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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Christa McAuliffe Tour


Mommy Needs Vodka CHRISTA MCAULIFFE Space Training
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After high school graduation, I moved to the east coast. My BFF and I were young and naïve teenagers—the perfect time to do Stupid Shit that ends up being a highly memorable experience. Then when you’re an adult, you can reminisce about the days when you were trusting, unjaded, and believed that everyone was good and helpful and harmless.

Thus, the two of us embarked upon what I call a Christa McAuliffe Tour.

(Or what others might call a Stalking a Dead Person tour.)

Looking back now, it seems insane that we took a bus to Christa’s hometown of Concord, New Hampshire with maybe ten bucks between us and hundreds of miles from home with no credit cards nor vehicle, fully expecting that some way, somehow, we were going to take a tour of Christa McAuliffe’s life in a town we’d never seen.

But at the time, of course, it made perfect sense. I considered myself somewhat worldly by then, having moved to a big city at age 17—all of four months before this hair-brained idea, plus I had been to Disneyland at age 16. So I was pretty goddamned worldly and sophisticated in my own pea-brained teenage rationale.

My BFF and I had started this bizarre vacation in New York City, where we spent all our money on the first day—who could blame us though? we had to go to Macy’s, right?  We’d arrived via Greyhound at the sleazy Port Authority terminal around midnight and frankly we were so naïve it’s a wonder we’re both alive today.

So traveling to Concord, New Hampshire seemed like a cake walk to us. I was like an excited schoolgirl as the bus from Manchester let us off in the middle of town. This was a billion years ago so I don’t recall every detail. I did keep a journal back then and if I can dig it up, I will come back here and avail cyberspace as to how we met some dude named Bill (memory’s a weird thing—I remember his name ) while he saw us wandering the street by the courthouse. The courthouse was where Christa’s husband Steve worked, and I suppose we were either hoping to get a glimpse of him or else the bus just dropped us off in that central location.

Bill was a middle-aged benevolent looking man wearing a shirt and tie that ended over his pot belly. The man KNEW Concord. Like the back of his fucking hand. He probably saw two naïve idiots wandering cluelessly around and took pity on us and asked us if we needed help. Damn yes we did!

I was not shy. I said we’d come over a thousand miles to this very spot so that we could see Christa McAuliffe’s town. The man was born and bred in Concord, and proud of his town, and we therefore worshipped him. He therefore allowed us to flatter him and hang on his every word as he drove us from place to place.

The Courthouse

The courthouse was boring to me. To my recollection, Bill worked there and had just gotten off work when he saw us. He knew Steve as an acquaintance through his work (two degrees of separation! Holy fuck!). Steve was a lawyer and had therefore spent time in the courthouse, plus Christa had been there, according to this dude, to do mock trials with her students. Bill pointed out where those mock trials took place.

He was most excited about the courthouse, since it’s where he worked, and got a little too tangential in describing that building. A courthouse is a courthouse is a courthouse.

The School

This was pre-Columbine. So we just walked right in, no questions asked. It was October, but school wasn’t in session when we arrived. Whether it was Columbus Day or the school day was out, I don’t recall. We walked down a corridor with lockers lining one wall and up to the wooden door of Christa’s classroom. It was locked, of course, but I looked at the door and thought about all the incredible learning and inspiration that took place in that sacred room. I myself had loved high school, which is downright ironic considering I was all Let’s-Wear-Black and thought extracurricular activities were a huge joke as I sat in a corner and read Stephen King novels about dead people. But I loved most of my teachers, and my mom was one. So.

I hate to digress, but I returned a few weeks later to the school with my mom when she came out to visit me. We rented a car like normal people. We met a teacher who had been Christa’s colleague, who graciously allowed us into her old classroom and talked to us for awhile. I don’t remember what we spoke about, only that she went out of her way to be kind to us.


The House

The family no longer lives there, but they did at that time. It’s a pretty home in a quiet neighborhood that had been built early century (i.e., it wasn’t a fucking cookie-cutter tract home as nearly all homes are built today). It was quaint. Had a front porch, probably wood floors inside, rounded entryways, foot-long baseboards and actual craftsmanship. And no I didn’t sneak inside to find out. There were pictures in magazines, goddamnit! I’m not quite that voyeuristic. Close, but not quite.

In fact, it creeped me out to be there. Dang, I feel like I’ve got to defend myself here and explain that we were on the other side of the street and remained in the car for less than 2 minutes other than when I popped out to take a quick snapshot. We shouldn’t have been there at all, cuz that really made me feel like a Dead Person Stalker. A scoundrel. Or worse, paparazzi. The other places we saw were all public, but this was crossing a line to me.

These people didn’t ask for their privacy to be violated. It had already been violated in the worst way with cameras focused on their faces as they watched their family member die. Which can now be viewed ad nauseum on You Tube. Personally, I think that footage should be banned. And I’m like the last person who believes in censorship.


Christa McAuliffe's Grave

Next we went to Christa’s grave. It’s a beautiful gleaming slab with the epitaph:

Wife   Mother   Teacher
Pioneer Woman
Crew member, Space Shuttle Challenger.
America's first ordinary citizen to venture toward space.

She helped people. She laughed. She loved and is loved. She appreciated the world's natural beauty. She was curious and sought to learn who we are and what the universe is about. She relied on her own judgment and moral courage to do right. She cared about the suffering of her fellow man. She tried to protect our spaceship Earth. She taught her children to do the same.

Obviously, I had my BFF take my picture next to it, and I took one of her.

Reflecting on the whole “tour,” it sounds somewhat unseemly. Really it’s similar to Sarah Vowell’s obsession with dead presidents (which she wittily shares with us in her awesome book, Assassination Vacation). The difference of course is that Christa hadn't been dead long enough for it not to be unseemly to tour her town and catch of glimpse of her marketed “ordinary life.” In another hundred years or so, it won’t be considered an act of voyeurism, but a cultural and intellectual classy thing to do.

3 comments:

  1. That's a riot you did that! I had no idea. You must have obsessively researched all this to figure out where her husband worked, where she lived, and where her gravesite was. What an adventure.

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  2. Nope, we didn't have the faintest clue or do any research! The guy who drove us around knew everything and he drove us to all these places. This was before the dawn of the internet. Most lawyers in a small town go to the local courthouse now and then, otherwise we knew nada.

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  3. I understand your strange fascination with wanting to explore the town and physical places of a famous dead person. I've been wanting to do the Christa Tour for YEARS!! And it's true, if it's a saint say like, Joan of Arc, and you're travelling around France to see where she lived and died, it's OK. But when it's just an ordinary citizen (who isn't a Saint or a president) it's Taboo. Ordinary people don't understand it. But understand why you did this. You needed to connect with something beyond yourself...Got it.

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