James, by Mark Tonra.
R.L, I miss you.
It's been almost four years now that you're gone. Valentine's Day approaches. Its focus on all things love is bittersweet, as it's the day you left us.
You're often on my mind, but this week's latest NASA disaster has me wanting to SHOUT in disgust on your behalf. You'd probably throw the TV out into the back field. Maybe even shoot it to put its news out of your misery.
We sat together in quiet shock and mourning during the last disaster - Columbia's fall from the sky on February 1, 2003. The TV cameras kept panning upwards, showing the re-entry path and the debris. That sky’s white clouds reminded me of the recent trim you’d received from the hospice nurse, and the light, white snow of your hair falling on the floor in the living room. Living room. You were spending all of your time there, in the Queen Anne style recliner that didn't hurt your back and was easier to get out of than the bed.
You'd spent your career in the space business. You'd recently shown me your pictures when you were part of the Apollo safety team. Tall, blond, thin, handsome. You quietly described how on that late January day in 1967, your team hadn't even been on site during the doomed Apollo 1 plugs-out test at Complex 34, but were called minutes after the fire to come in without being told why.
The bleak of mid-winter daunts NASA. I'd visited you and Mom for the holidays in Santa Maria just weeks before Challenger disintegrated on January 28, 1986. As we sat waiting for word of any survivors from this latest Columbia tragedy, I shared what it was like to watch the SRBs fly away from the orbiter as I stood with others from my 5th period physics class. Launches had become so commonplace that few had bothered to dash outside when the sonic boom arrived. The orbiter’s transit was stuck in the sky, plumes of smoke diverging as we stared, struck dumb, unable to process what we were seeing. The entire school crammed into the library to learn what the hell was going on. Walking into 6th period British Lit, our teacher wrote "write what you feel" on the chalkboard, too overcome to speak. Her husband worked for NASA at KSC, and she had known two of the astronauts. After school I came home to discover my college acceptance letter, but shock and grief precluded any excitement.
Seventeen years later you and I sat, numb again, as we watched the repeated Columbia re-entry footage. Shots from the launch of the foam debris hitting the wing were shown, and criticism for safety and precautions began with comparisons to Challenger's O-ring failure. I shared with you how I felt the day the Shuttle program resumed after Challenger. Taking a break from college, I was working at KSC too for another contractor. My building was Complex 34 (you nodded knowingly) and located beneath Discovery’s flight path, so I joined my fellow "evacuated" colleagues at the cafeteria, waiting anxiously for return to flight.
The launch was delayed. We played cards. We watched the launch control process on the TV and listened to the radio. Then we all went outside as count down neared 0. Wild applause erupted as the orbiter cleared the tree line and crawled skyward. My chest reverberating as the sound wave hit, tears surprised me. Glancing earthward briefly, it was hard to find a dry face in the cafeteria parking lot. Eyes pinpointing the distant fire in the sky, we waited until the radio announced successful SRB separation, and we clapped again. We went back to work with renewed hope in the space program that we, our families, and our community had so long been a part of.
I'd hoped sharing this with you would bring some sort of comfort for the heartbreak of this newest loss. It didn't work. The day's event joined the cancer as another thief of your already ebbing will. One more disconnection from your heart, your passion, and your life's work. You were gone 13 days later.
I am so angry at the latest "space" disaster to wing its way west from Texas to Florida. My bile broils at her stupidity, her selfishness, and her crimes. She fuels those questioning the space program's continued purpose or usefulness. That she employed diapers to speed her arrival has me LIVID, knowing that your eventual need for them stole your dignity and pride. One more loss of control, of freedom, on the way out of life.
I'd give anything for you to still be with us. If you were, I think I’d join you in your tobacco chaw habit just to send a righteously evil spit in that loon's direction. I can see us all doing it, standing behind the house in Yanceyville, in the field next to the "shed", facing south and letting one rip. PJ would be happily trotting at your heels, content to be with his Mr. Bob.
I miss you, R.L.
P.S. Here's to warmer weather, hope, and launches spied aloft. Thanks for sharing, whitenoise.