Friday, January 28, 2011

Remembering a Day I Will Never Forget, 25 Years Later

What "I remember exactly where I was when I heard about ____________" moments resonate strongest with you?

I wasn't alive until nearly five years after JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and with December 7, 2011 being the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that day will soon live in infamy well beyond a preponderance of people who can actively remember it.

With the MLK and RFK assassinations coming slightly before my birth (in October 1968), and the Moon Landing coming only 9 months after, I don't directly remember those events, but I think I slightly recall watching Nixon leave office on August 9, 1974. And I know that, while on family vacations in 1976 and 1977, I saw news reports about the deaths of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Elvis Presley, respectively. I can't really recall if I heard about John Lennon via Howard Cosell's announcement during Monday Night Football or the next morning from Steve Dahl & Garry Meier (on Chicago radio), but I remember being quite stunned, even though I was much more familiar with Paul McCartney, who'd been far more active during my years of awareness.

I remember coming home from school on March 30, 1981 excited to watch that evening's NCAA Championship and the Academy Awards, and having my dad tell me that President Reagan had been shot. (The game was played, with Indiana beating North Carolina; the Oscars were postponed to the next night.)

I also won't forget Frank Sinatra's death coinciding with the last episode of Seinfeld (on 5/14/98), and know I found out about Michael Jackson initially through a post on Facebook shortly after others about Farrah Fawcett made the rounds (on 6/25/09). Like most, I have vivid sad memories of 9/11/01 and can still recall WSCR's Dan Bernstein first alerting me to an airplane having crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, while I was driving to work after having seen Bob Costas on the Today show discussing Michael Jordan's decision to play for the Washington Wizards. I also remember my boss at the time insisting we treat it as a normal workday, even as all the horrible events unfolded.

But as much as any non-personal event--and even most of those--I'll never forget the day 25 years ago today, January 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff, killing its seven crew members.

It wasn't just that it was a completely shocking tragedy--one that at age 17 I doubtfully ever even contemplated, at least not in a way so dissimilar from a "Ground Control to Major Tom" scenario--or that what happened was captured by television cameras for all to see. (I didn't witness the catastrophe as it happened, but repeatedly in its wake.)

No, what makes the Challenger tragedy so extraordinarily memorable was the timing of it. Especially for Chicagoans.

You see, just two days before, on Sunday, January 26, 1986, the Chicago Bears completed their greatest season in history by defeating the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. I'm sure you can imagine the euphoria being shared through the halls of Niles North High School--where I was a senior--and everywhere in the region that Monday, and carrying through Tuesday. Keep in mind that up to that point, other than the basically irrelevant Chicago Sting soccer team, no Chicago sports team (professional or collegiate) had won a championship during my lifetime. And with the Bears going 15-1 during the regular season, being coached by Mike Ditka, led by Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary and many other stars, featuring William "The Refrigerator" Perry and boldly predicting their success through "The Super Bowl Shuffle," the '85 Bears were truly a phenomenon.

Even had the current Bears beaten the Packers last Sunday, advanced to Super Bowl XLV and won it, in my opinion it would have paled next to the '85 Bears for anyone old enough to recall the excitement they stirred around town and even across the country (and I still think theirs was the best defense ever).

So, Sunday, January 26, 1986, the Bears win the Super Bowl for Chicago's first major sports championship since the Bears won the NFL Championship in 1963 (about 5 weeks after the Kennedy assassination).

The city goes bonkers and celebrates into Monday, when a ticker tape parade is held along LaSalle Street, with a rally in Daley Plaza.

Jubilation was still abundant at Niles North in Skokie on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, when someone says in the hallway that "the Space Shuttle blew up." My initial reaction was to assume it was some kind of joke; disbelief is often the way we respond to horrific news. But the buzz soon became louder and I think it was in a classroom (so much for precise exactitude) that the grim truth was confirmed.

Talk about a downer.

I remember that it immediately felt wrong to feel so happy about the Bears. Seven people, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, lost their lives in such a stunning way. School wasn't canceled and thus life pretty quickly resumed normalcy, but as this article should attest, I'll never forget going from so high to so low in such succession, at least in terms of events that didn't involve a personal loss or direct consequence. The juxtaposition greatly exacerbated the shock of the tragedy, and the acuity of the memory.

For although I also remember the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster that killed its seven crew members, without looking it up just now, I couldn't have told you that it happened on February 1, 2003.

But January 28, 1986 is a day, and feeling, I will never, ever forget.

No comments: