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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challenger's 30th Anniversary

I was almost eleven in 1986 when Challenger was destroyed seventy-three seconds after liftoff.  It affected me deeply.  I sent a letter to NASA asking for a photo and they sent one of the crew, not unlike this:

It hung on my bedroom wall for years and I learned all their names.

Today's the thirtieth anniversary of the accident.  I remember standing in line in the auditorium of Coates Elementary School, waiting to file into the cafeteria, when our teacher, Mrs. Fawcett, came from the teacher's lounge and told us what happened.  (I know many students actually saw it live at school, but we didn't.  Science wasn't a big priority for our school.)

Fast forward to today.  I saw a post on Reddit that discussed how NASA originally intended on sending Big Bird into space in order to spur interest among children, but when they decided it wouldn't work, logistically, they decided to use a teacher, instead.  Then someone suggested that NASA should have sent Santa Claus if they wanted to capture children's imaginations.  After that, someone wondered what that would have been like and said it'd make a good writing prompt.

I took the bait and wrote the below ... click the JUMP:

The father tipped the tree topper to the left and leaned back.  He regarded the tree for a moment and nodded.

"It looks straight to me, Daddy," his daughter said.

"Good."  He walked to the outlet and plugged the mass of green wires into the wall.  The six-foot tall Christmas tree brightened with hundreds of white LEDs.  A few ornaments sprang to life and began to blink.  One even began to move.  The father's eyes scanned the decorations, looking for any that were out of place.  Finally, his eyes rested on the tree topper.  He smiled.

It was Santa Claus.  The standard, jolly and red depiction.  The figure was six inches tall, lighted, and by far the most eyecatching ornament on the tree.

"Daddy," the girl began, "this boy at school said Santa was dead.  That, that he died."

He scoffed and shook his head a little.  "No.  That's not what happened."  He looked down at the couch and saw his daughter's brow furrow.  He took in a deep breath and asked, "What do you know about it?"

She put her hands on her thighs and looked toward the ceiling.  "Santa Claus was on a spaceship and the spaceship blew up."  She nodded once as she was finished; satisfied with her summation.

The father sat on the couch next to the tree.  His daughter sidled up closer to him and he put his arm on her shoulder.  "Have you gotten presents for Christmas?"  She nodded.  "Did this boy in school get presents?  Does he believe in Santa?"

Her eyes wandered and then refocused on him.  "I think so."

He opened his mouth to speak but decided to lean toward the coffee table.  He picked up his iPad and tapped an icon.  

"YouTube?" she asked.

"Mmm-hmm.  I'm going to show you something ..."  He hesitated while he tapped out the letters.  "I'm going to find something that all the TV channels showed ... a few days after it happened."  He saw several thumbnails that the search engine somehow matched to his terms.  He scrolled down and saw the familiar image.  "There we go."

The image went black and a small swipe moved in a circle.  Finally, it loaded, and the black image became grainier and slightly warped, thanks to its VHS source.  The blackness faded, revealing a blue-walled living room.  A door stood high on the left side, and a wooden bannister ran diagonally behind the kind-faced older man who sat calmly, wearing a green sweater.  

"Hello, boys and girls.  I know people are feeling sad.  You've been sad.  Including your moms and dads.  Maybe you've even seen grown-ups cry.  That can be scary, right?  Maybe you cried, too.  And that's OK.  It's OK to cry when things are sad."

The father held his head up and swallowed past a catch in his throat.  The pang of nostalgia hit him harder than he expected.  He looked at his daughter while she watched the tablet, enraptured, and then he turned back to the comforting sight of Fred Rogers.

"It's sad when people die."  He looked down a little and said, slowly, "It's very sad, but people and animals die.  Maybe you had a pet that died."  He nodded and stood, walking to the right.  The camera followed him as he spoke,  "You felt sad.  Maybe you cried.  But you have memories.  You have happy memories of your dog running outside.  Or your cat playing with yarn."  He picked up a small can and leaned toward a fish tank.  "Or feeding your goldfish."  He sprinkled the can and an offscreen piano twinkled.  He smiled and lowered the fish food before walking back toward the bench.  "If you remember the fun times, the good times, it can help when things are sad."

He leaned over, picked up a few placards, and kept them face down in his lap.  "Seven people died in the accident on Tuesday.  They were astronauts, people who fly to outer space."  He held up the first placard, showing portraits of six of Challenger's crew.  "This is Francis, Michael, Ronald, Ellison, Judith, and Gregory.  They were going into space to learn more about our world.  They wanted to learn more about science and ourselves."  He set the placard down and picked up another.  

It was a picture of an older man.  A larger man than the others.  He was wearing an astronaut's flightsuit and a big smile.  "This was the seventh astronaut.  His name is William.  He was fifty-eight years old.  He served in the United States Air Force for a long time, keeping us all safe.  He dreamed of being an astronaut.  Do you want to be an astronaut when you grow up?"  He smiled and said, "That's a good thing to be."  He looked down at the placard and lifted a third one with his fingertips.  "William said he was happiest later in life."  He picked up the picture, showing the same image of William as before, but side-by-side with a picture of the man as Santa Claus.  "Years ago, he started to dress up as Santa Claus."  Mister Rogers smiled again.  "He would visit hospitals and stores and talk to children.  He made them very happy.  He was asked if he would like to go to space.  Now, he dreamed of being an astronaut, so he said, 'Yes!'  And he was asked if he would like to go to space, dressed like Santa Claus."  Rogers nodded, "He smiled, and said, 'Yes,' again."

The father looked away and wiped a tear from his eye.  Everything about this was just as he remembered.  The way his voice raised and lowered.  The tone.  The smile he had despite the news he was delivering.

"We saw William in the news.  He was dressed like Santa, floating while he practiced to go to space.  We saw him walking with the other astronauts, wearing their astronaut clothes."  He put the placards down and crossed his legs.  "We all had fun, talking about Santa Claus going into space."  He shook his head a little and said, "But Santa Claus wasn't going into space.  William was.  And Francis, Michael, Ronald, Ellison, Judith, and Gregory.  The Space Shuttle had an accident and these seven brave people died.  It's very sad.  Their families and friends will have good memories of them.  It's OK for us to be sad, too.  It's OK for us to cry."

After being melancholy for a moment, Rogers reached behind his back and produced a small Santa Claus figurine.  "Santa Claus didn't die.  Do you know why?  Because all of us - me, you, your parents, your friends - we can all be Santa Claus.  We can give to people because it makes us happy.  We can give people things they need or things they want.  We can give to people even when we don't have something to hold in your hand because we can give people love.  That's what Santa Claus is about."  

He put the figurine aside and lifted another picture, showing all seven of Challenger's crew.  "Let's be sad for a while and think about our seven friends.  Let's cry about it.  Then we need to hug our family and tell them how special they are.  We should do that every day."  He brought the figure back and set it next to the picture.  "And in December, let's smile when we see this 'jolly old elf.'"  He grinned and gently waved to the camera, "So long for now."

The footage ended and suggested videos appeared.  The father put the iPad on the table and cleared his throat.  "So.  What do you think?"

His daughter smiled and hugged him.  "I love you, Daddy.  You're very special."

The father hugged her, tightly, and failed to contain his tears.  He looked at the tree and caught sight of a small, red trolley ornament.  Then he looked back up to the Santa Claus tree topper and smiled.

(I ain't going to lie.  Reading back over that and imagining Mister Rogers read those lines made me get choked up.)

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