It finally hit me.

Tuesday, 4 February, 2003.
6:15 P.M. CST, Irving, Texas
The Parking Lot, North Lake College

I had arrived over an hour early for class, but instead of going inside and cracking a book, I sat in my car facing the dwindling light of just another workday. I was enjoying a cigar and nursing a hot cup of coffee to ward off the encroaching chill of evening while the soft strains of the Lagoon Waltz played on WRR.

The sun’s rays had faded enough so that everything poking above the near horizon was mostly just a silhouette, cast into sharp relief against a pale sky and a few orange-pink clouds off in the distance.

A subtle movement caught my eye. Across Walnut Hill, in front of a mid-sized, nondescript office building, a flag fluttered in the light evening breeze; fluttered at half-mast. As it lifted and swirled momentarily, the thin fabric allowed the last remnants of daylight to pass through it, and I could just barley discern the pattern, but not the colors, of Old Glory.

I was suddenly seized by a great sadness, a grief so overwhelming that it felt as if my abdomen had suddenly disappeared and that gravity was now trying to tug my heart right out of my chest and onto my lap.

In that moment I finally realized, beyond mere mental acknowledgment of an unpleasant datum, that just four days ago and almost directly overhead (as such things are measured at 12,000+ m.p.h.) seven astronauts, seven people had died.

My eyes brimmed over, and I tried to blink back my tears of grief, but it was a futile attempt. Silently I sat there with the sweet strains of Strauss in my ears, the chill early evening breeze upon my face, the rich aroma of hot coffee in my nostrils and its savory bitterness upon my tongue, as hot, salty tears flowed over and down my cheeks.

No blubbering, no sobs, no anguished cries. Just sweet, silent grief, as stark as the silhouettes of the dead branches of the trees in front of me, thrusting skyward against a darkening sky.


The sun is down, and streetlights begin flickering on. My cigar is out, my coffee has cooled, my tears have dried, and my grief has subsided to something manageable. Another waltz is playing on the radio, but I no longer enjoy the smooth, lilting strains. I crave something dark. Something sad, to bookend my experience with. Perhaps something Russian.

I must go to class now.

Jeez Tank, that post did it for me.


ExTank, that was brilliant. Thanks.


Is there a funeral home in the town where you go to school? If so, get part-time work at one for a year or so. Every week you’ll see something far more tragic than the space shuttle going down. The human tragedy is, of course, tragic. However, they were living a dream. What they did is kind of like having sex with a supermodel and getting thrown from the bed and breaking your neck. It’ll take more than one shuttle tragedy to make up for hearing one person say, “At least mom isn’t suffering any more.”

Work for a funeral home. Be the angel of death. Walk through an old folks’ home, pulling the cot, looking into the eyes of all the seniors as they watch you pass. Each one knows that soon you’ll be coming for them. It won’t take you long to realize where the real tragedy lies.

I’ve been the angel of death. I’ve walked those hallways. I’ve looked into their eyes. I’ve zipped up at least a hundred body bags. So know this: We should all dream of being so lucky as those astronauts. Yeah, they had an unlucky turn of events. But who wouldn’t change places with them on the launch pad? I would.

Excellent post, Extank. It seems in those quiet moments are when we have our most heart rendering moments.
Very inappropriate post for this thread js_africanus. You should have started your own thread before you hijacked this one. We all know about the deaths that happen every day. I lost four family members in less than a year. This isn’t about that.

I wasn’t sure how to go about saying that so tactfully. I read this last night, tho’. . . and thought it seemed very rude.

js_africanus, tact is your friend. Try getting some soon.



Would a week or two of pulling dead-and-burned-beyond-all-recognition Iraqi soldiers out of bunkers and such be good enough for you?

Or how about the time I and several other soldiers were first on the scene of a M-2 Bradley IFV which had rolled, pinning the gunner between the ground and the TOW launcher on the side of the turret as it lay upon its side? I got to watch a man suffocate to death as the weight of the vehicle crushed the life out of him, and nothing I or anyone else could do for the man would save him.

We grabbed shovels and entrenching tools and frantically started digging, throwing anything solid under the launcher and trying to dig the man out from underneath. But the Bradley IFV weighs in the neighborhood of 30 tons, and we had nothing strong enough and large enough to support the weight of the vehicle and dig the poor bastard out in time.

The vehicle commander was thrown clear and survived, but the driver had his chest ripped open from his right armpit to his belt, and died almost instantly. After it was clear that the gunner was dead (I’ll never forget the way his feet and legs kicked and flailed for purchase in the loose soil churned up by the tumbling Bradley, trying to find some purchase and push himself out from under the missile launcher), we went to the driver’s compartment to remove his body from the vehicle.

I was covered in his blood from my boots to my belt as we pulled his dead body from the wreckage, his still warm body like a slippery, 170 pound sack of grain that refused to cooperate.

Or how about the time I watched a man’s arm get ripped off at the elbow? You see, I was loading the main gun for a crew that was short an assigned loader for a tank gunnery at Ft. Hood. The Tank Commander, being new and relatively inexperienced as a Tank Commander, had let his arm stray a few inches beyond the mounted gunnery guard, and when he gave the command to fire, the two-ton breech recoiled 13 inches and then returned to battery in the blink of an eye.

Unfortunately, the Tank Commander’s left elbow was in that 13-inch path of the breech, and it, being mere flesh and bone, lost.
The Tank Commander didn’t die from that; fortunately, the Army trains every soldier in basic life-saving techniques, and there are always medics standing by at-the-ready during military exercises.

But we had to hold him down as he screamed and thrashed around, spraying bright-red arterial blood all over the inside of the cramped turret, and us as well, as we fought to secure a tourniquet around his arm before he bled out.

But not all of my grisly experiences are military related. As a child, Missouri’s Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park had been (and still is) a family favorite, and we spent many weekends of every summer there. Towards the end of the rapids area, there is a deep pool with a natural bluff (carved out of the side of a hill by the river), rising out of the water to a height of 60 or 70 feet before the river turns away from the hill.

We would jump off this cliff from the lower end, going maybe as high as 30 feet. But other adventurous souls would go all the way up to the 50, 60, and sometimes even 70 foot end of the bluff, and take long running leaps off the bluff to clear the rocks below and make it to the river.

One summer, when I was about 10 or 11 years old, one fella didn’t make it. What’s worse, he was trying to dive into the river. His head left an impressive red-and-gray smear on the rocks below.

Is that good enough for you?

Of course human tragedy hits us every day; usually in an intensely personal way, though. Not as a smack in the face to an entire country.

I posted my thoughts not to commemorate the loss of life, or even the tragedy of the shuttle accident. There are enough memorials and speeches to do that, and much better than I ever could.

Since you missed it, and the Straight Dope is all about fighting ignorance, I’ll lay it out for you, in simple, easy to understand terms:
It was about how we as humans react to grief in different ways; it was about how our emotions can be triggered by insignificant and often incongruous images; it was about how our emotions can sneak up on us and ambush us when we are least expecting them to; it was about an intense moment in the few minutes I had taken out of my hectic life to just enjoy a sunset and a cup of coffee; it was about how even such intense moments subside, and day-to-day business reasserts itself.

If I had known any of the seven astronauts personally, had counted them as friends or family, then I would have reacted much more strongly, and sooner, than four days after the accident.

But Saturday was the last day of a hectic business trip; Sunday was my flight back to Dallas, and post-trip meetings and unpacking; Monday was my first day back at work here in Dallas, and getting caught up on everything that had happened in my week-and-a-half trip, as well as my first night back at class.

Tuesday was really the first day since the accident that I had simply stopped. I wasn’t looking at my watch and thinking of where I needed to be next and when did I have to leave to get there on time. I wasn’t thinking of consolidating my findings from my trip into concise notes and talking points, and presenting them to my boss and the other managers of the company I work for. I wasn’t thinking about how far behind I was on my schoolwork, and cramming a few moments of study time into my schedule, somewhere, somehow.

Nope. I just stopped. Breathed in, breathed out. Relaxed my shoulders, not realizing how tense I was, and how crappy the little sleep I had been getting the last few days was. Listened to the radio, and enjoyed a sunset. And got smacked by a flying emotional brick.

Sure, they get to do things that most of us never even dream of; that doesn’t negate or somehow subsidize the immensity of what happened. Rock stars and other celebrities get to do things that most of us don’t. If Harrison Ford crashes his personal helicopter while tooling about, that’s bad, for sure. But he’s flying for his own personal enjoyment and entertainment.

If he crashes his helicopter trying to rescue somebody, then it’s really a tragedy, as he’s flying to help someone, to serve something other than himself.

Thus it is with astronauts, and fighter pilots, and everone else who gets to play with really cool toys (like M-1 Abrams tanks) while doing their jobs. Sure, you get to have fun with high performance machinery, but you’re not there to have fun. You’re there to accomplish something, perhaps something critically necessary. Like Coast Guard Air Search-and-Rescue.

And that makes their loss more tragic, at least to my way of thinking, than people doing similar things simply for entertainment’s sake.

That was a marvelous responsr, ExTank. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

Tank, it was a great post, but I almost wish you hadn’t bothered. His post wasn’t worth your response.

My brother is on his way to Afghanistan with SF, and I kinda wish you were next to him (you know what I mean).

Damn, Tank…I wish more people on this board had just a fraction of your eloquence.

Thank you for sharing. I’m not sure it’s really hit me yet. I do plan to take family trips to both the Cape and to Mission Control when the kids get a bit older(as my family did when I was younger). I’ll probably break down there and embarass them. It’s just still so wierd.

Take care, maybe we’ll run into each other at a upcoming dopefest.


Yeah, Tank’s posted some gems over the years. Good to see him around again.

js_africanus, I won’t add anything to what the others here have said to you. Except that your next post to this thread should be an apology. Anything else and I’ll split it off to a pit thread.

Thank you all for your kind comments.

I was originally slightly offended by africanus’ post, mostly by the assumption that I had never seen death or human tragedy. But upon reflection, I must concede that he might have a point. I don’t envy him that job he descibes, of going through a retirement home with a stretcher, and looking upon all of those people who must know, sooner or later, that he will be coming for them as well.

But I say this: death from old age, while not ultimately inevitable (there’s a lot of ways to check out of this world before old age can get you), is still the most likely way for the average person to go. In that sense, it is inevitable. As a glacier.

No one stands in front of a mirror and, in the blink of an eye, suddenly turns 100 years old and keels over dead, with just enough time to begin to realize what is happening before dying.

The real tragedy of africanus’ situation is that we Americans feel the need to foist our elderly off on someone else to die, often times lonely and neglected by their family and friends.

Had I “walked a mile” in his shoes, I too might be slightly resentful of the attention showered upon celebrity deaths and those deaths that somehow grab our national attention, as we call them tragedies.

But NASA and its astronauts are sort of a collective dream, a hope and a prayer combined, that we will all one day “slip the surly bonds of Earth,” and go to the stars. And when accidents like Apollo’s 1 and 13, and the Challenger and the Columbia happen, that dream, that hope, dies just a little bit.

So I don’t resent africanus’ for raining on the parade just a little bit. In fact, I must concede that he very well may be a better man than I. For I cannot say for certain that I could do what he did. Not for long, anyway.

Well that right there, that made me cry. These are wonderfully written posts.

Wonderful posts, ExTank. And let me echo UncleBeer in saying that it’s good to see you posting again.

Ex Tank may I use this for Teemings Extras ?

I’d be honored!

I pretty much surrender (voluntarily!) anything I put up on The Straight Dope for public and board use.