Monthly Archives: January 2011

25 Challenging Years Ago

On this date 25 years ago, I was a third year student at Northern Illinois University.  It was the year before I got the infamous basement apartment that has begotten so much of the lore that is still associated with my college years, but the year after I moved out of the Stevenson Towers dorms on the other side of campus.  There were a group of seven of us that moved into a house on College Avenue right next to the campus radio station, just past the Kishwaukee River and the East Lagoon.  I only stayed for a year, but it was not because I didn’t like the people I was living with, it was more a need to live a less communal life.  The reason I moved out of the dorm was to be more independent, and living in that house with six other people still had the feel of structure I was looking to get away from.

On this particular Tuesday morning, I had actually started my day early because I wanted to watch the space shuttle take off.  I was never really a space buff, but I do have fuzzy memories of sitting with my dad and watching rockets take off.  I would assume these would have been the last of the Apollo missions or possibly the Space Lab missions, like I said, they are a bit fuzzy.  Once the Space Shuttle program started, we would watch anything we could.  From the early days of those take offs from the back of a Boeing 747, to the actual first flight into space of the original shuttle Columbia in April of 1981, the idea of travel is space fascinated me.  There was also another reason to watch this particular launch, and her name was Christa McAuliffe.

The Teacher in Space Program was conceived as a way to inspire students to achieve excellence in math and science, and to increase interest in the space program.  After President Ronald Reagan announced the program, more than 11,000 teachers from across the country applied for the honor of being the first civilian in space.  It took more than a year to slim down the candidates, but the eventual winner was a social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire named Christa McAuliffe, and suddenly the unassuming 37-year-old was the newest American star.

The additional excitement created a greater than normal interest in this particular launch, as schools around the country set up screening rooms to watch.  I was watching from our living room there in DeKalb, but the original launch time was delayed.  The frigid temperatures that morning in Florida caused some concern, and they kept pushing back the lift off time.  I had a 10:30 class, so I was a little impatient as each delay pushed me closer and closer to the point of missing it.  Finally, when I knew I could wait no longer, and obviously in some regards too late, I had to make a dash for class.

Since I was already running late, I grabbed my bike and trekked out into the snow.  Peddling as fast as I could, I crossed halfway across campus to Cole Hall.  Already late, I dumped my bike and rushed into the oversized lecture hall, only to be greeted by an image that has become way too familiar over the past 25 years.  The screen at the front of the room had been pulled down, and the class was watching the news of the Challenger launching.  I remember my first thoughts being frustration, because if I had known we would be watching it in class, I would have left early and not missed it.  And then it took about another ten seconds for me to realize what I was actually watching.  The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded upon take off, killing all of those on board.  And it all happened live on TV.

The Challenger disaster was indeed a turning point in the history of the world.  It would be another fifteen years before we all watched in horror as the World Trade Center collapsed in front of our eyes, but this was the world first live disaster.  It was some years earlier, in 1963 that the world watched Jack Ruby kill Oswald in that dark, black and white live broadcast from the Dallas police department, and the late sixties and seventies gave us the most graphic coverage of a war ever, as all three of the major networks brought Vietnam right into our living rooms, but the Challenger was more personal, and it was live and in color and bigger than life.  We all knew the name, and in just 73 seconds we all saw it just vanish.

It was almost too silent in Cole Hall that morning.  People just sat in silence.  A few weeps could be heard.  Even the voice coming over the speakers from the projected images in front of us was too soft.  After 25 years, I still remember the empty feeling of that day.  So much has happened since that time.  The expansion of entire news networks has put us in a front row seat to history.  Even as I write this we are watching changes in the Middle East as protesters riot in Egypt.  We watched the ravages of hurricanes, and the terror of students fleeing shootings at their high school.  We even watched this event repeat itself almost seventeen years later to the date, when the Space Shuttle Columbia shattered upon reenter on February 1, 2003.  Little did I know way back in 1986, that Cole Hall itself would become the sight of yet another tragedy as a gunman killed six, including himself, right there in that same auditorium on February 14, 2008.

Despite the tragedy, the Space Shuttle program is still very active today, although seemingly less publicized.  There are currently three space shuttles still in service today.  Discovery, Atlantis, and the Challenger’s replacement Endeavour.  Discovery is scheduled to fly again in about a month, and Endeavour is scheduled for launch again in April, although it may have to fly without its commander Mark Kelly.  He has been tending to his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot on January 8th in Tucson Arizona.

Today’s memory is for the crew of the Challenger.  Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnick, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith, and Ellison Onizuka all gave their life for our country and the pursuit of knowledge and exploration.  It would have been a shame if their story had been the end of the line for the space program, and somehow I think they would be proud that it was not.  The name Challenger has been fused into our collective memory, and as soon as I realized that today was the anniversary of that event, I was  transferred instantly back to the very day it happened.  Twenty-five years have faded the shock, but the honor of those brave travelers will live on forever.

The Road to Westport….

Part Five of Our Treacherous Ireland Holiday

After many requests for the next Ireland installment, and Tom responding that he would write again after Sox Fest, I found it necessary to hijack his blog and tell my part of the story – as I was the driver on this adventure  – and would be for the entire trip.

Two hours into the trip, Tom lost the lens of his glasses, and then sat on them, mangling them into some sort of infinity symbol, putting me in the driver’s seat, infinitely.  Having driven in Ireland before, I had no problem driving, until I realized the island was covered in snow and ice.  “It’s treacherous” and “the roads aren’t gritted” became two of the phrases I dreaded most.  I was so tired of hearing it, especially when it wasn’t bad driving at all…until we left Bushmills.

Having spearheaded this adventure, I planned all the routes, and I have no one to thank (or blame), only myself.  According to googlemaps.com, the drive from Bushmills to Westport is 4 hours and 23 minutes.  Add Irish drivers inexperienced in manuevering through a half inch of snow, and it doubles.

We left Bushmill’s about 1pm, meaning we should arrive in Westport by 6pm.  As we started, still awestruck from Giant’s Causeway and full of adrenaline from crossing the Carrick-a-Rede, we were stoked to get to our next destination.  The afterglow wore off during rush hour traffic in Sligo.   Really, Ireland?  Rush hour traffic in Sligo.  As we left Sligo, I could tell I would participating in one of the sports I hate most: Driving in Ireland at Night.

Let me backtrack here and state that in my younger days, I was pretty fearless, but time and wisdom and some bizarre sense of responsibility have kicked in – especially since I have four new people in my life.  I didn’t care about driving safely in any previous trip, but I wasn’t carting around someone’s dad.  If my friends were silly enough to get in a car with me behind the wheel, what with my proclivity for speeding tickets and reckless driving, then that’s their fault.  Now I’ve got to get someone’s dad back safe and sound, and I’m driving on a sheet of black ice.  To quote Depeche Mode, “I don’t mean to start any blasphemous rumors/but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor/and when I die, I expect to find him laughing.

There are a million stars in the night sky in Ireland, probably because its so far north, but also because it’s so bleeping  dark.  After Sligo, the sun started to set, and I started to sweat.  I wish I could blame it on booze, but the night before was our night in, and I didn’t even finish my glass of wine at dinner.  This was fear – fear because I’m driving on a two lane highway and I have no idea what’s around me.  I could be driving next to a lake, a wall, a grizzly bear, anything, and I would have no idea.  Rumor has it that part of being a good driver is seeing everything around you and there was, with my better than perfect vision, blind as a bat. 

Ireland for all of its natural wonder and beauty, prefers to leave their natural wonders unmarred – i.e. no guardrails.  If there is a guardrail, it tends to be made out of plywood sticks and chicken wire, so as not to spoil the view.  It might as well be made out of spun sugar, for all the good any of them would do.  If the car is going over, some little garden stick isn’t going to stop it.  This is why driving in Ireland at night could be considered an extreme sport – I don’t know what’s next to me, and if it’s something wet, I can’t see the end of the road.  If I catch a patch of ice, we’re so flipping dead, literally.

So bring on Sligo and the night, and the crazy Irish drivers that drive toward you with their brights on, blinding you for about 30 seconds, forcing you to pray there isn’t a sharp curve in the road because road planners in Ireland always choose the curved road over the straight.

Despite the “treacherous” conditions, the other drivers on the road passed me – ME! The girl whose license once looked like swiss cheese from the multiple staple holes from all of the speeding tickets.  Apparently, it’s not treacherous at night, because it seemed like the entire country passed me on those backroads.

Just when I thought I could take no more, just when I swear I’d never be able to unclench my hands from the steering wheel, just when I was going to pull over and refuse to drive another kilometer, we saw the lights for Westport.  I knew it was coming, as I was eagerly counting down every last kilometer, with a silent cheer.  I almost wept at the first streetlight, until I saw the patches of black ice dotting the road, and then I just gritted my teeth, swore like I was crossing a rope bridge, and drove right into town, getting there at 8pm, over two hours later than planned.

We quickly found the B&B booked for the night, parked and brought in our bags.  It was a cute townhouse, as Sadie put it “right in the center.”  The Boulevard looks upon the river, which has a series of stone bridges crossing them.  We dropped our bags, ditched the idea of a shower (even though it was probably desperately needed) and headed back out for some much needed food and relaxation.  Our landlady for the night sent us off to a pub that she thought would still be serving food – it was a Tuesday in winter and they eat early.  We struck out at several pubs and opted for Mango – no not the character from SNL – a restaurant.  Ok, so it was a nicer restaurant than we’d intended, but we threw out the other phrase we kept repeating during the trip, “Hey, its our honeymoon.”  After some wine, and crab claws, the memories of the harrowing drive started to fade, much like the agony of childbirth, and it didn’t seem so bad.  Two hours later at Matt Molloy’s pub, after a few snakebites, it dimmed considerably.  Three hours later, when I was  holding Matt’s Grammy in my hand – he’s a member of The Chieftans – I was feeling much much better.