By Jeff Toth
Fathers try hard not to cry in front of their children. They don’t think twice about getting angry or frustrated when you let them down, or you stop doing your homework, or you don’t pick up your room like they ask. But they stop dead in their tracks at crying. Maybe it makes them feel too vulnerable, too out of control and weak. Maybe they’re just afraid to let go.
The first time I saw my father cry, I was six years old. It was the first time I saw him with his glasses off, too. He didn’t look like my dad at all. His eyes were red and naked without their usual square wire frames. He blew his nose into a tissue as tears rolled down his face.
I had the flu, and Dad stayed home with me. I was wearing Burt and Ernie slippers, corduroy pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I sat on patch of sun-warmed carpet in front of the 15-inch RCA television in our living room, and Dad stood several feet behind, watching with me. On screen, there were rows and rows of people that stretched over a green lawn. The people were dressed in suits, pretty dresses—some with frills, most with broad shoulder pads. The President and Mrs. Reagan were in the front row. Someone was speaking.
We talked about the Challenger mission in Ms. Powell’s first grade class for weeks leading up to the launch. It wasn’t any old boring shuttle mission. Challenger was going to be the first ever shuttle to carry a teacher into space. A teacher. Ms. Powell passed out pictures of Christa McAuliffe. We heard stories about her, watched videos about her training. She seemed so eager to complete her unique mission—every single frame of film with her smiling image. Ms. Powell was just as excited for her fellow teacher, and her excitement trickled down to us. On Tuesday, January 28th, she wheeled a TV on a metal stand into the classroom, turned out the lights, and pulled down the blinds. And we watched.
We marveled at the majestic launch and listened to the buoyant voices of the men at mission control as they transitioned from countdown to count-up. It was happening. Christa McAuliffe was heading to space. The sky was pale blue, and the shuttle trailed a column of white vapor behind it as it went up and up and up and up. Wow! Look at it go! We breathed, waited, watched. The shuttle rotated slowly as it climbed higher still, angling away from the camera as the sky faded to dark purple and the column of vapor grew wider than the shuttle itself. It was traveling so far away, so fast.
“What happened to her?” I asked Dad later that the day. “Do you think she might have fallen out, like into the water? Do you think she could be OK?”
“No,” Dad said. I heard something catch in his voice. “The shuttle exploded. People don’t survive explosions.”
“What happens to them?” I asked.
“They explode, too.”
For months, I thought of Christa McAuliffe. I could see her smiling in the shuttle, suspended in mid-air, her blue NASA uniform, without a helmet, her puffy, shoulder-length hair and limbs stretched to their limit like a human starfish before flying apart just like the shuttle.
On Friday, I stayed home. The television played the tape over and over again: the shuttle, still attached to its fuel tank and booster rockets, bursting in a ball of smoke, the rockets and shuttle fragments trying and failing to follow their intended unified trajectory before falling back to Earth in separate pieces. Maybe this time it won’t happen, I kept thinking. But it happened every time.
Then cameras went live again, and I watched old people talk in front of well-dressed people sitting in rows that went on forever. The camera panned across the front row, and people’s faces were puffy and red. They were crying. The president cried. Mrs. Reagan cried. Then the newsroom cut to video—the purple sky, the expanding column of vapor. It was so scary to watch, but I couldn’t turn away. Everything ended just like that. All the build-up, the training, the pictures, the classroom lessons, the excitement, the hope, Christa McAuliffe’s smile—they all just stopped, and that was the scariest thing of all. There had to be something more. What if I just stopped? What if I exploded? What if Mom or Dad were on that shuttle? I realized that people were left behind, sad people. And that they had to go on.
During one of the replays of the explosion, a loud, cracking noise came from the entry way by the front door. The walls in the entry way were paneled with American Chestnut—real, over-forested, now-extinct American Chestnut—and it made this loud cracking noise.
On Friday, January 31, 1986, the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger was memorialized, and the Earth shook from Ohio all the way to our house on Leberman Avenue in Meadville, Pennsylvania. It cracked the American Chestnut paneling, startling me out of the frightening vision of Christa McAuliffe, stretched out like a starfish. The earthquake in Western Pennsylvania was a rare thing, like witnessing a shuttle exploding or seeing your father cry for the first time.
Jeff Toth earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from DePaul University in 2012 with a focus in communications and writing. He is now an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago, and is a contributor at Literary Chicago.