If you weren't around that day, its hard to convey the sense of tragedy that swept the nation upon hearing (and seeing) the news. This feeling of loss is particularly hard to understand, or remember if you were around then, in light of 9/11 and yet another shuttle disaster. But at the time, it was a huge deal.
I felt it too. I was the News Director for a group of two radio stations (one AM and one FM) that day. I also did a morning talk show. At the time of the Challenger explosion I was doing the talk show; that day a live interview with a representative from the IRS (in preparation for tax season).
Not long into the interview we got an alert from CBS (we were an affiliate) that there was some breaking news. During a commercial break, we monitored the CBS News feed to see what the alert was about. We came in on coverage of the explosion and decided to dump my interview. I remember the IRS guy, who could also hear the CBS feed, looking at me with this horrified look on his face. I probably had the same look but I had to get to work.
We put the CBS coverage on live. I thanked the IRS man, showing him to the door, and assured him we would reschedule the interview.
With CBS covering the AM station, I now had to get on the FM station with the news. I grabbed what wire copy was available and went on the FM . It was so hard doing that. As a life long fan of the space program, I was shocked by what had happened and could hardly believe it.
Later that evening, I watched President Reagan deliver a speech designed to console the nation. I didn't like a lot of what Reagan stood for politically but he was a mater in front of the camera and I appreciated that. And in times of national tragedy, it is indeed a great quality for a national leader to have.
Now for the point of my post.
The speech Reagan gave that night is best remembered for this line:
"We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."I think most people believe Reagan (or his speechwriter, Peggy Noonan in this case) came up with this from whole cloth. But even as he read it that night, I knew it wasn't his. It was very appropriate and delivered masterfully but it was borrowed material.
I recognized it because a version of it was inside the front cover of a book I had as a kid on military aircraft. It turns out it comes from a poem written by a Canadian fighter pilot during WWII.
Reagan was quoting `High Flight,' a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War. He came to Britain, flew in a Spitfire squadron, and was killed at the age of nineteen on11 December 1941 during a training flight from the airfield near Scopwick.Here's the original poem:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds,--and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless falls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blueI've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor eer eagle flew--
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Just thought you'd like to know.