Where were you?

Wednesday morning. Sheila talks about the Shuttle tragedy and includes the entire transcript of President Reagan's speech memorializing the group that became known as "The Challenger Seven". I cannot believe that it's really been 18 years.

Eighteen years ago this morning, I was, as usual, in my thrice weekly 8am Spanish grammar class. (Yes, I really had a class at 8am three times a week. How many days a week I was there is an entirely different topic.) I don't remember anything out of the ordinary on my way home. When I walked through the sliding glass door to my on campus apartment, one of my three roomies was sitting, transfixed, in front of the TV. I don't remember what, exactly, she said, but I know that she told me that the shuttle had crashed. The thought immediately flashed through my brain, "was that today?" When did I stop watching every shuttle launch? I don't remember. Some time between the very first one, which they brought every student in my junior high into the library to watch on TV, and that chilly (even in La Jolla, California) January morning in 1986. They had become so routine, you see, nothing special at all. The only reason I even knew that the shuttle was scheduled to be launched around that time was because of the huge amount of publicity surrounding the inclusion of the first civilian astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher from New England. (We didn't have cable or daily newspaper delivery on campus, so it was all network news for us. It's a wonder, really, that we knew anything at all about what was going on beyond the safe borders of campus.) I joined Sue (my room mate), and we sat in front of that TV all day, skipping the rest of the day's classes.

I remember that our primary thought processes ran something like this: this can't be happening, things like this don't happen to us, we're the most powerful nation on Earth and this just can't be happening. I suppose that you could say that this was the first time that our nation's vulnerability was thrust directly into our young, idealistic faces. We were the children who came of age with Ronald Reagan and knew, with absolute certainty, that nothing terrible could ever happen while he was in charge. We knew that our country could do fantastic things, that our future was limitless, and that there was no wrong in the world that the U.S. military, backed by the energetic and optimistic residents of this country, could not put right.

As I write it now, of course, I see the incredible naiveté and insularity of our worlds, but that was just the way things were for upper middle class 18 year olds in 1986. Challenger changed everything and it was just the beginning. Iran Contra, Chernobyl, the Iraqi missile attack on the U.S. frigate Stark in the Persian Gulf which killed 37 sailors, the Black Monday stock market crash, and the explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland of a Pan Am flight carrying 259 people (many of them college students) all came in rapid succession, each of them stripping away another layer of our innocence, each pushing us inexorably toward adulthood. For me, this event clearly marks the end of the happy, carefree years of my childhood. Part of me wishes I could put the genie back in the bottle so that I could have that innocent time back, but then I remember everything I've come through since then, and I'm glad to be right where I am.


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