Three weeks before Buddy Norenberg got his head knocked off, we watched the rocket break into a thousand pieces and fall into the ocean. We were sitting in Mrs. Carsten's third-grade classroom, and none of us knew what we were looking at. Even when the corkscrews of vapor and smoke scrambled up the topaz sky, and the chunks of black garbage shotgunned out across the Atlantic, death and disaster were the farthest things from our minds. No one felt the gut-punch understanding that Mrs. Carsten did; no one made the visceral connection back to our humanity, our American spirit.
Most of us cared little about science, virtually nothing about NASA. Even less about gathering around Mrs. Carsten's aging TV cart at ten on a Tuesday morning to watch half an hour of ogling spectators and fifteen seconds of actual liftoff. Weekend adventures were still bright on our minds - memories of sleepovers, Nintendo tournaments, the funny beer commercials of Super Bowl XX. The news networks had already provided our science anyway, with the incessant clips of Voyager 2's orbits around Uranus. We joked on Monday how Voyager 2 would explore YOUR-anus, until Uranus lost all meaning as a planet. Then we capered on, found something new for our third-grade wits to dissect, and gleefully forgot about all things NASA.
The first twenty minutes around the TV, we made a mockery of Mrs. Carsten's perfect morning. We belched the letters of the alphabet (Jimmy De Bry could get to "L," Henry McIntosh all the way to "Q") and we hurled paper airplanes at Cindy Beemer's head. Buddy was the only one who acted, as Mrs. Carsten called it, "well-behaved and well-brought-up," because he sat alone at the back of the class and doodled Martian saucers on the inside jacket of his Gobot Trapper Keeper. He'd been overheard that morning chatting with Mrs. Carsten about things that were scientific: spacewalks, zero gravity, the distance between the moon and the Kennedy Space Center. We whispered the name suck-ass, the name one of our dads, Mr. Mansaray, had used during a Saturday night PTA meeting in the cafeteria. None of us knew what suck-ass meant.
Buddy was the bastard son of our bus driver, Mr. Norenberg, the Semicolon. Mr. Norenberg hunched over the steering wheel like a giant comma, his large head the hanging period, and since Buddy was a perfect spitting image, we called him Semicolon Junior. They came from a family of drunks and Democrats. Mr. Norenberg didn't have a wife; it was rumored Buddy didn't even come from a mother, but a prostitute. He wore bolo ties and plain white Velcro sneakers and smelled like the buckeyes that his father made him sort into a bucket on the afternoon bus. They shopped for their clothes at places like Kmart and Walgreens. Everyone suspected that the Izod pull-overs that Buddy wore on Fridays had actually come from the Sunoco.
Mrs. Carsten passed around astronaut cupcakes and shuttle-shaped cookies she had baked the night before. She had exhausted herself - the cupcakes were crafted to be space helmets with black frosting for visors, a quarter-moon shape of yellow frosting for a sun glare - but we tore into them with no respect for the effort. We were unruly and wanted pandemonium. She warned us about too much ruckus, about disturbing the other classrooms down the hall. Henry McIntosh smeared black frosting on his lips and called himself Bill Cosby. We followed suit and called ourselves The Gang.
Mrs. Carsten said, "I will not have a reactionary attitude. This is an important day for everyone. So shape up or ship out." Her warnings always included the words reactionary attitude. She kept a tally of all reprimands and gave demerits on orange slips of paper. She paced the floor in a pair of ancient Sperry Top-Siders and wore brown shirts and matching culottes that made her look like a walking potato sack. She hovered over the backs of our desks and quoted strange poetry from impossibly-named writers like Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. She told us we would have a quiz the next morning on the space shuttle's flight history. We had better listen to every detail, she warned, and be prepared to take thorough notes because the quiz would survey all the way back to 1983. We retaliated with references to Concord High, where the students got to wear party hats and blow streamers in the auditorium. Were they listening to every detail? Were they taking thorough notes?
Mrs. Carsten was prepared: "Yes, but that's where Miss McAuliffe teaches. You are students of Peterson Academy, and you will take notes."
At the back of the class, Buddy Norenberg filled his Trapper Keeper with shuttles and lists of numbers and billowing rocket smoke. Mrs. Carsten hovered over his desk like a satellite. We expected a warning, a reactionary attitude demerit scratched off in a fury, but instead she caroled his praises.
"Do you see this, children? Buddy's drawing the liftoff!" and she raised the Trapper Keeper for the classroom to see. Irvin Mansaray whispered his father's word - suck-ass! - and Buddy blanched like a sheet of paper. He dropped the hanging period of his head and stayed hunkered low until the announcement of the launch.
We counted down with the Concord school kids: T-MINUS-FIVE! T-MINUS-FOUR! T-MINUS THREE! T-MINUS-TWO! We hollered at the blastoff and lobbed our paper airplanes at the ceiling. Teddy Schulman's plane stuck in a vent, dangled for a precarious moment, then spiraled back down to the floor. The shuttle on the TV did the same. We hooted as the plumes divided, ascended, divided again, as the rocket pieces burned across the Florida stratosphere. Cooool, mumbled Jimmy De Bry.
Mrs. Carsten put a hand on her face. We registered the emotion as shock and awe, the glory after the finish, the epic finale, a teacher in space! Then the hand crept over her mouth and she began to sob. We looked at the TV, back at Mrs. Carsten. She was not smiling, she was sobbing. Like our mothers after watching The Color Purple.
"Children," she said. "Something terrible has happened."
We searched around the room. On the TV, a newscaster from CNN said in tragic monotone, "There appears to be a problem," and we looked around the room for the source, the big, terrible secret.
At home the news came to us in small, whispered phrases. The astronauts were killed. Seventy-three seconds. Never had a chance, dear God. Survived the initial blast. Hope they went quick. Seventy-three seconds. They're in a better place. And by the end of the week we were telling the jokes that were circulating in the high school next door: What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts. NASA's new space drink is Ocean Spray. Their second choice 'cause they couldn't get 7-UP. Ha ha ha ha ha.
Mrs. Carsten got wind of the jokes. She made the class watch the footage again. The rocket blasting apart, the epic tumble across the sky, the smoke spirals reaching like giant arms toward Heaven. She stood by the door, barring our access to the bathroom. ABC stock footage rolled over and over: a recording of the NASA close-out crew handing McAuliffe the big red apple. The eighteen Concord school kids, frozen on the bleachers, faces stunned, their big white GO CHRISTA banner sagging in the wind. President Reagan in the Oval Office addressing the schoolchildren of America: I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. The explosion, the spirals, the black chunks on the surface of the ocean. Over and over and over again we watched the astronauts slip the surly bonds of earth.
"Apparently you all think this is funny," Mrs. Carsten said. "Apparently you all think this is a joke."
We recognized that the jokes were cruel. But we also understood it was the cruelty we enjoyed, the cruelty that sustained us.
Every afternoon, Mr. Norenberg made Buddy sit at the front of the bus, behind the driver's seat, and count buckeyes collected in a five-gallon bucket. The Semicolon gathered the buckeyes throughout the day and put the bucket on the front seat, always with instructions for Semicolon Junior to weed out the small ones and toss them in a paper sack. So as the Semicolon drove, Buddy sat there and counted buckeyes, and dropped the small ones, one by one, into a brown grocery sack between his feet. While the rest of the boys gossiped about our favorite action shows - Ben Linderman argued that John "Hannibal" Smith was the toughest man on TV, while Henry McIntosh claimed Sonny Crockett was the toughest - you could hear the dull clunk! of a buckeye hitting the bottom of the sack, or the hollow clacking of buckeyes in Mr. Norenberg's five-gallon bucket. We never knew what the buckeyes were for. Maybe a homemade buckeye whiskey brew. Then again, some thought the buckeyes were Semicolon Junior's punishment for being alive, for being the bastard kid of a prostitute and a Democrat. When you're a bastard, you have to count buckeyes.
Mr. Norenberg was a meticulous bus driver. But everyone knew he had terrible eyesight and would, very soon, run the bus off into a quarry. His tiny eyes looked disproportionate to his large red face, like the beady eyes of a boiling lobster, and the glasses he wore seemed to suffer a perpetual fog of smears. Because of this, the Semicolon tended to overcompensate on the roads. The first Monday of February, he was so careful that he stalled the bus on top of a train track slick from a late Sunday freeze. The Semicolon took the hump too slow and the back tires caught a layer of ice. We spun for twenty minutes before a tow truck came and pulled us onto the road.
While the tow truck operator and Mr. Norenberg chatted, Buddy sat in the front seat and scribbled spaceships on the Gobot Trapper Keeper. We contemplated taking the Trapper Keeper and ripping out the pages. But no one could summon the courage to walk up the aisle and do the task. Buddy's head was larger than his dad's, and he had a large thick body to go with it. On field trips he was often mistaken for an older boy, a fifth- or sixth-grader, and there was the time he frogged Irvin Mansaray and put a charcoal-sized lump on his shoulder when Irvin tried to pin him down at the monkey bars. So we never assumed we could be the proper bullies. He was B.A. Baracus and we were the fools.
At school Mrs. Carsten handed back our space shuttle quizzes. Despite the tragedy at Kennedy Space Center, she had kept good on her threat to make us take the quiz the day after the launch. The quiz had contained questions that a genius couldn't answer. Who was the first American woman in space? What was the date of the shuttle's first launch? Name all seven members of the shuttle's final crew.
"The results are less than stellar," Mrs. Carsten said. "I'm very disappointed. I have a mind to make this a full test."
We groaned at the word, and Mrs. Carsten bristled.
"Miss McAuliffe would be appalled," she said.
Over the week her stare had become more serious, more malevolent. Her Sperry Top-Siders creaked against the floor like they had turned to wood.
Two girls in the class made A's on the quiz. And Semicolon Junior. After the quiz, our hatred for Buddy grew to cosmic heights. But we still couldn't find the bravery to torment him. So we left him alone, to sit in the back of the class and doodle on his Trapper Keeper. But in our minds we bullied him, every day, into oblivion. We swore to ourselves that we would make our strike, and when we did Buddy really would travel to the stars.
The following Monday was President's Day, and there was a hushed, collective fear of coming back to school. The concern was that Mrs. Carsten would give another quiz, this time on the presidents. She had not assigned a weekend reading, but we knew something was wrong - something off in the air, like a bad memory not quite formed - and we had slept uncomfortably the night before. That morning we waited for Mr. Norenberg's bus to creep up our streets like the ferry boat in the Greek stories, the one that would take you down, down to Hades. And when the bus pulled up at seven, each of us thought, I'm doomed, there's no escape.
We climbed aboard and saw the substitute driver, Mr. Rosenblum, the Gummy Bear. We called him the Gummy Bear because he was overweight and his face looked spongy and purple, like a glob of gelatin. Mr. Rosenblum drove the bus when the Semicolon was sick or out of town. Today the five-gallon bucket was gone, and there was no paper sack for the runt buckeyes. We stood in the door and interrogated the Gummy Bear for details.
"Go find your seat," the Gummy Bear said. "I ain't answering no questions."
Walking the halls at school, we felt like foolish outsiders, like spies turned decoy. Teachers in the classrooms were shaking and sobbing, like Mrs. Carsten had sobbed on NASA Day. We felt like some kind of joke was on us, that we were ghosts wandering down our own corridors.
We filtered in and took our seats. Mrs. Carsten sat at the teacher's desk and refused to look up. We decided she was reading or attending to a lesson note, but she was only looking at the desktop. We sat in silence, afraid to ask a single question.
She read our minds anyway. "There will be no quiz today," she said, and when she finally looked up, we saw the familiar face of Something Terrible Has Happened. "In fact, there will be no lesson and no homework. We're going to have a discussion about something very important."
We dared not celebrate, even though those words - no lesson, no homework - was like a badly needed life boat in the ocean. We didn't budge. We were slaves to the moment, prisoners to the atmosphere.
"Class, something terrible has happened," she said.
We felt like the subjects of a strange circular experiment. We looked around for the punchline. Had another shuttle exploded? Was there another round of CNN footage? Crying school children, sobbing parents in Florida? Were we being punished all over again?
"Our friend, Buddy, died in a car accident on Sunday," Mrs. Carsten said.
A brief silence. Ben Linderman raised his hand.
Can I go to the bathroom?
"You most certainly may not," Mrs. Carsten said. "We are all going to sit here and talk about Buddy, about how this makes us feel. So no one is allowed to leave."
We looked at each other, searched for that something we were supposed to do. In church, during those periodic moments of salvation, the moments when people would make their public professions of faith and turn to God and forsake their sins at the altar of plush carpet, our parents sometimes looked at each other, searched each other's eyes for some kind of truth, like they were searching for the explanation, the big secret that would save their souls like the people up front who were braving the stares. What is this great mystery? our parents' eyes would say to each other. What is going on that we don't know here?
I have to go to the bathroom, Ben Linderman said.
"Dear Lord, Ben, just go, for Heaven's sake."
Ben Linderman slipped out, his cheeks a mottled red. Mrs. Carsten stood and walked the room, her ancient shoes creaking on the tile. We had seen her walk like this a million times, but never like this, a teacher without a lesson. She went to the window, pulled back the yellow curtain, and gazed at the foggy winter morning. She waited for someone to speak, but no one dared to breathe. We were looking at each other's faces, for the big mystery about Buddy. What was one supposed to feel here? A heaviness had fallen onto the room, as though a giant vacuum had taken everything out. Was this the feeling she wanted? She turned and walked back to the front of the class. At the chalkboard, she picked up a piece of chalk.
"I know this is hard to understand," Mrs. Carsten said. "But sometimes people die. Has anyone lost a family member? Would anyone like to share? It's important we discuss these things. We can't bottle up such emotions."
She waited chalk in hand, as though ready to write the name of the first student to speak. A moment later she turned away and faced the chalkboard in full. Her brown culottes were folded along the butt - a bad case of static cling - and someone tittered. She ignored the noise, pulled at the skirt, and began writing the letters, B-U-D-D-Y. By the time she was finished, she had spelled Semicolon Junior's name across the entire board:
The silence forced us to study his name. We took in the letters, and felt something hostile in them, something cold and solid and difficult to grasp. Ben Linderman came back from the bathroom; we used the commotion as a quick reprieve. Jimmy De Bry whispered something funny to Henry, and one of the girls giggled.
Mrs. Carsten eyeballed them like a Cyclops. "I think it's simply appalling," she said, "that you would laugh at something like this."
Henry ignored Mrs. Carsten's stare and whispered back to Jimmy, and Mrs. Carsten threw her stick of chalk on the floor. The chalk shattered into a hundred powdery pieces, and Henry sat up straight. The silence crumbled in like the walls of the shuttle.
"Shame, shame on all of you."
We knew what Mrs. Carsten would do: she would force Jimmy and Henry to write Buddy's name on the board ten times. No, twenty. But Mrs. Carsten only sat in her chair and put her face into her hands and sobbed. She was not in the mood to punish. But we felt punished anyway.
Hours later, we packed into the bus and Mr. Rosenblum took us home. We were silent during the long drive. We looked out the windows, blew our breath onto the frozen panes, and thumbed our initials into the fog. We kept seeing his name - BUDDY NORENBERG - invisibly etched into the glass. At our supper tables we learned that Mr. Norenberg had driven his car headfirst into a tractor trailer on Highway 67. Lost his right arm and several pints of blood, but the grill of the truck had knocked Buddy's head right off his shoulders. Decapitated, our parents said. We envisioned Ichabod Crane, what Buddy might look like with a jack-o'-lantern for a head. And that night our brothers whispered other things, new information, in the dark of our bedrooms: They found his head on the side of the road. They put the head in a big plastic Ziploc. Know something worse? The head was sitting in a bunch of smashed buckeyes.
We didn't sleep for a week.
Something felt different at school. We felt Buddy's absence, kept expecting to see him counting his buckeyes on the bus ride home, or scribbling his spaceships on the cover of his Trapper Keeper. The change was unsettling. We were quiet during lessons, and stopped throwing airplanes at Cindy Beemer.
Mrs. Carsten took note of our changed attitude. She gave fewer homework assignments, fewer reactionary attitude demerits. She started wearing colors other than brown - a white Frankie Says Relax T-shirt, a pair of white Keds. We listened to music after the in-class writing assignments, and watched Up With People videos on the old TV. Little by little, the air came back into the room.
A few days later, we were telling the jokes that were circulating in the high school.
What is Buddy's new nickname?
Why was Mr. Norenberg's buckeye tally off by one?
Buddy's head was too big for the bucket.
All the while, Mrs. Carsten's words burned like liquid oxygen in our minds.
I know this is hard to understand. But sometimes people die.
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.
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