There are questions (as well as answers to them) that help to bind a community, a nation, and, sometimes, even a world—questions and answers that serve to generate common discourse.
In November 1963, I was a fifth-grade student at Saint Anthony’s Grade school in Germantown, Wisconsin. On Friday, November 23, near the close of the school day, Father Bornbach, pastor of Saint Anthony’s Church, came to the school and asked the nuns to gather the older students together. From the rectory, he had rolled to the school a television which he turned on to Channel 3. While waiting for the screen to warm up and the pinpoint of light in the screen’s center to burst into the eye of CBS, he announced in a choking voice that something terrible had happened. The next voice we students heard was that of a visibly distraught Walter Cronkite, the fatherly and friendly newscaster, relating that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. The priest then lowered the sound and led us in the recitation of prayers for the soul of the country’s first Catholic president.
“Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” This is one question that most every sentient person who was in the United States and old enough to remember at the time would be able to answer. November 23 was, for US citizens at least, a day when the world forever changed.
In Indonesia, a common where-were-you question among the older generation is “Where were you in 1965” but the one where-were-you question that today unites a far greater slice of the population is “Where were you in May 1998?” or, more specifically, “Where were you on May 21, 1998?” That day in May and the cascade of events leading up to the resignation of President Suharto after his 32 year stranglehold on power are etched in the common memory:
Like November 23, 1963 for the United States, May 21, 1998 was indeed a day when the world forever changed for Indonesia.
Where was I that day…? By May of 1998, after having spent 21 years in Indonesia, I was as upset as the general populace with the country’s political malaise and longed for a change in government but, because of the country’s economic collapse, with the value of the rupiah falling from Rp. 2,600 to more than Rp. 14,000 per dollar in just a matter of months, Lontar was in dire financial straits as well. So it was that in early May I embarked on a fund-raising tour to four cities in the United States—Honolulu, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and New York—where friends had set up fundraising dinners for me.
At the first dinner, in Honolulu, my stomach felt squeamish and by the next day, I was suffering from a full-blown case of diarrhea. Three days later, in San Francisco, the situation had not improved; I couldn’t hold down any food. When I managed to see a doctor, I specifically asked that the hospital laboratory check my blood for tropical-related disorders. When the lab results came in, the doctor prescribed a course of antibiotics that are commonly used for viral-related disorders.
Three days later I was in Washington D.C. The antibiotics were not working and I was weaker still, barely able to make it through the event that had been arranged for me. The short trip from D.C. to New York was a nightmare. By this time I had lost more than ten kilograms in body weight and almost the power to speak. Fortunately, a close friend who came to the fundraising event in New York forced me to go see a doctor at Lexington Hill Hospital who was a specialist in tropical disorders. It turned out I had been wrongly diagnosed in San Francisco and that I was suffering from a full-blown case of amoebic dysentery. I was put into the emergency room, given huge doses of metronidazole and subjected to a battery of tests, all the way from brain to colon. The kindly doctor who had correctly diagnosed my illness told me that I had come very close to suffering permanent and irreversible physical damage.
During this time I was going in and out of consciousness: I couldn’t see well, couldn’t speak, couldn’t focus on anything. The outside world had disappeared but then, a few days later, on May 13, the kindly doctor came into the room and, like Father Bornbach 35 years previously, hesitantly told me that should turn on the TV to CNN. When I did I was horrified to see scenes of my beloved Jakarta burning and journalist friends speaking of the mayhem that had befallen my home.
I was able to check out of the hotel a few days later so it was at the apartment of a friend on May 21 when I, still recuperating in bed, watched the news of Soeharto’s resignation. My body was weak and it would take months for me to regain the weight and strength I had lost during my battle with the amoebic invaders. I remember crying as I watched, with tears of sadness for the damage that had been inflicted during this time of change for Indonesia but also with tears of joy and hope for the future of the country.
John H. McGlynn