Last Rites

Ghouls and grief along the Columbia debris trail

"That would be nice," he said. "That would mean I could go home and eat."

I crossed the road and sat in my car for a while. Some combination of darkness, lurid police beacons, white headlights on faces and the nervousness of movement gave the scene a War of the Worlds quality.

I was listening to the radio: Now there was word of body parts found in the woods east of Nacogdoches, and I knew I had to be there in the morning. It took a long time to find a motel with a room to rent.

Paul Arthur and Gene Kolvig with a piece of Columbia
Jim Schutze
Paul Arthur and Gene Kolvig with a piece of Columbia
Media and soldiers converge on Nagodoches, Texas, which was showered by debris.
Jim Schutze
Media and soldiers converge on Nagodoches, Texas, which was showered by debris.

The next morning, I went to the town square in Nacogdoches, where an impromptu memorial of cut flowers and bouquets was beginning to grow. Nacogdoches is an old town with roots in cotton. The nineteenth-century brick façades around the courthouse were almost obscured by a mountain range of gigantic television satellite trucks. Since the previous afternoon, television had been broadcasting images of a single small piece of debris on a parking lot next to a Dumpster, now patrolled by National Guard troops.

Across the street behind a tape barrier were Gary and Janice Greening, retirees from Bloomington, Minnesota. They had been headed south through Texas in their motor home, already grieving, when a family member called them on their cell phone to tell them about the crash.

We made small talk for a while, chatting about his years teaching high-school chemistry. She interrupted: "You want to hear an interesting story?" She nudged him: "Tell him."

He winced and shrugged: "Oh well, we have a ... " He paused. "Her sister's oldest grandson was killed in an auto accident. We buried him on Monday."

Fighting back tears, she said, "He was born the week the other shuttle blew up" -- the January 28, 1986, Challenger explosion. "The other shuttle blew up on the week he was born, and this shuttle blew up on the week he died."

She wiped an eye with one finger. "He was a good kid. He didn't have his seatbelt on."

He said: "He hit a patch of ice and rolled."

She asked whether his name could be in the story. He was Ryan Struckhoff, seventeen, of Kensington, Kansas.

On the other side of the square, Katy McClelland had come down with her grandson on the way from church to see the chunk that had been video-looped on CNN for the past two days. She talked about the deaths: "It's sad that people lost their lives. But that's the way we have America set up. We're adventurous people.

"When you leave home, you're going to church or to town or something, you never know if you're going to make it back. You lose your life for less important things."

At the end of Sunday, the media types were all congregating in Hemphill, a very small town positioned midway between the Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend reservoirs in the southeastern part of Texas, because Hemphill was where the body parts were being brought. I knew why we had to be there -- I have been at this too long to play the ingenue -- but I decided to make someone else say it. I spied Ben Fenwick prowling through the dish trucks, gray-headed, notebook in hand. I had never seen him before in my life, but he had a certain seasoned look about the eye. He's a stringer for the Reuters news service, working out of Oklahoma City.

I asked him to tell me why the body parts were so important to us. He told me he had covered the Oklahoma City bombing, tornadoes, bridge collapses: "I'm not new to this." He said the news of the bodies is important to us because it is the human beings, literally and physically, who are the most important story.

"People have to understand the human element in this. There are people in the spaceship, and those people have come to land here."

We look like ghouls standing around town with our cameras and notebooks, our tripods and satellite dishes at the ready, waiting for the remains to come in. But a ghoul is one who takes pleasure in loathsome things. The key is the pleasure. After the body parts began to be found, I didn't see any pleasure along the debris trail. Excitement had faded to grief.

Life is full of loathsome things that must be dealt with, few more loathsome than death. All of our sometimes-weird ways of dealing with death, taken together, make up the rite of public funeral: the people taking bluebonnet pictures, the touching of the pieces, the voices calling coordinates from the woods, the Greenings mingling their tears with the tears of the bereaved astronaut families.

It is the way we reach out into space as a species, pull the space heroes back and fold them into the bosom of our planet, as if they had died in our arms.

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