It was a week for metaphor and for the intensely human, and therefore fallible, organizations that brings us what we call news.
Joe Louis died on the same day that the space shuttle roared into our consciousness. Two symbols, one a splendid and tragic man, the other a space ship reliant on computers. An end and a beginning.
Television brought it to us, in the one case reviving memory, in the other creating memory. Newspapers confirmed those fleeting televised pictures, deepening, enlarging, fixing the moments in time.
It was not in their differences that the news of Joe Louis and the space shuttle came together; it was in their similarities. And it was not as simple as the transition from man to machines.
We remembered Joe Louis. His was a time of radio and newspapers. He was black America standing up, defying the bondage of his race, but more than that, knocking off the Hun, first losing to Max Schmeling and then demolishing his conqueror at a time when the Depression was fresh memory and the storm was gathering in Europe. His victory overwhelmed his loss as surely as he had broken the pattern of Alabama sharecropper desolation, and it reasserted us in a time when there was little enough to cheer about. To lose, and then to win, to give us a chance to shout, lifted forefiginger against the sky, "We're No. 1."
Radio brought it to us live. There are no more poignant stories than those black sharecropper families who listened to Louis wins by the radios of those who could afford them and returned silently to their houses where they could break into safely when they were alone. Newspaper pictures of that singular man graced many a graceless room.
We cheered again Sunday morning, waking early for the second time in two days to watch a new metaphor rise into the Florida morning, its smoke and steam tracing that new symbol of number-onemanship against an April sky.
Riveted to television, we reached to poetry for expresion and to deity for protection, even though we'e not accustomed to reaching for either. "Go, go, go," we yelled at home in chorus with those same shouts from the watching thousands at Cape Canaveral. "Allllll riiight," we roared. And that lifted, clinched fist, for a moment triumphant.
And then we bought newspapers by the million to reinforce what we had seen, to complete the details, to convince us, to assist us in judgement.
In a way, the space shuttle is Joe Louis revisted. No. 1; however, fleeting, a winner amid the uncertainty of the human condition.
There is a hunger for pride, and the media supply us with the raw materials that satisfy it. What we do with what they provide makes a community of us.