Friday, January 28, 2011

Where were you when?

Where were you when....? Every generation had this moment. For my Grandparents, it was likely the afternoon of December 7, 1941.  For my parents, likely November 22, 1963. For our children, likely September 11, 2001. For me, and those of us from our generation, January 28, 1986.

I was living with two other roommates in the St. Charles Apartments in Macomb, IL adjacent to Western Illinois University. One roommate, Jim Fletcher, was in ROTC and had long left for PT training early in the morning. Another roommate, Jeff Yeager and I were still at home getting ready to leave for school. I remember "killing time" watching The Price is Right on CBS. The Price is Right was interrupted for the launching of the Space Shuttle Challenger. It wasn't unusual for this to happen. In the first few years, every space shuttle launch was broadcast on television. Space, The Final Frontier, was truly American. We watched with great amazement how such a feat could occur. Each and every time we were truly amazed once again. This launch was particularly important to broadcast, for the first time an American school teacher would be on board for the space mission. Millions of school children and teachers tuned in to watch the launch. One of their own was making them proud.

It would be the tenth and last mission for Space Shuttle Challenger. Seventy-three seconds into flight, Challenger exploded. First a huge fire ball of explosion, then a magnificent plume of white. We knew something awful just happened. I remember my roommate saying under his breath, "holy shit". I was speechless. I remember the professional way the voice of command center stating, "Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation," reported public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt. "Obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink." After a pause, Nesbitt said, "We have a report from the Flight Dynamics Officer that the vehicle has exploded."

I walked to school that late morning across the parking lot of Tanner Hall.  I remember the skies were very clear, with a few high clouds. I looked to the sky and thought, "they are out there somewhere." I was heading to Waggoner Hall to my Experimental Psychology class. My professor, Dr. Eric Ward, was a very large and very happy man. He would always greet each student who came in the room by name, "Good Morning, Charles....this is going to be our greatest day ever!" is how he'd greet people as they came in the room. On this particular morning he was solemn. He greeted us telling us today's class would not be required attendance. We were welcome to stay and just chat about what we saw today, heard today, and just deal with the national tragedy on our own terms. No one was going to learn anything in class that day except how people deal with tragic events. Dr. Ward stuck around to take part in the discussion. I remember almost everyone stayed. This was very unusual in college. If a teacher said class was not required, almost everyone left. Dr. Ward was a classy guy. He loved his students and his profession. He realized this was our "Where were you when?" moment. He had his "where were you when?" moment--twenty-three years earlier. And he was now there for our moment when we needed someone with the perspective of experience.

I remember President Ronald Reagan postponing his State of the Union addressed planned for that night. Like Dr. Ward, President Reagan knew this was a moment we'd remember long after it occurred. He spoke so eloquently about the tragic event. He said the seven astronauts, "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." America needed that from our president.

1 comment:

  1. I remember working at the QCT building and was in the circulation manager's office when Janie called and interupted our meeting to tell us about the explosion. Obviously, we all rushed upstairs to the newsroom where a television hung above the city desk. Clamored around was anybody and everybody who could to catch the news and watch the horrific explosion and, even more sadly, the faces of the families bundled up and staring skyward trying to figure out what had just happened to their loved ones. I still have those faces of despair burned in my mind. Truly tragic day for all Americans.