Challenger Memories


Elsewhere on the site today, Tim recalls the heyday of Christa McAuliffe jokes while confessing that he doesn't remember the moment he heard that the space shuttle Challenger had blown up. For me, though, the memory of the event and the memory of the jokes were entangled from the beginning.

Imagine yourself as the teenaged Jesse Walker, a high school student in North Carolina. (Note: If this is difficult for you, just picture yourself lankier, pimplier, and more awkward in demeanor.) Your friend Chris walks up to you and says, "Did you hear about the space shuttle?"

You say, "No, what happened?'

He says, "It blew up in mid-air."

You say, "Really?"

Chris laughs. "No," he says. "It's just a joke."

Now imagine yourself believing this, and spending the next hour informing everyone who tells you the Challenger astronauts have died that they're wrong, the whole thing was somebody's goof.

It was the first time I had grossly misconstrued a public tragedy. It would not be the last.

NEXT: Down A Quart

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  1. Some of the most hernia-inducingly funny jokes I ever heard have been topical humor. It grieves me that within a couple of years, nobody understands them anymore. One of my favorite set of jokes was those generated by the Achille Lauro hijacking: “What do the sharks call Leon Klinghoffer? Meals on wheels!”

    Of course, some of these are recycled. The classic “How did they know Christa McAuliffe had dandruff? Her head & shoulders washed up on the beach!” has reappered in many guises.

    After the initial media saturation of “traumatized” school kids receiving “grief counseling,” I thought the wave of Challenger jokes was especially heartening. No matter how treacly the initial atmosphere of national solemnity, it’s good to know the jokes will be popping up in only a day or two.

  2. Was that earlier than Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten (1979)? His assassination by the explosion of his boat was the first reference I personally recall.

  3. Thanks for some history I can really sink my teeth into. Anybody want to take odds it was originally about Charles I?

  4. Kevin, the Head & Shoulders joke was recycled even when they applied it to McAuliffe. The earliest iteration I know refers to the horrific death of Vic Morrow on the set of the Twilight Zone movie: How do you know Vic Morrow had dandruff? etc…

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