challenger dreams

28 Jan 99 11:47pm
Los Angeles

Thirteen minutes left in a bad anniversary. I knew it was somewhere near the end of the month, but I’d managed to forget the day.

But this morning in my kitchen, while my toaster labored over some Strawberry Pop Tarts, I tore yesterday off my eight page-a-day calendars and I was startled to see that the publishers of Today This Century or whatever it’s called felt it necessary to print a photo from mere moments after Challenger exploded. What about a photo of the astronauts? Or of the memorial?

Lots of kids wanted to be an astronaut, but for most that got put in the attic with the Lincoln Logs and the training wheels. At fourteen I still had that dream out of the box and in my head. I’d pretend to be sick so I could stay home to watch shuttle launches. A relative at NASA would let me pillage through the PR Department’s storeroom, and I’d come home with stacks of technical reports and photo books that I spent months reading and rereading. I’d spent more than half my little life dealing with Star Wars toys and Lego Space sets. Going into space seemed like my future — a natural future. I grew up reading 1950’s science fiction, which all said of course there would be flying cars and commuter trips to the moon by 1999. In 1999 I’ll be turning 27. Cool.

I was a “smart” kid in all the “gifted” programs, and my repeated absences to watch “3-2-1 Contact” on PBS reflected on my boredom with the established pace more than they hurt my grades. But I was there on that day. News traveled slower then, without the Internet and omnipotent CNN, so it was afternoon before I heard. It was the social studies teacher (social studies? I don’t remember anything other than American History) who said it, almost so lightly he could have been saying, “Hey, you know what? I can’t believe I did this but I left your test papers home.” As though everything would be fine the next day.

It took me a moment to process, and then I started to get choked up. One of the class assholes made a joke at my and the astronaut’s expense. I simply got up and walked out of class, wandered the halls for a while, crying. I didn’t run into another soul.

Soon enough, it was just another accident; an expensive government screwup. Planes continued to crash and kill 200 people at a time, and that was more tragic. The “Need Another Seven Astronauts” joke went around and I started to get cranky, wondering what was taking them so long to figured out what happened. As we know now, I know now, it actually didn’t take very long to figured out what happened; all the rest of the time was spent pointing fingers and placing blame and filing lawsuits. My lesson in the American Way. Then again, landing on the moon a generation earlier was to some a lesson in How To Beat The Russians, I guess you see what you want to see.

I had a brilliant English teacher the next year, and a so-so science teacher. The science class was sort of fun; I built a bridge out of toothpicks that held a five pound brick for the whole class period and then some. The second place construction held for about 90 seconds. But we never talked about space, and my relative no longer worked for NASA and I had no more insider stuff to read. While I was happy when the other shuttles started flying again, by then my English teacher had me poking around theater production and writing.

Several more plot twists and I’d dropped out of schools altogether. My name is on high school diploma in all caps from a bad dot-matrix printer at the GED office in Baltimore. It still has the tractor feed holes down the sides. I had a handful of credits from a community college, but they wanted me to start taking required classes and not just fun stuff, and I figured I’d hit all of the cool teachers so that was enough of that.

My father had gotten out of oil and gas law in New York and into researching a country music television show in Nashville, using up both natural interests for someone from west Texas. I killed a car by driving like a teenager and ended up with a manual Volkswagen Rabbit old enough to have seen the Challenger accident itself, had it been near a television. The moment I learned to drive stick I was off on a road trip — Ohio first, to visit a friend I loved dearly. She told me she’d been raped the year before by a boyfriend, and she was working through it with her college friends, and she didn’t much want to have anything to do with anyone from Maryland anymore, but she’d wanted to tell me in person, thanks for coming. We’ve barely talked since.

Next to Nashville, where while sitting on the stage of the show my dad wrote and reading Billboard I saw an ad for a film school in Orlando that probably wouldn’t mind my tractor-feed diploma, since it didn’t have any academics at all — a technical school. A week later I was visiting, and eight weeks later I was enrolled and I crammed my life into the Rabbit. Orlando. Florida. Cape Canaveral.

On the drive, I thought about the school asshole and the dozens before and after him. I thought about the idiotic “social studies” teacher and the dozens before and after him. I thought about my friend I wanted to help and couldn’t. Like her, I now wanted to leave everything behind. I thought about how sick I was of Otto jokes and I how I wanted to change my name. I needed some new music — I mostly had stuff from when I was 14, like Huey Lewis and Billy Joel. That was only five years before but it seems like half a lifetime. I was 19 now, living on my own and catching people having sex in the pool on my first night in town. (Never saw it again; never happened to me; but it set up some overly high hopes for Florida.) I wasn’t 14 and rushing to catch the school bus anymore.

I stayed with my old name but I got that new world, without the aquatics. I mentioned the music thing to my dad and three days later I got a large check in the mail with a post-it: “This ain’t the rent. Don’t forget the music. Love, dad.” I learned all of the tech behind making a film. I got tons of new music.

Going to school in Orlando meant I was 45 minutes from Cape Canaveral, and the first time I went to a shuttle launch it was scheduled for dawn. I’d been up all night because of school, and I was tired stumbling around in the dark and the brush trying to figure out where exactly to watch from. The public is pretty much stuck out in the swamp with the gators.

When the launch came, though, I was wide awake, my heart pounding as I flashed back to the endlessly replayed footage of Challenger. I think I stopped breathing for 74 seconds. There are no atheists in the foxholes, they say, and I wondered what the astronauts felt going through that spot in the flight path, knowing in far too much detail what had happened there. I knew I would never know, and I started to cry. Breathing returned when the boosters separated, but I was quiet all the way back to school. On my way into the building I stopped and looked up; about then it might have been possible to see a glint of light off the shuttle as it passed over on its first orbit. I didn’t have time to stay and look, though; on no sleep I had to go learn about recording consoles.

Seven years later, I’ve been through all aspects of film production and I’ve tired of it. Probably that’s because I was on classics like “Barb Wire” and “BioDome” and “The Next Karate Kid.” My friend who worked on nearly every big effects movie for a few years is trapped by the big jobs and the big money. Even he uses the word trapped. I’m glad for one thing: I’m not there.

I go to a lot of concerts and I take a lot of pictures, but even that is losing its freshness. I still buy lots of new music, but these days I think most of it sort of sucks. I’ve been wandering around telling myself and everyone that I’m learning, I’m studying, I’m growing. I’m figuring out how Hollywood works. Writing avoidance as a complete philosophy.

But really I’ve just been lost. I haven’t released a script in three and a half years. I’ve not been writing anything other than email. I’ve hesitated to look for work as a photographer, figuring I’d hate it too if I did so.

Tonight I left my cellphone off while I ran to get dinner on my own. I was gone an hour and when I got back I had seven messages from my girlfriend, and moments later she showed up on my door, concerned. Jeez, do I seem that depressed?

“Um … I was worried about you.”

“Do you think I’d do something to myself?”

She didn’t answer it, which answered it. She got all embarrassed, thinking she’d badly overreacted. After she left, I started to think: how do I get out of here?

A few hours of bad TV later, flipping from “Behind The Scenes Making The Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders Calendar” on E! to “Behind The Scenes With The Superbowl Cheerleaders” on Fox (since CNN insisted on talking to the 843rd expert about the Republican trial endgame), I realized the real question was: why am I watching these shows?

How did I get here?

Is it because my father’s ashes are in a cracker box and I can’t figure out what to do with them and all I want to do is talk to him again? Is it because my reconstructed leg is hurting nearly every day? Do I need to be on a tour or trip again? Not that I can afford to travel right now, but can I simply not sit still? Or is that running away from something? Is that running TO something? Was it my parents splitting up when I was eight? Is it that I’ll be 27 in 1999 … which is halfway to what my father made it to? Half a lifetime done and I’ve got a metal bone in my leg and a few good photos and two point nine unproduced screenplays and a cracker box full of dust to show for it.

Or was it a cracked rubber ring on a rocket booster?

2:37 am on the 29th. Two more Pop Tarts to help contemplate what I’ve written so far produce another thought:

You’re in a foxhole, Otto: time to believe in something.

And then: time to believe in yourself.

How I get out of here is by understanding, finally, that my exploration program didn’t explode off the coast of Florida. It didn’t fail along with my father’s heart. The passion I’d had my future in space, last seen the moment the light of that dawn shuttle launch hit my face, is not gone. The love for my father and from my father is not gone. The love I had for the person my friend was before she went to college is not gone. But now, they shape the stories I must tell. They ARE the stories I must tell, perhaps without the original details but with the original truths.

I’ve been learning, I’ve been studying, I’ve been growing. I’ve been figuring out how *I* work.

And I’ve got half a lifetime to go.

I hope.


This was published on 28 Jan 1999.
A permalink to this post: challenger dreams.

If you are reading chronologically:
The next post is: .
The previous post is: .