Every generation has one or more of those “Where were you when…?” moments. For my parents there were many – the bomb in Japan, V-E day, V-J Day, Kennedy’s assassination. Those are the same ones for most of my peers’ grandparents, but my folks are older than most. It’s one of those things that people go to when they’ve had that one drink too many and gotten maudlin, or when a song comes on the radio that reminds them of the day, or something.
My generation went a long way without having one. I was born in 1973, and the onslaught of the modern televised news broadcast number a lot of that “where were you when” feeling. It wasn’t enough to just have something happen – it had to be BIG. I was too young to really remember the Iran hostage crisis, but I do remember the yellow ribbons. I was only four when Elvis died, and only seven when John Lennon was shot, so those didn’t have much impact. Until a bunch of assholes flew airplanes into buildings ten years ago, I had only ever had one “Where were you?” moment.
I was in seventh grade, and it was January. It was cold, and it was after lunch, so I was in the middle school auditorium playing Dungeons & Dragons with Billy D. and Bradley. There might have been someone else, too, but I’m sure those two were there. I’m fairly certain that at some point one of the popular girls turned around in her seat in the row ahead of us and called us nerds, which stung, but was unavoidably true. So we were rolling up characters, or rolling attacks, or just generally goofing around, when the intercom box on the wall squawked to life.
The Challenger, the space shuttle carrying seven souls, exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Florida, killing all aboard. Among the crew was Christa McAuliffe, a teacher selected as part of a national competition. This was to be the first in a series of educators in space, a program that ended with McAuliffe’s death.
I remember the shock, the dismay that I felt. Our country had failed at something. It was a big deal to me, the first time I had known the USA to not be the biggest and best. My twelve-year-old mind didn’t quite comprehend everything that was happening. I had missed Vietnam, and Watergate, and was just beginning to understand the impact those events had on our national consciousness. This was the first time I had seen our country reach for the stars and miss. Shuttle launches were ordinary by 1986, so commonplace that while the TV in the library was on and tuned to the event, it was no longer mandatory viewing for every schoolkid. But then it went wrong, and my perceptions of the world changed.
I don’t remember much about the Reagan presidency, but that night he was the President we needed. Just like George W. Bush, who I have blasted on these pages on more than one occasion, was exactly the President we needed in the days after 9/11. Reagan’s words from that night’s speech, quoted from John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s poem High Flight, were perfect.
Today, 25 years later, I still remember.
“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”