A disastrous beginning to my graphic design career.
Every generation seems to have a tragic, unifying event that grips the nation, if not the world. The Covid pandemic. The Kennedy assassination. 9/11. The Challenger disaster.
As an unreformed junior space cadet, I followed all of our manned space launches with a laser-focus worthy of Houston Control. So in late January 1986, I was hovering in front of my TV set, watching space shuttle launch STS-51-L. So were most of the kids in the US, since the crew of seven astronauts included an elementary school teacher, Christa McAulliffe. But my mind was elsewhere — the launch was just a diversion.
There was a countdown of my own underway. Four weeks ago, I had quit my job as a data-processing flunky to pursue a new career in graphic design. After five years, I didn’t have another job lined up, and my wife was working her way through an engineering degree. So I took a small severance package, packed up my school portfolio and went looking for work.
Job hunting during the holidays is even more difficult than the rest of the year. But I’d found a small travel company that needed a freelance artist, and they’d given me a trial assignment. It wasn’t really my skill set, but I was feeling the pressure. They needed a large scale map of the United States for presentation purposes, illustrated with travel destinations. I agreed to a ridiculously low fee to create it and had a week to deliver.
It was due at 3pm on Tuesday, the 28th. And I had been struggling with the project all week, sourcing paper, paints, adhesives, designing, then drawing and cutting and re-drawing and re-cutting… Frankly, it was a mess and I knew it. But with only a couple of hours left, I laid out the parts and was putting it all together on a large sheet of foam core that filled our tiny living room.
I shooed the cat away again as he tracked paw prints on the tacky paper. My stomach was tense and my head was feeling light as I struggled to blow-dry the still-sticky paint. Desperate for a break, I paused to watch the shuttle coverage from the other side of the room. At T-minus 10 the old thrill returned. For a minute, I could distract myself with a familiar, spectacular sight, one that had ignited my imagination from a very early age.
I remember listening to Alan Shepherd’s first flight on the radio when I was three. Once they were televised, I needed to see the rocket’s red glare, even in black and white. I never missed a launch if I could help it. There were nearly two dozen of them over that decade and I have memories of all of them — from Gus Grissom’s illicit corned beef sandwich on Gemini 3, to Gene Cernan’s melancholy farewell to the moon on Apollo 17.
Space flight wasn’t exactly routine, but I’d seen enough to know that this launch was different from the rest. The single plume of smoke halted on its way to the heavens, twisted into a knot, and split back towards earth. It seemed to take a very long time before anyone could say what was happening, and I stood there, forgetting my own troubles, wondering what this meant for the seven souls on the shuttle. As we soon discovered, it was the greatest single disaster in the history of the space program.
I stopped staring at the TV and turned my attention back to the project at hand. Standing above my cartoonish map of the United States, I scanned crudely rendered bicycles on wet and wrinkled paper from coast to coast. From this orbital perspective, I could see that I had fulfilled the assignment, but just barely. This wasn’t a very professional job. It looked like elevated arts and crafts.
The rest of the afternoon was a blur, but somehow I packed this oversize artwork into my two-door Toyota, crossed the Bay Bridge and arrived at the appointed time at Backroads Bicycle Tours in Berkeley. Reviewing my work, the client grimaced through apologies and explanations, and grudgingly handed over the check for $250. I may have been a novice, but I knew enough not to ask about my next assignment.
In fact, I didn’t get any work for awhile. February and March were long and lean, spent with my nose deep in the newspaper classifieds, making phone calls and — rarely — getting the chance to interview. All that time staring at the newspaper brought me face-to-face with constant reminders of that tragic day. Photos of the collected wreckage were piling up like my own doubts and fears.
There were a few bright spots, like that nice woman who ran a small temp agency for commercial artists out of a third-floor walkup on Kearny Street. A self-proclaimed “tough old broad,” she chain-smoked Parliaments in her tiny office, swirling the smoke with a spin of her enormous paper rolodex. She encouraged me not to give up.
One of her leads got me a two-week stint at SF General, working in the lab as a technical illustrator. With the yeasty scent of petri dishes bubbling in the air, I drew cross-sections of cell structures and corpuscles while NPR droned in the background. I was grateful for the introduction to Terri Gross and Susan Stamberg. Unfortunately it also meant that I repeatedly heard the reports of divers finding the shuttle crew compartment, many weeks after the explosion.
Eventually, I landed an interview with a magazine publisher in Silicon Valley. The production manager was a jovial guy named Bob who sat underneath a giant, psychedelic Grateful Dead poster, his arms folded Buddha-like over his belly. After a quick look at my work, which leaned heavily on publication design, he chuckled and said “I think we can use a guy like you.” After four months of looking, I couldn’t quite process what he was saying.
“Y-you m-mean my portfolio is good enough?” I stammered. He chuckled again. “Yeah. It is. Can you start next week?”
Yes, I could. Driving home on 101, listening to NPR again, I heard that the bodies of the Challenger crew were en route to their final resting place. My heart grew heavy. This wasn’t the first or last public tragedy I’d experienced. But I felt a kinship with this crew. We went down together that day and I felt like I’d been underwater with them for months.
But the sun was shining, I was alive, and a new career was beginning. I had a lot to be grateful for. I pressed down on the gas pedal and felt the acceleration. Liftoff.
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