My life has a superb cast but I can't figure out the plot.
~ Ashleigh Brilliant

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ron McNair: One Challenger Astronaut's story

I'd considered it, but honestly didn't plan to write a post about the 25th anniversary of the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, figuring it would be all over the news and probably on plenty of blogs as well. And it is. But BW got today off (yay!) and was listening to NPR this morning while I was off doing other things, and while we were hiking with the dogs a little while ago he was telling me about one of the stories he'd been listening to. I found it moving and inspiring and definitely worth sharing.

It's a part of the project by StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit who has been recording the personal stories of Americans from all walks of life since 2003 (one of the largest oral history project of its kind), and preserving them in The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

This particular interview was with Carl McNair, older brother of Dr. Ronald McNair, one of the Challenger astronauts and only the second African American to visit space. In it, he recalls the time when Ron was nine years old and tried to check out books from the then-segregated library in their hometown of Lake City, SC. The librarian refused to let him check the books out because he was black, and threatened to call the police if he didn't leave. He politely told her he'd stay and wait, so call the police she did. The police arrived, but didn't quite respond the way the librarian had expected. :-) You can read or listen to the interview for details of this wonderful story and more about the courageous little boy who saw possibilities where others didn't, created doorways where others had built barriers, and grew up to be an astronaut. Ron was just 35 years old when he was killed, and today Lake City is dedicating the building that housed that library as The Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center in his honor.

Of course, most of us of a certain age vividly remember the day the Challenger exploded. Its one of those indelible memories that, for me at least, feels as surreal as the day it occurred and is still so graphic it's almost as if it just happened. It was probably made more profound for me because I was in USAF Space Command at the time (feel free to insert your space cadet jokes here, we all did it plenty back in the day!) :-) Although I wasn't an astronaut (by ANY stretch!) and we didn't work with astronauts, these were, to some degree, our colleagues. And in the weeks that followed, when any of us in my squadron would be out shopping or eating on base or in town in our uniforms with our Space Command insignia, we'd often be asked questions about our reaction to and connection with the Challenger (in reality, it wasn't much more than any other citizen's connection, but there was definitely a sense of community with the astronauts, and I know from our conversations with each other that we all took the tragedy a little more personally than we would have otherwise). In addition, I'd graduated from the University of New Hampshire just a year and a half before, and that was the home state of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher and the Challenger crew member most of us probably remember best. It still hurts the heart to think about that day.

Anyway, I just wanted to write a little remembrance today, and share Ron's sweet story of the time he gently but firmly wouldn't take no for an answer and went home with some books from his public library tucked under his brave, nine-year old arm. :-)


  1. Thanks for this reminder and touching story. I really enjoy the StoryCorps features on NPR.

    I was in my freshman year in college at the time, and as such, was a bit distracted from the whole sensation.

    I can see how the sad event really hit home with you and the rest of your colleagues.

    Dr McNair was a truly brave and inspiring person.

  2. I remember the day, even though I was pretty young then. It was such a sad day and I still have a newspaper article about it that I clipped out. What a beautiful post to commemorate Dr. McNair and the rest of the crew, Laurie.

  3. Beautiful post--it was a tragic day I well remember.

  4. Rose We enjoy the StoryCorps broadcasts on NPR too. And you're most welcome. :-)

    I remember all the distractions and mayhem of that freshman year of college! I felt so overwhelmed by it all (mostly by the freedom of it - it took me a while to settle down with the same discipline my parents had always inflicted - uh, I mean implemented - when it came to my studies. I was terrible about skipping my math classes as soon as I discovered no one cared (or even noticed!) Till I failed my first and only exam, that is. Oops!! That Karma, it always gets you in the end!

    John Lennon was killed during my freshman year, and I know it didn't make near the impression it would have had it not happened during that maniacal year.

    Molly ~ You would have been young then - what, 11 or 12? But I'm not surprised an event like this would have been memorable. I used to save magazine covers and/or articles about the big news stories like Challenger, the death of Princess Diana, 9-11, of course... but finally ended up culling them a while back. I'm impressed you still have that Challenger article.

    Thank you for your sweet compliment, Molly. It's not my usual style of post, but I felt compelled.

    Daphne ~ Thank you, Daphne! Yes, I think it was one of those horrible "I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out" kind of events for most of us. (Maybe even for those two whippersnappers above). ;-) I was working nights so I was sound asleep and was awakened by a phone call from a security policeman in our squadron, telling me to turn on the TV. There was no more sleep after that, and going to work that night was very strange, given the nature of my job.

    Thank you all for reading and for your thoughtful comments!

  5. That's what I meant...I didn't mean to sound callous, but afterthoughts, I hoping I didn't...I just a little crazy in my freshman you, flunking maths and having a good time...a bit flakey as always.

  6. Rose ~ You're as far from callous as anyone could be, and you're not flakey, but crazy? Yeah, maybe - in a fun way! :-)

    I can't remember now if you went to college in Boston, England or Ireland (please remind me!), but I can guarantee that if I'd gone to college in any of those places, I'd have flunked EVERYTHING. I'd have been having way too much fun. And my dad knew it, which is one reason he gave for refusing to send me on a semester abroad, which is the main reason I joined the AF - to see the world. FAIL! I was thinking Europe and the Pacific. But the AF thought differently, so the world I got to see, in its entirety (including during AFROTC) was Kansas (6 weeks), North Carolina (2 weeks), Goose Bay, Labrador (can't forget Goose Bay, my only stint in a foreign country, for one whole day!), New Mexico, Indianapolis (3 months), California (3 days) and Texas. As they say in the cake decorating world, "Big Whoop!" LOL

    Even if I'd gone to college in the world's dullest place, with no distractions, I'd have struggled with math. That part of my brain is just flat missing. Has to be.

  7. Hey, Laloofah, your efforts at joining the AF to see the world at least did better than mine when I joined the navy--I got one duty station--Great Lakes, IL!! And that resulted in "trapping" me in the midwest for nearly 30 years. And so it goes! You at least moved around a bit.

  8. Daphne ~ Ahoy, I didn't know you were in the Navy! :-)

    You're kidding, you only got stationed in one place and it wasn't even anywhere near an ocean?! What kind of lunkheads were running these branches of service? My mom tried to join the Navy but they wouldn't take her because at 6', she was too tall. So she joined the Marines instead, who waived the height restriction.

    You've totally blown my theory that people in the Navy get to see the world the most! I didn't consider it because of my horrible experience with seasickness in high school and because we didn't have NROTC at my university. But I've often wished I'd found a way, thinking that surely I'd have gotten all kinds of exotic, far-flung assignments! Guess I can rest easy now... I'm sure the Navy would have assigned me to some lakeside in Dubuque, Iowa. (At least seasickness wouldn't have been an issue!) :-)

  9. Yep, I joined the Navy right after graduation--I'm a Vietnam Vet, sad to say (the war was so wrong, but I didn't know that then). With a degree in physics I was sent to Electronic Technician School to teach enlisted boiler men who were destined for nuclear power subs. Great Lakes Naval Training Center was (maybe still is) the largest educational base after boot camp for the enlisted. Oh, I did get Officer Candidate School for 16 weeks in Newport, RI, but never saw anything as we were in intensive training and never got off the base. A bummer all the way around, but there it is. So I never really got near anything that could have made me seasick, although I don't have that problem, thankfully.

  10. Wow, look at you guys! Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines!
    That's is very adventurous.

    I was not so least not until after college...I stayed right here at home (UW), then moved to Boston for 2 years after I graduated...but still was a bit wild and crazy. England, Ireland, Spain all came later.

  11. Daphne ~ I don't think most people knew that then. My dad did two VN tours with the USMC.

    You have a physics degree? I'm terribly impressed! My struggle with physics in high school lead me to believe that part of my brain is also missing, along with the math and sense of direction parts. :-) I find the subjects of physics, many physicists (esp. Einstein, of course) and quantum physics fascinating, even though most of it goes sailing right over my head!

    Dad was stationed at the Naval War College twice, as a student and later as an instructor. We lived in the nearby community of Middletown for the year he was a student - it's a shame you weren't able to get out and about, it's such a beautiful area. The film "The Great Gatsby" was being filmed in Newport the year we lived there and Mom saw Robert Redford jogging along the beach one day. Made her all twitterpated. :-) During the two years Dad was in instructor, we lived at the farm in Maine and he commuted home on weekends, then he retired (and that's when the trouble started!) ;-)

    Rose ~ Is that like, "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!?" ;-) No Army connection here, except that the time I spent in Indianapolis was at DINFOS (Defense Information School) at Fort Ben Harrison, probably something like the Army counterpart to Daphne's Naval Education Center. HUGE training base. Housed the Army's Physical Fitness Training Center, which was quite a bonus - that's where I learned to play racquetball! And they had indoor AND outdoor Olympic size swimming pools, a top-notch PARS course, and an awesome weight training facility (which I was seriously into at the time). I was definitely fit when I left Indy!

    My classes were more or less fun - it's where I went to cross-train into Public Affairs (having had more than enough of Satellite Communications - talk abut a square peg in a round hole!), and a lot of my classes were in journalism, which I enjoyed. The biggest challenge was that Ft. Ben Harrison trains not just thousands of U.S. military officers and enlisted from every branch of the US military, but also trains military (and civilian gov't service personnel) from all over the world. In my class alone we had Army, Navy, USMC, USAF and Coast Guard officers and enlisted, as well as military personnel from Ghana, Botswana, Germany and Saudi Arabia. Walking across base was a nightmare... the uniforms and rank insignia were a Tower of Babel - how was one to know whom to salute?! Being a mere lieutenant, when in doubt, I saluted! :-)

    It WAS an adventure! More than I bargained for at times! :-) I didn't get to see the world, but I did find BW so I guess it was worth it. :-)

    You sounded at least as adventurous as I was - I went to college just an hour away from home, the real adventure started after graduation for me, too. And you ended up on the opposite coast after graduation! And getting to live in foreign countries - I only dreamed of doing that! I'd still love to hear a lot more about those adventures of yours someday! :-)

  12. Dearest LaLooFah,
    I was in high school at the time, in Louisiana, and kinda proud that my school had just recently installed televisions in every classroom. The explosion of the Challenger is the only thing I remember watching on those televisions.

    I listened to this NPR story at work on friday; it brought tears to my eyes. I desperately hope that we can move beyond racism... and speciesism.

    In Hope,

  13. Yes,I know I wasn't alone in not knowing. By the time the records were opened I was teaching a humanities class at Michigan State (as a grad assistant) and having to teach freshmen the truth when I just learned it was rough. And I'm sure you could manage both math and physics if properly taught--one of my biggest gripes. Anyway, for much of my life I just collected degrees since the classroom was about the only place I felt safe, as I know what to do either side of the podium, so I actually have a variety of degrees (2 bachelors, 2 masters, and a PhD, actually) in fields from physics, through library science and English (MA, PhD) and finally Latin (BA). I could probably paper the house with them, but in reality, as fun as that was, it didn't help me to figure out who I am. And I too, am finding quantum physics very fascinating especially as it is moving toward my kind of spirituality. Cheers!

  14. Laloofah -- Nice post on the Challenger and Dr. McNair.

    I am impressed with all the commentators that have military backgrounds and Daphne who is loaded with degrees -- I received an undergrad degree from Michigan State in about 1977.

    Small world and a crazy world -- barbara

  15. Thanks for writinging this touching commemorative post. I do remember the explosion — who could forget it — but you're right about remembering Christa McAuliffe the most. I didn't remember the story about Dr. McNair, and I appreciate your informative history lesson.

    Your own history is pretty impressive, too, as is Daphne's. Wow.

  16. rift ~ I was thrilled to see you'd stopped by, and even more so to read your thoughtful comment. Thank you!

    So I take it that you, along with so many other kids in classrooms everywhere, watched the tragedy unfold live on television? That had to be far more traumatic than the way I learned of it (watching it being replayed was hard enough). It's easy to understand why that remains your sole memory of what you watched on those classroom televisions.

    I'm glad you caught that NPR episode. Just hearing BW relate it had me choking up, as much because of the all-too-clear memories it brought back from that awful day as for the very moving story itself. I've been trying to play the episode on my computer but it just won't work for me for some reason.

    I share your beautiful hope with all my heart!

    Daphne ~ Dang, girl, you have more degrees than a thermometer! :-) I'm impressed! Not just with your number of degrees, but with the breadth and diversity of subjects in which you got them. (Note how careful I'm being with my grammar now that I know I'm addressing someone with a PhD in English. No ending sentences with prepositions now!) ;-)

    So I've always been curious - what does a degree in Library Science entail? I always wondered what there is to know beyond the Dewey Decimal System (which is complicated enough, granted...)

    Latin? Really?? Post hoc, ergo proctor hoc and caveat emptor. That's the extent of my Latin, and I only know that first phrase from watching The West Wing. :-)

  17. Barbara ~ Thank you. :-)

    It IS a small and crazy world! I wonder if you and Daphne were at Michigan State at the same time? I think the world will seem even smaller if AdventureJo finds time to join this conversation, as I believe Michigan State is where her daughter plans to start college in the fall!

    Andrea ~ You are most welcome, I'm glad to have been able to share Dr. McNair's inspiring story with you!

    I agree that Daphne's history is very impressive! Mine feels somewhat tortuous when I look back on it! :-) It often feels like it belongs to someone else, because I can't even imagine taking some of those paths now. But I'm glad I had some of the experiences I did, and assume it all managed to contribute in some way to who and where I am today. (I think it's pretty interesting that Daphne, BW and I were all military officers who are now all ethical vegans. Just goes to show, that particular lightbulb can come on anytime, anywhere, for anyone!) :-)

  18. Yep, as I say, I collected them and I have such Renaissance tastes that I want to explore just about anything (except econ/business--that has never interested me). And don't you dare worry about writing! Nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition at times and most grammar rules are meant to be broken one way or another. So write as always. Library Science is a big field, not just Dewey but Library of Congress cataloguing, how to do research, how to find stuff, how to conduct a proper interview so that you can find out what the patron is really asking (that can be a challenge), what books to order, how resources are managed, and now with so much going electronic, how to search databases, etc., etc. It is a complex field one way or another but I loved it as librarians have an "excuse" to read just about anything. Anyway, it was fun, but seems like a whole different lifetime now.

  19. Thank you for doing this. As you are my only source of news, I hadn't realized it was the 25th anniversary.

    Carl's story of Ron was so moving that I decided to read the full account. I can't imagine what would make a 9 year old so capable of such conviction and determination but it was awesome. I also found the part about Star Trek fascinating. Of course the story lines were fiction but how sad that he even found the concept of whites working with blacks fiction! It really moved me.

    Your experience of the event was quite different than mine. I really think having been in Space Command at the time must have been a big part of that. I remember how tragic it was but I felt absolutely no personal connection to it - just sadness. Thanks for sharing that too.

  20. Daphne ~ Thank you for explaining what all's entailed in Library Science!

    Jo ~ A Saturday blog visit from you, this is a fun surprise! :-) I'm so glad you felt inspired to read the entire interview, and love your point about what might make a 9-year old feel such conviction and determination. He definitely embodied the second part of the Robert F. Kennedy quote, "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

    BW and I thought the cop's response was great, and was quite unexpected. He would have been accustomed to enforcing the segregation laws, and one would think would have likely held the same perspectives and prejudices as the culture he was part of. So I love that part of the story where he says to the librarian, "Why don't you just let him have the book?" :-)


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  • THE HUMANE GARDENER ~ Nancy Lawson
  • THE WORLD WITHOUT US ~ Alan Weisman

There is still strong in our society the belief
that animals and the natural world have value
only insofar as they can be converted into revenue.
That nature is a commodity.
And that the American dream is one of unlimited consumption.
There are many of us, on the other hand,
who believe that animals and the natural world
have value by virtue of being alive.
That Nature is a community to which we belong
and to which we owe our lives.
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