first time he gave me a clue into his mysterious job at NASA, I was hooked.
This handsome, older man intrigued me, and from my childlike perspective
I was in awe. Not only did he have a magical smile, he was intelligent
and gentle, as well. This man was my dad. On that January morning, 21
years after his passing, he still remained in my daily thoughts.
I didn’t know what I was looking
forward to the most that day. Surely it was the anticipation of watching
the space shuttle launch on television and seeing the events through
the eyes of my four-year-old son, Nathan. After all, my father’s
profession had cultivated my curiosity in the
space program, and on this morning, sharing his legacy with his grandchild
was foremost on my mind. I was convinced that I would be creating a happy,
unforgettable time with my child, just like the ones I had when I was young.
“What did you bring me?” I
would anxiously ask as my dad walked through the front door. “What
could it be this time?” I wondered. His position at NASA opened
up new worlds when he brought something home to share with me. Once,
there were small cards with illustrations of spacecraft with peculiar
names like Gemini, Apollo and Mercury. “One day,” he said, “you’ll
see something like this land on the moon.”
There was also a colored map of the
solar system printed on shiny paper. With each turn of a page, the galaxy
came alive as beautiful planets appeared in deep hues of blue and amethyst.
Agreeing that Saturn was our favorite, my dad and I imagined dancing
together on the yellow-orange rings that wrapped around it.
The most magical moment occurred when
he reached into his pockets and produced two small magnets. “These,” he
said with a smile, as he placed one magnet in my tiny hand and held the
other, “do nothing when placed apart from one another. But when
you put them near each other, they will remain so close together that
it would be hard to separate them. Like you and I always will be.” Even
as a little girl, I understood the symbolism of the magnets and how their
profound message was my father’s gentle way of telling me what
was to come. As I went to sleep that night, I hid the cherished magnets
under my pillow and buried his words deep in my heart. Before too long,
when reality came in whispered, hushed tones, “Your father is ill,” I
came to realize just how much those tiny magnets would always mean to
Before the shuttle launch that morning
in January 1986, I decided to share my childhood memories with my son.
Reaching for the wooden box hidden under the bed, my anticipation grew
along with Nathan’s eagerness to see what was inside. “This
is your grandfather,” I said,
carefully opening the box and showing
him a NASA photo I.D. Gently taking the map, cards and magnets out of
the box, I proudly told him of his grandfather’s
part in the space program. As Nathan looked at each object, he did so with
reverence, somehow realizing the significance these objects held for me.
The magnets were the last pieces to be put back into the box, but not before
I placed one in Nathan’s little hand and held the other, as I told
him the poignant story that had once been told to me.
“Oh look, Nathan, here they come,” I
said, as the seven astronauts waved to the cheering crowd. The morning
couldn’t have been more beautiful, the azure sky free of clouds. “A
perfect day for a launch,” the television commentator said, and
I could not have agreed more.
At 11:38 a.m., Nathan and I counted
down with the announcer. As we shouted “lift-off!” we held
our breath as the shuttle went up into the sky. It rolled gently to one
side, rocketing toward the heavens.
And then, in a burst of flashing light,
something went awfully wrong. In stunned silence I watched long, white
plumes of smoke appear as the craft veered wildly off course with debris
falling all around.
It wasn’t until I heard a quiet,
little voice ask, “Mommy, why are you crying?” that I realized
we had seen the launch of the Challenger come to a horrific end.
The emotion I wanted to feel that
morning and the happy memories I desired to create for my son were not
meant to be like this. I was
overwhelmed with grief for the seven astronauts aboard the destroyed shuttle.
That lovely winter morning turned ugly and dark. My dad’s diligent
work at NASA, the dearly loved mementos in the treasured wooden box, and
the pride that I held for the space program quickly dissolved into sadness,
confusion and disappointment.
I missed my father more on that winter
morning than at any other time before. As the image of the Challenger
faded from the television screen, I longed to be comforted by the smart,
gentle man from my childhood. He would be the only one who could explain
what had happened and why. That morning’s events were almost too
much for me to bear. I needed my dad.
Although my father’s time on
earth was too short, I am thankful that the memories remain vivid and
the various tokens he entrusted to me are safe in the wooden box under
my bed. From time to time I sift through the bits and pieces in that
box, placing a beloved magnet in the palm of my hand. As I let the cherished
memories of the man I deeply adore wash over me for a moment or two,
I mourn for the family broken apart 40 years ago. Mostly, I feel for
the little girl who has never forgotten the promise that lies in the
wooden box and who still needs her dad.
In the quiet aftermath of that cold
January morning, I fondly remembered one more thing. That fateful winter
day would have been my father’s 58th birthday.
– Linda Mecca
is public relations
assistant in the
Office at Albright.