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“All I ask is a tall ship”

[Launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger] — Twenty years ago last night I was in my room in Dudley House, the residential college at Harvard University where I served as a resident tutor. There was a knock on my door at a very late hour, and I opened it to find the undergraduate who lived across the hall standing in his pajamas, half bent over and violently trembling. I helped him to the couch in my room, and in a confused voice he said he had just woken up from a terrifying dream in which everything was on fire and exploding around him. I held his arm for a few minutes until he was able to calm down and orient himself and shake off the effects of the nightmare.

I remember that event clearly, because the next morning—twenty years ago today—the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in a great fireball just 73 seconds after launch. School children across the United States saw the disaster live on television because the flight was carrying the first “teacher in space,” astronaut Christa McAuliffe. I heard the news just before noon from the checker in the Dudley House dining hall.

Ten years later, and ten years ago this week, as the senior tutor of my own residential college, I included in the college newsletter a tribute to the Challenger Seven—John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever”:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

A residential college should be a place of public memory, where everyone has an opportunity to participate in communal acts of remembrance. Many of my students ten years ago had been in elementary school at the time of the Challenger disaster, and had watched it unfold in their classrooms. They remembered it well. Undergraduates today will not have that memory, but it is vital that they be brought into acts of public remembrance, whether of this event or any other, because that is how we as educators can forge links for them between their own lives and the lives of those who have gone before.

One of the first scenes in the film Chariots of Fire is just such an act of public remembrance. The setting is the dining hall of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, and the year is 1919, just after the end of World War I. The master of the college is addressing the new freshmen at their first formal dinner:

I take the war list and I run down it. Name after name, which I cannot read, and which we who are older than you cannot hear, without emotion; names which will be only names to you, the new college, but which to us summon up face after face, full of honesty and goodness, zeal and vigor, and intellectual promise; the flower of a generation, the glory of England; and they died for England and all that England stands for.

And now by tragic necessity their dreams have become yours. Let me exhort you: examine yourselves. Let each of you discover where your true chance of greatness lies.

For their sakes, for the sake of your college and your country, seize this chance, rejoice in it, and let no power or persuasion deter you in your task.

Roger, go at throttle up.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021