Thursday, January 27, 2011

High in the sunlit silence

I remember so well my excitement about the first space shuttle flight. I was 13 when Columbia took off, and in seventh grade. But I have a better recollection of when she landed because I was at school that afternoon and the teachers, bless them, believed it important that we see the space shuttle's return to Earth.

My classmates and I, with some of us thrilled by the momentous occasion and others just happy to be missing class, crammed into the tiny library and huddled around the no-bigger-than-20-inches television screen. At least it was color. I can't recall the TV station, though I remember some newsman saying, "And there she is!" when Columbia came onscreen.

It felt magical, both the sight of Columbia landing and the notion of where she had come from. If we could do this, what couldn't we do?

My fascination with the space shuttle program continued though, like most of America, the missions became in a manner "routine" -- thrilled, I would watch the shuttle go up safely and then thrilled, I'd watch it come down safely, each time.
We got 20 or so of these "routine" flights before our hearts were shattered by the realities of the dangers of space flight.
I wasn't in school on Jan. 28, 1986. It was yet another snow day during my senior year in high school. My older sister happened to be home as well, with no classes that day. We were both in socks and sweats, she on the couch and I on the chair sitting to the right side of the TV.
We had the television on, of course, and were chitchatting away while awaiting the launch of Challenger. We heard the many mentions of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, and just kept on talking during the countdown. We turned quiet to take in liftoff before starting to natter on again.
Then there were the words: "Go at throttle up." Then there was ... confusion. It wasn't instantaneous, the realization of catastrophe. It was, "What happened?" and "That looked like ..." and "Where is the shuttle?" And then it was silence and horrible pictures of loved ones gathered on the viewing stand and the broadcast words "obviously a major malfunction" before finally the dawning that there was no longer a space shuttle Challenger. It just wasn't there.

This was one of those days people talk about. Game-changers, life-changers. Events of national or international impact that are felt on the most personal of levels.

We all know what we were doing on Sept. 11, 2001. Like many, my mother still remembers even minute details about the day President Kennedy was shot. There are others, I'm sure, who recall every detail of when the Berlin Wall fell, or the day the hostages were freed from Iran, or the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. Perhaps even a few remain with us who have the bombing of Pearl Harbor stamped indelibly on their memories.

For me, the first of these game-changing days was Jan. 28, 1986. An entire day that consisted of only 73 seconds.

To this day, for all the right reasons, my heart races at the sight of a shuttle launch. But to this day, my heart jumps at the words "Go at throttle up" because of the horror that followed that one shattering time.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

One of a Kind

Today is my incredible father’s 68th birthday.

J.B., as he’s known by most, though he’s also called Benji or J or Uncle Bubba by various members of our family, is one of my Mamaw and Papaw’s twelve children – though that hardly implies he’s not unique.

Monetarily at least, the Hensley family didn’t have much. For food, they raised their own vegetables and hunted their own meat, and Papaw worked off the farm.

My grandfather died when my dad, one of the middle children, was only 16, leaving my grandmother at home with four kids still to feed and raise alone. Daddy quit school and went to work. He worked nonstop in difficult and physically demanding jobs to support his beloved mother and younger siblings.

Dad didn’t stop working until he was forcibly “retired” from his job at the age of 63 when the Kingsport Foundry closed a few years back. He retired as the plant supervisor having spent nearly 40 years working his way up from below ground level.

Having been denied the formal education he deserved and working so hard for decades could leave a lesser man bitter, close-minded or cold. Not my father.

There isn’t a man alive with a warmer or more explosive laugh. He can tell a joke as well as any comedian out there, and storytelling is his forte. Though short on school, he still enjoys learning new things – and made sure his daughters took their education seriously. He has very definite opinions, but he also knows how to listen when others talk.

Dad is big on personal accountability, but he’s also the first to offer a helping hand to anyone who needs it, at any time.

I’ve always known that my father loves me. What he doesn’t know is that he’s also given me the biggest compliment I could ever receive.

Several years ago, Dad and I were watching a ballgame together and engaging in our (funny and interesting to us) version of color commentary. Mom, having listened to us bicker about something or other, said: “You two are like peas in a pod.” At which point my father replied: “Thank you.”

My father, this big-hearted, hard-working joy of a human being, considered it a compliment to be compared to me.

That is a moment forever joined with my heart.

Happy Birthday, Daddy.