The news program opened with the anchor reminding us that today is the anniversary of the Challenger disaster of twenty-five years ago. My husband grumbled, “Now why are they bringing that up?”
I didn’t really know what he was complaining about. Maybe he just didn’t want to think about it. I could sympathize; I didn’t ever want to watch the news. Too much sadness, too much pain and not enough happiness promoted on those morning news channels. I’d rather listen to music. Music puts joy in my heart.
They started to show the live clips that they showed that terrible day, and they spoke of those that lost their lives in the explosion. I found myself traveling back to that day – or rather night, for me.
I was living in Germany. My then husband, Matt, was in the Air Force. He worked second shift. As it was, it had been like any other day for me. We lived in a small village named, Bollendorf, about thirty minutes from Bitburg AFB. I was a stay-at-home mom with a four year old and a one year old. Our days consisted of keeping a “baby” schedule – breakfast, diapers, walks outside, playing in the garden – (as the locals called the back yard), reading many children’s books to my pensive audience, lunch, and finally naptime, which gave me the chance to read a grown up book or two. Matt slept till ten in the morning and left by two in the afternoon. I don’t have much recollection of what he did in those four between hours.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, used to send me boxes of books. She thought everyone should make time to read. I once told her that I didn’t have time to read. She went into a rant about when her kids were little and she didn’t even have running water, had to go out and pump her water and wash her clothes by hand, and etc., and she still found time to read. Anyway, mailing bound material was fairly cheap (my grandmother’s favorite thing). We would receive boxes of books of all kinds. I read anything and everything she sent – from Taylor Caldwell’s Captains and the Kings to Stephen King’s Thinner. She sent books for the children, too. Because reading was our main entertainment, each time we made our bi-monthly trip to the Base Exchange, the children were treated to a new book, and I to a couple of magazines. That was also when we bought groceries, but only the items on the list were allowed purchases, as our budget was tight.
Living so far from the base, we bought cases of German milk, which didn’t have to be refrigerated till opened, along with cases of diapers for Andrew and Capri Sonne, the original German made Capri Sun for Abigail. And of course, a couple cases of Bitburger Beer and a half gallon of bourbon for Matt. Those were our staples.
When we first moved into our new apartment that Matt had rented for us before I arrived, we realized that under the cooktop there was no oven. It gave the appearance of an oven, because your mind just assumes that is what will be there, but it was just another cupboard. I remember looking frantically around. How could they build a kitchen with no oven? But it truly was so. I made do, for a while, without one, but when the Air Force finally brought a range with oven, I then spent a good amount of time cooking and baking. I loved to find new recipes and try them out. And Matt was very appreciative of my efforts.
The German natives took their children for daily walks, regardless of the weather. I watched them go by, on the street below our big window that overlooked the village. Many of them had double strollers, but most had baby buggies with heavy-duty tires. Their babies’ little faces barely poked out from beneath their warm clothing. I noticed most of them were not just in snowsuits, but also tucked into what seemed to be insulated bags. I decided that I would join this daily ritual, as the isolation and the monotony of my life required fresh air and sunshine to survive. For Andrew, I took the baby quilt that I had sewn for him, folded it in half and sewed up the bottom and side, making a bag to tuck him down into. But the problem was that my four-year-old, Abigail, had no boots. And the only stroller we owned was an umbrella stroller (very popular in the 80’s). So I decided we would make the trek to the village. I gathered my Deutche Marks, bundled Abigail in her coat and tennis shoes, put Andrew in his snowsuit and the makeshift bunting, stuffed him down in the seat of the stroller, strapped him in and grabbed Abby by the mittened hand, and we headed to the village. That particular day, it was fairly nice, and we strolled along down the curving hill.
Walking was the thing to do in Germany. The roads were often occupied by more walkers than vehicles. They even had parks that had paths through trees and fields just for walking. They were called Wander Wages, which means Wander Ways. They were fascinating to me, as I wondered who would want to come there just to walk. Now they seem to be everywhere in the United States, as physical fitness has become a larger part of the mass consciousness.
As we made our entrance into the little village, it seemed to me that there had been an apocalypse or something. It seemed there was no one around. The sidewalks and streets were empty. The stores all dark. Had we just entered The Twilight Zone? I listened and from the gasthaus (the local hotel and bar) rang laughter. I wondered what would draw the entire business world of the village to the bar in the middle of the day. Was this some sort of holiday?
I stood in front of the shoe store, staring in the window at the little pair of yellow rubber boots that I knew were exactly what I was looking for to keep my precious daughter’s feet warm and dry on our upcoming walks in inclement weather. I scanned the door to see if they had perhaps posted their hours, wondering if they, possibly, were not open at all on this particular day of the week. My frustration grew, as I realized we would be climbing that hill toward home without having accomplished our mission.
Poor little Abigail. Not only did she not get her boots, but also now she had a grumpy, frustrated mother pulling her along up the hill.
I don’t remember when, but we did finally make it down to the village to buy new boots for my little girl. And we got the butter yellow ones we had spied in the window. We also found out that every day, every store in the village closes for lunch, and all the merchants head to the local gasthaus for ale, food and good company. A nice tradition, I think. A slower paced life, for sure. I only wish I would have known before hand.
The children and I went for our daily walks. We were greeted each time by other mothers, all dressed in black coats, it seemed. And all speaking in German, which left me just smiling and nodding, as they leaned over my little ones. They smiled and carried on, bending toward their little faces, chattering in German baby talk. Funny how you can tell it is baby talk, no matter the language. Then throwing their heads back, they would laugh gleefully. Andrew seemed to know what they were saying. He smiled, shyly, his blue eyes sparkling, and his cheeks plumped up from under his coverings. For all I knew, they could have been saying, “You’ve got the ugliest kids in town,” but that never occurred to me. There was no doubt I had beautiful children, they didn’t look like me – or so I told myself. (Andrew was really the spit and image of me with a slight mix of his dad. Abigail has similarities, but I couldn’t have been more ecstatic when she was born with chestnut hair and steel blue eyes – that ended up, thirty years later, to be the same color as mine.) At the time, I felt they would be better off to look like anyone other than me. I was confident that anything these ladies were prattling on about had to be good. I only wished I could return the compliment in their language.
I realize, as I look back at our Germany experience, that I don’t have many memories that include Matt, my ex-husband. He worked, and he slept, and I kept the house going and the children fed, clean and nurtured, as I tried to keep myself sane in my isolated little world where no one but my husband and four year old spoke the same language.
That January 28th, I am sure that I went through the same routine as I did any other day, which usually commenced with my crawling into our new German bed with the ecru colored quilted headboard and the gray flowered bedspread at about 8:00 p.m. We had no television, as our TV was an American made TV made for use in America. So with Matt at work, the children tucked in bed and asleep, I either watched a movie on VHS tape or crawled in bed with a book, reading till I couldn’t hold my eyelids up any longer.
When Matt arrived home around midnight, he usually woke me briefly, or just crawled in bed beside me after his nightcap. On this night, I remember that he crawled into bed and woke me. He told me about the Challenger disaster with the emotion of someone whose good friend had been aboard. I listened and then replied, “That’s too bad.” I snuggled back under the covers, and Matt then seemed agitated with me. He said, “Don’t you think it is terrible?”
“Yes,” I replied, “But I don’t know those people. And I am tired.” I was anticipating Andrew’s early wake-up call. I didn’t have time to stay up mourning the loss of these strangers on their quest that didn’t seem to affect my life. Andrew would need his breakfast bright and early, and my sleep was the most important thing for me at that moment to avoid any disasters in my own life.
Every time I hear anything of the Challenger disaster, I think of how insensitive I felt that night, as I was being reprimanded. Now that my children are grown, and I have matured and lived and learned, I realize that it was the feeling of vulnerability that Matt was feeling that I could not share with him that night. Living in a strange country, so far from my parents and loved ones, I could not let myself feel vulnerable. I had to be strong. I had to guard and care for my little children. They were my world, and as long as the Challenger did not crash in my back yard while we were playing catch, my life could go on the same.
We all have our ways of staying “safe” in our worlds. I stayed in my world; life in a foreign country was as much stepping out as I could allow right then.
I admire the astronauts and the risks they take. They fully embrace life and head out into the unknown. The Challenger could have been the last mission like that, but that has not stopped other astronauts from taking risks.
With my kids grown, I find that I am faced with the option of stepping outside of this safe world and taking the risk of exploring something much larger. I realize that I must take the risk in order to fully live. For anything worth experiencing always involves a risk factor. And rather than deny vulnerability, I think it’s time to embrace it.