Friday, January 28, 2011

Twenty Five Years

My grandmother remembers where she was when Pearl Harbor was attacked. My mother remembers every detail of the day of JFK's assassination. She can tell you all about when schools were desegregated too. We all remember exactly where we were on 9/11/01. In my life there have been a few huge news stories that I'll always remember: Reagan shot, the Berlin Wall tumbling on my 15th birthday, the night the first Gulf War started. And of course the day The Challenger exploded. That was twenty-five years ago today.

I was scared of braces. The week before it had taken the staff of Dr. Hurwitz's office over an hour just to make impressions because I kept gagging and crying. It was torture, but they'd finally gotten a mold of my crooked teeth.

I got to miss school, but of all days. We were supposed to watch The Challenger launch and see the first teacher in space, the most diverse shuttle crew ever who proved to us that in America if you really, truly did want to, you COULD grow up to be an astronaut no matter who you were. I couldn't believe I was going to miss it and I was so disappointed because we never got to watch TV in school.

But luckily there was a TV in the orthodontist's office and you could lean back while they worked in your mouth and take your mind off of things like rubber bands, spacers, bite plates and the dreaded head gear by watching it. As Dr. Hurwitz glued on the brackets and threaded the wires through my mouth, the nurses changed the channel. No one wanted to miss the shuttle launch.

"Hey look, you can watch the takeoff and before you know it, your braces will all be on!" one of the assistants told me. She sounded so excited about it.

I remember how blue the sky looked on the screen. I remember that the orthodontist stopped gluing and put down his pliers and just looked at the screen, forgetting me there in the chair with my mouth jacked open as wide as a python's and I remember how I didn't realize that the clouds, the fireworks were an explosion or that I had witnessed the exact moment of death of seven people. It took everyone a couple seconds to get it. We had watched seven people die. One instant we saw them alive and the next instant they were all no more.

The unthinkable had happened. The space shuttle had exploded. Was that even possible? In my seventh grade, twelve year old world it was not. That wasn't something that could happen. You couldn't see people die on TV in real time. You couldn't watch a national tragedy from an orthodontist's chair. I remember the metallic tang of the dental glue running down my throat and there was nothing I could do to get the taste out of my mouth. I was trapped with my mouth open, full of strange silver and no sound coming out.

I was going to post a picture of the explosion but as I was searching google images for a suitable one, I thought twice. I would be posting more than a picture of flames and smoke. I would be posting the actual deaths of seven people. We have all by now seen hundreds of people at the moments of their deaths on TV, but when the space shuttle blew up that was the first time. We've seen it repeatedly since then and especially since 9/11. We've all watched the footage of the second plane hitting the second tower and then we've all seen the towers fall so many times we've become more desensitized than we'd probably care to admit.

Think about that plane and the Challenger for a moment. As we watched there were people in there, going through the sky, strapped into their seats and we saw them alive. There they go. Alive. Alive. Alive. And then. No longer alive. And we saw that. Repeatedly. We are still watching them die. We will never stop watching them die.

It all becomes very abstract because we didn't see the bodies maybe - just the metal, the explosions, the debris and it isn't flesh so it registers as just news. People on the news that we didn't know. Yes, we are saddened and horrified but we keep watching the people die over and over and over and I just didn't want to post another picture of that. Now, it was so long ago that it may feel even more abstract. I just wanted to remember that there were seven people, real people who died twenty five years ago today as I got braces and that my teeth never fully straightened.


Greg S said...

I think the Challenger exploding was the first real memorable news event of my life - I was a senior in college at the time, and on Tuesdays & Thursdays, I worked at a dog track parking cars. I recall my job started about Noon, and I was home before work watching the Challenger liftoff. I couldn't believe what I had just witnessed - did that really happen?
I will never forget that phrase "go with throttle up" that occurred just before the explosion. They must have played that on the news 100 times in the days that followed. When I got to work, I had to tell the guys what I just saw - they hadn't heard. Nobody could believe it.

Years later, working in Houston, I got to see a 747 with a Space Shuttle on its back fly right by my office window, and then some years after that, I got to visit the space center in Florida. Seeing a shuttle brings mixed emotions, but I am proud that as a country, we carried on.

Anne said...

Geez, WL - that was some of your best writing yet. Seriously, that was very powerful. Thanks for this.

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

I remember this, I was 13. it was a HUGE huge deal for us here, b/c I lived in New Hampshire, where the teacher was from.

You were right, even though we didn't see the people, we saw their deaths. so awful.

Christa McAuliff (the NH teacher), her parents were in the STANDS at cape canaveral, watching. how horrible. I will never forget that.

Melanie said...

It's been 25 years...... Why is this the first time I've ever heard anyone talk about the insensitivity of watching the Challenger explosion a million times over? It's been 10 years since 9/11..... Why is this the first time I've heard anyone express the horror of watching the 2nd airplane crash into the World Trade Center, over and over and over again? Please continue to write about the good in life, but also the bad and the ugly. We need people such as yourself to point out these truths to the increasing numbers of those who are numb to human tragedy as well as human triumph and hope.

islandwonder said...

I remember it like yesterday. I did make it to school and the TV was in our class. Shocking!

Anonymous said...

I am too young to have seen the actual moment, just the history channel replays. But I remember my sister talking about it. How stunning and scared everyone was in her classroom. I have a weird, special attachment to the disaster that most people my age don't have. I have more than the stories of my sister and parents.

My father was part of the Naval dive team that went in and found what went wrong. That found Them, those seven. He doesn't really talk about it. In fact, the only reason I know is because for some weird reason... the team got t-shirts for their efforts. Looking back on it, it seems kind of strange to have a t-shirt made of this, but when I was young, I loved it. I slept in that shirt. My father never wore it, only his children. To me, it meant my father was a hero. I wonder what it meant to him.

Books & BS said...

I remember it too like it was yesterday. I could not believe that we saw the ship explode and they kept playing it over and over all day. I was home from school because I had tonsilitis and my grandmother was watching me because my mom was at work. I was in the 4th grade at the time. My teacher was actually one of the teachers who applied to be the first teachers in space and I believe had made it to one of the later rounds. So, it was even scarier because she could have been the one on the space shuttle.

Anonymous said...

I was three when it happened and still remember it like yesterday. Three! (and utterly space-obsessed)

Our news over here reported this year that the explosion that everyone watched over and over wasn't actually the death of the astronauts. They believe it came some 25 seconds later when their capsule, whole and parachuteless, thudded to the ground. I grieved for them even harder.

Diane Laney Fitzpatrick said...

Oh my god, I can't believe you watched the Challenger explode while in an orthodontist's chair. That is just wrong, on so many levels. Well, just the two levels, but still, that's bad. I feel so bad for you. Reading this, and knowing what was coming, I could barely get to the main point. I kept wanting to turn away.

Deneen said...

This is why I love your writing--I read and I am back to that day too.

I had just started college and was a nervous freshman, far from home, waiting for my general chemistry class to begin. Minutes passed and we started to watch the clock, hoping the 15-minute rule would take effect.

At about the 14:30 mark the professor walked in, looked around like he didn't expect us to be there, and said simply, "The space shuttle has exploded. Class is cancelled. Go home." Then he walked out, leaving us to gape at each other. I went back to my dorm and sat silently with everyone else watching the shuttle blow up over and over until I couldn't take it anymore and walked aimlessly around campus until it started snowing. I felt really lonely and far away from home that day. The only other time I've ever felt like that was 9/11, when I was even farther away from my family.

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