The Stranger Across the Aisle – I
Reflections after watching a documentary on the crash of United Airlines 232.
Years ago I watched a television program about a plane crash in the Midwest. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but it involved a commercial airliner. An engine exploded shortly after takeoff. The plane was on fire, billowing smoke, falling out of the sky.
They played black-box snippets of the crew’s conversation with the control tower, and the crew was looking for a place to land, any place to land, preferably a runway. It was clear to all that it was going to end disastrously, and now air traffic control and the crew were only focused on preventing unnecessary fatalities on the ground.
I was struck by the captain’s grace under pressure and his sense of humor even in the face of overwhelming catastrophe. He said something genuinely funny to the men in the control tower, a dark, black flash of gallows humor. The captain was so completely brave, in that matter-of-fact brave man way, where the brave man doesn’t have the slightest idea how brave he actually is, where later on he seems ashamed at some misunderstanding for reasons that cannot be fathomed. I couldn’t help but feel admiration for him, something in the order of a young boy’s instinctive admiration for a fireman or his tall father.
This program was twenty years ago, and I think I still remember the captain communicated with the passengers directly about their situation. Everybody in the plane knew that they were about to die, or probably about to die. Even so there were things to do. Everybody was still going to do this thing and that thing and this other thing in a certain order. Somebody would tell them when.
And when the time came they did all of those things.
I don’t believe the crew or anyone in the rear half of the plane survived the crash, but miraculously there were survivors. A handful were interviewed about the final moments before the plane hit the runway and spun apart, a fracture that saved passengers in the front section. Anyway, I think it was in that front section where some of them survived. It’s years ago now, but I am pretty sure this is the emergency crash landing you see footage of from time to time. It’s the one where you’re looking in through a chain security fence outside an airport, and the camera pans to track the trajectory of a cartwheeling inferno.
But it could have been a different crash from that one.
I could be wrong about the details. Not about the brave captain, but all the rest. The details of an accident don’t matter. Not really. What matters, what makes this tragedy even worth mentioning is something somebody said to the television interviewer.
One of the survivors said that people looked at each other in those last few seconds, knowing their lives were over, and all around the plane passengers took each other’s hands. And this survivor said she took the hand of a total stranger across the aisle, and she looked into his eyes and said, “Well, it’s been a good life.”
The whole thing right there. In the heart of a fireball.
They held each other’s hand like children and said thank you.
In those last moments some of them must have tried to write something for their loved ones, scrambling for any piece of paper with white margins, scrambling for a pen. They would have named their closest loved ones – their Chris, their Melanie, their Daniel, their Alannah. Because to get the simple fact of their names on a piece of paper would be a way of pulling out a few specific colors from the white light of gratitude, of orienting the fragile prisms of their hearts.
They probably would have added the words “I love you” in the language of their mothers and their own names, or the names that their children call them. Then they would have done what they could to protect their desperate scraps of paper from the crash, securing them between the screen and keyboard of a closed laptop or within a thick wallet or a steel eyeglasses case.
And if they had had a little more time, a few precious minutes more, they might have scribbled further, trying to comfort their loved ones with words, to allay fears, to assure them in the swiftest little sentences they could legibly fashion that everything would be okay, that they were okay. That It was okay. In the pressure – you could even say the opportunity – of those last minutes they might imagine, selflessly, a future for their loved ones without them, and they would do their best to protect them in that new world. And like the captain of their plane they would do this even as they were tuned to terrified cries in other parts of the cabin.
And with each additional interval of clock time, their written expression might build in complexity, in sophistication, in subtlety, in personality. If they were fortunate enough to write for ten or even fifteen minutes they might begin to dwell in memory or express regret and apology. They might touch on the dramas of their histories and their dreams. And because of the complete attention they were paying, they might notice in the crucible of that moment new things they had never noticed before, and they would race to add those as well. A million different things could happen on that piece of paper, and as those moments expanded out over time each of their scribbles would become as individual as fingerprints.
And this creative world of I love you and thank you that they were leaving behind would spring up in the same way that the physical world sprung forth, building from the first nanoflash of God only knows what, then into Hydrogen, and then into a hundred other elements born in the marvelous contractions and explosions of this Periodic Universe.
It occurs to me that if you had all the time in the universe to write your good-bye, if you had an Eternity, if you had Forever, oh, the things you’d say and leave behind! You would leave your loved ones marvelous creations and surprises. You would leave them birdsong and shoelaces, red lips and cellophane, dogs barking, handstands, orange tulips. You would leave them honey and sorrow and waltzes. You would leave them everything you could think of.
Because to be alive is to wander in the charred fields looking for this letter.
Feel something. Twice a week.