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A Morning to Remember

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The "Oh my God!" cry went up in the newsroom, and the entire staff was transfixed by the sight on the big TV screen: the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded barely a minute after takeoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard - including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

This was 25 years ago this month, and the memory remains as vivid as a smack in the face.

It happened shortly before noon on January 28th, 1986. We began scrambling to knock out an "extra" edition at the New York Post. The clock, as always, was ticking.

I was working rewrite with a pro named David Ng. We didn't have to be told what to do. We divided up the astronauts - he took four, I took three - and while flaming debris was still falling from the sky, we had to start knocking out seven obituaries.

Rewritemen handle deadline disasters all the time. The procedure is to get the job done, and grieve later. This reversal of instincts creates a rip tide of emotions, and it may be why some rewritemen develop drinking problems.

I'd gotten pretty good at the job, but this time I was stalled. I sat there staring at the TV screen. I must have gone pale. David Ng saw that something was wrong.

"You okay, pal?"

I wasn't okay, but not for any reason David could have imagined.

Just like that, I'd gone tumbling back in time. I was a kid in my pajamas, watching my father working one night at our kitchen table.

My dad was an art director for an ad agency, and one of his accounts was a breakfast beverage called Tang, a powdered orange drink. Add to water and stir.

The big deal about Tang was that it went to the moon with the Apollo astronauts. I liked thinking about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin sipping it in outer space, almost as much as I liked watching my father create his TV storyboards for the Tang commercials.

He worked in watercolors, painting scenes onto panels shaped like TV screens. It was really cool, like a cartoon strip. Usually I could follow the story just by the pictures.

But I was puzzled by this particular Tang storyboard. The images showed a woman singing, but not a single rocket ship.

"Hey Dad, where's the rocket ship?"

He kept working. "No rocket in this one."

"Why not?"

He sighed, put his paintbrush down and turned to face me. "This is going to be a back-up commercial, just in case."

"In case what?"

He hesitated. "In case the rocket blows up."

I swallowed, felt my stomach drop. What a childhood moment, right up there with Bambi's mother getting shot.

Until then it never dawned on me that one of our rocket ships might blow up, but there you had it - my father was covering all possibilities, toiling away into the night on a TV commercial he hoped would never, ever run.

And it never did. The singer in the ad was Lena Horne. The commercial was produced and ready to go in case of catastrophe, but it stayed in the can. The Apollo 13 disaster was a tight squeeze, but actually a triumphant thing, in the end. Tang and the astronauts ruled.

But I'd learned a crucial lesson. Growing up, my churchgoing Irish-Catholic mother had always stressed three important words: God is good. And now, my Italian-American father - who never attended church unless somebody died - had left me with four equally memorable words, without ever actually speaking them: Things can go wrong.

"Charlie! You okay?"

I was jolted back to 1986 by David Ng's voice. I nodded, flexed my fingers, rubbed my hands together.

"Yeah, I'm good to go."

Rewriteman bluster. I glanced at the newsroom clock. Thirty-two minutes to tell the life stories of three astronauts. Ten paragraphs per obit. No sweat.

I started pounding those keys as if they owed me money. And in the midst of the madness to beat the deadline, and with my fingers typing faster than my brain could think, this ad man's son could not help wondering:

Do the astronauts still drink Tang? And if they do, is there a backup commercial ready to run?

Charlie Carillo's latest novel is "One Hit Wonder." He's a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition."