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  • Writer's pictureJefferson Weaver

Innocence Ending

The first full day of college for many of us was the last day of a generation’s innocence.

I suppose that, technically, it wasn’t the first full day for most of us. A surprising number of us had transferred to Wilmington from community colleges or technical schools.

We were the first generation to grow up in a world where traveling to the moon was no longer confined to the realm of science fiction. Some of our more forward-looking teachers actually brought televisions into the classrooms so we could watch rockets hurtle off a paved-over marsh in Florida.

With the introduction of the space shuttle, we knew we would be the first generation to live on the moon, or travel to the distant stars.

Of course we knew it was dangerous – there was Apollo 13, and the rocket that burned on the launchpad. But even if we couldn’t understand all the concepts, those of us who were learning to walk when Johnson was president knew early on that we were Americans.

We’d heard some of what our parents and grandparents went through in World War II. Even if we didn’t know the specifics, we knew our ancestors faced incredible danger when they first crossed the ocean and landed in America. We were a generation with faith in technology and innovation, and full of the American spirit.

Space? With what we would have available – with the inventions we would make available – visiting the next galaxy over would be far easier than anything our forefathers experienced. And safer.

One day, that changed.

I was perched on a windowsill in one of the student lounges at UNCW. The big screen television in the corner – the first I’d ever seen – showed the space shuttle. It was a cold morning, with some snow and ice on the ground at Wilmington. There was even ice in Florida.

One couple was the center of attention. He was a political science student who had proposed to his long-time girlfriend, the future elementary school teacher. Her engagement ring could have been the size of an apple and not drawn more attention.

The countdown continued, and I have a vague recollection of the disembodied voice of a newscaster actually saying something about ice.

A fellow in creased blue jeans and an Army field jacket stared intently at the screen. Gino, or The Bull, would become one of my closest friends; he was an ROTC cadet with a lower Cape Fear accent that made words a mile long and deep. The Bull was one of two people in that room who wanted to fly on the space shuttle.

Bull’s motivations were somewhat strange – his grandfather had died fighting Communists in Korea, and his hero was Captain Kirk from Star Trek. The Bull wanted to fly on the space shuttle as a soldier, to show the communists that our country could trounce theirs anytime, anywhere – especially in space.

The other devotee of the shuttle was one of the aptly-named people I’ve ever met, Byrd. Like his namesake, all he wanted to do was fly. The Army was sending him through college, and Byrd had the next six or eight years planned out. Officer’s school, flight school, take all the right courses – and in twenty years, he could fly the space shuttle.

Those were the only two in the room that day with specific hopes for space. The rest of us were satisfied, for the moment, with the thought that someday we’d be able to fly into outer space with less concern than a commute to our parents’ homes.

Then we heard another disembodied voice, this one from Mission Control, say the words, “Challenger, go to throttle up.”

And our generation’s symbol of America exploded.

We watched our future shatter, sparkling and smoking into the Atlantic Ocean.

The newly-engaged couple cried and held each other; The Bull roared a simple “No!” that brought people running from other parts of the building.

Byrd, for the one and only time in our friendship, said a single disbelieving curse word, and began crying.

A girl from Florida – a poli-sci major who wanted to be a lawyer, became a model, and was always the most composed young woman I’ve ever met – began screaming in hysterics. A few minutes before she had laughed and said the shuttle launches were “all so, like, boring.”

Just as things changed on Sept. 11, 2001, things changed that day in January nearly four decades ago.

Far fewer people died, of course – seven dead versus several thousand dead doesn’t really compare – but for those of us of that age, it was a cold hard slap in the face.

We could, occasionally, fail. We were not invincible. What Vietnam had taught our parents and older siblings, we were learning from television.

Years later, I happened to be in Beaufort, the hometown of one of those killed on the Challenger.

It was in the local newspaper that a memorial would be dedicated to the astronaut, who attended school in that town years before.

I made it by the park the next day, a Saturday. The monument was a simple, tasteful little granite obelisk, much like a tombstone and likely made by the local cemetery marker company.

A young couple happened on the monument during a walk down the waterfront. They had two children, one in a stroller and the other of the age to ask many, many questions.

I remember her Daddy explaining, patiently, that the man whose picture was on the marker was an astronaut, and he had been killed in an accident.

“I wanna be an asternaut,” the little girl said, “but I won’t get killed.” She stamped her foot, proud and defiant.

Once upon a time, her parents and I likely felt the same way.

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