IMAGES COME AT me like shrapnel from an exploding shell. A tremendous force holds me stock-still, pushed against my seat, rooted there. I look into the leering face of the Grim Reaper.
God, oh God! This fire in my brain!
Flight 1185 from London, JKF minutes away. Passengers screaming. I might be screaming, too. I get a momentary out of body feeling as my cold, logical self watches my feet push stupidly against the floor.
Death happens to others, not to me. I look downward and see the cockpit below me as flashes of my life parade in front of my terrified eyes. I shouldn’t be looking downward at the cockpit. It’s not right!
I feel the beginning moments of insanity curl the edges of my mind. I think of aerodynamics and how in free-fall we should be hanging slackly from our seat belts. But we are under power. I have no time to consider how ludicrous the thought.
Through the skin of the 747 I hear the engines scream. The pilots are dead. We passengers saw it happen through the open cockpit door. With horror we watched the leader of the terrorist group put his pistol to the back of the heads of the pilot and co-pilot and shoot them without mercy. We heard the shots. In what seemed slow motion one terrorist reached over the slumping bodies, disengaged the autopilot, pushed the throttles above one hundred percent and put the huge craft into a death dive!
Four other terrorists sat in the passenger-filled compartment, two in the front, two at the rear. From behind expressionless faces peered hard, dark brown eyes. Their short, muscular bodies sat in a living pose that implied absolute belief in their cause.
If the largely uncaring world could see into the eyes of those men, they would see fanatic passion. They would see five heroes of their revolution. They did this monstrous thing calmly. They wanted the world to see a cause worth more than life. They held their short, ugly weapons casually now, muzzles down, butts leaning against their knees, their purpose done; misguided men, martyrs to their cause.
With a smile any of the terrorists might have handed a weapon to any passenger. It made no difference now. Their deaths didn’t matter. Only the message mattered, a message of hatred for America. Did a horrified world watch on their television sets at this moment? Did they think of the frightened innocents, women, children and family men on their way to death?
Did they think of the terrorists who gave murder to hundreds of people, of their part in a holy venture, their part in Jihad? In these moments they offered a mute statement to our free democratic government. This falling aircraft represented punctuation. They’d made no demands, but the real message stood clear; you can’t bully people who are willing to die for what they believe in.
Stills! Movies, all uncut, all stark and real, rip across my eyes. If I hadn’t been petrified, I could have laughed. But when push came to shove, one didn’t laugh in the face of death.
Many interesting years ago I put forth my life credo, an exceedingly simple one. No need to be happy all the time. Not necessary to be challenged, in pain or long-suffering. It just had to be interesting. What an interesting ending!
How I wish I could appreciate it.
My life continues to roll back. The trip I’d made to London to sell my first book to an overseas publisher, now my worst possible choice. My wife liked to accompany me on trips and I loved to have her, but she had stayed home this time. How lucky for her.
She swam into my vision. I saw her sitting in our living room. The knitted poncho she’d promised to have ready for our granddaughter before I returned would be nearly done. She’d finished multiple rows on the pink, peach and cream poncho on the night I left. Such a steady, wonderful wife! I’d told her I would bring her back something really neat from London. The beautiful crystal gift lay carefully packed away in my carry-on.
In my home I could see that cold weather had set in. She had a fire going in our seldom-used brick fireplace. The cheery, bright yellow-orange light made merry, moving shadow figures on the living room walls. She’d lit a log earlier and closed the glass doors. A single four-hour fireplace log burned with good cheer while her fingers deftly worked on that pretty little article of love.
Holiday trimmings we hadn’t had the heart to remove after our happy, fun-filled Christmas season were still up, along with tinsel and multi-colored balls made of modern day materials imported from China. Global village, huh!
Christmas bells surrounded by plastic ivy hung from the mantle. My whizzing kaleidoscope reviewed how I’d had to adjust them perfectly within the ivy every year so they'd chime merrily. With that memory came the remembered clunk of an ill-adjusted bell striking badly when first played. The bells graced the pleasant size of the room once a year before Christmas and for however long we cared to let them stay. We had a big living room, but not so big as to lose its intimacy, warmth and humanity.
Gray vertical blinds, drawn to the sides of the big picture window, let her look out and see an occasional car pass in front of the house. Blackness ruled the night. She and I had always felt very safe where we live.
Living room furniture of reasonably dark neutral gray, a cloth sofa and a double recliner love seat, provided her a place for relaxation while she worked in the light of our huge pottery lamp. Under the lamp an elegant brass and glass end table. On the loveseat with my wife lay Tigger. Our cat always enjoyed sitting in my seat. He’d almost always snooze next to his mistress when I vacated it. His tail would occasionally twitch in response to some kitty dream, but his presence kept her in quiet company. If she listened closely, a faint purr rose from the sleeping animal.
Before sitting down to knit, she’d turned on the satellite music channel and tuned into Atmospheres, her favorite. Then her fingers flew. The new apparel gradually took shape while music gently filled her soul and time winged by. At some later point she would hold the poncho at arms-length and count rows one last time. She would decide enough was enough for the evening, turn off the music and walk down the long hallway to our recently renovated bedroom, to what she called her beautiful, restful place.
There wouldn’t be time to finish her knitting for this evening, not in the time we passengers had left. I’d checked my watch only a few minutes before the terrorists made their move. No, when we drove catastrophically into the ground at the end of Long Island at eight hundred miles an hour, it would only be a minute or so after eight p.m.
She couldn’t know. I wondered if she would feel a psychic connection at the point of my death. Would she look up suddenly, horror on her face? Would she go to the phone, indecisive, wondering whom to call? Would she turn on the news? The face I knew so well floated out in front of me. Her features gentled my mind for a singular, picture moment! Then she faded into the background. She remained, a distant, gossamer presence, while other images rushed to the fore.
All the rooms in the home I love marched across my eyes. The kitchen in blue and white and the cabinets, wiped clean by this wife of mine who had a problem with dirt. The white slate floor. She hadn’t had that type of floor installed without full knowledge that it would require more than average care. Did it bother her to spend more time on it? No. My lady is compulsive in matters of cleaning. They are matters of example, too. Her daughters, now that they are on their own, are as neatnik as she. The care she takes with our home is measured and constant and it shows. I will miss that.
Little, stuffed rabbits pass before me. They sit carefully amongst the cobalt-blue dinnerware high on a shelf, just for show. She made them to sell at craft shows for fun. My flitting view focuses on a high three-legged stool I made years ago to hold the ivy plant that grows lushly in that spot, courtesy of this wife and her expert green thumb. The sink and cabinets and our dogs, Maxxy and Sassy, our cats Tigger, and Coo-Coo-Callie pass in review. They are looking right at me, mute, serious. Do they know? I have no time to wonder.
I see the library, the bathroom, the guestroom, all showing my signature and that of my wife, cooperative efforts that made just a house into a loving home. The images move away.
My crystal vision reviews my short-lived retirement, the job I left in the Auto business to write full time and care for our home the rest of the time. I’d worked in a business I did not like. My writing, all those short stories and my novel, my big break. Regret. I won’t see it published after all. Kinda hoped I could bask in limelight that all too soon moves on to another author, another story. I kinda hoped success would let me help my five children, hers and mine, and let my wife retire. How nice that would have been.
Then my second marriage performed on our back deck by a Superior Court Judge and friend, my wife in that blue dress with the small polka-dots looking lovely, and I gussied up in black pants and a white dinner jacket taking our vows in front of many relatives and friends passes in review.
I see my children make their way in life. I see a previous business and an earlier one. There are rallies, star conventions, camping trips, pleasures I’d experienced, contributions I’d made. A lifetime of happiness mixed with sadness, anger, disappointment and regret intertwined as bright and then strange and somber colors that move across my mind like coruscating pigments thrown onto a canvass by a wildly extravagant abstract painter.
Back and back. I watch with happiness my first marriage grow from small beginnings into a family of five, and then with great sadness I watch it go wrong and turn bad and disappear. It wrenches my heart. I watch my life cycle dip and turn, relive for a moment the bad times, watch good times come and go, a roller-coaster ride, a moving portrait of a life!
I pass my years in insurance. I relive for the tiniest morsel of time my career as it grew and swelled and provided, and then watched it disappear. Such insanity! So much hurt.
I watch my Air Force career unfold, stations in Texas, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, that neat year in Iceland, kernels in a back tracing picture book.
My high school swam out, old Miss Spaulding owlishly running a class of young adults from her raised platform, presiding over sixteen and seventeen-year-olds. Such power she had. The reel continues back, each time with more classmates, young and younger.
Oh Lord, Ginny, my first love. We met at a youth fellowship group. Dean Hirshon and Canon Jones flash by. They, too, played a part in my early life. The imposing old brownstone church with the tall cathedral spire flashes by, a magnificent edifice dwarfed by high-rise buildings that surrounded it.
I broke up with Ginny the night before I joined the Air Force. I still wrote her letters and I still cared, but I never saw her again.
I see all of the growing up years buckled in my seat, my face an unmoving mask as images strike and flash, pelting all reason aside. At last I see my childhood and just the briefest glimpse of me as the baby that would grow through that long, strangely serpentine life of twists and turns.
So that I could be available for this moment of terror and final destruction?
Time becomes a point and disappears into itself. There is a moment that suggests that the essence of my life has run back as far as it goes, and it’s time for the finale. With a rush it comes!
I see all the elements like an x-ray, the home I had come to love, that I had devoted so much time and energy to. I saw the rewards that came with it, the love of a good woman, a good place to be. The plunge from thirty-eight thousand feet isn’t taking long, not nearly long enough!
My view expands and I get a last glimpse of my woman, my place, the children that I love and hers, too, that I love. And the friends! I had no idea there were so many.
Perhaps this is a parting gift from a God who won’t prevent the process of our destruction for his own reasons but is offering me a last glimpse of all of me. There is no time to wonder what that God might be offering to the other innocent passengers on this ill-fated flight. Is there time to wonder if we are fulfilling some cosmic design?
“I love you all.” The thought is a blossom in my mind, like the sweetest, most delicate flower. I know in the furthest depths of my soul that this is it, that we are moments from the ground, from death, from oblivion. There is no time to wish for more, to wish things were different, to want the life that is a hairs-breadth from being snatched away from me, from all of us.
There is no time to wonder why me, why us, why this plane, why the anger in some and the evil in others that leads them to commit acts of violence that kill the innocents of the world.
There is a horrible rending sound. Just the very beginning of it comes to my conscious awareness. Then there is brilliant whiteness, a final image of everything coming undone. There is no pain.