A Digging In The Crates Poetry Slam: Young Bam Bam & The Space Program
In January 1986, as a 9-year-old raised on Star Wars films, I was perhaps a bit too young to possess a nuanced opinion on President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars (Strategic Defensive Initiative) program, or comprehend the experimental artistry of Sun-Ra, but grown enough to believe “Space Is the Place”.
Cosmic thoughts permeated my young and quickly developing imagination, as well as popular culture, in a plethora of ways.
Outer space was prominently featured in one of the very first rap songs that I loved.
It was the force, running thru many of my early toys, leading up to that point….
…as well as the main draw for the best museum that I'd visited as a kid.
'The Jetsons' were in the middle of a mid-eighties, syndicated, re-boot renaissance.
Atari was still the go-to gaming system, with two of its most iconic games set in space.
Embedded in this climate, in an America still consumed by Cold War one-upsmanship, was NASA and its tragically star-crossed Space Shuttle Challenger.
As classes resumed following the Christmas holiday break, the upcoming Challenger mission, featuring the first ever civilian aka “Teacher in Space” Christa McAuliffe, had become a big deal. Over the month-long buildup to its late January liftoff, anticipation was buzzing around my elementary school, and countless others across the country.
Our fourth-grade teacher at Central School, Mrs. Wilson, had reserved our class the big TV, on the dual shelf with rolling wheels, for the momentous occasion.
It was about to be on and popping, at approximately 11:30. Next up would be lunch, followed by recess. That’s about as good a three hour stretch as you’re gonna get, during a Northeastern winter day of elementary school, without a Field Trip or Snow Day.
It was not meant to be, at least not on the first date of the scheduled launch…or the second…the third…or even the fourth.
Finally, on the coldest January 28th ever recorded in Cape Canaveral, Florida in 1986, they decided to go ahead with the mission.
The rest, as we know, is infamously calamitous history.
I recall watching the takeoff, then less than a minute later, feeling like there was more smoke billowing behind the shuttle than normal.
I recall saying words to that effect to Mrs. Wilson, as I sat watching from a front row desk, in order to have the best view of the action.
She then told me something like, “no, they always look like that during liftoff”.
When that fiery blast came shortly after, it was obvious that wasn’t supposed to happen.
I’m not sure what my next pointed exclamation was, but despite it, Mrs. Wilson was still not buying into the portrait of impending peril that I was now painting.
“That bottom part has to fall off, before it can get higher”, she protested, sounding less than fully confident.
At this point, I’m not sure if she was trying to assuage our fears, or her own.
The broadcast didn’t really help, nor the mission-control tower feed.
It felt like all the audio was on tape-delay that day.
But before long, there was nothing left to see in the sky but swirling, smoky gray.
Shortly thereafter, that TV was hastily rolled out of the classroom.
Stunned silence filled the room. Teachers from other classes began congregating out in the hallway, consoling each other, or possibly discussing what they were supposed to say, when they returned to a room full of kids who had just seen the space shuttle blow up, and a full crew of astronauts, plus a teacher, along with it.
The immediate aftermath was a bit of a haze. It was shortly after the wreckage landed in the Atlantic Ocean, but long before the mental shrapnel had dissipated from the brains of a room full of schoolkids, when Mrs. Wilson returned to say some things. I have no idea what they were. In fairness to her, almost any adult talking would have been on Charlie Brown teacher status in that moment.
I’m not even sure if it was that afternoon, following lunch, or even the next day altogether, when Mrs. Wilson, in an effort to address the situation, assigned us all to quietly sit to write down our thoughts on the calamity we could not unsee.
I do recall that I decided to scratch out a poem, which she read after I'd finished fairly quickly, while peering over my shoulder.
She then picked up my paper for closer examination.
*pausing…then finally hearing Mrs. Wilson exclaim*
“Did You Write This?!?”
That seemed like an odd question, hadn’t she just watched me do so?
“Yes” was my reply, a little unsure about where this was headed.
“By yourself, just now?!?”
This time I avoided words altogether, just nodded while looking away.
Shortly thereafter, she was pulling me out of my seat and taking me to the back of the classroom by the group work tables, procuring transfer paper, then saying, “do me a favor, write that all down again, use spaces and commas this time, as neatly as you can".
Soon I was in the back of that room, for the rest of the afternoon. Was it my penmanship or did we need several backups? My classmates seemed to think I was getting over. Maybe I was. But writing the same series of lines, multiple times, wasn’t really any more fun than times tables.
Later that week the Principal read it aloud to the entire school at an assembly.
Then they had me read it at a podium to grades K thru 8, on the crash’s first anniversary.
By the time a request came the next year, me now in Middle School, I was running from that four-bar fluke hit like Radiohead ran from “Creep” after OK Computer.
I haven't thought about that fateful day in a while. Even the 30th Anniversary think-pieces on the subject last year slid by me.
And I definitely hadn’t given much thought to that poem in years, before finding this newspaper clip while going through some old photos in my Aunt Ellen’s apartment yesterday, and coming across a folder marked “Ann Rhoads”, belonging to my beloved Nana, who exited her earthly vessel on Wednesday night.
Despite the dark subject matter, plus the sadness of her passing still fresh, I smiled wide while realizing two things:
1) This little clipping, from the South Jersey edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, has survived three moves, in the 31 years since Nana first stored it away for safe keeping.
2) Despite a professional writing career that's just shy of a year old, technically my first published work arrived back in ’86.
Neither the child, nor adult version of me, can pretend to have any clear idea of what happens, once this world does away with our physical remains.
Maybe our souls sail away into Space.
Maybe Nana is in a galaxy far, far away, reading this little rhyme, of nine-year-old mine, to Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Greg Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe.
Possibly maybe...but then again, perhaps no.
But till that fateful day when I find out, whether "Space Is The Place" or not?
I'll be on Earth, doing my best to add to her posthumous legend, like a World War One-born, grandmotherly version of Tupac.
Bonus Cut: A homemade birthday card made for Nana, circa this era, recently unearthed by my Aunt Ellen, while going thru Nana's things: