PHOENIX (AP) – As I read this week about the 35th anniversary of the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster, I was taken back to Fifth Street Middle School in Bangor, Maine.
I was in eighth grade. Our teacher turned on a television so we could watch the start of the NASA mission that would lift another educator from neighboring New Hampshire to the skies and beyond.
We were in a modular classroom – basically a converted trailer house – that was connected to the main building by a walkway. We were connected but also isolated from the rest of the school. When the shuttle exploded, I was stunned among my classmates, unable to process the disaster on the screen. Like her students, our teacher was frozen and silent.
Reading through the memories of that shocking day, I found that the COVID-19 pandemic has put me back in a similar state.
I spent 11 months in my Phoenix apartment, texting messages across the western United States with just a laptop and WiFi. When it comes to information, I’m very well connected.
But like everyone else, I was stunned to submit. I’ve missed family milestones, both happy and sad, and seen highly anticipated events that have been canceled by the virus (we’ll meet again one day, Rage Against The Machine). My lifelong asthma has also increased my fear of infection and has mostly kept me indoors to avoid others.
I break up the working days in the living room with short night walks. I enjoy my neighbors’ cactus and stone front gardens, so different from the pine and birch trees I saw on my way to school in Maine. I am geographically connected, connected to my home and city, but still isolated.
I have adjusted to my shrunken circumstances in a number of ways, including the added precaution of buying all of my groceries through a specific online retailer.
Freeze-dried broccoli and mushrooms, sachets of soup, and coconut milk powder give me a sense of security and have helped me shed a healthy number of pounds, but my palate longs to break out of quarantine.
I’ve been on a pandemic trip: a vacation in Tombstone, Arizona, where I rented a small cabin on a haunting piece of desert land. But the trip only increased the feeling of isolation.
I photographed historic buildings in Tombstone’s mostly empty streets and watched the re-enacted OK Corral shootout. I dutifully wore my mask and avoided those who didn’t.
I sat next to a campfire in front of my cabin and looked at a very clear night sky full of shimmering stars – the same frontier the challenger ascended to on his last journey – and felt connected to the cosmos but removed from society.
While enjoying the open spaces and the absence of the crowds, my perennial mask and alcohol wipes never allowed me to forget the threat and forced separation we all live under. I moved and was free but not connected.
When we remember one of America’s worst technological mistakes in the Challenger disaster, we also look to the latest scientific marvel in vaccines to return to a version of normalcy.
The big minds who built the doomed shuttle that had carved a dark notch in all of us old enough to remember did not surrender. In September 2019, Jessica Meir became the first Maine woman to travel into space, a beacon for me and my former classmates who will never forget the tragedy that preceded her.
In my home office, I am still comforted by the belief that the pandemic is another terrible calamity from which we will eventually rise, recover, and reconnect.
Virus Diary, an occasional feature, puts the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Follow Phoenix-based AP journalist Brian PD Hannon on Twitter at http://twitter.com/bpdhannon
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