Saturday, January 29, 2011

On Tragedy

January 28, 1986.

My just turned 14-year-old self laid bunched up on the only lounging surface in our living room - a small, uncomfortable love seat - wrapped in blankets, suffering from some malady or another...likely Ihate8thgrade-itis. The TV was on. Those were the days when daytime television was still a host of good game and talk shows and  All My Children, General Hospital, and Days of Our Lives were still compelling.

This day was different though. This day, every network channel was broadcasting the same thing: the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. Clearly, these were still the days when space travel and shuttle launches still held the country in thrall. The days when broadcast television still cared to show us the miraculous science that was about to hurtle seven people to a place where McDonald's did not exist. Hard to believe there still are such places, you know?

Photo Credit: Kennedy Space Center via Wikimedia

When the realization of what'd happened sunk in, I cried, alone, wondering if my classmates had any idea of what had just occurred. It took awhile though for understanding to dawn on me that there was no escaping that fiery ball of death. No parachutes, no comic book auto-eject mechanisms, no jaws of life.

An entire nation watched helplessly as seven people evaporated in flame.

"I remember how we all walked away in silence, there was really nothing to say." - Gary Shapiro KUSA 9 News

I would never be the same. I'd never forget the date.

Yesterday evening, as I sifted through my Facebook news feed, catching up with all the posts from the day, many people had been talking about that day 25 years ago...where they were, how old they were, what they remembered, how teachers, parents, authority figures reacted and attempted to protect them from the reality of life and death and national tragedy.

I was struck by this - how many of my generation would remember the day so clearly - until it dawned on me: the explosion of the Challenger was my generation's first real taste of tragedy on a national scale.

We weren't alive for JFK's assassination or Bobby Kennedy's assassination or Martin Luther King's assassination. Oh sure, we'd gotten a taste of tragedy when John Lennon was gunned down but he wasn't a countryman, it wasn't about the collective Us. We'd never experienced a moment when an entire country effectively stood still, watching, grieving with nowhere to turn.

It's a powerful moment - that first one.

Photo Credit: Charles H. Porter IV via Wikimedia
Almost a decade later, the bombing of the Oklahoma City Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building would happen and I wonder, was that the moment for the generation after mine? It didn't feel the same for me. I, of course, was terribly saddened over it and would visit the memorial a few years later and feel grief over it. But it didn't grip me quite like Challenger did. I don't remember the exact date without first recalling another point of reference from a tragic event in Denver four years later - the Columbine High School shootings. And the only reason it sticks out is because, at first, there was speculation that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold might have been motivated by the Oklahoma City bombing in some way. Not so. They were just two really sick kids.

Then there was 9/11. Another day, just like the Challenger day...for everyone. Enough said.

This morning, I sit here and I'm thinking about the national tragedies we've endured over the last few decades - assassinations, a little domestic terrorism, horrifying space accidents (first, Challenger and then Columbia), 9/11. Benchmark moments for many of us - remembering times, dates, places.

So few really - few enough for most of us to have that kind of recall about them. Still...too many.

But it makes me wonder - if I lived in a turbulent country, in, say, the Gaza Strip - would I benchmark my life by the moments when national tragedy didn't occur?

No comments: