It was a a typical, cold January morning in my 9th grade English class. Mrs. Hill was teaching her final semester. Most of us were only sorry we had to be in the class. She was infamous for awarding a grade of an “F+” or “F-“. The “F+” was meant to encourage students to try harder to pass. I guess the “F-” meant a student was hopeless. Our first assignment had been to write an essay answering the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Looking back it should have been a simple task. It became a watershed moment and tremendous step backwards for me. Or, an interesting thread in the tapestry of life. It depends on your point of view.
I didn’t dare write a paper based on my gut reaction to the question. I had always known I wanted to play 3rd base for the Chicago Cubs. I grew up going to Iowa Oaks (later Iowa Cubs) games. The ballpark felt more at home than Newton, Iowa. However, Little League was never considered an option. I had no idea a court decision in 1974 had forced Little League to let girls play. I probably didn’t know because the same court decision led many community recreational sports programs to push girls into the baseball “alternate” of softball. I saw my brother’s friends in their Little League uniforms and was insanely jealous. They had caps, jerseys, pants, belts, stockings, cleats, and sanis. Softball players were given a t-shirt. One year I played for the “Tastee Freez” team. No, we didn’t get free ice cream. My brother’s friends played for the Cubs, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Reds.
I played softball with gusto. It wasn’t baseball. It was fun. I played 3rd base and relished any opportunity to hold baserunners on 2nd. If they took a big lead off 2nd I loved to run, dive, and tag them out. I also loved catching line drives, feeling the solid smack of the ball as I struck it with the bat, and fielding ground balls. The sound of the ball hitting the leather of my glove was like music.
Summers were busy with softball, convincing adults to take us to an I-Cubs game or Adventureland, and watching every single Chicago Cubs game on WGN. Every game. All play stopped for the game. I loved Lee Smith. I would throw a tennis ball against the side of the house for hours imitating his characteristic head nods, exhale, and slow delivery. We had a huge black walnut tree in the backyard. I would spend countless hours tossing the walnuts with one hand while hitting them hard enough to make them explode with a large stick. It was always the bottom of the 9th inning in the World Series. Old photos reveal I almost always had a baseball cap or batting helmet on my head. However, when I voiced my desire to play 3rd base for the Chicago Cubs it was made clear “baseball is not for girls”.
The writing assignment rubbed salt into open wounds. I decided if I couldn’t play I’d become a coach or manager. I thought about my path to the big leagues and plotted my course. It wasn’t easy since I thought girls were not allowed to play baseball. It was possible on paper with hard work and creativity which I could offer in abundance. The response was, “Baseball is for men.”
Still, I knew what I loved so I wrote another paper about becoming an umpire. This was within reach! Pam Postema was umpiring at the AAA level. She had even been an umpire at Iowa Cubs games. I was told, “Do you know what you would have to go through? You would have big, angry men screaming and cursing in your face, spitting on you, and calling you all kinds of terrible things. If you made it to AAA you’d never make it to the big leagues. Postema will never make it to the big leagues. They won’t let her.”
By now I was getting disheartened. I didn’t want to give up. So many people were employed in baseball! There had to be a place for me. I thought about Harry Caray pronouncing the names of players backwards or engaging in endless discourse about beer. I thought, “I can do a better job than him!” I would sometimes provide my own commentary with the volume turned off while watching games. So I wrote about becoming a baseball broadcaster. It was quickly pointed out that all the broadcasters were men and most were former players. “Baseball is a man’s sport.” I was crushed.
I agonized over what to write since every time I expressed what I wanted to do I was unceremoniously put into a suffocating, narrow box. I no longer took the assignment seriously. I decided if my dreams were going to be smashed I would mock the assignment. I tried to think of the most boring, tedious, job in the world. I finally wrote my paper about being a Greyhound bus driver. Mrs. Hill took this paper seriously and “interviewed” me. I was annoyed by her questions such as, “What are some obstacles or drawbacks to this job?” I told her there were none. I no longer cared. She pointed out the hazards of hemorrhoids. I didn’t know what hemorrhoids were.
Mrs. Hill was not impressed by my apathy and penchant for distracting others by being sarcastic in the classroom. She was even less impressed when I took my Bic pen apart and used the metal piece to carve words and images expressing how much I despised the class into my desk. I didn’t know how to express my sense of despondency. She rearranged the desks into a V shape. In the empty spot in the middle she sat one solitary desk. The distance from the other desks made this desk stand out. The central location gave Mrs. Hill ample opportunity to stare menacingly at whoever sat at the desk. She told us this space was reserved for the student who was the biggest trouble maker. I spent most of the semester sitting at the trouble maker desk.
I was sitting at this desk with my head in the palm of my hand that cold January morning when Mr. Lubst, the short librarian with hearing aids, opened the glass paned classroom door. He briefly stated he had an announcement. This was unusual. I lifted my head. Struggling to hold back tears he croaked, “We were watching the space shuttle Challenger launch. There was an explosion. It looks like there are no survivors.” He quickly left the room closing the door quietly behind him.
The class sat in stunned silence. I stared at my desk. Thoughts raced through my mind. I was confused. The news was always on in the evenings at my house. Images of the crew came to mind. One astronaut was black. Another was Asian. There was a woman. Two women. Because I loved reading about history, I suddenly realized, “The teacher was on board!” It dawned on me the crew was a real representation of America. I was horrified. The dream of what American could be was gone. By now my classmates were murmuring and asking each other questions no one could answer. Mrs. Hill didn’t have much to say. I told myself the crew was presumed dead. It didn’t mean they were all dead. Maybe, maybe some had survived?
Any hope was lost soon after class ended. Like most students, I went directly to the crowded library. The explosion and shocked reaction of observers was being shown over and over. I watched it once and realized no one could have survived.
The rest of the school day was horrible. Some students were already making sick jokes. Tearful teachers scolded them harshly. As the day wore on I remembered the news reports. The mission had been delayed several times due to technical problems. I started to get angry. My mind raced. I started to think NASA had rushed the mission and had not taken all the proper precautions. It was a gut feeling.
I basically ran the mile or two between the high school and my house. I jumped and slid over black icy spots on the uneven cement and brick walks. My mom worked nights so she was sleeping. I was in tears when I got home. She always stressed not to wake her unless it was a really important. This felt really important. This was possibly bigger than when President Reagan had been shot several years earlier. I went directly to her room and opened the door. I was still wearing my winter coat. I startled her awake by shouting, “Mom! Mom! They killed them!” She put her pillow over her head and told me to leave her alone. I repeated, “Mom! They killed them! The astronauts! They’re all dead!” She removed the pillow and squinted at me, “What are you talking about?”
I paced back and forth between the piles of dirty laundry. “The space shuttle blew up! They’re all dead! They killed them! All those delays. They rushed it! I know they rushed it!”
Mom got up and followed me into the living room. We watched the tv. I don’t remember either of us saying much beyond, “I can’t believe this,” or, “Oh my God.” We saw the explosion again and again. I couldn’t help wondering what it had been like for the astronauts. I hoped they were killed by the explosion. The horror of living through it was too much to process. After an hour or so I couldn’t watch it any longer. I went to my room and cried.
Over the following days President Reagan made a heartfelt speech directed at American school children telling us not to give up on our dreams. He said something about the astronauts being among the stars. I thought it was silly. Clearly their bodies, if there was anything left, had fallen back to Earth. Over time it became clear faulty O rings had resulted in the explosion. NASA had not been careful enough and had been too rushed to get the mission launched. NASA would certainly be overhauled. It made me feel sick. All those kids and wives left alone in a matter of seconds. I watched the funerals on tv. The grief was deeper than anything I had experienced since my pet guinea pig had died.
The following spring I went out for the JV softball team. I missed one practice because my family went to an annual Chicago Cubs vs. Iowa Cubs exhibition game. I lived for the game each year. Since we lived so far from a city with a major league baseball team I had only been to 3 major league games (one was a doubleheader at Wrigley Field in which Jason Thompson of the Pirates hit 2 home runs in each game). So the annual exhibition game was a treat. It was one of the few things my little nuclear family enjoyed doing together. At the time, only a chain link fence separated us from the players so it was very easy to get autographs, talk to the players, and chat with players in the bullpen until some coach told us to, “Vamoose.”
Apparently missing one practice to see an exhibition baseball game was an unpardonable sin to my softball coach. Every time I caught the ball Mr. Zimmerman would bark, “This is softball not baseball! You’re catching like a baseball player!” When I took batting practice he would yell, “It’s a softball not a baseball! You’re doing it wrong!” He sounded like a yippy, asthmatic dog. I loved playing so I persisted despite the criticism. Then Mr. Zimmerman stopped letting me take batting practice. He directed me to run the pitching machine instead because, “This is softball not baseball!” I hoped his vengeance would ease up over time. Instead he seemed to just get more bitter. One day, after a practice which seemed to last years, I decided to walk to my Grandma’s comforting house. As I slowly walked down the flat sidewalk lined by sterile identical looking houses I became angrier the more I thought about the situation. Frustrated tears streamed down my face. I decided I was done with softball. It wasn’t as much fun as baseball to me anyway.
When the Challenger exploded I had no way of knowing it would be such a defining moment for my generation. Each of us remembers where we were when we heard the news. It had a similar impact on us as the Kennedy assassination had on my parent’s generation. The events of January 1986 and the following months had a larger impact as well. The innocent faith in America’s indestructibility in space could never be fully restored. We distrusted government agencies even more. And, I gave up on my childhood baseball dreams. It took me another 30 years to learn girls and women DO play baseball and get back on track.