by—a parade of dark tinted windows and sleek black limousines. Nelson Mandela—I’d heard he was in town. As he passed, I tried to look in the windows and I wondered if he could see me, standing there, imagining him behind the dark glass.

And then, I’m traveling from Orange County to Seattle. At a lay-over in San Francisco I’m greeting by a transit authority who tells me to run. Why? I ask. Just run, he tells me. So I run. I try to ask the people running beside me why we’re running, but no one knows. And we’re all running. Later, once safely in me seat, the pilot explains that President George Bush and Air Force One would soon be landing and that any travel would be indefinitely paused. A day later I’m waiting for my sister, she arrives late, telling me that she got stuck behind President Bush’s motorcade. The next day I’m meeting an old friend for dinner, we decide to go to Redmond for dinner because President Bush is in Seattle, and we want to avoid him. As we drive into Redmond, crowds holding signs line the streets. Inside the restaurant, our waiter points to the hotel across the street where President Bush is staying.

It’s been a number of years since I’ve brushed with the “focal point of history.” And yes, I was there in Rome and in London, but just like that moment when I stood on the corner watching Nelson Mandela pass by, I don’t really know what it’s like to be shot at. I don’t know what it’s like to fear for my life. I can’t really write about that fear with authenticity, because I wasn’t there. Even though I was. I saw it, but I didn’t live it. I was a spectator to the drama. It wasn't my drama.

And this is, I guess, the power of imagination, the ability to take the focal point of history and make it your own. Only, I don’t want to write about assassinations—failed or otherwise. I don’t want to write about political refugees or beleaguered presidents and heads of state. I want to write about families. Because this is what I know best, what I want to know best. I'm coming close to the midpoint of my novel Losing Penny. For an excerpt, visit

1 comment:

  1. When I started reading this my first thought was " I wonder if she was there at the same time as Eugene England." I've read his account of that day and live it. But I love everything he wrote.