Sunday, September 26, 2004

Two different tales.

The first of these two came from a writing class assignment on creative non-fiction. That fall was also during the time TWA 800 crashed into the Long Island Sound. The second story just appeared out the blue one day. What can I say?

My alma mater:

Tag by Charles Moore

The fully loaded plane taxis down the bumpy concrete, broken by too many cold winters and hot summers, preparing to leave the small airport that services the town where my parents live. I look around and it dawns on me that I am on board a plane load of conventioneers--disciples, meccans, pilgrims--leaving for home from the bi-annual religious convention held each Christmas on campus.

We jump and jiggle along the concrete. Most of them holding hands and praying as if they know something ominous I should know. Should I pray? I look out the window at the gray, flat, cold-looking mid-Western farm ground. For being so flat, I know that hidden by a shallow rise to the west is my parent's place. The plane makes a quick pivot as the pilot has cleared for takeoff and doesn't take the time to synchronize the engines. Do I hear a rise in the background murmur as we pick up speed?

Both our engines work fine. The fuel pumps pump. No large fowl are sucked into the blades or the turbine. The air is cold and dry and full of lift and life. The tires hold up. The pilots are competent. No one is on the runway with us. No one is in the wrong pattern as we turn towards the north. The tower doesn't give us wrong instructions. The instruments beckoned us in the right directions. Like Ulysses' crew was anyone surprised? Not me.
We are sitting at the lounge waiting for my connecting flight to arrive. It's delayed because of fog at the hub. Fog so thick apparently my flight isn't even allowed to pull away from the terminal to fly here.

"You know," says Gannell Britt, "of all the thousands of parts that are on an airplane I only really worry about the important ones. You know, like wheels, wings, the engines. Not so much that the overhead lights don't work or the head is stopped up. It would be nice if the radar works but the immediate problem is to get all that--what?--mass?--off the ground in one piece and land again safely. At the right airport would be nice. But secondary. "

"They don't always," I say.

"That's for sure," he says.
Gannell agrees to deliver me to the airport in return for a Scotch and soda in the lounge.

"At 7:30 in the morning?" I ask.

"For me, the days starts early. At that hour, let's see I got to pick you up about 6:30 which means I gotta get up at 6:00, I might as well not go to bed!"

"Do I need to call you and wake you?"

"No, my overnight habit will take care of that." What ever overnight habit he meant, or met, worked, but Gannell looks like death warmed over. Another couple of Scotches'll take care of him, I hope. A couple of coffees for me. It could be a long wait. Surely the fog will burn off quickly in Charlotte.

"My Dad told me," I say, "one time, when I was up home for Christmas, that they pancaked one earlier in the week before I got there. They didn't spear it six feet into crusty black dirt--you know, like straight down--I think they just dug a deep, short furrow."

"A crash is still a crash," he says.

"On takeoff, something important didn't do what's it's supposed to do: aileron stuck, engine quit. My Dad said they should've known better. You don't try to turn when you're just off the end of the runway. Not enough air below you and a plane looses altitude and speed when you turn. You go for speed and altitude first. Gotta get up in the air, then you turn. What ever went wrong, they apparently could've at least flown straight until they were high enough. There's no hurry to come back to land. They just couldn't wait. Had to turn right now. Without enough altitude that's when you crash. They plowed it in the ground not a mile from the house. In World War II my Dad flew Civil Air Partol searching cornfields on rescue missions for his friends who crashed.

"I don't know about you, but, to say the least, I know that I am not prepared for being a passenger. We used to fly, with my Dad, and Mom and sister and I, in his Stinson Viper. We were somewhere over the Illinois and Wisconsin border when the plane's motion overode my sense of smooth. My mother knew enough to bring along a one pound Folger's Coffee tin. I can remember her handing the bright red can to me in the back seat in the nick of time for me to deposit a cup of lunch. But I can also see in my mind's eye the moraine of water that we circled around to make our final approach to the grass strip. Seems like a million years ago, you know?
"Another time, I upchucked in Miles Coolidge's tool bag. Now, that was an airplane ride! He'd hung the tool bag from the back of his seat in his J4 Cub as we flew over the English River system headin' towards a fishin' camp in Ontario. A J4 Cub has tandem seats meaning that I could look right or left but always had to center my view on the back of Miles' head. We'd ride the up-currents over the warmer land and then we'd ride the down-draft over the cooler water. Up and down. Up and down. The Cub's little four-cylinder engine buzzing in my ears, dulling only part of my brain but not my sense of balance. Up the rising hot air. Down the descending cold air. Up over land. Down over water. For an hour or so. Whew!"

Gannell is on his second Scotch. Does this man drink or what?

"I can remember," he pauses, taking a deep breath, "about a year ago on a flight overseas in a 757 we hit an air pocket of such proportions that I watched the water leave the glass of a woman several rows in front of me, rise up like she'd tossed it in the air and then the water tried to re-collect itself back into her cup. I don't imagine it did. The passengers were genuinely frightened for a moment. I was entertained by this clear column as it rose up about halfway to the ceiling and then sort of disappeared back behind the rows of headrests.

"In light of the ValuJet and the TWA disasters near upsets in flying aren't always that humorous. Did I ever tell you about this movie, and the book, called Fate is the Hunter by Ernest K. Gann that creeps into my mind when I fly? Gann's the reason I have to be almost drunk to fly anywhere. I have you thank for recommending him. He's not fun to read. People die in his books. Real people! Where Gann victims are pilots, dying in situations that shouldn't happen, I see passengers terrified as they scream groundward. Helpless souls, strapped in, hopeless, nameless, rich, poor, church goers, sinners--it don't make no difference on the ride down. They all had their particular set of circumstances for being on the plane.

"In the book, he talks about how the pilot is not nearly in control as much as the pilot thinks he is and nowheres near in control as much as the passengers hope and the multitude of things that can go wrong for which no person can be prepared. Valujet is a case in point. Passengers and crew died not because some mechanic forgot to tighten a bolt or the pilot fell asleep from 24 hours of flying or an electrical storm shut down the radar system at Miami or ice on the wings or the engine ran out of fuel or the landing gear refused to lower or someone left a door open. No, they died because someone totally unassociated with the plane, or the passengers, or the flight, or the company, probably trying just to make a buck, mislabelled a box, the next person was new on the job and didn't ask questions and the box wandered through a maze of circumstances, like that fiction diagram you were showing me, it's impossible to see going forward and clear as a bell when looking backward. And that box, unknown by anyone on the plane, sitting quietly in the cargo hold, beneath sleeping passengers hopelessly ill prepared to do anything anyway, explodes. Now you see it, now you don't.

"One of the early theories about the TWA explosion was that the center fuel tank had been partially emptied before takeoff. A short occurred inside and the tank exploded. Hoss, anyone who ever carried gas in a can for their lawnmower knows that the nearly empty can is more volatile than the full one. Because the vapors are what ignite, not the liquid! Yet here was a 747 with a ten-foot by ten-foot by ten-foot gas can on board that was not 'dry' but full of vapors? A twenty-five-year-old gap in one wire's insulation provides the spark and all the good design, the good intentions, the economy of saving weight by removing the fuel, kapooie, lost forever. Kind of mocks our intelligence. Do we have to get hunted by fate in order to convince ourselves of Providence?"

Gannell Britt sounds less like a man who drinks too much than a man who thinks too much.

"Tell me somethin', Hoss." He leans over the coffee table about the size of a large napkin. "Did you get up this morning thinkin' you're the quarry? Huh? Did you ever think of fate as a game of tag and you're it?"


On an evening flight to Chicago from Johnson City we lost cabin pressure during our climb out from the stopover in Lexington. The pilot couldn't maintain a proper altitude into O'Hare so we were diverted to Ft. Wayne.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said the stewardperson over the p.a. that approximated a bus station announcement, "they'll have a plane waiting for us at Fort Wayne."

"What? You have those kinds of spares just parked around here and there? If we can get to Fort Wayne why not just fly to Chicago? Is it a plane that's already to go?" I still had another leg to fly. We'd arrive late and to stay over night was not an option despite the company's friendly intentions. The thought of getting stranded stretched my patience.

"Of course, sir, all our planes are 100 percent working."

"Except this one."

She tried to Chuck-Yeager me with, "Why, Sir, this little ol' plane is jez fine. We just cain't get UP hi-eenough."

"Can't be much between here and Chicago at three thousand feet we're likely to hit, is there?"
"Apparently there is. Sir. Or we'd be allowed to continue."

She had timed her comments with arrival of the beverage cart.

"Free beverages of any kind, Sir. What would you like?"

The passenger next to me, in the window seat, snuck a pocket Bible on to the arm rest between us.

The Tolltaker by Charles Moore

Randall could feel the coolness of the tile floor down his back and the backs of his legs and the one spot where the bare back of his head lay on the floor, but the coolness was changing into a lack of both hot or cold as if no feeling at all. Even the blood oozing onto his chest lacked an urgent sensation. Randall could feel the syrup spreading but not the heat like when he'd been numbed by the dentist and then bled a little getting a tooth pulled. The receptive part of his mind could tell something was going on but the interpretive side of his mind lacked information. He could hear the screaming of his daughter but her hysterics were fading into the distance. Was that cordite he smelled? Randall was conscious of his breathing. His eyes were closed but he could see shadows cast by the kitchen's overhead bulb as someone moved around him. Must be his daughter, he thought, combining the screaming and the shadows and the events of one last coherent thought but he was having trouble concentrating. The kitchen light dissolved into a glaring white light of sun and high sky.

As if slowness is a concept noticed by a dying man, vague forms began to take distinct shape on this bright white canvas; fog focused into clouds. A fence of white--at first he couldn't say if it was picket or rail but soon the image solidified into a traditional old fashioned wrought iron with spikes fence--came out of the fog from both sides of the canvas ending near the center at two white brick gate posts. A large white gate, taller for some reason than the fence, connected the posts. On the gate posts were lions crouched back on their haunches both holding open books and grinning. As the fog continued to melt Randall could see a driveway from the bottom of the canvas sweeping up to the gate and in the foreground the image of a man, a poorly dressed man, with a scraggly beard, untied shoes, knotty hair, and dirty clothes, melded into clear view. The man was holding a quill pen in his hand and was standing at a lectern, leaning on one elbow, with his ankles crossed, prepared to write. He smiled at Randall; the vileness of his scruffy round face was totally unlike a preacher. More like a ghoulish undertaker. He presented himself as a tolltaker. Or a gatekeeper.

"You don't remember me do you?" said the scruffy man.


"Of course not. You wouldn't remember me, just a poor, crazy homeless person."

"I beg your pardon. I am not unsympathetic to the plight of the homeless. Just because I never gave doesn't mean I had some feeling towards them. I had--have--a high school buddy who's been homeless since college."

"Did you go to him? Search him out? Help him in any way other than just brag about it?"

"No. I was too scared."

"Of what?"

"I don't know."

"Oh ye of little faith."

"What's with you?"

"You don't really remember me?"

"No. Why?"

"You kicked my collecting bucket and wouldn't apologize."

"Oh? Yes! So that was you? Now, I remember. In Washington, D.C., many, many years ago. I'd forgotten. But, you made it to here? By the way, where is here?"

"This is, if you'll pardon the phrase, the stairway to heaven and you still haven't apologized to me. Even if it was years ago you still did it and now in the last second of your life you have to apologize while you can or it's all over for you, buddy. All this seems to be in real time but it's just a dream and it's going at the speed of light since that's the speed that thought travels through your brain cells. Your brain isn't saddled with other duties--useless damage control, for instance, for that shotgun blast just over two minutes ago--and your last thoughts are all it has to do so it does them really quick."

"I wasn't going to apologize even if I ever meet up with you again."

"You weren't?"

"No. What was I supposed to do? Go back and search every corner of every building until I found you again? I went to D.C. quite often but I wasn't about to avoid meeting you, either. Seemed to me the problem was yours, not mine."

"Keeping you out of heaven is my option right now and that makes it your problem. Is that your last dying thought, to not repent?"

"You ought not be here yourself."

"Why not? Or rather, 'tough beans buster,’ I'm here and I get to make the decision about you. You kicked over my bucket, didn't stop, didn't apologize, and now you refuse to still do so. Right?"

"Yeah, I guess so. After I get your 'Okay' do I have to do this--penitence--for everything I did wrong for my entire life? This could be a long drawn out last moment if that's the case."

"Don't get cocky. This one is all you have to do deal with. What say you?"

"Do I get an appeal?"



"No appeal. God's given me the power to decide."

"That makes you God. And what's with this 'old English' stuff? Do you also think your Shakespeare or somebody? Hawthorne? Milton?"

"Go ahead. Mock me. Sock me. Do me. What ever you like to me. I'm close enough to God to make these decisions and you're stuck with 'em."

"Don't be so sure."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"First, your damn bucket was out in the middle of sidewalk, in deep shade and I wear bifocals. You put it out there on purpose figuring to play on my sympathies to make up for kicking it. True? Now don't lie. You did that on purpose. And then you sort of put your bucket in God's path and tricked him into feeling sorry for you and you faked your way into this pearly gates business and now you want to make me cover your guilt. What's with the gates anyhow? What's behind them?"

"Don't evade the question. For your information, the gates are a myth. You apparently didn't want to believe in anything else except St. Peter and the gates and all that stuff you've been fed. The long and the short of it is the only way you can see the other side is to apologize to me." He slapped his bare hand on his chest.

"I'm not sure I want to do that. I got my pride you know. You might as well send me somewhere else 'cause it'd be hell living with you. But if you keep me here, calling it heaven, then you have to deal with my questions."

"No, I don't have to deal with them. All you have to do is apologize."

"Want to bet? I want to talk to God about this. About you, buster, and your con job."

"You think I could con God into this? We're talking what's going on inside your head, fella. You want to go to heaven and now your dying but this thought keeps nagging in your brain and it's getting in the way of the other part of your soul that keeps saying 'Well, come on, make up your mind.' It's all in your mind after all. So make it up. Geez, look at this, you're making me pace. You're the one that's supposed to be nervous, not me."

"That's because I don't have any guilt about this silly question of you, not me, trying to trip up people so you can get a few coins. I don't know or care why you were panhandling but I do object to your tactics and it makes no mind to me if you put me in or put me out but I'm to the point I don't care. Just because you're a roadblock does not make God impotent. He still leaves it to me and that's my choice and no matter what I decide I'll want it and God doesn't undo that kind of thinking."

"So decide. Are you in or are you out?"

"All right. Boot me out. Send me south. Let me burn in hell. It'll at least restore my faith in a life hereafter."

"Might not be so good?"

"Who's to say what you got to offer is any better? You? What's on the other side? Heaven of my own making? So what is hell? Someplace or something not of my making? I'm smart enough to know that I still got a functioning brain and apparently I can make some choices for the moment so maybe hell or purgatory is an OK place to spend the rest of my life with a banjo instead of a harp or with my ex-wife instead of my mother? What is heaven?"

"You're not going to find out at this rate, buddy."

"And stop calling me 'buddy.' If I have to spend my eternity with losers like yourself--excuse me, with chance-disadvantaged like yourself--then maybe an alternative is just the way it'll have to be. If I get into my own heaven it seems to me that you're the one with the problem because either you failed in your God-assigned task or you're going to spend the rest of your life with me--which will be your hell! My God--buddy--not yours, says it's for me and you both, meathead, and that's what makes my God a more powerful God than your God! Chew on that for while. Make a decision if you're man enough which is to say you're no angel so don't act like one. Now let me in, I'm tired of all this talk and I'm ready for a rest, please."

"You should be, for all the irrelevant blathering you just did. You're arguing with yourself, again. Make up your mind."

"I have. I did. Along time ago. You just didn't hear it."

"So talk to me."

"No. I spoke with God and whether I go in here or somewhere else is no longer important."

The tile's coolness faded into no sensation for Randall's numb skin. The smells smelled like nothing at all. The sirens and the shouting drifted into another room.

The tolltaker drifted out of focus and quickly dissolved in with the background whiteness. The driveway rolled up from the bottom as if snow were deepening. Soon the white fence and the white colonnades and the white lions blended into the cloud cover and the clouds began to lose their focus as they changed into a white swirl.

The white swirl rushed towards Randall and the kitchen light through his eyelids came back for a moment until, as if someone turned the light off, everything went to black.