I heard the news via an unlikely source on January 28, 1986. I was in my Mazda GLC going from my apartment in Van Nuys to my job in the small business complex behind the gas station Barham Boulevard deadends into in the Cahuenga Pass. I was traveling on the gridlocked southbound 170 Freeway approaching the 134 interchange it passes under to become the 101. I was probably late.
I was listening to Rick Dees on KIIS-FM as I usually did, and coming back from a commercial break instead of launching into more of his usual shenanigans he spoke in a tone that was part solemn and part disbelieving in telling his listeners that the Challenger space shuttle had apparently exploded shortly after lift-off a few minutes earlier, reportedly killing all seven astronauts on-board.
To this day I’m not sure why the news hit me so hard, but I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach by it. Overcome with sorrow I burst into tears, and sobbed as I crept my car along with the slow flow of vehicles while Dees and his on-air cohorts discussed what they knew and what they didn’t.
Eventually they ran out of things to say and put on a melancholy, reflective song that was a hit back then. It was “Life In A Northern Town,” by The Dream Academy. And just as my waterworks started to dry up, the song got to the last stanza of lyrics that close like this:
And though he never would wave goodbye,
You could see it written in his eyes,
As the train rolled out of sight,
I didn’t know who or what the song had been written about. All I knew was that those last few lines spoke of someone’s death, and for me from that point on they became about the Challenger crew never getting a chance to wave goodbye, of the space shuttle rolling out of sight and the sad and slow byyyyyyyyyyyyye byyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyye reflecting mine and the country’s heartbreak and loss.
I can hear this song today without so much as choking up, but it never fails to transport me back to that moment of profound tragedy.
Later that evening President Ronald Reagan was to give his State of the Union address, but postponed it and instead spoke to the nation about the disaster, closing with:
“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.'”
They were: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.