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In 1922, a gang of robbers hijacked a Federal Reserve Bank truck outside the Denver Mint, making off with $200,000 in five-dollar bills.  One security guard was killed.  One of the robbers, Nicholas “Chaw Jimmie” Trainor, deflected a shotgun round with his jaw and later died.  But none of the other six robbers was fingered for the robbery, though it’s believed that they were all eventually imprisoned for other crimes (like James “Oklahoma Jack” Clark) or killed in other circumstances.

Catchy as those nicknames are, however, no criminals come close to “Repulsive Rogan” or “Filthy McNasty,” the robbers in The Bank Dick.

The Denver Mint was a near-yearly elementary school pilgrimage, all the students trundling downtown with a brown-bag lunch in hand to learn about how pennies are pressed.  Not me, though.  My mother worked downtown, and I had lunch with her.  When someone asked where she worked, all I knew was that it was at a bank.  Later, I learned it was the Federal Reserve Bank, which sounded more important.

But what she did specifically, I still don’t know.  She was a clerk, verifying checks, I think; her exact job description was unclear.  All I knew was that she supplied my brief philatelist phase with stamps from around the world:  a green Jamaica with a worker in a sugar cane field; red triangular Indonesias; all manner of foreign rulers, smiling grimly.

After the tour, I met my mother for lunch.  The inside of the Federal Reserve seemed lacquered in gold, with severe 70s architectural flourishes that reminded me of dentist-office mobiles.  The cafeteria was on the second-floor and overlooked 16th Street before it had become a pedestrian mall.  Over the years, I watched the construction of the Tabor Center, the free shuttles puttering down the road, the opening of endless souvenir shops and the Rock Bottom Brewery across the street.  My mother’s co-workers commented how much I had grown since my last visit:  Tita, a Filipina and my mother’s best friend there.  Peter, who self-published poetry.

Security was loose those days.  I signed in and clipped a visitor’s badge to my chest.  My father could pull into the parking lot by announcing that he had come to pick up his wife, and as we drove out, my mother waved to the unseen guard behind the blackened window on Arapahoe Street — Egbert Sousè himself, perhaps.  At one Christmas party, the managers handed out baggies of shredded currency.

Over time, the Federal Reserve’s defenses grew more elaborate, more necessary.  Concrete barriers.  High walls topped with sharpened bars.  This was long before the Oklahoma City bombing.

But, by then, I had also outgrown spending afternoons with my mother.

The world honors the daring, the thieves.  No one remembers the functionaries, the Og Oggiblys who keep the world in working order.  Tita retired a few years before my mother.  Peter gave my mother a copy of his book for a retirement gift.  The stamps that my mother had ripped off envelopes so that I could steam away their backings and press dry between paper towels — those have been collected, mounted, forgotten.

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For Christmas one year, my sister bought my mother a copy of Brigette Bardot’s biography, Initiales B.B. In French, no less.  I sort of knew that my mother was a Bardot fan, the way I sort of know her birthday and sort of know about her life before we moved to the United States.

What I know for sure about my mother:  she keeps all the books we gave her on the headboard of her waterbed; she likes Sidney Sheldon novels; she watches adaptations of Sidney Sheldon novels on the same television where, every evening, we watched the news and, on Wednesday nights, Dynasty, and, once a year, the Miss Universe pageant.

When I was young, I scoured the TV Guide, looking for her favorite movie.  I found it once — the listing so small it was an inky smudge — showing in the wee hours, and I was so excited I wanted to stay up and watch it with her.  But I fell asleep during a commercial, around the point where the heroine falls off a mountain during a ski race, breaks her back, and is paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Years later, of course, I realized the movie my mother liked was The Other Side of Midnight and not The Other Side of the Mountain.  But she watched with me anyway.

I don’t know if my mother saw And God Created Women.  She would have been about 24 when it was released.  She still lived in Vietnam then — or she could have been at Southern Illinois University, I’m not sure which.  What I know of Vietnamese history of that time includes:  1) the French being driven out of Vietnam; 2) the Geneva Accords splitting the country in half; and 3) the mass exodus of Northerners fleeing southward, bringing phở with them.

Had my mother already met my father by then?  I don’t know.  In the dining room back home (Aurora, Colorado, not Vietnam), there’s a black-and-white photograph of my mother.  She wears a white áo dài, like a schoolgirl’s.  Her face is tilted down towards the left, and the soft light picks out a luminous feature.  Her nose.  Her cheekbone.  She’s possibly as young as Bardot herself when she starred in And God Created Women.  Director and then-husband Roger Vadim writes of Bardot:  “She comes from another dimension…. That’s down to her presence, which comes from outer space somewhere.”

My mother calls regularly, and I return them irregularly.  She calls with news, with gossip, or just to talk.  Her voice reverses time:  here we are watching Alexis and Krystal getting into another catfight.  Miss Venezuela wins again?  But the conversation now veers towards different topics:  her weakening knees, the regimen of capsules and multivitamins that she dutifully splits with a plastic pill-cutter.  As she speaks, I imagine her sitting up in bed, phone extension in hand, leaning against all the books I’ve bought her:  intergenerational Asian mother-daughter sagas, Vietnamese novels in translation, poetry — the unread stories in our lives.

 

Part of me will always be an adolescent boy.  The part that stands in stores, reading comic books until the proprietor yells, “Hey, this isn’t a library!”  The part that giggles at dick and fart jokes.  The part that sees the future as a vast, undisturbed plain at the end of Wheeling St. in suburban Aurora, long before the encroachment of warehouses and office parks.  The part that holds desire like a switchblade — awkwardly, blindly, secretly.

This is the part, too, that enjoys Kevin Smith movies.  At the comics convention that opens Chasing Amy, one grizzled vendor wears a ‘Fuck Marvel Comics’ t-shirt.

Marvel Comics once had a contest where readers could send in samples of their own work.  One could compete in the penciling, inking, coloring, lettering or writing categories, and the winners of each would collaborate on an issue of Spider-Man.

I wasn’t familiar enough with the Spider-Man storylines to attempt writing, but lettering I thought I could do.  It requires a steady hand, a ruler, a knack for identifying empty spaces in the frames where language and thought can take shape.  Having only one of the three, I didn’t enter.

Besides, I had already tried making comics.  In middle school, my friend Josh C. and I created a three-panel comic strip called “Froggy.”  But since I was inept at drawing, Froggy was nothing more than a three-toed, ambulatory lingam.  We did a traditional three-panel strip, commonly known as ‘the funnies’:  set-up, build, punchline.  And, being middle-schoolers, we moved quickly from existential crises regarding the inability to catch flies to dick and fart jokes.

Holden and Banky, the comic-creating duo of Chasing Amy, eventually separate, in part, because of Banky’s submerged feelings for Holden.  “Some doors should never be opened,” Banky says.

Josh and I were separated by the military’s propensity to ship away families to new bases.  He used to regaled me with stories of coming across his mother’s boyfriend, post flagrante delicto, walking around with his boner, howling “A-roo-ha-hoo!”

Really?

Yep, he said.

We had swim class together, and there weren’t enough stalls in the locker room to accommodate all the bashfulness.  Once, as we showered, Tim S. zipped in and mooned us, but more often, a line of damp boys formed a queue in front of the only stall in the bathroom.

Josh wielded his unabashed sexuality like a matador’s cape.  As I waited on the bench for the stall to open, trunks clinging and reeking of chlorine, he whipped off his shorts and slipped into his underwear.  Maybe he noticed me looking.  He asked, “Aren’t you changing?  Ashamed of your manhood?”

Well, yes and no.  Our bodies were still sprouting in unforeseen ways (some more than others).  We were no longer boys, but we couldn’t claim the mantle of men — not so long as we kept subsuming and covering our desires with bluster and indifference.

Josh knocked on the stall:  “Ready yet?”  But I wasn’t yet ready to open that door.

Hinkley High School didn’t offer AP Chemistry, so every morning, my friends Steve and Dan and I piled into Steve’s black vintage Thunderbird and trekked to Gateway High.  The front seats were stuck in ‘recline,’ and since Dan was taller than I, I took the backseat.  For the fifteen minute ride, we talked about day-to-day mundanities that seem important at the time, but fade as years accumulate:  Did you get this answer on the homework? Who are you taking to prom?  Which colleges have you heard from?

But the times all three of us were groggy or belligerently silent, Steve, a Peter Gabriel fan, put on music.  So and Shaking the Tree were our soundtracks.  Every so often, he’d slip in Passion:  Music for The Last Temptation of Christ, and I imagined that the drive down Chambers Road was a desert journey:  police sirens and ululations; car tires thrumming over potholes and African talking drums.

We knew of The Last Temptation of Christ because of the controversy, another shot in the endless culture war, whose targets would eventually encompass Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Kevin Smith’s Dogma, Chris Ofili’s “Black Madonna,” and David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in My Belly.”  But what makes something sacrilegious?  When an upscale dessert spot opened in Cherry Creek a few years ago, members of my parent’s temple were offended by a Buddha statue placed in front of the bathrooms.  They asked the management to move it.  Similarly, in Philadelphia, my sister huffed when we passed Buddhakhan, a yuppie-favored restaurant that features a gilded, oversized Buddha.

“We should,” my sister said, “open a theme restaurant with a big, honking Jesus overlooking everyone.”  Sample menu:  holy blood pudding, Disci-pulled pork, Communion wafer cookies.  The bar would serve nothing but rusty nails.  The name of the restaurant:  ‘The Last Supper,’ of course.

In the Last Supper scene of The Last Temptation of Christ, Willem Dafoe, as Christ, is calmly resigned to his fate.  This the same man (God?  Son of God?) who, earlier in the film, doubted his own divinity.  Did his doubt redouble his faith, or does faith exist only in the absence of doubt?

Dan, Steve and I also had English together, and our teacher presented a Bible-as-literature section.  In it, a classmate and I performed the first act of Arthur Miller’s The Creation of the World and Other Business.  We also gave presentations on other religions:  I wore my sister’s Norma Kamali dress and silvery bangles and drew, on the chalkboard behind me, extra arms to represent Shiva, dancing the world into destruction.

Dan, a Mormon, showed a videotape re-enacting the history of Mormonism.  Shot PBS-style, with a baritone narration over sepia-tinted images, the film droned on, a pioneer Western stripped of its outlaws, Indian raids, wild shoot-outs.  But when the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written were taken back to heaven, we erupted: What?  How’d that happen?  Did they get shipped Fed Ex?

Daniel, eyes flickering with visible agitation, remained silent, his faith unshakable.

I bought a copy of Carnival of Souls in high school.  The age of VHS — magnetic tape, we called it.  Video rental stores were as plentiful as trilobites, and brontosaurus-sized Blockbusters lumbered across the land.  I had mastered taping movies right off the TV or making tape-to-tape duplicates.  At the time, I thought taping at EP or SLP instead of SP meant that I could fit more movies onto a single tape, thus ‘saving tape,’ but I didn’t learn until later how that degraded the picture quality.  Watching the tapes repeatedly, as well, wore out the tape, and, over time, the movies became ghosts of themselves, shaky and speckled, one image bleeding into the next.

I owned very few horror movies on VHS.  In the 80s, videotapes of movies were expensive — priced for rental, not ownership, and the film was a staple on PBS; on Halloween night, I could count on either Carnival of Souls or Night of the Living Dead playing (much in the way that I could expect falling snow during trick-or-treating).   Nevertheless, I bought my copy from the Aurora Mall Suncoast Video.  On the cover, a dazed, muddy Candace Hilligoss clambers out of a river, and the title whirls its way out the home for psychedelic fonts.

Cynthia Freeland, in her book The Naked and the Undead, suggests that horror movies work by the processes of fusion and fission.  Fusion, she explains, is the conflation of discrete entities:  the distinct states of being of ‘living’ and ‘dead,’ for instance, merge into ‘living dead’; the physical distinctions between ‘man’ and ‘beast’ blur into the form of a werewolf (or, if you prefer, a sexed-up humanoid cicada).

Fission, on the other hand, is the separation of a conceived-of whole.  Killers with split personalities exhibit fission, as do most slasher films (separation of head from body, viscera from stomach, fingernails from fingers).  Carnival of Souls, then, is all about the fission:  from her godless organ playing to her sangfroid with a potential suitor, Mary’s soul seems detached from her body.

Watching the movie so long after abandoning my VHS tapes to the dusty ignominy of my parent’s basement, I feel a similar fission.  It’s the process of growing up; the theory-addled academic can no longer be the giddy teenager walking out of the mall, though he remembers the smell of ozone from a hot VCR player; the crinkling as he removes the cellophane; the shaking hands as he inserts a new videotape into the player, waiting for phantasmagoric images to flicker into life.  He still enjoys the movie on an aesthetic level:  the atmospheric shots of the abandoned amusement park, the oblique camera angles.  But he wonders when the white-faced ghouls will catch up, dragging him, kicking and screaming, back to the decrepit Saltair pavilion.

In the early 1990s, my sister dated K___, whom my parents hated.  They’d gotten over their Oh my goodness, he’s white phase and moved onto their Oh my goodness, he’s a loser phase.  Maybe this is true of over-protective parents everywhere:  no one is good enough.  For Vietnamese parents particularly, the ideal mate is an asymptote; though people can approach good enough, they never quite make it.

That’s not to say that K___ was good enough.  He was tall, thin, and blond, with the air of someone who’d just finished second in a regatta.  He worked waiting tables at the then-recently opened Spinnakers in the Cherry Creek Mall.  My sister had met him at the nightclub she frequented, the 23rd Parish; K___ was best friends with the DJ there, a gay black man named Tracy Jones.

K___ also fancied himself a DJ but had appalling taste in music.  Granted, electronic music was still in its infancy, but K___ preferred songs that sounded like that had come off a Commodore Amiga (long before chiptunes were hip, obviously).  He gave my sister mix tapes, and she passed them on to me, and I listened with an equal mixture of befuddlement and antipathy.

At the end of one of his tapes, he put the “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”  But stripped of its context, the song seemed odd to me.  K___ explained:  it’s funny because it’s sung by a group of men on crucifixes.  Okay then.  He pressed:  Haven’t you ever seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian?

(Growing up, I was only ever a moderate Monty Python fan.  It came on late night weekends on PBS, after The Benny Hill Show.  I remember segments like the ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ but much of its free-associative surrealism escaped me.   Even as a youngster, I demanded narrative cohesion.)

Under the guise of being a good little brother, I lent K___ music that I thought was great.  The Orb’s first album, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraverse.  The 4-disc This Mortal Coil boxset.   The Future Sound of London’s Accelerator.  But our tastes never converged.  And anyway, K___ soon joined the Navy and shipped off for training, and my sister found that an opportune time to break up with him.  Alas, I never got my CDs back.

I ran into K___ again, years later, after I had finished grad school and was working in a movie theater.  He came in with a redhead sporting the librarian-by-day/roller-derby-by-night look.  I recognized him immediately (confirmed I saw his credit card), but he didn’t recognize me.  I wanted to say, “Hey, give me back my This Mortal Coil boxset” — but didn’t.  Part of it was pride:  since we met last, I had accomplished what exactly besides making lattes and slinging popcorn?  The other part of it was:  why bother?  What would I say?  ‘Hey, thanks for ruining the ending of The Life of Brian for me’?

Instead, I poured him a glass of wine and let him see his movie in peace.  It goes without saying what song I hummed all night long.

Actual question from the 2008 All Souls College (Oxford) entrance exam: “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?”

I reply:  Yes, it does.  (Though, really, why are they wearing anything at all if it’s an orgy?)

Simply because a person is libertine in his sexuality does not mean that he exhibits moral turpitude in other aspects of his life.  This includes the ability to be offended by Nazi uniforms.  Let’s rephrase the question this way:  does the moral character of a “native and colonial” costume party change when Prince Harry shows up with a swastika armband?

Speaking strictly of the orgy, Nazi uniforms introduce an unsettling power structure.  The ‘conceit’ behind an orgy, if you will, is that everyone gets some.  Since the question overlooks the specifics of the orgy (round robin?  Roman free-for-all?  bukkake?  Wheel of Fortune?), one must assume that everyone approaches the orgy on equal footing.  Nazi uniforms introduce a master/submissive dynamic, which necessarily upsets this balance.

(One could argue, of course, that Nazi uniforms are role-playing, akin to ‘stern professor/naughty student’ or ‘football coach/star quarterback’ scenarios.  But Nazism is acknowledged to be beyond the pale.  Case in point:  many years ago, I rented a — oh, how shall I put this? — a ‘romantic comedy’ called Honorable Discharge.  In one scene, two men cycled through various military uniforms.  “Sailors suck,” the costume aficionado says to the other.  “Soldiers fuck.”  After their encounter, the costumier asks the jejune Lejeune [played by Chuck Barron], “Which would you like to be next?  The Nazi or the Jew?”  Barron, the viewer’s stand-in, gapes in disbelief.)

Which brings us to The Night Porter.  (Corollary question:  does watching the Night Porter the day after Yom Kippur make one a bad Jew? Answer:  Don’t ask me.  I’m not Jewish.)  While I can’t say that I enjoyed the film — the way one does not ‘enjoy’ Salò; or the 120 Days of Sodom — I will say that it’s provocative in examining not only the psychology of Nazi perpetrators, but of its victims too.  I do wonder the film errs in placing too much emphasis on Dirk Bogarde’s suave, murderous SS officer Max and not enough on Charlotte Rampling’s suffering Lucia.  Her psychosexual journey — concentration camp victim to survivor, respected citizen to masochistic prisoner — is the moral heart of the film.

(Here, I’d like to point out my fondness for ‘Naziploitation’ films [Love Camp 7, the Ilsa series], though I haven’t yet had a chance to read any Israeli Stalags.)

Does the moral character of The Night Porter change when Lucia takes charge of her sexuality while performing topless, in Nazi regalia, for a group of SS officers?  Or when she reclaims that sexuality when voluntarily chained in Max’s apartment?  Director Liliana Cavani doesn’t offer answers.  In this way, she’s like the Oxford test-givers, showing how there’s no easy entrance into this world.

A.O. Scott, in the New York Times, describes Charade as “a light-hearted, frivolous bauble….  It’s a work of great craft and artistry, not a great work of art, but a marvelously fun movie.”

Ignoring the fight I’m itching to have as to what constitutes a “work of art,” I admit that Charade has a special place in my heart.  My sister introduced me to it when I was nine or ten — in fact, she insisted that I watch it with her.  So I did, and after that first viewing, I was traumatized by one image:  a man, suffocated to death with a plastic bag, his feet bound to a radiator, his hands tied to a heavy piece of furniture.

Charade continued to be broadcast once every three years or so, a network stand-by to fill those long programming dead zones on Saturday afternoons, and watching it became a ritual:  at the appointed time, we convened in our mother’s bedroom (where the television was), on her waterbed, and waited for Charles Lampert to get tossed from the train.

I understand why Charade is one of her favorites:  it stars Cary Grant (one of her favorite actors) and Audrey Hepburn (one of her favorite actresses), wearing couture by Givenchy (one of her favorite designers) and being pursued by James Coburn (not one of her favorite anythings but totally freaky as the tall, sadistic Tex).

I sometimes wonder, though, if there’s something more in her affection for it.  For instance, it may be something she first saw in Vietnam before we came to the States.  (My mother, conceivably, could have introduced it to her; she loves Audrey Hepburn too, particularly in Roman Holiday.)  But, really, I suspect that it has to do with the clothes.

My sister has always been a clotheshorse, she has an unerring eye for style.  She knew an arcane language of designer names long before they had penetrated the popular consciousness:  Kamali, Versace, Gaultier.  In her room, she had an array of cosmetics in colors harvested from prehistoric insects, and she was meticulous in their application.  (Today, whenever I see a woman apply lipstick directly from the tube to her lips, I want to pull her aside and say, Meet your best new friend, the lip brush!)

She taught me the ways of fashion:  she steered me away from Z. Cavaricci when it was all the craze in high school (“Their zippers are made of tin!  They’ll rust shut.”).  She introduced me the invisible line that aligns the shirt buttons and the pants zipper.  She told me to always wear a belt if I was tucking in my shirt, unless I was wearing suspenders, and never a belt and suspenders.

Her clothes, hermetically sealed in dry-cleaning bags, still crowd the closets (including a good chunk of my closet) back in Colorado.  Many haven’t been worn in decades.  On my last visit, I thought about donating the more obviously out-of-date duds to Goodwill, but realized that it would have given her a nightmare similar to what Audrey Hepburn endures early in the film:  rushing through the house, opening the closet doors, only to find the drawers empty, the hangers swinging forlornly in the breeze.  All those beautiful clothes:  gone, gone, gone.

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino ruminates on five “qualities or peculiarities of literature” that he holds dear (he died before he finishing the sixth memo).  The first quality, ‘lightness’ (leggerezza), describes not frivolity, but a nimbleness — with story, with language — that makes the gravity of the world easier to bear.  “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness,” Calvino writes, “I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space.  I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational.  I mean that I have to… look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”  For Calvino, lightness and weight are two indivisible sides of the same coin; the presence of one does not necessarily indicate the absence of the other.

As an example of this, Calvino cites Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  The novel, he writes, is “a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living, not only in the situation of desperate and all-pervading opporession that has been the fate of [Kundera’s] hapless country, but in a human condition common to us all, however infinitely more fortunate we may be.”  According to Calvino, Kundera “shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight.”

The film maintains this delicate balance, veering from erotic comedy to serious relationship drama; from a gritty political realism to a satire of Soviet totalitarianism.  What’s the best way to equilibrate Juliette Binoche’s debilitating paranoia?  Stellan Skarsgård’s ass, of course!  I’m not sure what about the Czech Republic invites this mixture of light and weight (Calvino also mentions Kafka in his memo), but the film captures this mood visually:  early on, Prague appears vibrant and thriving; later, dilapidated and confining.

But perhaps this reflects Prague itself.  When Matthew and I traveled there in 2008, the film’s landscape ran in reverse.  On the bus ride from Ruzyne International Airport, Matthew noted, with a look like he’d just bitten into a licorice jellybean, the Soviet-style block housing zooming by.  But once we arrived in the Old City, Prague had become fantastic (in the classic definition of the word).  As one of Matthew’s colleagues described it, “Disneyland done right.”

Nothing, though, encapsulated the heady interplay of weight and lightness better than the changing of the guard at Prague Castle.  As with any quasi-military ceremony, it was performed with the formalized dignity of a Viennese waltz(except with bayonets and sabers).  The guards wore powder-blue uniforms, a tri-color herringbone cord looping around their shoulders and disappearing between the buttons of their jackets.  They marched gravely and lined up in formation, each soldier stretching out his left arm to ensure the proper distance between him and the next.  One held a flag embroidered with the words Pravda Vítĕzí, while, from windows overhead, a military band played — trombones, tuba, snare drum.

The solemnity was leavened, however, with the knowledge that those uniforms were not of strict military origin; instead, they were designed by Theodor Pistek, who won an Oscar for his costume work on Amadeus.  And though the soldiers paraded themselves with the utmost solemnity, I sensed that the soldiers knew that what they were really did was less a military necessity and more a show for the throngs of tourists crowding outside the gate, snapping pictures and reveling in the ceremony, and I sensed that beneath their po-faces, they put some extra lightness in their steps for our benefit.

Americans who watched the moon landing talk about it as a moment they’ll never forget.  They remember every detail:  how old they were, the television on which they watched it, the room in the house where it was playing, what their mothers had made for dinner that evening.  Very few moments in American history achieve this mythic status, and most that do revolve around tragedy:  Pearl Harbor, Kennedy’s assassination, 9/11.

But the moon landing heralded something different:  the world had woken from a dream and discovered that it was true.  For All Mankind, with its images of the Earth from space, of astronauts at play, conveys the kind of marvel the idea of space travel must have in the late 60s.

Alas, being born until 1974, I came late to all that.  Much of the awe had been lost to history and progress.  Everyone remembers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, but who remembers the second team to summit Everest?  Besides, once you’ve watched one countdown, you’ve seen them all.

My sixth-grade teacher tried to re-excite us about space travel.  Halley’s Comet, after all, was returning.  She assigned the whole class to write reports on the comet.  I researched how the comet has been seen, throughout history, as an omen:  Mark Twain, for example, was born on the day it appeared in 1835 and died on the day it next appeared.  On black construction paper, I drew diagrams of ‘Why solar winds matter!’ and renderings of what the comet would look like head-on.

When my academic rival, John, used appliqué letters to make his report look like a newspaper, she held up his report and exhorted us all to do the same.  Further proof:  once something has been done, the second time just isn’t as special.

But in the grand scheme, Halley’s passing seemed inconsequential.  I stared into the night sky, searching for where it should have been.  But the ambient lights in Aurora were too much for such a distant light.  If I saw streaks in the night, they were more likely to be planes flying into nearby Stapleton airport than a comet that I wouldn’t see again until I was 86 (if I was lucky).

In any case, Halley’s Comet paled in comparison to just a month earlier — I was sitting in class, doing busy work designed to keep students quiet for minutes at a time.  Our principal came over the Intercom.  Solemn and gravelly, he announced that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded.  The silence in the classroom extended outward over the whole school.  No one knew what to say.  We looked each other, and then at our teacher, who was never in the running to be the first teacher in space, but we could imagine her, in that moment, as Christa McAuliffe.

Later in the week, I asked my father, who was teaching for Denver Public Schools at that time, if he would have gone on the Challenger, even knowing that it was going to explode; space travel would never again seem safe, filled with wonder.  But without hesitating, my father answered, Yes.  In a heartbeat.

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