Thursday, January 31, 2008

Feburary 1, 2003

Five years ago I was living in Nacogdoches, Texas, preparing to move to Boston for a new job. I had just come back to Nacogdoches (pronounced ‘nack-a-doe-tches’ – silent ‘g’) from my last apartment-finding trip to Boston. I had exactly one week left before the big move.

I was in that “I’m going to miss everything” stage – friends, co-workers, potholes, restaurants, sights. And I was really going to miss my barn. The whole time I lived in Nacogdoches I had lived in a fabulous apartment that was one-third of an old barn. The apartment was very large and open with the bedroom upstairs and everything else downstairs. My cat Dickens LOVED to run laps around the barn at top speed. It was like the Cat Indy 500 in there sometimes. The barn was behind a house that had a pink flying pig mailbox and belonged to the world’s best landlords. If I could have packed up the barn and the mailbox and the landlords and brought them all to Boston, I would have done so in a heartbeat.

So that morning I was lying in bed, sleeping in a little, although I’d already checked the sky through the bedroom window: sunny and bright blue. It was January but it was a warm day. A nice day for running errands and finishing up the packing.

A loud roaring sound, sort of like thunder but louder and longer, opened my eyes. My bed started shaking – I thought it was the cats, but no, they were on the bedroom floor freaking out, ears flat and tails frizzed. We looked at each other and couldn’t figure out what the roaring and shaking meant. The whole barn was rattling. I still couldn’t see anything outside my window but blue sky, utterly cloudless. It went on for at least 30 seconds, maybe a minute. When it was over I ran all over the apartment looking for clues and finding none. I looked through my front window and saw my landlord standing on the driveway behind his house, looking at the sky and scratching his head. I figured he was as confused as I was (though I found out later he could see exactly what had happened).

I went back upstairs to my bed and called my dad to tell him I’d just experienced my first earthquake. My dad was skeptical. While we were talking I could hear my step-mom in the background. They’d gotten up early to watch the space shuttle fly overhead as it came down to land. She said, “They’ve lost the shuttle.” All three of us realized at the same moment that the noise I’d heard and the shaking I’d felt had been Columbia coming to earth in pieces in East Texas.

The rest of the day was surreal. I watched CNN report the tragedy on my landlord’s television (mine was already on the road to Boston). It was weird to know more than the CNN reporters.

I did run some of my errands that day, although parts of town were roped off by FEMA as they salvaged pieces of the shuttle. I couldn’t get to my bank and post office – a piece of fuselage had landed in the parking lot.

The rest of that week was a blur. The town was taken over by FEMA and news reporters. I was packing and doing last-minute things. All of us were in shock, trying to process what had happened. I kept remembering the Challenger disaster in 1986 – like a lot of school kids that day, my friends and I sat in the cafeteria watching the footage over and over, watching the shock change our teachers’ faces into unfamiliar masks.

A friend of mine told me that to him the Columbia tragedy just wasn’t the same sort of iconic tragic moment that Challenger had been. I can see that. By 2003 our world had changed so much compared to 1986. No more Cold War, post-September 11th (although we hadn’t yet gone to war in Afghanistan or Iraq). And of course, post-Challenger itself. We had seen this before. I suppose it’s like an inoculation when you’ve experienced that kind of tragedy – the first sting of shock means it won’t sting quite so fiercely the second time around, although the tragedy may resonate just the same.

But I disagree with him. Columbia was more real to me than Challenger. As a middle-school student I saw what happened on television and felt part of a national emotional reaction. Five years ago I was shaken out of bed as the space shuttle, the one we had all begun to think of as reliable and really by this time rather ordinary technology, fell apart in the sky overhead. The crew was lost.

It had seemed like such a nice ordinary day.

The space shuttle program is scheduled to be retired in 2010.

In memoriam:

Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; and William C. McCool, pilot. Standing from left are David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, and Michael P. Anderson, all mission specialists; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist from the Israeli Space Agency.


Nicki said...

Hi, thanks for leaving a comment on my site about the books. I'm going to have quite the Amazon list going!

I've had so much fun reading your entries - I loved you story about the space shuttle and the paper curtain is beautiful. I was a little shocked at Oprah and the slippers. You'd have thought they would have told her before,"You may not touch ANYTHING."

Chaybee said...

You forgot part of the story.. You called your pals, Chay and Scott and told us what happened. We had been asleep, and were jolted awake by the boom.

We drove by your old barn today..we sure miss you!

Whiskeymarie said...

What a sad, but interesting nonetheless, story. I remember Challenger pretty clearly, Columbia not so much. I guess we're just more used to tragedies like this now, unfortunately.