The Night Flight From Houston
I love to fly. By that I mean, the act of flying itself--not simply traveling, but the take off and landing and turbulence. It is magic that never dulls, never tarnishes. It is the closest I will ever become to an astronaut. I would be an astronaut in a millisecond.
The Challenger explosion. It broke apart 73 seconds after launch. It was the craft’s 10th mission. On board was the first Teacher in Space—Christa McAuliffe. January 28, 1986, 10:38 a.m. CST.
I know exactly where I was. I was leaving the parking lot of a since-closed family-owned custom-made pool table shop on Washington Avenue. I was about to turn left onto Washington Avenue to head over to Taylor Street, where I would turn right and enter the Houston Heights. I was buying pool cues. They were for Rat Bastard and the pool table I’d given him for Christmas. It was before I realized he was Rat Bastard. We lived in a little house just off the 610 Loop. It hadn't been yet, but before we moved out, the reason we would move out, is because it would robbed--twice in a month.
The first time everything that plugged into a wall was taken, and my jewelry box. My tabby cat, Katie, had given birth to kittens late that afternoon, the afternoon of the robbery. Afterwards, I had gone to work. When I came home, the robbers were still in the house. They had dead bolted the door--something we never did--so I was immediately tipped off. The front window’s rice paper blind was also unrolled. I had left it at half mast. Fortunately, I had snap enough to make a fast exit, blood pumping yet calm. It is the state I get into when there is a crisis. I am a good person to have around in disaster situations. If I were being attacked by Zombies I would so survive. Even my Facebook quiz agrees. I see the panorama, make quick-strong decisions and act. I never freak out. I save that, if required, for later. When my cousin Ronnie succumbed to that first wave of AIDS and died blind at 35, which sent my grandmother into a cave of black so far underground that no life-line could reach her, I was there calm and steady. It was a week later when I sat in The Ale House and drank a Bloody Maria that I cried.
None of what the robbers took matters any longer except for 2 things--my charm bracelet from girlhood with the cool charm of a 6 pack of Coke in bottles, and my stack of concert tickets. The history and record of my concert life to that point, some 10 years of making my way into the Cathedrals of my soul, was wiped out. Gone was the Better Midler ticket, who I saw with Ronnie when I was a mere 13, it forever shaping my expectations of performance (There should always be gay men with glitter and feathers. Where the hell are all the glitter and feathers now?)
It was on that night he told me that he was gay. This was 1975. He was my hero. It was just barely after the time that this mystery disease changed from GRIDS (gay related autoimmune deficiency) to AIDS. The Regan administration killed Ronnie. This remains my firm belief. I hold the Hollywood Cowboy responsible.
When those headlines first appeared, panic ran through my little community of punk rockers and gay boys and Hines 57 societal rejects. We were living in our less-cool Houston version of the movement in New York City. In lieu of CBGBs and the Mud Club, we had Rudyard's and Rock Island. For awhile we had Spit. We had new wave night on Mondays at Parade, a gay bar. We had Fitzgerald's--a music venue in the Heights that still stands with white chipping paint and a certain structural tilt. Here we saw Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble, Doctor Rocket and the Sisters of Mercy, Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns, Joe Ely, the Haskells and the Natives. Whereas New York had Patti Smith and the Talking Heads, Blondie and the Ramones--we had the Killer Watz, Steve Seizure, Really Red, the Mydolls.
We also had the Bombers. The Bombers were fronted by Michael Hutchings. Michael was gorgeous. He was black eye liner and fuschia spandex pants, a leather jacket and track marks.The running in-joke: How many Bombers does it take to change a light bulb? None: They never play. I have read biographies and memoirs of the main cast of the New York punk scene (Kill Me!), and it was our scene. Their players became famous and ours did not. We were a step behind, a tad less talented, and not in New York or even Austin. We were in Houston.
I was extraordinarily popular during this time, which is ironic and amusing because all the earlier parts of my life, until I was about 17, I barely ever said a word. Now I was the apex. At one time I was living in Jersey Village with Doug and Fritz. We were all employed, but not a single day went by that one of us wasn't home. Often, it was two of us, sometimes all three. We were way out in the suburbs, what in Juno the mom calls East Jesus Nowhere. Sometime around 1981 we hosted the most extraordinary party. Martha, Bootsy, and I made flyers and put them on cars parked at Our Clubs and gave them to friends in Our Crowd. We covered Montrose and the Rice bar Valhalla. At the party we randomly gave out nametags that were in pairs. The point was to find your tag-mate, the fun in discovering “who” the match might be. There was Jethro and Ellie May, Sid and Nancy, Morticia and Gomez and the not as obvious, such as Rely and Toxic Shock. The Rely Tampon Toxic Shock Incident had just happened, killing scores of women in the U.S. all while boasting the slogan “It even absorbs the worry.” Durwood Death, aka Nate Davis (who we sang, “20-20-24 hours ago, I wanna be Nate Davis...nothing to do nowhere to go-o-o I wanna be Nate Davis” to) claimed his stepmother invented Rely Tampons. I have no reason to believe this was not true. At the party, it was wild to see these punk rockers wandering about in their leather jackets and Mohawks, spikes and studs checking out name tags and their utter delight when they found The One. In the living room, we all danced to My Generation and it looked like the scene in Quadrophenia. "Why don't you all f-f-f-f-f-fuck off!!!"
At the end of the night we ran out of booze and I saw Doug mixing ketchup with vodka. Doug was taking a lot of speed and eventually started staying awake from Wednesday through Sunday. Realizing he was going to kill himself much sooner than later, if not from sleep deprivation and speed overdose, then perhaps on the broken glass he'd eat for entertainment value, he did the ultimate punk move--he joined the Marines. Doug was in Desert Storm. For the longest time I kept his social security number close in case he went MIA. He always wanted me to be able to locate him. He is missing now. He survived the boot camp we all hoped,he would fail and he became a lifer, making his way to Officer and a Gentleman and military retirement. He came to my house on leave once a few years in and talked about how Reagan was his boss. He confided he’d found a new direction for his hyperbolic form of insanity. He married a Marine, had children, and to me--vanished. I haven't heard from him in years, not since the first days after 9/11 just before the war. Freshly retired, he said he was going to probably rejoin.
Both Doug, who had not a homosexual bone in his body, and I both fell for the Bomber's Michael Hutchings. With all of the sexual confusion running amuck most of us didn’t know if we wanted to be Michael or fuck him. I wanted to be his girl. His girl, an ugly little troll doll with frizzy hair had something I didn’t however, fellow-junkiness. Michael worked at Kinkos on the all night shift and he was one of the founding members of the underground newspaper Public News. The News ran for years, long after Doug became a Marine, Fritz went off to Harvard Law School, Martha broke up with her Native, and Bootsy became a business-woman.
My final days with the Rudyard’s Punks fell when I learned one of ours had committed suicide. I read it on the side of a wall next to Real Records. Spray painted graffiti: TOM RIP. Tom had announced he was going to do it on his answering machine message, and then he did it: he blew his mind out with a gun. He shot up first. Pre-Kurt Cobain.
Years later I found a letter in The Houston Press editorials penned by Michael Hutchings. Michael was an inmate in Huntsville at the time—breaking and entering. Years after that, I ran into him at a Montrose gas station I stopped at on the way to therapy. I walked into the store to pay and saw him in the back. I didn't speak. My heart jumped a little and I was glad he was free and alive, but there was nothing to say. I stood at the register and the Asian man behind it waited a very long time before he spoke and when he did he asked me if I knew ‘him,’ gesturing to Michael, never taking his eyes from Michael’s spiky black mop and clown-white skin. “I do,” I said. In fact I did. I do not know how he knew. There was a surreal energy in the moment.
When we first heard of GRIDS, we feared for our gay friends. When GRIDS became AIDS, we feared for ourselves. Between the junkies and the bisexuals we all knew we had a more than average chance of being positive. We were scared to test and no one did it right away. It was not until after Ronnie died that I had the nerve. Negative. As far as I know my circle was all negative. But by then, I'd lost touch with all but my closest--Fritz, Doug, Martha, Bootsy, Rick, Janice. Carlos and Warren had drifted away. Carlos got married and Warren got into guns and bikes. Danny got married. Steve Creasy? Steve died. At 26, he was shot in the head by mugger/kidnaper William Robinson while he walked home from a late shift at Bistro Vino. He left the Weingarten’s and took a short cut through an old apartment complex on West Alabama. Robinson got death for the murder. A few years ago he hung himself with his bedsheets.
Steve's parents took his body home to California leaving us to have a make-shift wake at Marci's house. The parents didn't want his personal items. Rick was his roommate, Janice his girlfriend. We split his records. We took his small life savings and donated it to Kirk Farris' 1985 renovation of the McKee Street Bridge. Steve was tall and beautiful and made a great Dracula on Halloween. The bridge is now a festive turquoise construction joining the two halves of Houston downtown warehouse district.
The robbers came back to our Heights house and took everything that had been replaced from their first visit, including the stereo that I had been coveting for years and finally had the excuse to buy. Remember this was the mid-80's and stereos came in components and in 1980s dollars ran about 500 bucks.This did not include a CD player. I have since always been glad I hadn't yet popped for that brand spanking new technology yet. I did not replace that briefly owned new toy with something so lavish. I bought a portable record player with a built in cassette player. By the time I got a CD player, things were beginning to shrink. Now of course the notion of having all of those huge pieces of stereo equipment is an antiquated as a Victrola. More so, as a Victrola plays vinyl. I love my ipod, but I am and shall remain a vinyl girl. There is nothing like sitting with a new album and memorizing the lyrics and taking in the artwork and absorbing the liner notes. When there was an RPM edition of Trivial Pursuit, I kicked total ass at it. I still think of albums in terms of two sides. I play more music now, but I know it less well. I miss the pops and skips and placing a penny on the stylus to get it to weigh enough to fall into the grooves more deeply and not skid across the vinyl surface. It's easier now, but something is lost.
So Rat Bastard and I lived in this house in the Heights and we had not been robbed yet, and Creasy was still alive, and Katie was pregnant, and Christmas was coming and I wanted to give him something grand. So I orderd him a pool table with a solid peice of 3/4 inch slate. It was handmade by a local family buisness. It was classic and simple.I went to purchase some more chalk and was pulling out on Washington listening to the liftoff when the radio went silent. Then after what seemed a long while but was not, but was for radio airwaves, the deejay came on and in a numb and grave way, gave the news. The Challenger exploded. The crew was dead. The teacher was dead. The dream was dead. There was a silent scream that went out across the nation, the world, the universe. I stopped the car and sat there.
I had wanted to be that teacher. And since I wasn't, I was so proud that someone--some civilian with a love of learning and the courage of exploration, some kindred soul --was on that voygage. It was hope in rocket science form.
The Space Program is the big people world equivalent to art in school. As public academia in America slowly funnels itself down to a standardized test based on someone's selective and data-driven notions, humanity is being stripped to the bone. Filleted and laid bare.
I see it in the teenage faces of my students. There is nothing in school for them. It is dry and parched and when they question how this that we call education is going to help them later in life--I can give few answers in terms of the curriculm required for passing the standardized test-- the test that we are not supposed to teach to, yet we are required to teach to test. There is no glory. No joy. We hang upside down and juggle to make this hell more holistic, but they can see through it. Students are not dumb. They are bored. They want relavancy. They are lonely. They want passion. It is hard to find passion in multiple choice questions. We lie. We bribe. We scam. You will not be promoted to the next grade level if you do not pass this test. This is what we tell them. The truth is the kid has to miss an ungodly number of days and literally do not a thing, nothing, nada to fail to pass to the next grade level. There is too much paperwork and covering of asses to actually fail a student who is, well, failing. I sneak in novels by Any Rand and short stories by Hemmingway--otherwise their reading is pretty much limited to edited texts a page or two long that have been found to be appropriate for testing. Twice monthly exams are practice for The Big Exam. There is little time to actually teach between the practicing of exam taking and the actual exam taking. Teaching English for the sake of literature has to be stuffed in between the cracks of standardized prep. It is old crumbled newspaper that fills in the gaps of a window unit in a Mexican hotel room. Filler.
Mastering the skill of a multiple choice test will not change a child's life. It will not give them hope. It will not make them wonder or drive their curiosity. True education acknowledges the link between history and art and literature. Learns to shape thoughts into written word. Sees the richness of the dreams of others become a curiosity so profound that engines are dreamt, lives are invented, skyscrapers dare.
However, people that spend money insist education be data driven and accountable. Testing scores are easily charted and graphed and calculated.
A percentage of pass rate is something that can be waved in a face and be evidence that everyone is doing their job. If the arts and humanities--and even the sciences and physical education--must be slashed like teenagers in a horror film, so be it. Blood fills the halls of public education and we sludge through it one gory step at a time until we either begin to believe the lies (Jason had a difficult childhood, Michael is misunderstood) or throw in our brownish-red metallic smelling towel and rubber boots and move on, leaving the heartless thankless janitorial job to someone else. We turn our backs to the murder and brutality and screams and wait for their souls to be sucked dry, the spark drowned out--the sparkle fizzled to the black goo left from last year's 4th of July fireworks, the remains something Tarantino would splatter on the back window of Vincent Vega's big American gas guzzling car.
I was called a bookworm by my nonreading parents. I passed on summer swimfests at our apartment pool and family fishing trips in the Texas heat. Instead I read. It wasn't the adventure I was passing up on--it was the temperature--and the forming of a mind that wanted nothing less than adventure. Being a naturally shy person, it took awhile for me to find the boldness necessary to step off into the deep blue of the world. When I did, I more often than not brushed against adventure or stuck my toes in and then made a decision based on fear and ran back to the steady air controlled safety of my urban bedroom.
While I met with small opportunities, I followed not what I learned from all of those pages of written word, but what I saw with my own eyes. Women giving in to men. Women choosing men over self. Women martyring themselves for the smaller good. Women justifying violence as a natural consequence. I passed up an acceptance into University of Texas to stay in Houston for a man. I sadly thought my value was not worth a 3 hour drive and that becoming someone I wanted to be would make me less appealing. To stay in the sinking ship of a relationship with Rat Bastard I had to be there at his beck and call.
Later, at the University of Houston, I took an archeology class with Dr. Brown who I later learned was head of the department and a rather well known archeologist. He excavated the Houston Convention Center sight. I remember a great story he told about one the relics found. It was a wooden dildo.
I admit that I took the class because I fell in love with the notion of Archeology with Indiana Jones. Unlike many students that took the class post Raiders of the Lost Ark, I did not think the field would involve running from natives and jumping into planes. I did not think it was really about solving big Biblical mysteries. I was and remain, however enchanted by the concept of finding out how people lived before me. For me, anthropology is like reading novels chock full of details about another time and place (Think Little House on the Prairie and Clan of the Cave Bear). The concept is similar to my love of memoir and the fascination with certain reality TV shows. I have sit slack jawed in front of Wife Swap wondering if the bizarre families actually live the way they appear to (dressing in lime green wigs and talking to yard dirt) and thinking how if the cowboy clowns and circus families allow TV cameras in while their house looks like that, how does it look when the cameras are not rolling? Therefore my housekeeping can't be that bad, and the fact that I live in a way that doesn't mesh with the American sitcom (we're missing the male role model, the son, one grandfather and another whole set, the picket fence and the fully furnished flat lotted corner home with church on Sunday) description of family is, in fact, okay. I am not, like the Mel Brooks character, Abby Normal.
What I adore about Indiana Jones and why I want to marry him and have a million of his babies is his endless sense of wonder. His understanding that the today's world is built upon the shoulders of millions and to fully understand ourselves we must reach deep into our past and absorb the lives of a humanity that did not live in a world of modern technology and still somehow found a way to dream. Love is in the details. Life is in the details. It was the details that I craved and anthropology offered just that--details. Tiny broken dirty details.
I took the class and fell in love and never had to open a book. The lectures zoomed by and unlike everything but literature, I understood and made contact on the spot and did not have to dig deeper to get it. I got it. The first time around. I did open a book, many books, because I wanted to know more and more. For the first and only time in my life I considered changing my major to something other than English.
Then an opporrtunity was offered. An excavation. I could do this. For the first time, the concept of being in the heat, actually outside, was secondary to what I would be doing. I wouldn't be fishing in a river that might have snakes (like Indiana, I too fear snakes beyond any reasonable measure) or swimming with other children I mostly didn't like or have anything in common with. I would be discovering. I would be finding history. I was stoked.
I passed on the trip.
Rat Bastard didn't want me to be gone for the week. He would miss me. I was sure if he missed me that he would stray. (He later did, of course, many many times and not because he missed me.) I would become extraneous. He could in fact live without me. That was unacceptable. I tossed this opportunity into the wind. Instead I took many other anthropology classes, further delaying my graduation--it ended up 25 years in the making. I studied the exploration of others. I did not do my own.
So I cried. I sat in my car and felt the sorrow of dreams exploding into fire. Through Christa McAuliffe, I was the every woman being given the chance to go where no non-astronaught had gone before. Despite the smoke, I do not think that she regretted going.
The thing is I would go.
I would go, even now knowing the risk, having seen the risk, having heard the still silence of nothing. I would go in search of something bigger and bolder and more grand than myself. I would go in search of grace and beauty. I would go in search of my own exploration, my own memoir, my own dig. I would risk this one small life that I have for the vision of what is vast and awesome and non-tangible. I have children--two daughters that are my best friends, that are the finest people that I've ever met, that are what I do love in this world more than myself. More than exploration. More than literature or space. More than anything. They are humanity. They are my soul. They teach me humility. And as such, they want me to be me. I am nothing to them if not who I am--the woman who created them. Nothing less unless I make that decision and to be less is to deny them the thing they need most. For me to be. For me to not self-sacrifice. For me to fulfill my obligation as their mother and as a human being. If I cannot, they cannot. If I do, I am giving them permission. And as such, I cannot pass up University of Texas or an excavation trip. I will not go backwards to those things. I do not have regret. I do not have a seat on a space shuttle.
What I do have is flight.
The destination and experience there is it's own separate reward. Tonight I fly to Illinois, Obama Country, visiting the mid-west for the first time. A Texas girl, I am hoping for snow. My wardrobe is poorly suited for the trip. I do not care. I do not care about the sold-out air craft. I do not care about going through airport securty. I do not care about having to race from one end of the Atlanta Airport to catch my connecting flight. I am not annoyed by the cranky flight attendant or the young woman who screams for 10 minutes upon take off and again during landing or the fact that my feet swell when I sit in the same position for a long time. I am not worried about my seatmate. I am not afraid of crashing. I do not scream on the inside as the young woman screams on the outside to the bewilderment and astonishment of her fellow passengers as we all hurtle through the dark night skies.
Being lifted into the clouds is my space program-- the sparkling end of things. It is vision. It is not self-serving. It is wonder and enchantment. It is the best of what our imagination can offer. It is Lincoln and Andy Warhol, Mark Ryden and Green Day. It is Da Vinci and Thomas Jefferson and the Beatles. David Bowie and r.e.m. Meryl Streep and Henry Ford and those guys at Apple. It is President Obama. It is something that cannot be weighed and charted and made accountable. It is the best of us--the part of us that, as Oscar Wilde wrote in a work that school students will never read, reaches for the stars while our feet are on the ground.