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Monitor Board of Contributors: Never stop reaching for the stars

  • Christa McAuliffe with her children in a downtown, Concord parade, in the summer of 1985 leading up to the Challenger flight.<br/><br/>Monitor file photo

    Christa McAuliffe with her children in a downtown, Concord parade, in the summer of 1985 leading up to the Challenger flight.

    Monitor file photo

  • John Gfroerer

    John Gfroerer

  • Christa McAuliffe with her children in a downtown, Concord parade, in the summer of 1985 leading up to the Challenger flight.<br/><br/>Monitor file photo
  • John Gfroerer

Reach for the stars.

In Concord we all know the origin of that quote – thank you Christa McAuliffe. Succinct, clear, simple, success is waiting for us all in whatever endeavor we choose to seek. All we have to do is seek. What more need be said?

A bridge in Portland, Ore., however, has a different variation on this theme.

But I am getting ahead of the story.

It was a little over four years ago, Fathers Day to be exact – a bright sunny Fathers Day morning to be more exact. We were in Portland for a wedding and staying at a hotel north of the city just off Interstate 5 near the Columbia River.

My younger daughter, Brinkley, was settling in for some morning cartoons on the television when I shamed her into coming with me for a run. It was Fathers Day, the sky was blue, the temperature warm, I’m your Dad. Let’s go. To my good fortune, resistance was minimal and off we went.

We quickly discovered a couple paths, complete with directional signs, one of which said, “Vancouver.” We could run to Vancouver, Wash.! This was a chance opportunity not to be passed up. Down the path we went, hopes high, adventure ahead.

The path wove down around and under the exit ramps for Interstate 5. Soon we were running on a sidewalk alongside the interstate. Looming large and long ahead of us was the bridge and river.

Brinkley at the time was only 9, not really a runner. This was good. It meant I needed to take breaks to let her catch her breath. It also preserved the illusion on my part that if only she weren’t there with me I could run forever.

The pace was steadily slow as we began the upward grade of the bridge. The span was a half mile across the river, and 60 feet above it. As we jogged, cars whooshed by at 60 miles an hour just a few feet away. Oh yeah, and trucks doing 65.

The bridge would shake ever so subtly, and sometimes Brinkley grabbed hold of me for safety. There weren’t really too many other options for her. The sidewalk was about 4 feet wide. On one side was the traffic on Interstate 5. The other side was a railing keeping us from the 60 foot drop down into the Columbia.

“Come on Brink, we can do it.”

“VROOOOOOOOOOOM” said the trucks.

They were like mini tornados trying to pick us up and throw us over the rail down into the river. But we kept climbing up, over, and finally down to Vancouver. Mission accomplished, except to go back.

Running reveals things that you will never see driving in a car at 60 miles an hour. This is particularly true when the run needs to include stopping points so the little girl who is slowing you down can rest. You search for points of interest to stop at. The state line appeared about a third of the way over the bridge coming back. We stopped, stood half in Oregon half in Washington. Cars whizzed by, trucks tornadoed by as we laughed and jumped from state to state.

We also learned the bridge had a marker at each entrance and exit. You might never notice them flashing by in a car. But running when you are looking for places to take a brief rest, they become beacons to explore. We stopped and read the plaques on each one.

That is how we discovered the Reach for the Stars Plaque.

It had nothing to do with a school teacher astronaut from Concord. The bridge was built long before she was even born. But there it was, etched on a brass plate – a challenge about reaching for the stars, right there as traffic flew by like mini rocket ships heading into the blue sky of that Fathers Day morning.

But there was more. Reach for the stars, it said, but don’t expect to touch them. It is in the reaching that you will find your destiny.

For years I had accepted reach for the stars as the final word, never thinking there might be something more to consider. Here was something new, a fuller statement to ponder and reflect upon.

The run and the discovery has stayed with me as one of my favorite Fathers Day moments. I’ve thought of writing about it, researching it a little to confirm my memory and sharing its existence with friends in Concord who only know half the story about star reaching. I thought and thought and thought.

Four years can pass with the ease of a blink.

Blink, and I made my second trip to the West Coast Portland recently. This time Brinkley wasn’t with me. But I stayed in the same location and knew what I needed to do. My first morning there I set to prove I could run the whole way and to find the plaque to confirm what I remembered.

As I started out I thought of Brinkley. She was back in New Hampshire at a CHS Cross Country Meet – her new sport. Blink and it is she who has to take a break so I can catch up. Not this day though, I am on my own.

Goals are for reaching. On this morning she had hers on the East Coast and I had mine on the West.

I had to run to Vancouver and back on the other side before I found it again. My memory was not perfect in recalling what it said. Reach for the stars was the intent, but not the exact words.

“. . . Ideals are like stars: You will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters you choose them as your guides. And following them you reach your destiny.”

The words are from Carl Schurz, a 19th Century politician, former U.S. senator and secretary of the interior. Why they are on a bridge in Portland, Ore., I don’t know. He was a Midwesterner. Nevertheless, there they were for me to take in and consider – words on a bridge that thousands of cars drive by every day and never see. Written over 100 years ago, they seem to add something more to the words we all know here in Concord.

As I read them over I thought about the challenge they put forth, something more than reach for the stars. Let your ideals take you forward. Heed the call to reach for something more, something better, something impossible but not impossible once you decide to reach for it. I thought of Christa McAuliffe and Concord High School and joys and sadnesses that linger for decades and cars flashing by around me on missions I will never know. I thought about deserts of water covered with destinies waiting to be followed and wondered why I felt too old to imagine them for myself anymore. I took it all in, then continued down the path.

Except for those few moments of quiet consideration, I did the run without stopping. For good measure I went back and did it again a couple days later. Brinkley didn’t win her race back in New Hampshire, but then this is only her first year on the team. I know she has her eye on several stars out there. It is just a matter of time.

Maybe it is just a matter of time for me as well. There are always stars to reach for, always destinies waiting, always ideals to guide you.

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