Christa Mcauliffe's Shadow | Yankee Classic
Put her by a swimming pool with her family, a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, and a cold beer, and she needed little more from life. Give her a compass, her childhood friends, and a forest, and she flourished. Call her a hero, and she shuddered.
In the 200 days I knew her, Christa went from a high school classroom to a spacecraft bound for an infinite frontier in the sky. She asked to be nothing more than an ordinary person on an extraordinary mission.
How silly, she said on the day that I met her in Houston, that people would swarm her for autographs. How absolutely crazy, she said three weeks ago, that the New England Patriots would line up after a game for her signature. What a joy it would be, she imagined, to return to signing hall passes at the high school.
When I met her, I was an ordinary reporter and she was a finalist in NASA’S teacher-in-space race. I shadowed her. She had a nervous giggle and the gee-whiz bounce of a camp counselor, but she made me want to follow her. She made me wish she taught every child …
Christa McAuliffe was in Houston because she wanted to be the first teacher in space. Hohler’s presence was the end result of a series of lucky accidents, in a way. He had not started out to be a chronicler of great national stories. When he graduated from college in 1979, after ten years of mixing classes with driving cabs in Boston, he wanted to be a sportswriter. That’s what he was doing at the Monitor until the year before Christa was selected. Then the paper’s regular columnist left, and the editors decided to give Hohler a shot at the job. When Christa made the final ten, the Monitor’s regular education writer, who might have covered the Christa story normally, was on sabbatical. Editor Mike Pride asked Hohler if he would scoot down to Houston to cover the training sessions.
It was a lucky choice for all involved. Hohler has a knack for noticing details about people and for establishing rapport with his subjects. He has a relaxed, engaging personality and a fine sense of the absurd that served him well in the great solemn foofaraw that surrounded the Teacher-in-Space Program.
“In the early days, I really looked at it with humor,” he said. “All the acronyms — I thought it was funny. It was not of our world. I watched it all with a sense of delight.”
All through the training in Houston, the weightless flights in the “Vomit Comet,” the press conferences, Hohler enjoyed what he thought of as a nice story about a local woman. He knew Christa was one of the favorites to win the coveted spot, but it was hard to take it seriously until July 19, when the announcement was made at the White House.
“Only a small pool of reporters was allowed into the Roosevelt Room. I was down in the White House Press Room watching it on TV with some other reporters when, two or three minutes before the announcement, somebody came running through yelling, ‘It’s the one from New Hampshire!’ Somebody upstairs had leaked it. I had a moment of shock, then I ran for a phone to call the office in Concord. Then I remembered they were watching it on TV and felt foolish. I just wanted to tell somebody.”
She let me ride away from the White House with her after a dozen reporters had tried and failed. I sat with her an hour later when she called her husband Steven to share the news. She cried for joy, and I fidgeted, waiting for her patience with me to wear thin. It never did.
Between July and January Hohler spent almost all his time writing about Christa. He spent more time with her family, it seemed, than with his own. During that time he and his wife separated. “It had been building up for years,” he said. “I don’t know if I can say what effect this had on it. I’ve always been somebody who works a lot of hours. I’d told my wife before we got married that I wanted to be a sportswriter, and sportswriters travel a lot. She said she understood that. But I didn’t realize the effect it would have on my daughter. Whenever I got on the bus to go to the airport in Boston, I’d see her crying, ‘Daddy, don’t go!’ I feel a lot of guilt about that.”
I wrote about Christa for seven months, hopscotching from Concord and Houston to Florida and her hometown of Framingham, Massachusetts. My 6-year-old daughter lost me to a teachernaut.
“Christa this, Christa that,” she said. “When’s it going to be over?”
Like any good reporter, Hohler becomes involved personally with the people he writes about, even as he worries about his responsibility for exposing those people in print to strangers. During one break in the story, when Christa was incommunicado in Houston, he came back to Concord to write his normal city columns for a while. By some grim fate, one of them was on the suicide of a man he had written about earlier. “I was happy to get back to the Christa story.”
Somehow, despite the media crush, Hohler and McAuliffe crossed the line between reporter and subject and became friends. “Maybe it was because we were of the same generation,” he said. “She was 37, I’m 34. When she talked about the impact of President Kennedy on her, I felt the same thing. We’re both Democrats from Boston, we were affected by Vietnam … all through this thing, when she talked about her life, I was saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know.’ ”