Last Rites

Ghouls and grief along the Columbia debris trail

At first the debris field was exciting. Normal people don't have precedent for dealing with spaceships exploding over their heads. Driving southeast from Dallas down U.S. Highway 175 a few hours after the crash, you could see it in people's eyes--the alert panoramic gaze of shock and anticipation.

But late in the day after the space shuttle Columbia blew up over Dallas, the body parts began to be found along the Louisiana border. About then, the eyes of the onlookers began to look less avid.

I stopped for gas at a cafe in Poyner, 85 miles from Dallas. Inside, the tables were crowded and the waitress harried. I was at the cash register waiting to pay when two men in camouflage clothes burst in and announced to diners that they had found pieces.

Paul Arthur, left, and Gene Kolvig showed me their chunk. At first I was of little faith, but eventually I came to know that it was real.
Jim Schutze
Paul Arthur, left, and Gene Kolvig showed me their chunk. At first I was of little faith, but eventually I came to know that it was real.

"There's chunks of it on my dad's ranch."

They jumped into a white pickup, and I followed Paul Arthur of Grapeland, on whose father's ranch the debris had fallen, and Gene Kolvig of Joshua, a buddy who helps with the cattle in exchange for hunting privileges. Both men are in their early 30s, muscular, tanned. They could have been dressed for war.

On the way down County Road 315 I had to swerve to avoid a stylishly dressed and coiffed young woman who had pulled her huge late-model SUV barely off the narrow road. She was on the side of the road, stooped, small hands at her waist, peering down at what appeared to be the black abandoned fender of a trailer or piece of farm equipment. Just as I passed she touched it squeamishly with her toe.

At the ranch Paul Arthur ducked under a barrier of plastic crime-scene tape erected a short time before by sheriff's deputies, now long gone. He extended one large black boot and kicked over what appeared to be a wafer of burned metal about the size of a pie tin.

Kolvig said, "You're not supposed to touch it."

Arthur shrugged apologetically.

All three of us hunkered over it, pondering.

"I wonder what it's made out of," Arthur said.

I was suppressing doubts. It lay two yards from a burn pile in which there were charred aluminum beer cans and other metal. On the back was indecipherable lettering in a bold commercial-looking font, which I thought might have said something like "Coca-Cola" at one time. I kept my own counsel and made my goodbyes.

But a few miles away on a narrow winding dirt road, I came across another small circle of yellow tape on stakes at the side of the road, and this remnant, very similar to the one at Arthur's father's ranch, was somehow clearly from a spaceship. I can't tell you how. I can't explain.

It was the same stuff I'd seen minutes before--metallic on the surface but frayed at the edges like Fiberglas. This piece bore a checkerboard pattern of raised bumps as if it had been a skin covering rivet heads. The pattern and the dull, desiccated texture said everything to me from Alien IIto Buck Rogers. Nor can I express the wonder inspired by this small ragged object lying in red mud by the side of a back-country road. I wanted to touch it gingerly with my foot, because it was from Outer Space.

The radio had been warning all day that falling parts of the space shuttle might burn us, cause cancer or even be radioactive. But if I had been wearing combat boots like Arthur's, instead of loafers, I would have touched it anyway.

It was the first of February, incredibly warm and bright. On State Highway 155, a two-lane road going south toward Palestine, I drove up on a scene I associate with bluebonnets in spring--cars pulled over on both shoulders, hand-linked families scurrying through the slowed traffic like raccoons, people standing in the ditch grinning a little foolishly at cameras for the family photo album. A piece of metal 2 feet square, guarded by a sheriff's car and a state highway truck, was in the ditch behind yellow tape. People waited patiently in line to snap pictures of each other standing over it. I wondered what they would write next to their photos.

Farther south on 155 my police scanner began picking up the deputies, volunteer firemen, city police and citizens who were out in the woods finding and marking the locations of the pieces.

An older male voice: "North 31 degrees, 52.185, west 95 degrees, 36.64, a 2-inch-by-4-inch piece of charred fabric."

The female dispatcher: "That's a 10-4."

A younger male voice: "North 31.51.589, west 95.37.385, a piece of Fiberglas with an impeller or a fan on it, still intact."

I followed the voices down the debris trail south and east toward Nacogdoches and into the dusk. Along the way the same scene loomed again and again--police lights glittering on faces of people who had pulled over to look and take pictures, exhausted volunteers trudging in and out of the woods, the weary voices on the scanner calling in coordinates. After dark I pulled over and talked with Kenny Hensley, an investigator with the Nacogdoches District Attorney's Office. I said I had heard on the radio that a major federal deployment of some kind might be imminent.

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