Thirty Years Ago, The Challenger Exploded And Avitable Rose From The Ashes

When you are a mother who deals in pain and death all day long, you have little choice but to develop a morbid sense of humor. As the first assistant to an open heart surgeon, you spend your days elbow deep in the chest cavities of lost causes, saved by a sense of humor that protects you and your fellow nurses and physicians from the obvious emotional fallout of your careers.

And when you have a husband who doesn’t want to hear about the giant tapeworm that looked like a piece of fettuccini in the middle of dinner, or the abscess on the ear that was filled with maggots resembling rice as he tried to eat, you end up with a void to fill. A need, if you will, to share your humor with the family you love.

So maybe you’re that woman, and you’re the smartest person at your job and you have a husband who dotes on you, and a 9-year old son who reads at a high school level so he seems a lot older than he is, as well as two younger children who don’t play a part in this story at all. And on January 28th, 1986, your son is in school – at the small Christian Academy of Learning where they foster his intellectual growth in substantial ways – and he watches the Challenger shuttle explode on television right in the middle of class, the television turned off immediately lest young minds be wounded with fear. This is the same explosion that you hear about while you’re in the middle of performing open heart surgery on an old man. You don’t remember if he makes it. It doesn’t matter.

The way that anyone in the operating room at Memorial Hospital in Ormond Beach, Florida, is going to deal with tragedy is to joke about it. There are no other options. Grief prevents you from moving on to the next emergency, so you laugh in death’s face and dare him to take the next one from you. The jokes are inevitable, and when you hear jokes about the Challenger explosion surfacing, you all laugh until you can hardly breathe, because at least this means you get to feel something.

Back home, you have a husband who doesn’t want to hear them, because he’s not immune to pain and heartbreak, and you have a young daughter and baby son who can’t even understand. But then there’s that son. And he’s only nine but the way he talks and comprehends things, he’s practically a teenager. Practically. Hell, by now, he’s read half the set of encyclopedia in the house and most of the children’s library, so he’s almost an adult! Almost.

It’s at this moment that you decide that these jokes, made at the expense of the dead and those who are mourning their passing, have to be shared. They cry out from within you to be shared. With someone else who might appreciate why they exist in the first place. Why not your own son? He’s part of you. He’ll understand.

“Adam,” you say, “I want to share these with you, but it’s very important that you don’t tell anyone else what I’m going to tell you. Other people will not understand. They may be offended or get their feelings hurt if you tell them. Promise me that what I’m about to tell you will stay between us.”

He looks up at you with those big hazel eyes and nods. He has no idea that what you’re about to share with him will change his life and set him down a path from which he will never stray.

“Adam, do you know about the Challenger explosion? And do you know about the people who were on it? How does it make you feel?”

“It’s sad,” he says, “but there are lots of sad things in the world.”

You remember that this is the boy who cried until he couldn’t breathe when he read “Where The Red Fern Grows” and you know it’s now or never.

“Adam, do you know what NASA stands for? Need Another Seven Astronauts.”

His eyes widen.

“Do you know what Christa McAuliffe’s last words were? What does this button do?”

He gets it. He chuckles.

“Adam, do you know what color Christa McAuliffe’s eyes were? Blue. One blew that way and one blew the other.”

He gasps but the laughs continue.

“They also found out what her last words were to her husband. You feed the dogs. I’ll feed the fish.”

You can see his little computer brain processing it until he understands. A smile grows.

“What was the last thing to go through the captain’s mind? The control panel.”

More laughter.

“Do you know how they know what shampoo Christa McAuliffe used? They found her Head & Shoulders on the beach.”

He is definitely your blood. You can tell as he laughs until he cries.

“Adam, can you tell me how many astronauts can fit into a Volkswagen Bug? 11. Two in the front seat, two in the back seat, seven in the ashtray.”

This one, he loves more than any of the rest. This moment will forever be etched in his brain. The concept that people can deal with death and disaster through humor was raw and unformed in his mind, until now.

That little boy will tell those to himself over and over again that night, laughing himself to sleep. He’ll feel compelled to share them with his class the next day, prompting an irate phone call from the Drs. Mudrey, who can’t understand where he would have heard those horrible jokes and have you considered therapy. That boy will grow, and his brain will fill with information and details and memories but he’ll continue to tell those jokes for thirty years. And he’ll still laugh, fueled by that tiny moment you shared with him as a small boy who was only nine years of age.

Comedian Adam Avitable at the Improv

This is part of a series in which I will attempt to write something every single day of 2016. Will I be able to do it? You’ll only know if you subscribe using the form below!

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