Today is another one of those “where were you when” days ~ the ones my generation like to ponder with a sentimentality which increases with the passing of years. This particular anniversary – of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger – has perhaps paled in significance when compared with our more recent penultimate national tragedy. But because today is the quarter century anniversary of that horrific event, it’s gotten more press than usual.
So where was I on that day? I was in the office of our local cystic fibrosis foundation, stuffing envelopes. I’d decided to do some volunteer work, and I’m not sure how I happened to choose working for the CFF, but I’d been going there once a week since my son started kindergarten that fall. I remember I was addressing thank you cards for memorial gifts – addressing them by hand, mind you, because there were no computers in those days, and the lone typewriter was reserved for the director’s secretary. Besides that, I think it was felt that a hand addressed note was more personal. And I had nice handwriting, so the job fell to me.
Someone in the office heard the news on the radio, alerted the rest of us, and we gathered around a small television that appeared from somewhere. We stood there transfixed, watching the endless replays as the shuttle rose into the clear blue sky (why does the sky always seem so perfectly blue on these days of national tragedy?) and then suddenly become nothing but billows of white smoke you could almost have mistaken for the fluffy white clouds that would be typical on a winter morning in Florida.
While I watched this tragedy unfold on a tiny screen, it occurred to me that my parents-in-law were most likely seeing it happen in person. At that time, they spent the winters in a small condo on Cocoa Beach, just a few miles away from Cape Canaveral, and the residents routinely took their lawn chairs out into the front lawn to watch the frequent shuttle launches. Because it was 1985 and I couldn’t whip out my cell phone to call them, I had to wait until I got home that afternoon to hear their reaction.
“It was just the most awful thing I ever saw in my life,” my mother in law said. “Seeing that rocket ship go up there like they always do, and then suddenly – nothing but smoke! We all knew something terrible had happened. But we couldn’t believe it would just blow up like that, with not a trace left.” Although neither of them ever spoke about it to us again, they sold their place in Florida soon afterward, and never watched another space launch in person or on television.
Those kinds of tragic occurrences, the loss of life, the failure of technology, are humbling to say the least. They make us recognize not only our mortality and the insecurity of life in general, but also the fallibility of our dreams. One false move, one unchecked statistic, one faulty part, and everything we hold dear goes up in smoke.
It makes life challenging, that’s for sure.