Saturday, May 18, 2013
In the summer of 1981, I watched my father and another man carry two people out of a burning twin-engine Cessna. That sounds cool and heroic and like something to be proud of, and it was. It was also like this:
We're driving down the road on a hot summer evening, 16-ounce glass bottles of Coca-Cola and Dad's Root Beer clanking in the orange and white cooler on the floor by my feet, heading to the drive-in to see The Fox and the Hound. My mother sees the plane, flying low, and makes a comment about it and then a moment later a ball of fire rises into the air up ahead.
One moment, the music is playing and the night breeze is soft in my hair and the next my mother is reaching hysterically for my father's arm, saying something about the plane that doesn't make sense to me, and he's hitting the gas. I can still see her forearm, pale freckles against a sea-green sleeve, reaching across to him. I can see the way the fire rolled upward, like the mushroom clouds we'd seen in films at school.
My father got out of the car and my mother said, "Don't go in there!" In a voice that was oddly calm, my father said, "I'm not going in there. No one could be alive in there." And then someone started to scream, and he was gone.
My mother hovered around the edges; I stayed in the car with my little sister, seven years old and repeating over and over again, "Let it be a dream. Please let it be a dream," as she cried. But it wasn't a dream, and the smell that filled the air--a smell I won't describe for you--made it obvious that not everyone had escaped.
The pilot and his son died. A young woman was thrown clear and my father and a passing truck driver carried a 16-year-old girl and her mother out of the burning wreckage. They recovered; there were ceremonies and medals. And for at least a decade, I watched small planes suspiciously, wary of any tilt that seemed too extreme, waiting for them to fall from the sky.
And then, this morning, I smiled at a small plane in the sky and realized that I didn't know when I'd stopped holding my breath. I didn't know when I'd started seeing those little planes the way everyone else did, or whether the fear had faded away over time or abruptly been gone one morning. Perhaps it was this morning. But suddenly, I knew that sooner or later, everything fades.