Twenty-five years ago today, I was standing at the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, having landed in Hawaii a couple of hours earlier after an overnight flight from Australia.
I was too groggy to take in a lot of the details of the Japanese surprise attack given by the park ranger who was leading our tour. Instead, I found myself fixated on a spreading rainbow-hued oil slick in the water caused by seepage from the wreckage that had finally reached the surface after 45 years of entombment.
While half-listening to the ranger’s spiel, I heard him refer to “recent horrible events,” which I found confusing, since there was nothing recent about the Japanese attack. I also caught something about a “tragedy” that had taken place. I remember thinking, “Sure it was a tragedy, but we won the war.”
My gaze was stolen away from the spreading oil when he then said, “In case some of you haven’t heard, the space shuttle exploded this morning just after liftoff.”
There are those moment that we will all experience during a lifetime that defy the laws of physics and are not subject to the equations of space-time; those moments that aren’t a part of the past, but always right next to us, just out of reach. This was one of them.
I don’t remember many details of the rest of my stay in Honolulu, except that I spent more time in the hotel sopping up every detail of the explosion than I did being UV-foolish at Waikiki.
What’s funny is that until reading about the Challenger anniversary this morning, I had completely forgotten about the second shuttle explosion that happened only eight years ago this week, when Columbia broke up over Texas, killing all seven people on board.
How is it possible that I can vividly remember something 25 years ago, and to have seemingly been in a coma in 2003 that kept me from remembering Columbia?
I asked my wife Kimi about this and learned that she vividly remembers Challenger and its crew member Christa McAuliffe, but also has no recollection of the Columbia disaster.
So it isn’t just me.
The contrast between these two disasters is a dramatic example of the American media’s true power, which is to create our shared experiences by deciding what is truly important for us to remember.
This can even be seen in the reporting of the Challenger disaster. Everyone remembers astronaut-teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died 73 seconds into her first shuttle mission, along with the six other members of her crew. What is forgotten by nearly everyone is that there was a second woman on board that flight named Judith Resnick, a 36-year-old engineer who was recruited into NASA by Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols. Resnick was the first Jewish woman ever to go into space.
There were also five men on board that day: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Ellison Onizuka.
Hawaiian-born Onizuka was buried in Honolulu. I was able to visit his grave on my next visit to Hawaii a couple of years after the disaster. This brought my memories of the Challenger disaster full-circle, since it is located only a few miles from Pearl Harbor.