Remembering the Challenger

On January 28, 1986, I was in sixth grade at the St. Francis de Sales parish school in Houston.  We were changing classes between religion and social studies.  It was a Tuesday, so we were on a short-day schedule and had five classes before lunch instead of four.  Social studies was fifth.

All the classrooms had TVs in them, which we used occasionally for important events, like the attempted assassination of President Reagan, like the Astros actually making it to the World Series.  Like the day a faulty O-ring, as we would later be told, disastered the space shuttle across an indigo sky.

All the teachers went to watch the news reports in the library together and left the kids alone in the classrooms with the TVs on.  I watched the replays of the explosion a few times and then, in my typical anxiety response, sat down and started copying the notes for class off the board while everyone else jumped around excitedly, perhaps in fear or awe.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the shape of the cloud, the Y-split, the bulbous contrails of grief and despair, nor of the face of Christa McAuliffe’s husband as he watched the shuttle unfold itself into a brief fire, then a billowing slingshot of destruction, then finally a silent, dripping trail of sadness and disbelief highlit against the too-dark blue of the lower stratosphere.

I recently came across this article, posted about a year ago, which clarified some of the nation’s myths about the Challenger.  In theory, I like knowing that the way we remember things is not always accurate but can be remedied.  However, in this case, some of the details might just be worse than the myths in which we enshrouded ourselves.  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/#.TyOHEZgqMfE

The day the shuttle broke apart, we were sent home from school earlier than usual.  The sky above Houston was turquoise, perfect, unbroken by clouds or contrails or debris.  I went out to the swingset in my backyard, where I’d spent most of my free time since I’d turned five, and thought about President Reagan’s address to the nation, how he’d called the astronauts heroes, how he’d likened them to stars in the firmament.  The mid-afternoon sun was piercing, the air a little cold.  I swung up higher, higher, higher until my eyes closed from the bright searing light, until my eyelids closed upon a red semi-darkness, until I couldn’t reach any higher without slackening the chains holding my swing to the set.

On what I determined would be my final climb, I took a deep breath and leaped into the air.  I don’t remember my fall.  I don’t remember my body’s arc across the yard.  I remember only the brightness, the sky that touched all the way to the ground, the suspension of everything that had ever mattered.  The brief, brief flight of a bird I never was.

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