Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Challenges and Challenger

The bank where I worked in downtown Tulsa was like a giant, ornate bunker.
Vertical spines of glass were framed by massive stacks of pink granite stone, providing lofty but narrow views of the rest of the central business district, and a bend in the Arkansas River, just west of town. my office was an interior room, with a wall of glass from floor to ceiling, opening into an atrium. The other three walls of the office were adorned with white marker boards, plaided with grids filled with numbers and symbols--each line representing a secured interest for the institution.

I had been hired to locate and inventory secured property for an S&L--property, it turned out, that had been sold twice to lenders by an unscrupulous loan originator. One of the challenges was determining who had first-rights to the cache of serial numbers. The other chore was locating the goods. They were mobile homes, emphasis on mobile--perched on bluffs and hidden in wooded groves all over northeastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

Each line on each gridded wall told a story. A manufactured home, with all of the trappings--purchased for an average of less than $60,000 when the oil boom of the early '80's was in full blossom in Oklahoma. With the turning of fortunes in the oil patch, owners were ditching their trailer houses in droves. Keys were mailed back to us daily--some with directions on where to find the houses, some without. By the end of 1985, there were literally hundreds of properties we were either in possession of, in search of, or in despair of. Hundreds of mobile homes. Hundreds of lives. Hundreds of stories.

Those were the properties that made it onto the white boards.
Below each board, lining the walls from the floor to the bottoms of the charts, hundreds more legal-sized manila folders were stacked, awaiting processing. I had a full time assistant to help stay ahead of the legal filings, invoices for vendors, and other paper minutiae that went into each folder. Each day, it seemed, she added to the piles files on the floors.

By January 1986, we thought we were turning a corner on the flow of incoming repossessed mobile homes. They were scattered in holding lots across the state, and I had been inside each and everyone. I had pictures to prove it. It was a mountain of work.

The last week of January, we were preparing to repossess another batch of mobile homes gone bad. My assistant and I were writing up the latest grid-ful of properties and locations that I would be visiting in February. Even though the flow had slowed, it was heartbreaking to know I'd be knocking on families' doors in the next week, asking to inventory their home in preparation for pulling it in from the field to a storage lot somewhere in East Egypt.
It was a pretty quiet morning.

My boss called me on the phone from his office, across the glass-walled atrium, and said, "The Shuttle just exploded."
He wasn't excited or animated, just very matter-of-fact. 

I looked across at him through two panes of glass.
He wasn't smiling.

We turned on a TV and stared in disbelief as the horrible footage was replayed over and over and over. My assistant began to cry and shake.
The files piled on my desk were forgotten.
Lives about to be displaced enmass were put on hold, as seven lives were snuffed out in an instant in that horrible explosion of orange and white.

The Crew of Challenger: (top) Onizuka, McAuliffe, Jarvis, Resnick;
(bottom) Smith, Scobee, McNair