As you get older, one of the redeeming pleasures is a narcissistic kind, taken as you contemplate moments in your life that took place concurrently with increasingly distant and thus legendary moments in history.
Studs Terkel made comedy of this late in his life, whenever he was asked the year of his birth.
“Nineteen twelve!” he would shout. “The Titanic went down, and I came up!”
I’d been showing this stirring Fred Rogers congressional testimony to audiences of professional speechwriters around the world for a decade before I put it together that the hearing had taken place on May 1, 1969—the day after I was born. There I was, a day old, nine pounds, six ounces and still in Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, while this still-obscure puppeteer was articulating a deeply humane philosophy of how to talk to children—a gentle philosophy that my mother, when she recovered from my tardy and violent birth, would draw on heavily in her determination to raise me differently from how she grew up.
The other way to do it is to take big moments in history that took place when you were a kid, and contemplate your obliviousness to the moments and forces that were shaping the society that you were unwittingly growing up in. The day after this happened, for instance …
… I received a gold-painted Ross bike with a banana seat for my birthday, that I gleefully rode in one thousand counterclockwise circles while my mother loosely supervised. Then she told me to try it clockwise, and I crashed into the woodpile. Was the end of the war on her mind as she sat there smoking?
I was 10 years older when the Challenger space shuttle exploded, and I should remember that better. But then, I was an adolescent. And in fact, I happened to be in an adolescent drug treatment ward, in Sioux City, Iowa on Tuesday, January 28, 1986. I wasn’t watching TV that morning. I was probably in group therapy, listening to everyone talk about their drugs of choice until we got to poor Tommy D. from Ames whose favorite drug was “huffing gas.” Or I was contemplating Anteena from Iowa City, the first lesbian I had ever met—and the only girl I was attracted to in the whole place. Or I was laughing at hapless John from Council Bluffs, who wrote to his grandmother asking for more cigarettes and got a carton of long, skinny, brown More cigarettes.
As I remember it, we were called to the TV after the explosion. So I never saw it live. In fact, as I learned on a recent evening’s deep-dive, most people didn’t. It was late morning Eastern Time, and only un-ubiqutious CNN carried it live—CNN, and lots of classrooms, into which NASA piped the feed live, to celebrate Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.
Thanks to YouTube, we pick up CNN’s coverage at 11:00 E.T., as CNN anchor Reid Collins opens the hour by announcing that President Reagan is preparing for the State of Union Address, and seven astronauts have been cooling their heels for more than an hour and a half, as “the unseasonably cold weather in Dixie has affected even the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. … However, NASA officials say they have determined that icicles on the launchpad do not present any real problem, and they’ll attempt to get the shuttle off the ground a little more than half an hour from now. … And the first teacher-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, will give lessons from space—perhaps refrigeration lessons.”
But more importantly: preparations from the State of the Union address, the making of which “has kept the White House staff at odds for days.” CNN’s Frank Sesno reports from the White House that the speech will be shorter than usual—”about 20 minutes,” and more “thematic and visionary.” The president’s advisors—none explicitly called speechwriters—”engaged in a full-scale tug-of-words, as they attempted to craft his speech,” Sesno says. Chief of Staff Don Regan reportedly ordered references to abortion and the Soviet threat cut from he speech because they were “too controversial and confrontational. … Yet an official described that second draft as ‘deadly dull.'” Communication director Pat Buchanan and others overruled Regan and “put the ideology back, but toned it down.”
Then, a story on the likelihood of MIA-POWs remaining in Vietnam. (God, that story went on a long time.) Another story on a drug scandal among the New England Patriots, many of whom seemed to be using a lot of cocaine as they prepared to face the mighty Chicago Bears, in last Sunday’s Super Bowl. (But not enough, as they lost 46-10.) A story on the death of L. Ron Hubbard. Another, on a pricey Pentagon purchase of Bradley tanks. One on the cause of a bomb blast that brought down an Indian plane killing 300-some people—a crash that no one but the relatives of the dead remembers. And so on and so forth. Nothing seems less important than yesteryear’s news.
Even yesteryear’s commercials tell us more about the time. CNN airs the most ’80s spot ever, for Fortune magazine: “Twenty-seven years old, and his company was just purchased for $10 million dollars. Thirty-four, and she was just made vice president of a well-known bank …. You may wonder how these people do it, but they’re just like you and me—sharing the same desire for success. … And whether you’re working your way to the top, or you’re already there, Fortune keeps you ahead.”
The CNN weather guy tells us how the weather is across the country. There’s some video of some poor schlubs in Pittsburgh struggling to walk through snow and wind. (I don’t remember the weather in Sioux City that day or even that month, because we weren’t allowed out of the unit.) The weather guy notes with the Challenger, “everything still looks good that they’ll be able to get off in the next—probably the next half hour, so we’ll keep you posted on it.”
More yesteryear’s news. I guess what’s most interesting is that it is news, rather than discussions or interviews with senators or congresspeople, or analysis or arguments among talking heads about the night’s State of the Union or any other issue. Just news—even if that news does include a boring report from the “Business News Desk” and a story about a couple that “exchanged vows underwater.”
About three minutes to go, according to CNN correspondent Tom Minter, and now we catch a view of the Challenger on the launchpad, and hear the NASA audio feed. “T minus two minutes, forty-four seconds and counting ….” Minter details some of the chores of the mission, but notes that the highlight of the trip will be McAuliffe’s lesson from space, scheduled for Friday.
“Coming up on the 90-second point in our countdown,” says NASA launch control man Hugh Harris.
“T minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, we have main engine start, four, three, two, one, and liftoff! Liftoff, of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”
The Challenger is going great guns, up, up into the ever-darker sky. Still going great, almost a minute after liftoff. “So the 25th space shuttle mission is now on the way, after more delays than NASA cares to count,” says Tom Minter confidently. “This morning it looked as though they were not going to get off—
Twenty long silent seconds, and then Minter comes back, “Looks like a couple of the solid rocket boosters, ah, blew away from the side of the shuttle, in an explosion.”
NASA control: “Obviously a major malfunction.”
CNN’s Minter: “We’re awaiting word, they’re holding their breath just, I’m sure, as everyone else is ….”
NASA: “We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. Flight director confirms that. We are checking with the recovery forces to see what can be done at this point. … Contingency procedures are in effect. We will report more as we have information available …”
CNN’s Minter: “In what appears to be a major catastrophe in America’s space program, Challenger, only seconds after leaving the launch pad, according to NASA, has exploded in mid-air. No word yet if there are any survivors ….”
Pieces of the shuttle are splashing into the ocean. I don’t remember these scenes at all, and I only learned in research for this writing that the astronauts likely survived the breakup of the ship, and their bodies were recovered in their cabin, in the water; the only possible reason I could not have known this by now being my fervent wish that they were blown instantly to smithereens.
And now we see a parachute, and hear the CNN anchors making hopeful sounds. “We don’t know what’s attached to that parachute.” It turns out it’s recovery personnel dropping into the ocean to go after the Challenger debris.
Mission control is silent.
CNN cuts to tape of an excited Christa McAulliffe getting ready to board the shuttle earlier in the morning.
And now a shaken-looking White House press secretary Larry Speakes is reporting from the White House briefing room on President Reagan’s “shock at what he has just, ah, seen replayed on television concerning the shuttle launch. … Ah, the way the president found out about it is he was, ah, in the Oval Office, ah, with a group of senior staff, ah, preparing for some questions with, ah, a group of network correspondents and anchors that were having lunch in the White House, ah, today regarding the budget and the State of the Union. The vice president and the foreign policy advisor John Poindexter, ah, came in with others, and informed the president that the news had just broken. Ah, we immediately adjourned our Oval Office meeting and went into an adjoining, ah, room …”
I recall nothing from this, just vaguely all of us being gathered together in a common room to watch the explosion. If I felt anything beyond a highway gaper’s fascination, I don’t remember it.
My dad was likely at his writing office in a cold barn on Barlow Road; my mom perhaps at her own IBM Selectric in her home office whenever the electronic news intruded. In any case, they absorbed this catastrophe in the context of their firstborn son, diagnosed as “chemically dependent,” in a Nancy Reagan “Just Say No”-era insurance-covered adolescent “hoosegow,” as my dad always called it, several states away from our family home in Ohio.
My dad, a World War II veteran and a private pilot (and a Republican) surely took some comfort in the speech Peggy Noonan wrote for President Reagan, who instead of giving his State of the Union Address delivered an Oval Office tribute to the astronauts, quoting without attribution from RAF fighter plight John Gillespie Magee, Jr.’s classic sonnet, “High Flight”:
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Three days later, a 5.0 earthquake rocked Northeast Ohio. I didn’t feel that, either.
But I feel it all tonight, boy.
As I’ve written here before about my preoccupation with the past: “It’s not that I don’t like new things. It’s that my life is a continuous attempt at communication, not just with the people around me today, but with everyone who ever was, and everyone who ever will be.”
Including my dead parents, my adolescent daughter, and the adolescent me.