Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On this day, a long time ago...

On this day in 1986, the Challenger space shuttle blew up.

I was living and working in Palm Beach, FL, at the time, in my first newspaper job at a crappy, little daily, The Evening Times. I was also newly married, having made an honest woman out of my girlfriend of three years a couple months earlier. 

A dozen or so space geeks watched the periodic Kennedy Space Center launches from the roof of the building. The space shuttles were going up regularly then. This was the 10th trip to space for the Challenger. They also launched satellites from Kennedy, although those weren't as spectacular. It was only about 100 miles to the north, so you could easily watch them with the naked eye or a pair of binoculars. 

The Challenger launched a little after 11:30 am. The Evening Times was (obviously) an afternoon paper, so the deadline for my cartoon was earlier that morning. I was working on the next cartoon, which wouldn't run for two days since I only did MWF cartoons, and also spending part of the day hand coloring the daily comics pages for both The Evening Times and the larger morning paper, The Palm Beach Post, both owned by the same media conglomerate. It was an extra bullshit job duty used to justify my hire. I was the first cartoonist the Evening Times ever had. I started as a freelancer, then got hired on after two years. I would also be their last cartoonist. 

So I had time to kill, and space launches were cool, even if they weren't the huge deal they once were. It was late taking off that day, and had been delayed for days for various reasons, but when word came, all who were interested went upstairs. There was the usual chatter when the pillar of smoke rose upward. "There it goes!" A few of the newsroom geeks had never missed a launch, stretching all the way back to Gemini. If you've never seen one live, space launches are amazing to watch. 

Then that ball of smoke and that evil looking twin plume. 

We stood there in stunned silence. Then somebody yelled "SHIIIIIIIIT!!!"  and that jolted us all into action. Everyone sprinted for the roof door, scrambling to squeeze through all at once like a Three Stooges scene and thundered down the stairs to the newsroom. THE SHUTTLE EXPLODED!! THE SHUTTLE EXPLODED!! Any of you who have worked in newsroom can envision how the place burst into frantic activity. Reporters and photos racing around, editors screaming. 

But me, I had nothing to do! My deadline had passed. The Evening Times would put out an extra edition that day, but they weren't re-doing the editorial page, just the front page and there wasn't enough time to re-draw a cartoon. There's nothing worse than an obit cartoon anyways. What would I draw? The astronauts as angels! Uncle Sam crying? Those cartoons are always incredibly lame and are inevitably variations of the great Bill Mauldin one after JFK's assassination: The Lincoln Memorial with his head buried in his hands. Just look up the post 9-11 political cartoons to see why the genre is dead. 

Eventually, I went back upstairs and stared at that slowly dissipating plume for awhile. Alone. 

A bad day. It pales in comparison to 9-11, of course, and indeed has been somewhat nudged from out collective memory because of that awful day the Towers fell. But it's the only time I was an eyewitness to history, so it sticks with me.

Especially since that next cartoon I drew got me fired! I wish I still had a copy of it. It was a bug-eyed tv newsman screaming something into the camera and cutting live to someone who once stood in a grocery store line with one of the dead astronauts. (or something like that). It was a riff about the idiotic round-the-clock coverage of the disaster, even though there was nothing new to report. Given what tv news would become, it was pretty damn spot on! 

But the editor didn't see it that way. He had the offending cartoon pulled off the paste-up sheet in the composing room. It never saw print. This dude had only been on the job about six months and hated my stuff from day one. This cartoon was the last straw, for some reason. I think he objected to me besmirching the news business. Wonder if he felt the same way a decade later when FoxNews and CNN and rightwing radio were spewing out noxious garbage 24/7? 

He summoned me to his throne room and fired me on the spot for "general tastelessness." And so ended my political cartoon career.

I didn't save much from this period. I was very raw and hadn't yet found my style or my voice. I was no prodigy. I wandered in the wilderness for pretty much the whole Eighties trying to find my path. The Evening Times cartoons were pretty rotten, but not in the way the douchebag editor thought. They weren't nearly controversial enough! Here's one, drawn a little before the one that got me sacked. Not a bad gag but hard to even recognize as my work, no? It would, in fact, still be another three years of labor before the lightbulb flickered on and I became the Derf you all know and "love." 

So I have many old feelings and memories that clang together from this day long ago.