Please pass the hot sauce: Remembering Ron!
Like the assassinations of president John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the horrific events of 9/11, 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 (depending of course on your age and memory capacity) ranks up there as one of those proverbial “do you recall where you were?” head scratchers.
For me and for many others, it’s hard to believe that January 28th will mark the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion and the loss of seven astronauts. Without doubt memorials will take place across the nation and families, friends and professional associates of the Challenger Seven – Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe; Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, Mike Smith and Ellison Onizuka – will weigh in with personal stories and anecdotes about the astronaut they knew personally. And rightfully so.
Now although narratives will be written about all the astronauts, the focus of this piece is on Dr. Ronald E. McNair. Or, put differently, about a side of Dr. McNair that many outside his family and friends may not be aware of.
Okay, what inspires me to write about Dr. McNair? Well, my reasons are several.
First, I knew him personally having met him through his brother Carl. I sat in his apartment at MIT overlooking the Charles River which separates Cambridge from Boston and recall him sharing over pork chop sandwiches his PhD thesis and my complete inability to make it through the table of contents, let alone the rest of the humongous document loaded with pages and pages of complex scientific formulas. Understand now that yours truly is an English Major. And a so-so one at that.
Second, my recollection also takes me back to images of the black smoke that billowed over 320 Massachusetts Avenue, an apartment Ron shared with my late brother Mike while working on his doctorate in laser physics at MIT. I could see it from the third floor of the place where I was employed at the time and could hear the sirens screaming from fire trucks racing down the street below to get to the burning building.
I dashed out the building, coatless, and ran the two blocks to 320 Massachusetts Avenue and encountered a string of yellow tape separating the building from a curious onlookers and evacuated residents, the latter wrapped in heavy coats, hats and blankets in freezing temperatures.
I leaped over the tape, raced through the front door with several firemen 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 in New England accents that rained down on me from irate firemen and cops.
On the steps leading to the third floor sat Ron McNair holding a baseball bat, clearly unbothered by the dank, urine-stenched hallway strewn with empty Kool cigarettes packages and empty beer cans.
“Omigod, Ron are you guys okay? Where’s Mike? What you doing here?” I asked.
“We’re just fine, so don’t worry. Your brother’s out,” 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.”
His behavior that day would come as no surprise to those of us who came to know him since it was consistent with his eagerness to take risks and go the extra mile for others. A black belt in karate, and as apt as he was to teach karate at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge, Ron would venture into the heart of South Boston to teach karate to young people during times when that city and others were in the grips of racial turmoil.
Third, and on the softer side, I remember how much he loved cooking and playing his saxophone (he actually played it on a space flight), his love of jazz and entering his apartment at times with loud music blaring in the background.
In the end, when January 28th rolls around my hope is that you all will pause to remember the loss of seven brave Americans, diverse Americans I should emphasize. Now my plan is to get to the nearest soul food restaurant, gorge myself with one of Ron McNair’s favorite dishes… a plateful of some good ole southern fried pork chops, corn bread, collard greens and macaroni and cheese.
Now if Ron were with me, he’d probably order a few boxes to go for the homeless while requesting me to please pass the hot sauce.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, story-teller and trainer. He is currently a senior associate with Diversity Wealth, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronical, the American Diversity Report and New York-based Catalyst’s “Men Advocating Real Change.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com