Friday, January 28, 2011

What were you doing 25 years ago today?

STS51 patch
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was living in a rented house on Wells Beach Maine and had cobbled together a series of part time jobs to make ends meet. That particular day I was a teaching an undergraduate class in developmental psychology at St. Joseph’s College in Windham. The class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:30 am. January 28, 1986 was a Tuesday.

As was my pattern in those days, I left the house around 9:00 am for the 10:30 class, and on this particular cold morning, I left a little early so I could stop at Wells High School to drop off my rent. My landlord at the time was the principal of WHS and I was figuring that I could save the 22 cents postage by dropping off the check. My landlord was a friend of a friend and it was also a nice diversion.

That particular morning an overnight “clipper” had swept through southern Maine covered the ground with a thin layer of snow making the roads a little greasy despite the fact that the sun was now brightly shining. Those conditions would play a significant role in my day.

Money was tight in 1986 and I was still driving an old Mercury LN-7 with about 90,000 miles on it. The LN-7, sold as a “sporty car” not a “sports car,” had been driven cross-country in the summer of ’82 and I had put about 9,000 miles on it on that trip alone. By 1986, she was tired, but the old lady started every morning and was still getting 40 miles to the gallon on the highway.

That car, like most of the stuff coming out of Detroit in the late 70s and early 80s was a real turkey when it came to strength and power. They built cars cheap and light to give them better fuel economy. This resulted in the car having absolutely no pick-up. On the summer trip I remember having to downshift to second gear to be able to make it over the Rockies at the embarrassing rate of 20 mph.

On that particular morning as I drove into the driveway of Wells High School the thin layer of snow on the untreated roadbed was more than the LN-7 could handle. As I attempted to make the slight left hand turn in the driveway where a score of busses has just passed and compressed the snow into a layer of slick ice, the LN-7 kept her forward momentum and failed to make the turn. Traveling a mere 5 mph or less, given the conditions, I was not worried when the front right tire kissed the curb and vaulted the car to the left. It was only after I had stopped and then attempted to proceed that I noticed that there was something seriously wrong with the steering system. I assumed that I may have just knocked the steering alignment out and parking the car, headed inside to hand over my rent check.

When I returned to continue my drive off to my college teaching job, I noticed that the “steering problem” was worse than I had suspected. I quickly realized that the car was toast and had some major issues with the steering system. Instead of heading to work, I turned back to cross the Mile Road with my wounded vehicle. It was a bit like driving a crab-car as it felt as though the car was moving sideways down the road.

By the time I got home I was furious at myself, pained by the potential of what it would cost and how long it would take to fix the car. The car was my only form of transportation, and on an adjunct-instructor’s meager salary, I was getting more anxious. I would later learn that the frame had been bent, requiring major body shop repairs and would cost more than a few bucks to fix. I was having a “bad day.”

After crawling under the car looking for damage, I settling back in my house, made some coffee and stoking up the wood stove. Moving into the living room, I turned on my stereo that was perpetually tuned to Maine Public Radio. What I heard next was startling.

A news bulletin had interrupted the classical music program to announce that there had been “some kind of explosion at Cape Kennedy.”

I remembered instantly that that morning there was to be the Shuttle launch.

By 1986, Shuttle lunches had become routine and were no longer covered by live television. A child of the 50’s, I remember standing on the roof of our apartment building in 1957 peering up to the early evening sky trying in vain to see The Sputnik passing overhead. By third grade, I regularly announced to adults my aspirations to become an astronaut. By the beginning of high school I had entertained the thoughts of become an aeronautical engineer. But by this time, even I had lost interest in the Space Program.

However, this Shuttle launch was different. For months we had been hearing the news about a young mother from neighboring New Hampshire who would soon be “the first teacher in space.” Around New England and the rest of the county schoolchildren and teachers were enthused with the proposition. The plan was for the teacher in space to actually deliver some lessons to the kids back home. Friends of mine who were public school teachers at the time were thrilled and at least one had applied to the teacher in space program.

I turned on the small back and white portable TV that was part of the furnishings of my rented furnished house on Wells Beach to get more news. It was about 10:45 am and the first scene I looked at, a scene which we have all seen so many times over the past 25 years, was burned into my brain for the first time.

I immediately thought of the millions of kids around the land, safe in their classrooms, watching these scary events live. While the commentators were speculating on whether the Shuttle itself had survived and the potential for some kind of escape mechanism, my heart and stomach sank. My “bad day” was nothing compared to this.

We all know the rest of the story. I remember particularly President Reagan on television that night consoling the nation with these words:

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 the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'

The car eventually got fixed and time has moved on. In the 25 years that have passed we have lost more Space explorers and I’ve been through a fair share of automobiles. But it seems like yesterday.

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