Daniel Hajek

On a warm May night, the sound of footsteps and a stranger's voice in the darkness outside his home startled a man in Afghanistan. Alarmed, he went to investigate. He saw that someone had affixed something to his door.

He found a handwritten note: "You have been helping U.S. occupier forces and ... you are an ally and spy of infidels, we will never leave you alive."

Dr. Angela Chen, an emergency medicine doctor at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, says she is pretty good at dealing with the unexpected. It's part of what drew her to emergency medicine, and her work on emergency cases trained her to navigate uncertain times.

Then, there was COVID-19.

Most mornings, Paulino Ramos sat under the small tree at the entrance of a busy Home Depot parking lot near Downtown Los Angeles. Other day laborers hanging around on the corner knew they could find their friend there, waiting in the shade for construction jobs. But in early September, they noticed Ramos, the sturdily built demolition worker, looked weak.

It's been a brutal year for Americans.

The relentless spread of COVID-19, the ensuing economic crisis and the reckoning around social injustice has made this a year like none other.

NPR wanted to know how these cataclysmic, consequential events have affected American families and how those experiences might shape their political choices in the upcoming presidential election.

In June, Marcel Lopez and his cousins set up a Zoom video call to say goodbye to their grandfather. Retired physician, José Gabriel López-Plascencia — Dr. López for short — was near death at his home in Phoenix. He was unable to speak, but he let his grandchildren know he was listening.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On Nov. 16, 1989, a housekeeper named Lucía Cerna was startled awake by a violent commotion outside her window.

"I heard shooting, shooting at lamps, and walls, and windows," Cerna writes in her memoir, La Verdad: A Witness to the Salvadoran Martyrs. "I heard doors kicked, and things being thrown."

Armed soldiers broke into the José Simeón Cañas Central American University on the outskirts of El Salvador's capital, and raided the residence where six Jesuit priests were sleeping.

Raquel Idiáquez was cooking dinner with her uncle when she noticed something was wrong. He'd been visiting her in Seattle from Managua, Nicaragua, and that evening of April 15, 2018, he kept leaving the kitchen to take an urgent call.

"I saw him getting a little nervous and going to his phone more frequently than usual," says Idiáquez, 28. "Then he just came to me. He was like, 'I gotta leave tomorrow.' "

In March 1980, Patricia Morales Tijerino and her sister had just left a wedding in a little chapel in El Salvador's capital and were on their way to the reception.

"And then I spotted him," Morales Tijerino recalls. "He was in his white cassock."

Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, was standing alone in a garden outside the church.

Former President George H.W. Bush was deep in nuclear negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The 1990 talks, focused on an arms control treaty, were suddenly interrupted when a seasoned Soviet interpreter made a critical mistake.

The interpreter, Igor Korchilov, said the word "verifying" in English, instead of "verified." Everyone in the White House Cabinet Room froze and turned toward him — including his boss.

Gorbachev quickly said: "No, no — I never said that."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When Yeonmi Park was a young girl in North Korea's Ryanggang Province, near the Chinese border, she went to her uncle's house to watch TV. But this wasn't the usual state-run broadcast praising the "Dear Leader." The movie she watched at her uncle's house was illegal.

She covered the windows with blankets, turned the volume down low and huddled in close around the TV. She watched a pirated copy of Titanic.

A lone, single-engine Cessna airplane enters restricted airspace. The pilot ignores air traffic control, so the plane stays on course. That's when the F-16 fighter jet shows up outside the window with a warning call that blares over the radio: "You've been intercepted."

NBA sideline reporter Craig Sager, a broadcaster nearly as famous for his wardrobe as for his basketball knowledge, has died at the age of 65. Sager had been very public about his diagnosis of leukemia.

"There will never be another Craig Sager," David Levy, president of Turner Broadcasting, said in a tweeted statement. "His incredible talent, tireless work ethic and commitment to his craft took him all over the world covering sports."

Pez Owen was flying over the desert in her single-engine Cessna airplane when she spotted a huge "X" etched in the desert below. She says it was the strangest thing.

"It's not on the [flight] chart," Owen says. "There just wasn't any indication of this huge cross."

Then she spotted another one.

"There had to be some reason," she says. "So, of course, I immediately thought I had to get Chuck in on this."

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