From a historical perspective, this past Jan. 28 came and went without much of thought — that is unless you are a family member, personal friend or long-time admirer of the seven astronauts who perished on the space shuttle Challenger. On that cold January morning we lost Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe; Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, Mike Smith and Ellison Onizuka.
Like the assassinations of high-profile figures, the horrific 9/11 terrorist attack, the election of the first African American president of the US and other high-profile events, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 ranks up there with many as one of those proverbial “do you recall where you were?” reflective questions.
It is hard to believe that Jan. 28 marked the 35th anniversary of the Challenger accident. Wow, 35 years! Think about that for a moment. Many of you were unborn or too young to member. Now given that this is African American History Month, the focus of this piece is on African American astronaut Dr. Ronald E. McNair, about a side of McNair that many outside his family and friends may be unaware of.
So, what inspires me to write about Ron?
Well, I knew him personally having met him in Boston through his brother Carl. In fact, when Ron who lived alone in an apartment in Boston and needed a roommate to offset his living expenses, my late brother Mike moved in with him.
I recall seeing a bespectacled Ron from the third floor of a building I worked in at the time as he walked across the Mass Pike overpass, leather backpack in tow, on the way to his Massachusetts Avenue apartment.
I reflected with Carl recently on the 35th anniversary.
“Ron was 35 years old when he died, the worst day of my life,” said Carl. “Now to put this into perspective, my daughter wasn’t even born then and never got to meet her uncle. Ron’s kids were age four and two at the time of the accident and never got to really know their dad.”
Despite all his brother’s accolades, Carl remembers Ronald as less than perfect but always kept a sharp focus on his values and goals in
“Although he often spent 80 hours a week in class or in the lab, he let it be known that his priorities were karate first and MIT second. And throughout any week, Ron would teach karate classes at a church to students from multiethnic backgrounds in Cambridge and Boston.”
While he was finishing up at MIT, I sat in Ron’s apartment overlooking the Charles River which separates Cambridge from Boston and recall him sharing his PhD thesis and my inability to make it through the table of contents, let alone the rest of the document loaded with pages of complex scientific formulas and technical footnotes.
My recollection also takes me back to images of the black smoke that billowed over Massachusetts Avenue above the apartment Ron shared with my brother with McNair. I could see it and heard the sirens screaming from fire trucks racing down the street to get to the burning building.
I dashed out into the cold and ran the two blocks to their apartment on Massachusetts Avenue and encountered a string of yellow tape separating the building from a curious onlookers, vagrants and evacuated residents all wrapped in heavy coats, hats and blankets.
Ignoring warnings from the authorities, I leaped over the tape, raced through the front door with several cops yelling at me for breaching security. Knowing full well that my brother lived there with Ron I was hell-bent on getting to their third-floor apartment despite the cursing that rained down on me from irate cops.
On the steps leading to the third floor sat Ron McNair holding a baseball bat, clearly unbothered by the dank, urine-drenched hallway strewn with empty cigarettes packages and beer cans.
“Omigod, Ron are you guys okay? Where’s Mike? What are you doing out here?” I asked.
“We’re fine, so don’t worry. Your brother’s is OK. He was out when the fire started,” he responded. “I’m just protecting the property from vandals since many of the people who live here are poor and their apartments are rent-subsidized.”
Now his behavior that day was of no surprise to those who knew him since it was consistent with his eagerness to go the extra mile for others.
A black belt in karate — and speaking of risk taking — Ron would venture into the heart of South Boston to teach karate to white people during times when that city was rife with racial turmoil.
On the softer side, I remember Ron borrowing my beat-up old Chevy for the two-hour ride to Hartford, Connecticut to play his saxophone in city nightclubs. I remember how much Ron loved cooking his love of jazz and entering his apartment at times with loud music blaring featuring Brass Construction and Mandrill.
In the end, let us all pause to remember Ron McNair and the tragic loss of seven brave Americans, diverse Americans I should emphasize, in some small way that would work for you.
My plan is to get to the nearest soul food restaurant, gorge myself with one of Ron’s favorite dishes… a plateful of southern fried pork chops, corn bread, collard greens and macaroni and cheese.
Now if Ron were with me, he would probably order a few boxes to go for the homeless and ask me to please pass the hot sauce!