Monday, February 7, 2011

To Infinity And Beyond

On January 28 NASA, newscasters, and many others noted the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster.

It's hard for me to believe that it's really been 25 years already.

Of course it's also hard for me to believe 25 minutes have passed since I first sat down intending to write this entry.

I guess it's just hard for the skeptic in me to believe much of anything... but anything dealing with the passage of time is especially difficult for me to process and draw accurate conclusions about. I seem to exist in a permanent state of Now while various things come along and change it. As far as I'm concerned, they can stop anytime now... but probably won't.

Do you remember how you heard the news? I got a call from my Significant Other. "Haven't you heard? Something bad has happened." I've gotten a number of phone calls like this over the years. I have yet to learn how to enjoy them. When the call came 25 years ago, I immediately thought of the ships Reagan had positioned off the coast of Libya as part of the steadily escalating crisis with Muammar Gaddafi. I expected my Significant Other to tell me that Gaddafi had used a nuclear weapon to sink a US aircraft carrier. When I was told instead that the Challenger had blown up, it didn't make any sense because I hadn't expected it to blow up. After thinking about it for a few seconds, though, it made perfect sense. In retrospect, the wonder shifted to the fact that so many millions of pounds of rocket fuel had ever been successfully ridden into space by anybody.

As you probably know, it wasn't the first or last disaster for NASA. Seven more lives were lost when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry almost exactly 8 years ago. Three other lives were lost on Jan 27, 1967 when a fire claimed the Apollo 1 crew during a launch rehearsal. All in all, it's been a bad time of the year to be an astronaut.

I don't recall the Apollo 1 accident at all - which is a bit odd, since I closely followed the earlier Gemini missions on TV - but... I simply don't. Perhaps the death of three astronauts got lost in all the casualty figures coming out of Vietnam, week after week after week.

What I do remember only too well is that I myself almost became a casualty of NASA's space program years before Grissom, White, and Chaffee.

I was maybe 4 years old at the time. It was a nice day outside, perhaps in the early spring. My mother let me out on the back porch to play (yes, the same back porch that had previously been the stomping grounds for the Man With The Monstrous Face). Before she went back inside, she gave me strict orders to stay put. And I fully intended to.

Then I spotted the boys.

Our second floor back porch overlooked a dead-end alley that allowed vehicular access not only to our building but to about 8 nearby businesses. Behind one of those businesses was a cement-floored area that I suppose had at some point been a garage. The roof and sides were gone, but the back of the businesses on either side extended as far as what had been the hypothetical garage's outer edge. The space that remained was therefore enclosed on three sides. The open fourth side was perfectly situated for me to see into, being perhaps 60 to 100 feet off the northeast corner of my porch.

What I saw this particular day as I surveyed the scene was unique in my experience: Two boy playing with an old refrigerator.

After watching them for no more than a few minutes, I decided to slip down the back steps and join them.

One boy was older than the other, and both were somewhat older than I was. Despite the age difference, they welcomed my arrival. At least the oldest boy did. He seemed to be all grins and enthusiasm as he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride in his space ship.

How could I refuse?

Before I knew it, I had slipped inside the rack-less refrigerator.

And less than five seconds after that, my new best friend had eagerly slammed the door shut on me.

It was not what I expected.

Dark, yes - I'd expected it to be dark. But not quite *that* dark. The refrigerator was facing south and a full sun, after all.

What was completely unexpected was the utter silence.

And my complete inability to breathe.

I was old enough to know I had to breathe, and old enough to know that there wasn't enough air in a closed refrigerator for me to breathe for very long, but... what came as a shock was my inability to breathe at all. The moment the door slammed shut it was as if someone had put a hand over my nose or my lungs had become paralyzed. I couldn't take even half a breath.

So I immediately began pounding on the mechanically-latched door instead.

My new best friend opened the door in two or three seconds, but they were (and remain) two or three of the longest seconds of my life.

I immediately jumped out and marveled at the extreme difference between Outside and Inside.

My liberator seemed bizarrely amused by my panic and astonishment. I think he wanted to play some more but I preferred to run back to the calm and the shade of my own back porch.

It seems that I was no sooner back up there than my mother came out, saw the boys playing with the refrigerator, and gasped. "Those kids are going to end up dead if they aren't careful!" I think she exclaimed. I maintained an innocent silence that turned out to be convincing enough to spare me a beating.

My mother went back inside - apparently completely free of any impulse to protect the boys from an early demise that she seemed certain was right around the corner.

The boys themselves seem to have disappeared soon after this. I have no idea where they may have gone - just as I had no idea where they may have come from. I suppose I went inside for a drink of water or some such thing and discovered them gone when I returned. If any images of them being stuck and dying inside the old refrigerator floated through my mind, I kept them to myself.

I never saw those boys again.

The refrigerator disappeared within days, never to be seen again, either. The fact that no bodies seem to have been discovered in it probably came as a relief, though I suppose it's possible that it was taken to the dump unopened.

It all seems a bit dream-like at this point - but that's the case with so much of life. I clearly remember what I remember, but much of the context now eludes me. My sister now thinks it may all have been an actual dream, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't. As was so often the case, she was otherwise occupied at the time and thus in no position then (let alone decades later) to say what may or may not have happened. And the sensation of not being able to breathe at all once the door was shut was *very* vivid and has never really left me. It's a detail I've never heard mentioned by anyone else when these situations have been talked about.

Sadly, there have been hundreds of reasons to talk about them over the years.

Here's how one site describes the situation:

Although the story has obviously gotten a little garbled over the years, refrigerators manufactured prior to 1958 were potential death traps--they really were impossible to open from the inside, not because of anything silly like pressure differences but because of the mechanical latches on their doors. Kids playing hide-and-seek would climb into an abandoned fridge in somebody's basement, pull the door shut, and realize too late they were trapped. The door seal prevented air from getting in and the kids' screams from getting out, and in a short time they'd suffocate. In 1956 the New York Times reported that during the previous decade 115 children had died in this way.

Some local jurisdictions passed ordinances requiring owners of old refrigerators to remove the doors or latches before discarding them, but eventually federal legislators decided the time had come for a national solution. Manufacturers balked, saying the technology wasn't available, it'd cost too much, blah blah blah. Congress finally said screw it, you guys figure something out, and in 1956 passed the Refrigerator Safety Act, which required that the doors on all fridges sold after October 30, 1958, be capable of being opened with a 15-pound push from inside. Miraculously, a practical, inexpensive technology immediately appeared--a magnetic door seal. Truth was, the new seal had been developed some time earlier by General Electric, which offered to license the system to other manufacturers, but industry experts caviled that it still needed work. Faced with a deadline, however, pretty much everybody adopted magnetic seals, which in the event worked just fine, and we still use them today.

Problem solved, eh? Not exactly. Plenty of old refrigerators, presumably bought in the first flush of postwar prosperity, were still out there, and as time went on and they began to be discarded, suffocation deaths rose. In 1961, after an 11-year-old boy died in a refrigerator in Brooklyn, hundreds of New York health inspectors prowled the city's vacant lots, yards, and cellars looking for old fridges and smashed the locks or removed the doors on 554 of them. Despite such efforts, at least 163 deaths were reported nationwide between 1956 and 1964, all in old-style fridges, and 96 between 1973 and 1984. The problem hasn't entirely disappeared--two kids in Guyana died in an old fridge in 2003. Though the press account is sketchy, odds are the thing had a mechanical latch.

That adds up to some 376 deaths. It's sobering to realize that I could have easily boosted that number to 377 had I not been rescued from the "space ship" by a scrawny little kid whose name I never learned.

Truth be told, there are times when I think that I never really was rescued and everything that I believe has happened in all the decades since is nothing more than the wild imaginings of a young brain rapidly succumbing to oxygen deprivation. There's just something about life as I have known it that aligns perfectly with the imaginings of a 4-year-old's mind - something that's intrinsically irreconcilable with any sort of sane reality worthy of the name.

Disco? Gary Coleman? Monica Lewinsky? Sarah Palin?

I rest my case.

Or at least I would if novelist William Golding hadn't taken the basic idea and written an entire book about it. I haven't read this book myself, but I'm told it's called Pincher Martin.

Do you suppose Golding pinched the idea from Ambrose Bierce's short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge? Or is it just one of those ideas that almost everyone comes up with and ponders at some point?

Granted, my version may be a bit darker than most in that both Golding and Bierce cast grown men as the dreamers of life and I find it far more consistent with the absurd imaginings of a very young child, but... that fact in and of itself hardly constitutes a disproof.

Hell, for all I know, reality may be darker yet. We may all be nothing more than the fevered imaginings of those doomed Challenger astronauts as their brains struggle to escape the reality of a 2 minute and 45 second plunge into the Atlantic.

Whatever the case may be, I hope you're enjoying the ride (whatever its exact nature may be, and for however long it may last).


  1. Ride, Sally Ride.
    I know I'm a lot more imaginative when dreaming, so maybe.