Saturday, January 28, 2006
A Challenge for Today
Remember what you were doing on this morning in 1986? January 28, 1986?
For many Americans, that’s like asking what you were doing on February 1, 2003… September 11, 2001…or January 27, 1967…or November 22, 1963—all dates that still live in infamy in our hearts, if not on the pages of our kids' history textbooks.
I observed today’s date by catching an episode of HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon.” And you know what, it made me tear-up.
On January 28, 1986, I sure wasn’t on any mission to further world peace, cure cancer, or explore uncharted territory. I was a married father with two kids under 5 and a bride who stayed at home to raise them. I was working weekends for a rock and roll radio station in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and putting food on the table working for a state chartered savings and loan.
My job was managing what appeared to be a growing mountain of commercial paper for a lender that didn’t quite have a handle on a very serious problem: All those contracts represented mortgages on hundreds of manufactured housing units, scattered all over Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The S&L was learning the in’s and out’s of managing these wonderful little homesteads as the result of one of it’s mortgage loan originators being found “out of trust” on several pieces of collateral the year before. That’s a delicate way of saying that the originator had sold the loans to different S&L’s at the same time.
And part of my responsibilities was trying to find some of these units that had been sold, delivered, and set-up in some of the most unbelievably inaccessible places on the planet…in Oklahoma.
Do you sense my level of passion for that job at that time?
January 28, 1986, 20-years ago this morning, I was staring at two, giant, white dry-erase boards, mounted side-by-side on the wall facing my desk in a glassed-in office on the 4th floor of nice high-rise building in downtown Tulsa.
There were serial numbers and surnames listed for all of these units, some with asterisks indicating we knew where they were…others with notations about how far past-due the owners were on their payments…some of them were still unaccounted for…and they all had low to mid 5-figure amounts tallied in a far, right-hand column, representing their worth/liability/risk to the S&L.
It was a job I had not wanted, really, but accepted because I knew a little about the business, a little more about Oklahoma geography…and a lot about what it took to feed, clothe and house a family of 4 that did not care to live in a mobile home. Radio wasn’t paying the bills. Radio was feeding the passion…the S&L was buying the groceries.
Sometime in the mid morning, my bride called me on the phone and said, “turn on your radio, the Challenger has just exploded.” I had completely forgotten that the day was a shuttle launch day.
And my world stopped…along with many Americans that morning who had begun to take for granted these space shuttle launches as “routine.”
Listening to the radio news on KRMG-AM, I hollered across the office suite to my boss, “The Challenger just exploded!”
Our secretary, who sat in the open area between our offices, turned white. My boss rocked back from his desk, and visibly slumped in his chair. It was a full minute before he could form an audible response.
We were stunned.
Suddenly, the dry-erase boards with hundreds of thousands of dollars of un-accounted for trailer houses didn’t matter. The stack of loan files on my desk blurred into a less-important background. My secretary wept.
We all left the office a little early that day; what was the point?
I remember driving home to my modest house in a place called Broken Arrow…stumbling through the door and watching and re-watching the video replays on TV of Challenger’s final 70-seconds. I can still see the telecast of billowing flames from the launch…the long-range television images of that beautiful white and black bird astride its ungainly orange fuel tank, smoothly gaining, speed…rising ever higher in the January blue sky.
I can still hear the squelch-static-beep of the NASA controller saying “okay for throttle-up,” and the awful, y-shaped split of smoke contrails, marking in the sky the point where Challenger’s solid rocket boosters blasted free of the shuttle vehicle as it plunged back to earth.
My life was changed on January 28, 1986, as I am sure your’s was, too.
I hugged my wife.
I hugged my kids.
I prayed for the families of the shuttle crew whose deaths we’d witnessed.
And I asked myself if what I was doing with my life really mattered.
The lives of Challenger's crew, Francis Scobee, Judith Resnick, Ron McNair, Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka and Greg Jarvis mattered. What they were doing was important, and they died in the process.
I was just looking for mobile homes out in the sticks in Oklahoma...and playing on the radio on the weekend.
Since we lost Challenger, we’ve also lost Columbia. That anniversary is coming up next week, the wounds still tender for our nation. From both of those tragic events, one gleaming truth has emerged: It does matter that we push the envelope. It does matter that we explore. It does matter that we ask “why” and “how” and “what if,” regardless of our life’s occupation, because without that spark of inquisitiveness, how can we grow?
I went back to the S&L office the next day. Pretty somber, really. But I began to look at each file in that mountain of mobile home paper contracts as representing people with lives to live and jobs to do…and yes, payments to catch up.
I am proud to say I helped a few families stay in their homes despite the legal limbo they were in with their mortgages. I located all the units the S&L was responsible for, and sold a great many of them at a great loss to the lender, I am sorry to say. That was 1986.
Later that year I received an offer to move from Tulsa to Austin to run a Radio station. I knew the meaning of passion…and I knew the meaning of timing. I moved my young family to Texas…my home.
Texas is home to the Johnson Space Center and America’s space program. Texas is home to the first word spoken from the moon, “Houston, the Eagle has landed.” And Texas is also home to the spirit of endurance and achievement and respect for those who have given the final, ultimate sacrifice for the advancement of mankind.
When I remember the Challenger explosion, it’s the smoky-Y in the sky that lingers most in my mind. An image of horror, yes. But also a reminder of what 1986 was for me—a Y in the road that I took when opportunity presented itself.
Like Yogi Berra, I took the fork in the road.
Like Robert Frost, I am the better for having taken that path I have traveled.
Like the men and women at NASA, I appreciate the importance of passion for success in spite of set backs.
According to NASA 's website, http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/news/facts/shuttlefacts-toc.html with the completion of Space Shuttle Mission STS-114 on Aug. 9, 2005, a total of 114 missions have been flown since the first flight in April 1981.
Two orbiters and two crews have been lost in all of those missions. I have no earthly idea how many mobile homes are still missing in Oklahoma.