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CRITIC AT LARGE

Agony Forever Etched By A Picture On A Screen

January 30, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

We will all be able to say, all our days, where we were, what we were doing, what we thought and felt as we heard the radio or watched, again and again and again, that awesome and awful footage from 11:39 a.m. EST.

It is a terrible truth that never had tragedy been so easy to see. The images of launch, the widening plume a billowy white against the beautiful, cold, blue and cloudless sky, had never (so I thought) been so clear and perfect.

Catastrophe--the firebrand pieces spraying into space--had never been so vivid, never seemed so much like cruel echoes of Hollywood special-effects detonations (which, in their turn, will never play the same again).

The immediacy, the power and the responsibility of television have never been so crucially demonstrated. The country became very small in an instant, a focused family suspending for some little time most other considerations and concerns.

Out of a distant past arose the memory of the first such uniting sorrow I can recall: the children being shushed to silence while the elders leaned into the large, console radio for the latest details on the kidnaping of the Lindbergh baby.

I couldn't comprehend then, but do now, that the great rush of sympathy for the bereaved is inescapably touched with intimations of one's own fragility and mortality. It was impossible Tuesday morning not to imagine yourself inside the space shuttle Challenger in that microsecond between life and (swift and merciful) oblivion.

Like the loss of any loved ones--and the tragedy made the seven riders our kin--the deaths leave a piercing sorrow and, as well, a quickened respect for life and the uses of the days we have.

In an age of quick and incessant communications, the coverage of any catastrophic happening does have a way of taming it, denaturing it, draining its urgencies into a numbing flood of details and repetitions.

The echoes and investigations of Challenger's fiery end will go on endlessly, perhaps reaching only a speculative account of what must have gone wrong. Yet the impact of that eye-witnessed moment in time is not likely to be dimmed or changed; it is too strong to be eroded, even by the mileages of tape and the yardages of text that will follow.

Amid the tumbling rush of thoughts and feelings Tuesday morning, I remembered also a Bill Mauldin cartoon from World War II, his GIs Willie and Joe amid the rubble of battle and one saying, "What we are is fugitives from the law of averages."

We've all been fugitives from the law of averages, and although the three commercial networks evidently had decided that one launch is much like another and weren't doing live coverage this week, the suspense of every launch has been stomach-knotting and tinged with the dread possibility that what did happen might happen.

Equally, every launch is a lesson in courage and deep commitment, with those images of the astronauts striding cheerful and expectant toward the pad. The kidding about Sen. Jake Garn's airsickness only put a light capping on the risks being willingly embraced.

If there've been lessons in courage, there were lessons this week in cool professionalism as well. The horror and anguish at Mission Control translated in the words "a major malfunction," delivered in a quiet voice, in a supreme effort of self-control, I have to imagine. It was grace not simply under pressure but amid horror and dismay.

Television itself was a display of professionalism. Tempted toward rhetoric in the face of evident tragedy and in the absence, for long and aching minutes, of hard information beyond what the eye could see, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw (the two I was watching in turn) avoided even the word tragedy until there was no escaping it.

It was a far contrast from the medium's tendency to try to pump urgency into warehouse fires and suspense into lopsided sports events. This time, I thought, television discharged its responsibilities with muscle and maturity.

The sorrows of Cape Canaveral remind us again, and with profoundly mixed emotions, how far we have come into the modern world. It may be that there never is a point of no return, never the real possibility of withdrawal to a simpler, safer world in which tragedy is somewhere else and where one technological miracle does not witness the lethal malfunctioning of another.

All, finally, that links present and past is the bravery of pioneering men and women and the constants of compassion and love and sorrow.

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