Challenger - Return Home   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2003

Guy Lillian

Used to be that journalists would end a story with the notation, "-30-". La belle Rose-Marie, who is a reporter, tells me that since computers came in that practice went out. I'm writing "-30-" on this issue at a nexus of anniversaries which mostly involve thirty, as in years, and had thought to form a section of Challenger around it, but also soon after I almost saw "-30-" written to the whole universe, and that's more or less taken over my entire consciousness.

       I should have figured something like this was coming. Over Christmas I chanced on a sappy old puppetoon called "Suzy Snowflake", which I loved in early childhood and hadn't seen since. In January a college girlfriend with whom I shared a terrible experience e-mailed me out of the ozone, long and happily married, with kids. Small matters, perhaps, but both representing circles in closure. Yes, I should have known.

       On the chilly morning of Friday, January 24, I dressed especially warmly, adding a set of long johns to my usual couture. I fiddled around the public defender's office in LaPlace, Louisiana, filling the last of my thirty (note) hour work week. Not much to do at my desk; I even sneaked in a little Challenger scutwork, pasting page numbers onto a few pages. At mid-afternoon I had a choice, go home or drive down to Thibodaux and surprise Rose-Marie. She has a reporting job there and feels envious of my leisure time, so I decided to surprise and maybe cheer her a little. Off I went to Louisiana's sugar cane country, and Thibodaux. Fateful decision.

       We'd recently replaced the fan belt in Ford Festiva, but I still watched the temperature gauge carefully as I set out over the Vacherie bridge. I turned the wrong way at first and had to double back to find the proper state highway. Second fateful decision. I passed a post office and gave a moment's thought to mailing back an erroneous order received from the Science Fiction Book Club. I didn't stop. Third fateful decision. While I drove along the two-lane road I eyed the empty fields and wide-open spaces about me, thinking how alien it must still seem to Rosy and how grim living in such an environment would be for her. … and for me, too. I need my bookstores and movie theatres.

       I was within two or three miles of Thibodaux, on a clear stretch of road several hundred yards long. It was a beautiful day. A woman some distance ahead stopped to turn left into a subdivision, a former canefield, treeless, sterile. I slowed, of course, and must have stopped, though I can't remember.. There are one or two or three seconds there that just don't exist anymore.


       The universe separated into three distinct parts:  before, during, and after.   During:

       An incredible violent jolt smashed my vehicle from the back, with a hideous metallic crunch and bang. Something smacked my face or my face smacked something, hard …


And then it was after

       I was feeling around for the latch to my seatbelt. It wasn't where it was supposed to be. And the door - I couldn't get it open … was it locked? I scrabbled at the handle. It seemed to snap off in my hand.

       Faces double framed in my window and theirs, staring at me. Somehow I pushed the creaking door wide. I lurched out onto the pavement. Are you all right? the faces said from their car. I don't know, I replied. How do I look? I wasn't being sarcastic. I touched my forehead. Even as I brought down my hand and stared at the Transylvanian tea coating it, I was aware at how much of a cliché that was.

       I staggered a few steps. I remember giving a guy my cell phone and asking him to call Rosy. He did. Someone told me an ambulance and a state trooper were on their way. I started to assure him that none of that was necessary, fat lot I knew, but instead I took my cell phone back and called my brother's house in New York. I think I talked to my sister-in-law. I saw a huge black pickup truck lying on its side in the roadside ditch. I also saw my Ford Festiva, which I'd bought in October when my Geo Tracker blew up. Know why they call small cars bugs? Because of the way bugs look when people step on them.

       I flashed on an accident I'd seen in Birmingham when I was a kid. A lady kept staggering around the wreck, asking for her lost glasses. I asked for mine: they'd been flung off in the impact. As the EMTs were tying me to a board and loading me like so much laundry into the ambulance, they brought me my cell phone and keys and notary seal and briefcase - but they didn't see my specs. Also left behind, a nice Christmas sweater, that package I needed to return to the SFBC, and my NYFD pullover cap, bought at Ground Zero.

       At the time, though, I was helpless about such things. Flat on my back, I busily tried to convince the EMT, and myself, that I was all right. I wriggled my feet happily, convincing myself of no spinal damage. I recited my phone and Social Security numbers to establish that I still had my memory. If I had the right numbers, I did fine. I also begged the guy not to catheterize me. I was doing this when the doors opened at the hospital and I heard the voice that meant the most to me in the world. Rose-Marie says she shot the EMT a look and he explained, "It's a guy thing."

       They hauled my flab to a table and soon a doctor was poring over my blasted corpus. I hurt. My face hurt. My right thigh hurt more, and my sternum - probably from the seatbelt. My long underwear may have cushioned me from worse damage. My right eye was swollen shut. Off I rolled to X-Ray and Cat-Scan, both of which produced negative results. Felt woozy when I had to stand - but I never had to hurl. (What do you mean, "too much information"? You can never have "too much information.") We were there for five hours, but I didn't notice the passage of time. Concussion, y'see.

       The last time I'd been in serious medical trouble was when I'd popped an eardrum, and they'd kept me overnight, pumped full of Antivert, wonderful stuff - it not only curbed my dizziness but enwrapped me lovingly in the gentle arms of Morpheus - the best sleep I've had in decades. I was disappointed, then, when the M.D. pronounced that there seemed to be no major damage, and Rosy could take me home, get me checked out for a possible fractured orbit (sounds science fictional, doesn't it?), and make me contemplate my bedroom ceiling. Which she did.


       On January 28th we found my glasses, sweater, and NYFD cap in the wrecked Festiva. It looked like a tin can squashed for recycling. New bruises have appeared on my wracked bod as the swelling in the old ones has gone down. My upper back hurts like a bastard. My doctor expresses concern only about my right eye - part of the white has gone blood red. I have hired a civil lawyer of my acquaintance, the evisceration of the doofus who hit me the object. Specifically, I want a new used car. I want my face to stop looking like something out of Lon Chaney's makeup box. I don't want this hideous event to cost my wife a penny. And I want to finish this issue, even though I can't as I'd wanted to.





             I'd wanted to write about the recoil of epic events from thirty years ago. Thirty years since Roe v. Wade, thirty years since George McGovern lost the presidency ... thirty years since men last walked on the moon. The Roe anniversary had personal significance, coupled with the e-mail from my college friend, and I may write about it - but not now. As for the coincidence of actually meeting McGovern three decades after voting for him, the last time America's soul was last threatened as severely as it is now, well, another polemic against W and his war would be pointless. I found a letter written by a famous SF author to a faned about the launch of Apollo 17 in 1972, and asked to print it - but the missive provoked ambitions in the faned to publish again, himself. And then this morning came, and the multiplying contrails from the shattered Columbia disappear into the morning sun.

            I named this fanzine after the lost ship which would have borne the best of America into the future. I end this issue on the day another ship is lost, bringing the best of us home. I can only pray that someday, we will take the examples of Challenger and Columbia to heart, rejecting simple conquest as our place in the world. That like these best of us, we will show imagination, and energy, and intelligence, and competence, and simple compassion, and leave those as our legacy to mankind. Someday.

            As W's insipid drumbeats go on for war, war, war, and we stagger from the shuttle catastrophe, all I can do is wonder. What would I say to others about our country, if they asked me to explain us?

            Would I say, "America is a country aglut with contradictions. Boundless generosity, depthless greed; it exalts the human spirit and condemns it to fathomless squalor. It supports hope, it enforces despair. It's the country of Abraham Lincoln ... and George Lincoln Rockwell. Of David Duke ... and Jimmy Carter. Of Tranquility Base ... and My Lai. Of the war in Iraq ... and the Columbia. It's a country always faced with choosing its own nature and its own fate. Will it live up to its promise and change the world by example, or sink into the easy rationalization of raw power? Will it be the hope of the world ... or its most profound disappointment?

            "America's only real problem, in this patriot's view, is that it refuses to stay true to itself. There are those of us who will never stop trying."

            Again, thanks to everyone who helped and encouraged us in the DUFF campaign, and we hope to see some of you in Perth and all of you in Toronto.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,

See how these names are feted by the waving grass

And by the streamers of white cloud

The whispers of wind in the whispering sky,

The names of those who in their lives fought for life,

Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.

Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun,

And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

 STS-80, Columbia Landing - 20 Dec 1996

 Stephen Spender, "I Think Continuously of Those Who were Truly Great"


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Challenger is (c) 2002 by Guy H. Lillian III.
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