30 years ago today, I was a student at the University of Kentucky. It as the age before cell phones and instant communication as we know it today. I had eaten lunch with friends in the Student Center cafeteria and was going through the Student Center on my way to exit the building and head to my next class when I passed the TV lounge, an area with couches and seating where students could watch TV, what an quaint concept these days. I noticed a larger than normal crowd gathered, but I figured it must have been some epic soap opera episode that everyone wanted to see. Then I heard gasps and sobs from the area.
I walked over and saw that CNN was on the TV. This was my first indication that something had happened. I managed to work my way into the area and saw the replay of the Challenger explosion. Like everyone else, I was horrified and mesmerized at the same time. I suppose I was there for about 10 minutes before I realized that I had to leave or I would be late for my next class.
When I got there, some students still had not heard the news. The class became a discussion of the topic at the expense of normal classwork. We were all horrified and saddened by what had happened, and those of us who had already seen the tv footage were trying to describe it to those who hadn’t. Eventually, the discussion turned to how tragedies mark important events in our lives.
We talked about how our parents had always said that the JFK assassination had left them speechless and numb. Now my generation had our own reference point to judge time by. We would always remember where we were when we heard about Challenger. In future years, 9/11 would mark that point in the lives of a new generation.
As time gives us the gift of perspective, I can say that Challenger was different because it was not imprinted onto our consciousness in the same way as 9/11. Communications were even more instantaneous in 2001 than they had been in 1986. We had to take the time to actually watch coverage without our cell phones beeping with texts and alerts. I don’t mean that this created any different sense of tragedy, but in 1986 we had to still gather together just to find out what had happened, not to the degree that our parents did in 1963, but still more in that line than 2001.
Today, events are blared at us constantly. Everything has to be larger in scope than the last breaking news story. The sensationalization of the mundane is another topic for another post, but there is a true sense of information overload when it comes to what actually constitutes a tragedy that defines a generation. I believe that the generation since 9/11 will never know the immediate sense of actual community that we experienced in 1986, and even in 2001. Future generations will experience their own tragedies almost in a vacuum, or so it seems to me.
At any rate, I remember 30 years ago today rather vividly. It seems hard to believe that so many years have passed, but time always moves on regardless of how we feel.