Saturday, January 28, 2006

Challenge to Remember

The New York Times reminds me that today is the 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. So many thoughts, so many memories. Some say that that, for my generation (X), it was the equivalent of the assassination of JFK, the "I remember what I was doing when I heard..." moment, although 9/11 trumped that, although by then we were in Gen-Y.

Anyway, 20 years ago today, I was a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles. I had been one of the first students in my geology class to finish a test. I had turned in my work and was leaving Fowler Hall, exiting from the stairs at the North end of the building. The building was quiet, as classes were still in session. I ran into one of the geology professors, Don Woodhead. He looked like he had just seen a ghost. "What's wrong, professor?" I asked. "The Space Shuttle exploded." He may have said more, but those were the only words I heard.

My next class, I believe it was a 10 AM (PST) "core" class called "Collegium," a year-long melange of liberal arts core discussions covering multiple subjects. That day's lectures were to be held on the North end of campus, which was where I headed. I ended up in the lobby of Newcomb Hall, the dorm closest to the lecture location. Dozens of students had already gathered. I believe only a handful of students showed up for class. We were all glued to televisions watching over and over again.

A senior at Oxy named Bill Cochrane had been on a game show called "Press Your Luck." Bill was one of the chief attractions of the Occidental Yell Squad, and a very popular guy. Many of us had planned watching him later that morning after class. His episode never aired. He told me later that he was pissed off about that, but understood under the circumstances. He missed his 15 seconds of fame. He had been hit by an entirely different Whammy.

It seemed that everyone focused on Christa McAuliffe, the ill-fated school teacher who had been among the crew. Not to take away anything from Ms. McAuliffe's legacy, but for a small segment of the U.S. population, she was not the chief object of mourning. I know I felt a greater tug at my heart when I heard one of the other astronauts was Ellison Onizuka, the Hawai'i born astronaut. He was a home-town hero to the people of Hawai'i. We related to him because of where he was from, as I'm sure each of the seven astronauts had entire states and regions mourning especially for their own home-town heroes.

That term in college, Collegium participants had to complete "creative" projects. My friend Chris Konzelman composed an original piece for the piano called "To the Challenger." My project, called "Poetography," was a series of photos I took, about which I wrote poems. The last poetograph consisted of a photo of the administration building. It was a black and white shot. The flags on either side of the building fly half-staff, limply. A woman is sitting on the stairs, reading. The structure has two columns of white cement on either side. In the picture I took (not the one below), the white starkness of those two columns is

contrasted by a trick of light, or shading, or developing, two faint black images mirroring the white columns, rising vertically into the air.

The columns look like two black trails of exhaust, driving the building into the earth.

1 comment:

Jenise said...

Don't forget... 2/1 there will be another "anniversary" for the space program. We were at Disney World that day, very sad... so much for great birthday treats that year!