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Fall Out

Crank Call


Published February 5, 2003 at 5:00 p.m.

My mind was already reeling in space before the shuttle Columbia came burning out of it, "breaking into fiery pieces" and leaving a 100-mile trail of -- but I'm sure you know how it all went down.

"I was petrified," said Trudy Orton of Red Oak, Texas. "My little dog ran in the house and hid." A lone fisherman at Toledo Bend suspected nothing unusual on that foggy morning: "I had no idea. I thought it was an airplane that hit the lake."

By Sunday night, "remains of some of the astronauts" had been found across the countryside of East Texas and western Louisiana and were being treated "with the ultimate respect and care that they deserve," according to ABC News. Earlier that day, I saw a picture of one of the astronaut's shoes. It could have been Chandra Levy's Reebok.

Already I've had an anonymous email asking me if I think it's "just a coincidence that the pilot who destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor [in 1981] was on board the Columbia," and that this pilot, Ilan Ramon, was also an Israeli colonel and a hero of the Yom Kippur War. Will "the first Israeli in space" be as famous as Christa McAuliffe, "the first teacher in space," who died an equally stupid and horrible death in April 1986, with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger? Will you be reading Time's overnight, 17-page coverage of the Columbia tragedy or Newsweek's 20 pages? Or are you waiting for U.S. News & World Report's 50-page special issue, due out today?

It makes no difference, of course, because even if you read everything that's been written about the Columbia so far, you still won't know anything more than you do right now. A nation already scared to death, on edge and being pumped for war, can only fall back on the human drama. Seven "heroes" killed in a swoop, all of them astronauts, technicians, "flight specialists" and spies, and all of them aware of the risk they took when they went up.

And there I was last week worrying about Bush's plans for war in Iraq and the late Duchess of Windsor's "deformed genitalia," which got a big push from England, when the British government, trying to make the current royal family look decent, released its heretofore secret records of the Abdication Crisis of 1936. For the children, the Abdication was when the English king, Edward VIII, gave up his throne to marry "the woman I love," "a twice-divorced American," Wallis Simpson, now depicted as a right slut from Baltimore with a deformed -- whatever. And Mrs. Simpson had an affair with a car salesman who sold Fords instead of Bentleys!

I don't mention the shuttle, the Duchess and the coming war together for no reason. The last time this happened, when the Challenger blew up, I was living in Paris. Under President Reagan, the United States had just attacked Libya for -- does anyone remember? There was another "Evil Empire" at that time, a "Cold War" and an "Iron Curtain," and the idiot in the White House was calling on Russia to "tear down that wall!"

So stupid and so ignorant are Amer-icans that they still actually believe Ronald Reagan "defeated" the Soviet bloc. In fact, the people of Russia and Eastern Europe defeated it, with an enormous assist from the only hero of that time: Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the Duchess: Reagan was throwing artillery at Libya and in Paris bombs were going off everywhere, aimed at American targets. One of these was the American Cathedral on Avenue George V. The Duchess of Windsor had just died in lonely decrepitude somewhere in the Bois and I went off to her memorial service at the Cathedral, thinking that, surely, some American should. My American friends called me crazy to take such a risk, and indeed, when I got there, I seemed to be the Duchess's only mourner. It was just the Episcopal Dean, the British and American ambassadors and their wives, a horde of paparazzi, a row of weeping servants and me. I was glad I went, and I'm still glad -- do we mean it or not when we say we will not be dented by terrorism?

I haven't begun to tell you how afraid I am that Reagan's heirs, the people who brought you "compassionate conservatism," "Iran-Contra" and all the rest of the lying bullshit -- the Bush people -- will exploit this latest tragedy for their war purposes. May I be forgiven, this once, for not knowing what to say or where to turn. I quote Churchill, the only player in the "Abdication Crisis" who took the part of the beleaguered Mrs. Simpson: "I fear," he said. "I fear greatly.

Speaking of Crank Call