Into the distance, a ribbon of black

A skinny blond teen and two of his friends, a roving snapshot of 1980s Americana, shuck and jive into the bland fluorescence of their school’s cafeteria on an almost-mild midwinter morning. It is institutional off-white and nondescript — except for today. It smells of salt and grease and energy and noise — especially today.

The boys manifest the twerpishly confident manner pathognomonic of half-aware adolescent males, and when they spot the television they wander across the crowded room in search of a better vantage point. The insistence of the occasion fails to diminish the semidiscordant babble of two hundred bustling bags of hormones, but all eyes are trained on the screen. Few will say it, but this is their day; their school’s moment not only in but toward the sun. “Tide Pride” carries the ring of genuine meaning.

The face of a classmate, one of the lucky ones actually in Florida, winks across the screen. She is unaware of being in the camera’s lens because her eyes, aided by binoculars, are trained on the cold clear horizon. A collective hoot erupts among her schoolbound peers.

The moment is finally at hand. It has been long in coming after several frustrating but necessary delays: too cold. The scientists are tip-top and prideful and would no more capriciously reschedule this event than would the school’s fifteen hundred students and faculty cancel it. Yes, and faculty: for once teachers and students are aligned on parallel axes, unified in their anticipation of the greatest earthly (so to speak) undertaking ever to sweep through their mutual corridors and classrooms.

Ice is forming on the tips of my wings

Unheeded warnings, I thought I thought of everything

The students quiet themselves just enough to gather intelligence from onscreen and initiate a counting down from ten at the proper time. But this interlude is brief and when the triumphant if unheard roar of two impossibly powerful engines — gobbling up dangerously volatile but necessarily lightweight hydrogen — sends the space shuttle Challenger toward an unprecedented destiny, a chorus of cheers echoes throughout a room transformed. It is 11:37 a.m.

A minute into the launch, the level of chatter in the room has already ebbed toward near-standard lunchtime levels, and a few students are no longer glued to the screen at all. With the Challenger well clear of the launch pad, the worrisome and exciting part is over; all that remains is lots of footage of interesting if arcane experiments to be broadcast from outer space in the days to come.

At T plus 1:13, there is a flash on the screen; the blond youth does not move but his heart yields a burp. Twin plumes of smoke appear on either side of the soaring spacecraft, forming a curly-Y-shaped cloud of exhaust and post-traumatic effluvia that will later become blackly emblematic of the day’s incalculable, lethal boondoggle.

Above the planet on a wing and a prayer

A vapor trail in the empty air

NASA photo

A gasp thrums through the room, a synchronous surge of toxic adrenalin that vice-grips the kid’s chest just so, as in the instant after a stumble preceding a sure headlong fall. But then it is over.

The boosters, he thinks confidently. He has always loved astronomy and is something of an authority on the space program, he reckons, and this is what is supposed to happen as the shuttle zings toward the troposphere. They just dropped the fuel boosters. He figures his less-informed mates have intuited more or less the same thing.

He wanders into the food-service area. From the dairy cooler he selects an eight-ounce carton of Hood chocolate milk. A girl he does not know from the senior class is the only other student gathering victuals. And then one of the women behind the counter, short, fiftyish, aproned and hairnetted, begins speaking in a parrotlike squawk. THEY’RE SAYING THAT THING BLEW UP OVER THE DAMN WATER she declares, her face twisted into an almost parodic rictus of agitation. She was the Lunch Lady, all right.

The kid doesn’t believe her. She was, after all, the Lunch Lady, not the Launch Lady. How she came by her information he will never learn; she cannot see the television and no one can yet hear it. Perhaps she had a radio in the kitchen.

And then a huge cry of “QUIET!” — a male teacher is clearly its source — hammers through the shrill and panicky air. The kid replaces the carton of milk and gives the girl beside him a vacant yet purposeful glance and as he shuffles back toward his fellows, there is dead quiet in the cafeteria and only the television can now be heard.

The kid rejoins his friends as he focuses his disbelieving attention on the incantations of whoever is leading the broadcast. In a moment both his denial and his understanding are utterly complete. He swivels his head to say something to his friends (in a whisper; it is still preternaturally silent) and his words freeze on his palate as he sees their mouths hanging open and their eyes glazing over with terrible wonder.

And he realizes he looks just the same way.

The president of the senior class, wearing a party-favor hat and holding a kazoo, stands apart at the back of the room, looking perversely beatific as her face goes nineteen shades of slack. In hindsight her choice of accouterments is perfectly macabre and footage of her standing alone and defeated is later one of the prime shots fed by network television to all of America.

Because they all know. He knows and everyone in other corners of the school and the city and the nation and the world know that Concord High School social studies teacher S. Christa McAuliffe, tabbed to become the first teacher in space, will never make that journey or any other except down, down.

Then someone finally looses a tortured wail and the yammering starts and people are heading for the exits and what follows is a scene the kid at some level knows will never be replicated in his lifetime, not for him. Members of the major television networks, gathered in anticipation of what is ostensibly the greatest day in the school’s history, are suddenly charged with covering its darkest and they go at it like smiling piranhas, cornering gibbering students alone and in groups only to be warded off by teachers, some crying, with near-violent hysteria.

No one is running; this is not a theatrical panic scene or a nightclub conflagration. It is a sort of muted subatomic pandemonium that knocks every student, teacher, administrator on their backs with little fanfare. In short, no one, from the principal to the custodial staff, knows whether to shit or go blind. Instead, everyone shuffles around almost at random, muttering wide-eyed to anyone in reach: “Do you believe this? Do you f*cking believe this?” Those who doubt the perhaps overused description “zombie-like” as applied to human constructs were not in Concord High at midday on January 28th, 1986.

But there was no doubt about it. The Challenger, and with it the lives of seven astronauts, had been lost.

A soul in tension that’s learning to fly

Condition grounded but determined to try

Can’t keep my mind from the circling sky

Tongue-tied and twisted, just an Earth-bound misfit, I.

3 thoughts on “Into the distance, a ribbon of black”

  1. Fifth grade, about to go to lunch when a teacher came to the door and informed us. First images we saw were on a black and white TV in the cafeteria kitchen, and they were far too muddy to make out. I honestly thought it had blown up on the pad and didn’t find out the whole story until I got home.

  2. I had composed something maudlin to share, but after previewing, I decided I’d rather share this:

    Some deference was given to the PAO in requiring that spacecraft names retain some sense of decorum, taste and historical perspective. This prevented Wally Schirra from naming his Apollo 7 spacecraft “The Phoenix” in honor of Grissom and the Apollo 1 crew, as it was felt the “fire” metaphor would not be taken in the proper spirit and understanding by the average taxpayer.

    (From Grissom’s wikipedia page )

    What does this have to do with the Challenger accident? Chance historical association. My father had a flag (made by my mother), like a USA flag, but instead of stars on the field of blue, it had a rounded triangle – a silhouette of a command module, and the date 1 / 27 / 1967 – for the Apollo 1 accident. He was never one for any other kind of patriotic display, but most years on the 27th of January he’d get it out and fly it.

    So I was naturally thinking of accidents on the 28th.

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