Thursday, January 28, 2016

Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth

Thirty years ago this morning, the space shuttle Challenger exploded.  I happened to be in a car and heard the news on the radio.  It wasn't until hours later that I saw the footage.

It was a different time, with many fewer televisions.  I lived in a college dorm, and very few of us had our own TV sets.  TVs were expensive back then.  You wouldn't mount them around a waiting area in multiple sets.  You wouldn't mount them at all, because they were heavy and bulky.

I think of how much news I've gotten from the radio.  On September 11, 2001, I was listening to NPR before I headed off to teach at the University of Miami.  I assumed a plane had gotten off course, and headed to the car.  It was as I made the long drive down I 95 that I heard about the second plane and  third plane at the Pentagon.  I kept driving, although I was tempted to drive home.  I didn't see the towers collapse in real time.  I was still in the car.

In many ways, I'm glad for the times that I heard the news on the radio and then saw the footage later.  I had time to process the news before seeing the pictures that would haunt me for the rest of my life.

I didn't hear President Reagan's speech in real time.  Have I ever heard the whole speech?  I can't remember.  I do remember chunks of it, so I looked it up this morning.  It's an amazing piece of writing.  Reagan was blessed with some wonderful speech writers, like Peggy Noonan, who wrote the speech that he delivered after the loss of the Challenger.

The whole text of the speech can be found here.  It's a masterful work, from the beginning to the end.  He talks directly to the family members of the crew and the other NASA workers.  He talks to the nation's schoolchildren, who would have been watching when the first civilian teacher in space was lost.  He talked to the nation, with stirring words about exploration and the continuation of what's been started.

I continue to be in awe of the conclusion of the speech:  "The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

It's a speech that both inspires and comforts, an interesting rhetorical task.  It makes me think of various writing assignments that I might give to my students, if I was creating writing assignments.  It would be interesting to read the speech on paper, and then to see the footage.

It would be interesting to task students to create a piece of writing that strikes the perfect notes in the perfect combination, notes of comfort and courage and inspiration. 

I wonder how many of my students would be familiar with this incident.  How many of them would have opinions about Ronald Reagan?  I'm certain that most of them wouldn't know the speech.

It's hard to believe how long ago Reagan gave that speech.  It's the kind of event that makes so many people wistful for the politics of long ago.  We forget that the politics of those times were ugly too.  But tragedy does have a tendency to make us forget our differences, if only for a moment.

Today I'll move through my mundane life, the surly bonds that keep me tethered.  I'm old enough now that I'm grateful for those bonds.  I'm hoping that my loved ones also stayed anchored to this earth for awhile longer.  I'm grateful for days when those bonds are not blown to bits.

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