Go At Throttle Up.

On the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster.

From my book, Rise Of The Rocket Boy.

…My head craned back and boy balanced on my shoulders, I staggered a bit under the weight, both physical and emotional. Not even noticing that I was slowly stepping backwards like an ant in awe of monolith, eventually causing me to collide with another Shuttle watcher also focused on events not on this planet. My shouted apology to be heard over the still impressive roar of the engines seemed to snap Short Stack out of his contemplation.

“Daddy?” The only reason I heard his voice was its close proximity to my ear.

“Yah, Bud? What is it?” I was ready for rocket questions. Any question! Deeply in my element and watching this awe inspiring spectacle, I wanted nothing more than some great technical query from my little, budding rocket scientist. Rocket fueled adrenaline coursing through my veins, I felt I could handle anything.

“Is…” He hesitated. “Is that it?”

…What?

In my pocket, my phone was still beeping like mad with announcements of messages coming in from those who knew where we were. Half a country away, my wife had gotten up far earlier than is comfortable so that she could watch along on the computer. So, according to the incoming texts, had my parents and our friend Coley.

My Parents, 6:24: “Wow! So glad you’re seeing this!”
Coley, 6:24: “Pretty Cool, what a lucky kid!!!”
My Wife, 6:24: “Yippee!”

After all that we had worked through to get here, his question had been, “Is that it?” Thinking on the youth of my audience, I hoped beyond hope that he had simply phrased the question in an easily misunderstood way rather than a more blasé meaning.

“What, ah…. What do you mean, Short Stack?” I cranked my head to get my ear closer to his four year old voice.

“Is that the Space Shuttle up there?

The crowd was still bathed in the light of five burning engines pushing seven people into low earth orbit and the roar was pervasive, rattling around the inside of my brain like an unending thunderclap. Even though it would have been hard to mistake the Shuttle for just about anything else, after a second’s reflection, I could see the problem. Or rather, I couldn’t see it. None of us could, for that matter. It was still before dawn and the sky was painted pitch black with the exception of the incandescent shine rising through the air. The Shuttle it self was invisible. Trying to squint to see it riding atop the flame was like trying to read the writing on the top of a lit 100 watt light bulb. You just couldn’t do it. Not without risking some serious retinal damage, anyway. Short Stack wasn’t let down, he was confused. Something that happens so rarely, that I missed the cues all together. I brightened immediately.

“Oh! YAH! Tha..”

“DISOVERY,” Launch control was being relayed on the public address system. “YOU ARE GO FOR THROTTLE UP!”

My eyes snapped back up to the Shuttle, unblinking. Those words were like a bucket of ice water.

“Roger.” The voice of Shuttle commander came through, calm and even. “Go at throttle up.”

In a flash, I was thirteen again.

In 1986, I was not watching the launch of the Shuttle Challenger.

Most of us, in fact, weren’t. In all but a very few special cases, the Shuttle launch that cold January day was viewable only by taped delay. The stories of kids sitting crossed legged on floors of classrooms and gymnasiums, eyes wide in confusion at STS-51-L ripping itself apart for all to see in that clear Florida sky, have become a thing of invention and legend. We talk about it as if we had all seen it happen as it happened, but the truth is, unless there was a communications van with a satellite dish on it parked out front, such as at a certain High School in Concord, New Hampshire, what we saw was after the fact. A taped delay.

This does not make it any less chilling to those who somehow remember the exact second when we heard the news, though.

In my junior high school, students who had a free period could volunteer to run errands for the main office if they desired, and thinking it more fun than sitting in study hall, dutifully being silent and working on that pesky math homework, it was something I did often. As I sat on the small bench near the door I heard the news from the school secretary, whom had heard it from an administrator, whom had in tern, heard it via a radio in his office. I’m not actually even sure if I had heard it directly or simply overhead when she informed someone else. What I do know is that just a few moments later, my science teacher, Mr. Waltkins walked through the door on some errand and I, for whatever reason, stopped him.

“Mr. Waltkins, did you hear the news?”

Looking back, I realize now that Mr. Watkins is almost an American clone of Alan Rickman. He had the same somewhat severe look on his face at all times, was rare to smile and possessed a cutting wit as well as an explosive temper. Regardless of this and somewhat mystifyingly, I had a good rapport with him. Now a days, the comparison to Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame is a no-brainer. Back then, in our pre-HP world, he was simply feared by much of the student body and generally given a wide berth by them. He was all no-nonsense, but then again, I didn’t get into much nonsense and genuinely found his science classes to be fascinating and interestingly educational. We tended to get along quite well.

At my unsolicited remark, he stopped short and looked down at me with a furrowed brow.

“What news?” The remark was delivered as from an army officer not inclined to guessing games. I immediately wondered if this had been a good idea, but there was no backing out now. There was nowhere to go.

“The Space Shuttle just exploded.”

As his body stiffened, I realized that I was on perilous ground. I was indeed short on details having just heard the news myself and then, third or forth hand. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m willing to bet that I squirmed a bit.

Mr. Watkins looked stone faced, his wide opening eyes betraying the only sign of alarm.

“What… What did you say? Is this a joke?”

“No. I just heard that Challenger exploded on liftoff.” I bit my lip. “They were talking about it in the office.”

There was a pause as the information digested. I was not the kind of kid who made stuff like this up, nor was I the sort who tread on such a sensitive topic lightly. In short, I was trust worthy and Mr. Waltkins new it. It was at the heart of why we got along well in the first place, I’m sure.

“I’ve got to go!”

And with that, he turned on his heels and raced out the door in search of hard news on the developing tragedy. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to ignore the icky feeling that was quickly developing in the pit of my stomach. Prior to telling someone, it hadn’t seemed real. It was just news. The sort of stuff which swirls around the head of every kid for much of their young lives but never really connects. You knew it was important, you knew you should be concerned, but it never really resonated. There simply wasn’t the historical perspective needed to make a mark on your life. This time, it was different and I started to understand that more as the seconds ticked by and I had the quiet time to think hard about what I had just said.

My mother was a teacher. Back when NASA had been looking for a teacher to enter the Space Program, my Father and I had joking told her that she should apply. To be honest, we had only been half-joking. We new it wasn’t her cup of tea, but we also knew that she was very eligible for the position. She was, almost exactly, who they were looking for. How amazing would it have been to have an astronaut for a Mom?

As it turned out, a teacher almost exactly the same age as my own Mother, and only an hour away was picked instead. They taught the same subject even, and I remember when Christa McAuliffe was named that I felt just a bit that an opportunity in my family had been missed. Two other kids in New Hampshire had gotten to say that their Mom was an astronaut. Now, 73 seconds after liftoff, she was gone forever.

It might have been my Mom. That was all I could think of. I remember that very, very clearly.

Later that night, we, along with much of the nation, watched the news over and over again, hearing those last words from Shuttle commander Dick Scobee:

“Roger. Go at throttle up.”

There was nothing but fire and smoke a half second later.

Up in my room, I had a partly finished model of the Space Shuttle. It would be put back into its box and forgotten.

_______

It would be a long time before I paid attention again to the Space Program. NASA took a nearly three year break to sort out what had happened to Challenger and make the required changes. By the time the Shuttle, Discovery had lifted off on September of 1988, my attentions and affections had drifted to other things. Space became sort of a footnote in my life and my model was never completed.

Now, things were different. With the incandescent love of all things rockety by my young son, that old bed of coals in my own heart had been givin life anew. Though this trip we were on was undoubtedly all about him, I too had been catapulted back into the world of raw excitement over space and what we were doing to get there. Still watching the glow from the boosters and three main engines, I waited and held my breath.

“Go at throttle up.”

The roar continued. Discovery, the first Shuttle to fly after the loss of the STS-51-L crew, was racing into the pre-dawn sky, faster than the speed of sound. As I looked down, I could see the lit up memorial to those lost in the pursuit of space, not more than a short walk away.

Short Stacks chirpy voice broke in. “Dad, is it gone?”

“Gone? No, it’s not gone. It’s just heading for space now.” I smiled. “Watch carefully and you can see the solid rocket boosters disengage. They’ll look like faint lights moving away from the Shuttle.”

Almost on cue, the SRB’s detached and soon, Discovery its self was gone from sight. As dawn lit up horizon, the voices of Mission Control and the Shuttle’s commander continued to boom over the grounds until finally, almost nine minutes since launch, the Shuttle was where it needed to be. In orbit around the planet Earth.

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Being There

“Um. Yah. It is beautiful. Great for watching the launch.” He looked down at Short Stack as my son careened around in another crazy ellipse. He watched and smiled again in that warm way which always makes a parent proud to see shone on their progeny. “Is this his first launch?”

“First for both of us. It’s a sort of dream come true for him. How about you?” I munched away on our greasy snack while my son managed to stop running just long enough to devour the contents of my potato chip bag while I tried to pay polite attention to our conversation.

“Yah. Same here. I’ve never seen a launch before and well… this one was planned for a long time now.”

It seemed a strange sort of statement. Of course it had been planned for a long time. Even if he was referring only to himself rather than the actual mission, I knew what a hassle it was to get tickets. I tried to figure out a non-questioning sort of response but one that might lead the conversation onward. The way he had worded it made it sound like he might be here with someone else and as I thought about it, I hadn’t seen a single person here alone. Everyone seemed to be either with a group or significant other.

“Oh really? Are you here by your self?”

“Yes…” I could see in his face that there was more to this and that now, he was trying to decide how much he wanted to get into it. My intention was never to pry. My question had been pure chat fodder and now I wondered what I had stumbled into.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that was happening at the space center that evening. We were all there for the same reason. We all had the same love of space and the Shuttle and we all knew it. If you were there, then everyone knew that you were passionate enough about your interest to pay a lot of money and jump through a lot of hoops to get where we all were now. We all had a commonality and somehow, that made this place feel safe. It made people feel more open and, as demonstrated by the public sleepers everywhere you looked, there was a real sense of trust that moved though the grounds that night. We were also all strangers. There was no baggage here. Just kinship.

Making his mind up, he unfurrowed his brow a bit and looked up at the starry sky.

“I’m supposed to be here with my girlfriend, actually. We had this trip planned for a long time now and we were really excited for this moment. She was an airplane pilot and two months ago she… well… her plane crashed and… she died. I decided that she would have wanted me to still go, so, here I am. I’m sort of here for both of us, I guess.”

He looked back down and into my eyes and smiled again weakly.

“Oh… I’m very… sorry for your loss” was all I could pull up. As a rule, I am singularly horrible at handling these sorts of situations. In an emergency, if there’s injury and mayhem, I can do that. I’m your man. But in a situation of emotional damage, I completely derail. It’s like my brain’s transmission simply drops out and leaves me stammering utterly ineffectual placations.

“Thanks. Sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have…”

“No! Not at all!” I groped for words that wouldn’t sound patronizing or hollow. “ I think it’s really… good that you’ve come. It must be a very hard thing to do. I can’t imagine…” I trailed off in hopes of thinking of a supportive statement. “I think you’ve done the right thing.”

We both looked away at the nearby bandstand and sat in attentive silence as the announcer talked to the half unconscious people in the wet grass about what was happening at the launch site and how much more had to be done before the green light was given.

“Well,” he slowly pulled himself up and collected a few belongings. “I hope you and your son enjoy the launch. It’ll be something that he can remember for the rest of his life. It’ll be a precious memory for both of you, I’m sure.”

I looked up and tried to look as positive as I could and begged my brain no to say something stupid. “I hope you enjoy the launch too. It should be a fantastic show.” And with a friendly wave, he moved off into the Rocket Garden, alone. I imagine that he had a lot of thinking to do and I did not envy him those hours and solitude.

With the end of this sobering encounter and our food finally eaten, my reserve tank was starting to hit rock bottom. My skin felt tingly and my mind was as fuzzy as my teeth. Short Stack too seemed to be, if not lethargic, then at least not his usual blur of motion. I pulled out my phone to check the time.

3:17 AM.

Let’s see… That makes it roughly seven hours past bedtime for my little boy. He had held up amazingly well but was still, in my estimation, too young to pull his first all-nighter. We needed sleep, even if only a little bit.

“Ok, Bud. Let’s go see if we can get some rest back at the tent.”

As we walked hand in hand through the mostly slumbering crowd and thick grass, I was sure of at least one thing: The tent had been totally worth it.

Everywhere we looked, the people sitting in chairs or hiding under blankets were covered with a wet dew brought on by Florida humidity and dropping nighttime temperatures. They were not merely damp, but cold as well. Carrying my little boy to the tent opening, I first popped off his soaking sneakers and then fed him into the nylon opening. Doing my best to leave my own footwear within grabbing distance, I crawled in after him, working hard not to push on the tent walls and cause the highly likely collapse brought on by my lack of tent pegs. Mercifully, our trusty stroller, which I had tied off to, held up its end of the bargain and tent. I found a comfortable position to lie in while Short Stack retrieved his toy Space Shuttle and started his own launch sequence on the ThermaRest pad that covered the floor. Outside on the grandstand, the announcer introduced the guest speaker for today’s launch, a past Shuttle astronaut whose name I failed to catch even with the aid of a small wall of amplifiers turned up to ear splitting volume. Briefly, very briefly, I wondered how we would possibly be able to rest at all.

We were fed and dry. My son was safe next to me and couldn’t wander off on his own. With the last of my depleted cognitive ability, I managed to set the alarm on my phone and pull a light blanket over us both.

I must have been asleep in seconds.

Quiet Friends

It’s the high season in Maine and it seems like every advancing wave on the beach washes up another family toting cameras, sunblock and a cooler big enough to put a complete thanksgiving dinner for twelve in. I don’t begrudge them their visit. It’s beautiful here! If it wasn’t already my home, I’d probably be tromping up the sand, ready to lay claim to some quiet corner of costal summer with my own sofa sized cooler. As it is though, we, the locals, get used to being the only ones here for much of the year and it’s always a little jarring to suddenly have to share. We know each other, who’s doing what and most importantly, where we need to stand to be out of the way.

No so, the tourist. They are everywhere and move about the place like a bunch of deranged and possibly concussed, chickens. Trying to get through our little downtown area gets aggravating but trying to drive out by the shore practically becomes an Olympic sport. Out on the ocean road, away from the docks, piers and tightly placed houses, tourists travel in packs of four to fourteen and decorate the roads. Blind turns and crests of hills become extra exciting when driving along these stretches. At the last possible second, the tourists will look up and gasp in disbelief that someone would actually choose to drive a motorized vehicle on their chosen path. Only begrudgingly will they make room. This is usually accomplished by the flock splitting in two like an amoeba and lining both sides of the road, thus insuring that if another car is coming from the other direction, one of you must stop and let the other go first.

For this reason, I try to take my bike as much as possible. That, and the fact that gas is now… what? Sixty two bucks a thimble? The reason for all the driving or bike riding is my son, Short Stack. You show me a two year old who can be successfully “put down” in his own bed for an afternoon nap and I’ll show you a bottle spiked with vodka. It’s out of the question. At least as far as MY two year old goes. What does make for a successful nap? Two things: lunch and motion.

After feeding him one or two of the six food items that he will let pass his lips, I take him out for a ride. He’s wise to this as a nap inducer, so I usually have to mask our trip as an adventure.

“Hey, Buddy! Let’s go see if we can find the sea ducks!” or…
“Hey, Short Stack! Do you know where the blue boat is? Let’s go find it!”

You get the idea. He’s only mildly interested when I’ve pointed out ducks before and as far as the “blue boat” goes, I just plain made that up. We might spot one but it would be pure luck. The point is to get him ramped up to go out. Nap? Who said anything about a nap?

So, since it’s not blowing snow in my face at the moment and I’m starting to feel a bit fluffy around the middle, I decided to pull out the bike trailer and my trusty mountain bike. The trailer is a really nice, top of the line “Chariot” which I was able to afford only because it was last years floor model. The bike… Ah, the bike…

My ride is a Gary Fisher Tassajara that has done some serious thundering over the years. Its been dumped off rock faces, gone end over end due to the roots of old and malevolent trees, been wheel deep in questionable brown water and carried my butt while flying through the air and praying for a solid landing, wheels first, if at all possible. The mud that has covered its frame could have build your dog an adobe house of their own. Action Girl and I have had some fantastic times flying through the forest at break neck speed. Now, it sedately tows my sleepy son as he questions me about the location of these dubious ducks.
He’s asleep within five minutes.

The crowds are pretty think and just trying to navigate amongst the day-trippers is starting to frazzle me. That, and the alarming frequency of having one yell to another of their group just as I pass with my snoozing cargo. I have to find a place to hide.

The beaches are, naturally, packed so I have to go somewhere a bit off the beaten path. The problem is that even the unbeaten paths tend to be filled with berry pickers or teenagers testing out what they learned biology class last year. Where to go?

I pedaled along for a while longer and then thought of it. In just a few miles, I quietly pulled into my favorite, secluded cemetery. I parked the bike and Short Stack in the shade, got out my book and leaned against a stone. After some time reading in the July sun and listening to the ocean breeze blow through the trees, I put the book down and simply soaked up the moment, place and peace.

I love a well kept cemetery. I find them peaceful, welcoming and above all, full of wonderful stories and affection. The white marble stone I was resting against belonged to Margaret C. She was born is 1842 and died in 1922. Not a bad run at all. She had lived through the American Civil War, had seen the first automobiles, watched the boys come home at the end of The Great War of 1914-18 and lived in the era of the giant airships. Across the top of this monument, even above her name, was simply inscribed, “Mother”. This was someone’s mother, and here I was leaning against her monument and looking at my sleeping son as father, born long before Margaret was gone. I smiled and pointed my boy out to her as if she was sitting next to me and in a quiet voice, told her how special he was.

Short Stack woke up about an hour later and once he got his bearings, we spent some time poking around this grassy place of memories. He’s been there many times with me and so knows what to look for. The puddle that’s ideal for tossing pebbles into, the best walls for walking on and even the which stones he can hide behind. We spent some time soaking up the sun and running over the short, mown grass. Eventually, we packed up and headed back to the house, weaving our way between the wandering sunburns and returning home to play with Lulu Belle.

It was a wonderful way to spend some time with Short Stack and I fully expect to do it again. Our friends at the cemetery don’t talk much, but their epitaphs say volumes. That’s the kind of folk who always make me feel welcome.

When the visiting tourist and summer crowds get too deep, it’s always a safe bet to look for us at Margaret’s. She’s always there and I hope, happy to see us. Also, she has the best place in town to nap under the whispering, July trees.

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