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Friday, January 28, 2011

We floated in warm waters

When I tell someone I was a weird kid, I never get a look of surprise, but of relief, as if that person is thinking, "Oh thank god, he's aware of it."

How weird is up for debate. To crib from Tolstoy, every child is weird in his or her own special way. But I submit to you that I was a uniquely weird child. I constructed a shrine, of sorts, to the blown-apart memory of the Challenger crew.

Perhaps 'morbid' is more accurate, now that I think about it.

Anyway, about the shrine: I used a small wooden cabinet, which hung on the wall and had slatted doors and dark lacquered wood. I removed the shelves from the cabinet. I nailed a small toy space shuttle, cargo-bay doors open, to the inside. I used Sure deodorant--the aerosol kind, which looked more or less like a caustic version of spray-on snow--to create stars and a tiny swirling galaxy. I cut pictures of the dead astronauts from magazines and glued the pictures around the shuttle and the stars and the galaxy, and then I wrote Reagan's quote about how these seven astronauts had slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God (I believed in God back then, so maybe 'weird' really is more accurate than 'morbid').

So. The shrine. It hung on my wall, nailed into the sheetrock, for maybe a year. It was usually the first thing I saw in the morning, the last thing I saw at night. The frozen smiles of 7 heads, the deodorized firmament, the plastic shuttle, and Reagan's quote.

The Challenger explosion became a minor obsession for me. I read any book I could find on the lives of the seven, I read newspaper articles about the reason for the tragedy, I watched quicky documentaries thrown up by half-assed news producers on 20/20 about NASA, about the astronauts, the surviving family.

From the Challenger disaster, I grew outward. I moved into the Apollo 1 disaster, where three men were roasted alive rather than scattered all over southern Florida. From Apollo, I got into Michner's terrible novel Space, then on to Wolfe's pretty-good novel The Right Stuff.

To me, the space program had always existed. It was like God: perfect, eternal, benevolent. The Challenger disaster caused me to reach back into the history of space travel and come to grips with the reality: it was a violent, complex endeavor, the culmination of centuries of science and math and finance rather than a normal extension of humanity.

As an adult it seems obvious to me that what I was doing in my obsessing over the disaster was coming to terms with death. Also, I was coming to terms with the fact that I no longer believed in God.

There's a book by Douglas Coupland called Life After God. Haven't read it since college, but there's a passage which occurred to me when, in this post, I mentioned the cabinet hanging in my room for most of 1986 and into 1987. I pulled out my copy of the book so I could type out the passage.

As suburban children we floated at night in swimming pools the temperature of blood; pools the color of Earth as seen from outer space. We would skinny-dip, my friends and me--hip-chick Stacey with her long yellow hair and Malibu Barbie body; Mark, our silent strongman; Kristy, our omni-freckled redheaded joke machine; voice-of-reason Julie, with the "statistically average" body; honey-bronze ski bum, Dana, with his non-existent tan line and suspiciously large amounts of cash, and Todd, the prude, always last to strip, even then peeling off his underwear underneath the water. We would float and be naked--pretending to be embryos, pretending to be fetuses--all of us silent save for the hum of the pool filter. Our minds would be blank and our eyes closed as we floated in warm waters, the distinction between our bodies and our brains reduced to nothing--bathed in chlorine and lit by pure blue lights installed underneath diving boards. Sometimes we would join hands and form a ring like astronauts in space; sometimes when we felt more isolated in our fetal stupor we would bump into each other in the deep end, like twins with whom we didn't even know we shared a womb.

My copy of this diminutive book--a collection of short stories, really--was covered in dust. When I blew the dust away, the dust made small galaxies and stars in the hall light.

Today is the day, 25 years ago, when we sent a teacher into space, and watched her explode on live TV. None of the publicity preceding the launch doubted she would rise. None of the publicity hinted she would lose her life.

And then there's god. Well-publicized, predicted to rise again someday. Like Christa McAuliffe, god remains in the air.

On earth, we float around at room-temperature, surprised to bump into a twin, surprised to share the womb with so many others, waiting to be born.

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