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Naptown Nostalgia: “A Major Malfunction”

Challenger     I could hear the phone ringing in the kitchen before I turned my key inside the back door lock. I had heard the news already during lunchtime at Little Flower Catholic School that day. My eighth grade science teacher, Mrs. Frey, was crying because she had actually applied for the program and was devastated by the outcome. My friends were stunned as if such a thing could not have happened. Someone wheeled in the television we kept on the library AV cart and we watched in horror replay after replay of what occurred just after liftoff on January 28, 1986.

“Yeah, hello?” I said breathlessly, after dropping my book bag on the floor and diving for the receiver.

To this day, I don’t know why I bothered with the standard telephone greeting. Every molecule in my body knew who was on the other end of the line. Though we were still a decade away from Caller ID, I could have addressed him by name. He had a connection to NASA that was encoded in his DNA. He was an armchair astronaut who followed the Mercury and Gemini missions like a groupie. He built a model of the Apollo 11 rocket and gantry that was easily three foot tall. He had a map of the moon framed neatly on the basement wall and more books on the space program than anyone could possibly need.

Just five years before, he had taken the day off from work to watch the first Space Shuttle rise to the final frontier from its launch pad at Cape Kennedy. He had carried a small boxy TV into work in order to bear witness to several subsequent missions. He helped me build a model of it (complete with extendable space lab) but now…the unthinkable had occurred and it was killing him to be cut off from his connection. He knew what time I would be home and he would have let the phone ring until I picked up.

“Is it true?” He asked.

After being strong for three long hours, my voice broke. “Dad, something happened at NASA…”

“Turn on the TV.” He commanded.

I put the phone down and went into the living room to warm up the set. This was back in the days when cable was limited to 41 channels, the folks at CNN didn’t blather on about nothing and it actually took a minute for the screen to come up. All of the major networks were covering the tragedy.

“OK, I have it on,” I reported.

Over the next several minutes, I tried to relay what the geniuses in charge down in Florida or Houston – I’m not sure which – had to say. But my father wasn’t content to hear me paraphrase a press conference. He had me extend the rather long curly cue phone cord to the TV set (about 10 feet, mind you and as far as it could go) and hold the receiver up to the speaker so he could take in the words first hand.

“Are they sure?” My dad asked after hearing someone say there were no survivors.

He hadn’t seen the footage yet, so there was no way he could understand the improbability of such a miracle. Still, I was amazed at the way he held out hope. Even at the age of 13, I grasped the idea that this would be the “Where were you when?” moment of my young life. It was the beginning of the end of my innocence. It would be the last time I would be sure about anything.

“Dad, there’s just no way,” I explained. “It just kind of…blew up….and broke apart.”

After our conversation, we never really talked about the Challenger. He was glued to the news for the rest of the night (a habit I must have inherited from him, because I tend to do the same thing whenever something big occurs) but I always knew how deeply it affected him.

Eleven years later, after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we were watching the movie Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks. As I stared in amazement at the way NASA pulled off a moment of triumph in what could have been their biggest failure, my father turned to me and said, “That’s why I wasn’t sure. I thought NASA could do anything.”

There was no explanation for his statement, no context, and it was never mentioned again, but I knew what he meant. It was an unspoken understanding that transcended time and space. Even today, when I see images of the crew or wreckage, I break into tears. Not only because of the incident itself, but because it is a moment I shared with the man I loved more than anything else in this world. Whenever I revisit that moment that is now three decades old,  I become that 13-year-old standing in a living room trying to make sense of a “major malfunction” to her father in which seven people “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”








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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: “My Mind Is Clearer Now”

jesus-christ-superstar-1974-film-soundtrack        Taking part in the 8th grade spring musical was something I’d looked forward to since I was six-years-old. Ever since I saw the “big kids” put on The Music Man, I became enamored with the idea of being on that stage and singing my heart out in the starring role.

Over the years, there had been quite an assortment of offerings: Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Godspell, and The Wizard of Oz. Although the class didn’t know what it would be until late February or early March, it was widely suspected that ours would be Annie.

Then came the announcement: Jesus Christ Superstar.

The idea of doing some religious show was about as appealing as root canal surgery. I had already suffered through countless Christmas pageants, endured Mass at least once a week for the last eight years – I got it – I’m a Christian, did we really need to drive this point home in the final quarter? Not only that, but as I understood it, JCS was an opera. Did the powers that be actually think 60 eighth graders had enough talent to pull THAT off?

I have to say that they had more faith in us than I did.

“They can’t be serious,” I told a friend of mine after we heard the news. “Are there any girl parts in it?”

She informed me that the main roles were Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene, but that our teacher said he was willing to cast some girls as apostles. Considering that the girls in our class outnumbered the boys by a fairly large margin this wasn’t a progressive decision, but a practical one. Still, why choose a musical that was predominately male in the first place? I didn’t want to be an apostle. I didn’t want to be a member of the chorus and given all I had heard about her (supposed) dubious reputation, I sure as heck did NOT want to be Mary Magdalene!

I wasn’t the only person who was unenthusiastic about this and when it became obvious to the teacher that he might have a mutiny on his hands, he told us that he would rent the tape so that we could see it for ourselves and then decide if we hated it. “I have a feeling that you are going to change your minds.”

The next day, we all gathered around the rolling TV cart to see what it was that our teacher had gotten us into. The movie started and as I suspected, something reminiscent of The Ten Commandments came on the screen. However, unlike Cecile B. DeMille’s classic, it was accompanied by a searing electric guitar lick. What the heck is this? I wondered as a tribe of hippies jumped off a bus and began putting on costumes. One guy had round John Lennon-style sunglasses. Another donned a hat that looked like the Taj Mahal. There was the man who sat on a throne like he was some kind of a king and another guy who quickly separated himself from the group. He must be Judas, I surmised. By the time the chorus members began their strange huddle dance around the central character, we were all bopping our heads in time with the music. (Some of us were even playing a little air guitar, but I’m not naming names.) Finally, I heard the familiar fanfare that everyone knows and saw Jesus rise out of the crowd. Oh, I am so in, I decided. This is going to be the best play ever!

JC Gethsemane           There was only one problem. I still didn’t want to be Mary. I wanted to be Jesus. When I heard Ted Neely wail “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy?” during Gethsemane, I wanted to sing it. It was so primal. So Robert Plant-esque. Still, even if the teacher was willing to have a few girl apostles, I knew it was unlikely that he would go completely off the rails and cast me as the Son of God.

So I set my sights on Judas. Although it may seem a bit strange, I really identified with that role. I’d never given Judas’ story much thought before, but having watched the movie, I now thought that there was something oddly human about him. Here was a guy who was excited to be part of this movement, but when things seemed to be spiraling out of control, he tried to stand up to his friend and reel Him back in. I didn’t get the impression that he wanted Jesus dead. In the movie, it all seemed less calculated than that and a bit more naïve. Maybe he felt that if Jesus cooled his heels in prison overnight, it might end his delusions of grandeur and then their group could get on with doing good works. I don’t think he honestly thought it would end the way that it did. But then again, the road to Hell is always paved with good intentions, isn’t it?

Despite my spiritual epiphany while watching the tape, there was no way that the teacher was going to let me be Judas either. “Come on,” I pleaded. “Don’t you think I would make a fantastic demented apostle?”

“Well yes Julie, I do, but you still cannot be Judas,” he said. “Why don’t you audition for Mary Magdalene?”

         Because I don’t want to act like some kind of Jesus groupie, I thought to myself. I didn’t tell him this of course, and naturally that is the part I ended up with. I liked the songs well enough, but this was the first time I’d heard whispers that there was something else going on between Mary and Jesus and I didn’t like it. It flew in the face of everything that I thought to be true.

“I don’t know about this line ‘I want him so,’” I commented during a rehearsal. “It sounds like she is in love with him or something.”

“She was,” he said simply.

I’ve never found an official reference to that fact, and believe me when I say that I did a LOT of looking after that statement. Turns out it’s a pretty popular notion and maybe it’s not that far-fetched, but it seems like a flawed theory. Regardless of her position in Jesus’ life, it’s clear that she is an important character in the story. So important that someone felt compelled to try and diminish it by labeling her a prostitute-turned-Christian. Though it still pained me to act as if I were “gaga” over God…I tried to sing her part with as much dignity as a 13-year-old can and in the end, I enjoyed it.

It’s interesting how an event I didn’t want to take part in became one of the most profound religious experiences of my life. Maybe it was my connection to the rock and roll-style or a more poetic interpretation, but Jesus Christ Superstar changed my life forever. I’ve seen it several times and take it personally if it is not performed well. I have been lucky enough to see Ted Neely in the starring role and to meet the late Carl Anderson (Judas). Not only that, but it is the show that led to my own lip lock with the Lord (in the form of Sebastian Bach) in his SUV in 2003.But that’s another story for another day.

Maybe there is a little bit of the “rumored” Mary in me after all!


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