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Columbia's lost pioneers.

Byline: Bob Welch / The Register-Guard

IN THE AFTERMATH of Saturday's Columbia space shuttle tragedy, my sister and I find ourselves thinking about the same odd thing: the Oregon Trail.

She is immersed in writing a book (`Beyond the Devil's Gate") based on the experiences of the King family, for whom Kings Valley, west of Corvallis, is named. And I'm forever trying to find meaning for the present in the past.

We meet, then, in sibling synchronization over the phone, though soon our imaginations take flight to 1845 near what's now Cascade Locks. It's here, Linda Crew writes in her book, where the family is approaching the final leg on its 2,000-mile journey.

Like the astronauts, the Kings, too, are on the Columbia - not in a spacecraft, but on a raft being carried by a river that is far tamer now in its post-dam years than it was in 1845. They're almost home.

Then, suddenly, they're gone.

Though some family members survive, John King, his wife, Susan, and two babies drown when a wagon slips off and disappears into the river.

Pioneers, whether they're 19th-century travelers in wooden-planked schooners or they're 21st-century travelers in $3 billion space shuttles, live - and die - on the edge.

We stare at the replays on television, the white contrails against the blue Texas sky, and think: this can't be happening. Then, we begin analyzing and re-analyzing and further analyzing how this possibly could happen.

But we can't hide from the truth that centuries of time have shown: Those who push the limits - those who dare to go where others dare not - often pay the price.

Should we be shocked at this death in the sky? Certainly. Should we grieve for those who are dead - and the loved ones they left? Deeply. But we shouldn't believe this was some sort of historical anomaly that no other people have faced.

For the courageous, it comes with the territory. It always has. It always will.

When people reach high enough for honorable things - for the heavens or for the promised land or for freedom - a price is asked. Nothing good comes for free.

Death came for 19th-century slaves who sought the freedom they deserved.

Death came for those who hid Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

And Saturday, death came for those willing to be catapulted into orbit for the good of science and discovery - the good of humankind.

WE FORGET, sometimes, historical context.

We live in a world of such technological proficiency - my crashed computer notwithstanding - that we've almost come to believe we're invulnerable. That the default format is: Everything works. All the time. But not in a world that blends risk and fallible human beings.

We don't stop to consider how few lives (17) the U.S. space program has lost; before Saturday, shuttles had safely completed 88 missions since the Challenger explosion in 1986. By contrast, disease alone killed about 10,000 Oregon Trail pioneers in the 1840s and 1850s.

We've been so acclimated to grand accomplishments that our inevitable failures seem inconceivable, like a straight-A student who gets a B.

And, what's more, Saturday's "failure" wasn't some obscure accident that will make Page 3; instead, the Columbia's contrail streaked the Texas sky, like a skywriter's lament, for all to see.

In 1843, the diary of one pioneer said: "A very bad road. Joel J. Hembree son Joel fel off the waggeon tung & both wheels run over him." And so death came to a 6-year-old pioneer boy, the lone sign of tragedy being another grave along the Oregon Trail. No headlines. No CNN. No nonstop analysis.

The trail to promised lands are always wet with tears. On the immigrant ships, the bodies of those who died en route to "the golden land" - America - were buried at sea. On Omaha Beach, the bodies of American GIs sunk into the sand or were pulled out by the tides. In Texas, the remains of the astronauts fell from the sky.

Death comes in different ways for the courageous few who refuse to settle for the world as it is. But such people have much in common.

Never mind that the space shuttle Columbia, based on its 12,500 mph speed at its explosion, could fly the route of the Oregon Trail in about 9.6 minutes. The men and women who climbed into that craft 16 days ago were no different from the family who climbed onto that raft 150 years ago.

As onlookers to Saturday's tragedy, we'll never forget those words, "The space shuttle is gone." We should never forget the seven who gave their lives. And yet like the pioneers on the river Columbia, we must honor those who are gone by doing what they'd do:

Climb back on the raft and finish the journey.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 2, 2003
Words:802
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