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.