On Saturday morning, Feb. 1, 2003, I was watching basketball at Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church on Highland Drive. My daughter, Eleni, was playing with her GOYA team against St. Vincent’s Catholic Church and they were getting crushed. Eleni’s team won the championship last year and hadn’t lost in two years, but the girls from St. Vincent’s, well they’re pretty darned good. Must be the Stockton and Hornacek inspiration. Early in the first quarter, someone turned and said the space shuttle had exploded.
Only a few people said they’d heard already. Most people, me included, didn’t even know the space shuttle had been launched, though I did remember reading about the Israeli astronaut. I just didn’t know he was up there. No one left for the car radio. It would be another hour before I saw the TV images. That was at Lumpy’s. Juevos Rancheros, Bloody Mary, CNN. Another disaster, another place and time memory.
It’s been that way for a long time now. I remember gazing up at Sputnik from the steps near our front porch and I remember the reports of American test pilots being killed on our own experimental aircraft that would lead to John Glenn orbiting the earth. Glenn remains a hero, and he’ll tell you lots of guys died getting him there. I remember my dad describing one such crash as we drove along the Bacchus Highway. I was about seven years old.
President Kennedy was assassinated when I was nine (during lunch period). I was at home watching live TV when Lee Harvey Oswald got it. At 13 it was Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy (my mother told me of both when she woke me for school). Toss in Jimi Hendrix (at Fontana’s house), Jim Croce (with Max Davis driving down the Bingham Highway), Mama Cass (house party), Jim Morrison (over coffee at the Huddle) and John Lennon (Monday Night Football at Club 90), and that’s just the start of a lifetime of burying heroes and icons. Just when I think it can’t get worse than the Challenger explosion (at our old office in Midvale Printing), the Oklahoma bombing (over eggs at Anchor’s Aweigh) or the World Trade Center attacks (live on my bedroom TV), it does.
But something was different this time. This time I didn’t move. A slow-motion disaster. I checked the scoreboard instead and marveled at the girls from St. Vincent’s. By the time I got to Lumpy’s, it was clear everyone aboard the Columbia had died. At Lumpy’s I found out I was older than all of them. That was disconcerting.
When I was Eleni’s age all the kids knew the names of America’s astronauts and many kids had favorites, just like the Beatles. If Gus Grissom, Ed White or Roger Chaffee was your favorite, you remember where you were when they burned up during a test of the Apollo spacecraft. I’ve outlived so many of my childhood heroes that sometimes I just don’t know what to think.
Yet, heroes and tragedy remain a constant. From Ancient Greece and Rome, through Shakespeare to today, we are shaped by grandiose people and events. Some will rise, some will lead, some will fall. At this point, I guess I’ll start looking down for inspiration.