by Peter Tiernan
My girlfriend Jackie and I came across the memorial in a cemetery near our house in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was a slanted stone slab low to the ground with two plaques on it. The smaller described a 1956 midair collision over the Grand Canyon between a TWA Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 that killed 128 people. The larger listed the names of the sixty-six who were buried there: three Maags, four Kites, two Crewses, and so on. My eye found the groups of matching surnames, and my mind turned them into stories.
It seemed odd that this sunny patch of grass, tucked away in the aspens, looking more appropriate for lawn chairs and bocce, would be a memorial to decompression and falling and terror.
Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash on 3 February 1959. The sole Valenzuela to die in the crash, his trio is rounded out by Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson. Valens was seventeen. For my generation, he was revived in the 1987 movie La Bamba.
I turned seven in 1987. The low-budget movie Dirty Dancing became an unexpected hit on its August release, turning little-known actor Patrick Swayze into a star. Michael Jackson cemented his status as the biggest phenomenon in the universe and the idol of Crocker Farm Elementary School with the release of Bad, the first album ever to send five singles to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Some afternoons, before the busses arrived to take us home, Mrs. Kidd turned on the TV, and we watched music videos of Jackson hopping turnstiles in his leather and buckles.
The present is infallible when you’re seven. Michael Jackson and Patrick Swayze are as eternal as the sun and moon. The 1970s are as insubstantial as Atlantis.
I saw La Bamba on VHS in Kyle Stanek’s basement. The movie had swears in it, which made me nervous because Mom didn’t let me watch movies with swears. Kyle’s mom lingered in the basement, glancing at the TV as the actors volleyed the F-word back and forth. I feared she’d halt our entertainment, as my mom would have, but she didn’t.
Patrick Swayze died on Bells Beach, Australia, in 1991. This was as the outlaw hero Bhodi in Point Break. A fifty-year storm, he called it: wind and lashing rain, and waves as tall as houses. This is where his friend and surfing protégé, undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah, finally tracked him down.
“Just let me catch one wave,” Swayze pleaded.
Utah un-cuffed him, and he paddled out into the awesome surf. Utah’s team thought they’d get him when he came back in, but Utah knew better.
The monstrous wave Swayze was riding crashed shut on him, and he was gone.
This ending was right. Swayze was too awesome to go out any other way.
I spent the summer of 2005 in Friendsville, Maryland. It was during that summer that I first began to discover gray hairs in my beard. Also during that summer, Michael Jackson was found not guilty after being accused for a second time of child molestation. Concerts and monuments continued to memorialize Ritchie Valens, now dead forty-seven years. My friend Nate would come over to my house, and we’d watch Point Break. Neither of us surfed, but he was the best kayaker I knew—Bhodi, to my Johnny Utah. He once told me he wanted me to die in my kayak. He meant it in a good way. He wanted to die in his kayak.
“He died doing what he loved,” Nate would whisper at the movie’s finale, as though it were the ultimate expression of some principle.
One summer, while working in Zion National Park, Jackie tried to hike to an old airplane crash site. After an hour of climbing up the sand and scree, she found her path blocked by a rock wall. Tiny bits of metal from the wreckage above littered the ground. Jackie took two of the larger pieces, about the size of DVD cases, home with her.
Jackie doesn’t like flying in airplanes. She imagines the time it would take to plummet to the ground, knowing what will happen yet unable to do anything about it.
In the Grand Canyon tragedy, the DC-7’s left wing and propeller struck the Constellation’s fuselage. The DC-7 was damaged beyond its ability to stay airborne, and it spiraled to the ground below. The Constellation’s tail section separated from the rest of the airplane, decompressing the interior and blasting debris into the open sky. The collision was at an altitude of 21,000 feet—about four miles. A person sucked from the Constellation would have taken about two minutes to fall to the ground, varying based on body position.
Terminal velocity in a spread-eagle position is about 120 mph. It’s faster in a streamlined position. In the movies, this is how Johnny Utah is able to catch up with Patrick Swayze in midair after jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. In real life, it’s how casualties of the Grand Canyon collision might have chosen to end the terror faster, or to prolong being alive.
Whether rushed or prolonged, there was still the inescapable sensation of falling, and the certainty of lethal impact.
Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer on 14 September 2009. I’d shaved off my beard by then. It was an easy way to forget the gray hairs. I stubbornly believed I’d be with Jackie forever. I’d soon see the memorial with her, and hear the story of how she found her airplane part. It felt improbable that we wouldn’t be together forever.
I learned of Swayze’s illness while standing in lines at the City Market in Buena Vista, Colorado. As I’d wait with my snow peas and mushrooms and bok choy, the tabloid covers would show me what Bhodi and Johnny Castle looked like dying of cancer.
Swayze’s death was interrupted by Michael Jackson’s. One day, instead of Swayze, there was Michael Jackson on all the covers. He wasn’t waxy, as he had been for the previous decade. He was the awesome image I remembered from 1987. A few months later, Swayze finished dying, and he too was returned to his 1987 glory.
Newspaper headlines and lists of names on monuments are similar in that they invite us to believe we know the unknowable.
In some cases, there’s irrefutable evidence that a crime was committed. There’s a dead body, or the money’s missing. In other cases, the only evidence is a verbal disagreement about what happened in the past. But what do we know?
We know that Michael Jackson had sleepovers with pubescent boys, and we know that we consider it inappropriate for men in their thirties to have sleepovers with pubescent boys, and we know why. We also know that Jordan Chandler, Jackson’s 1993 accuser, accused Jackson only after being browbeaten and fed hallucinogenic drugs by his father, and we know that Chandler inaccurately described Jackson’s penis as circumcised. We know that when a guy’s been accused of something twice we ought to take the allegation seriously, but we also know that the precedent of a $20 million settlement will invite more allegations whether they’re true or not.
We can arrange these details to make our own stories. I like the arrangement that does as much as possible to preserve the 1987 Michael Jackson. But nobody will ever know what happened behind closed doors. Possibly not even Jordan Chandler.
The thoughts of the 128 people who boarded two airplanes at Los Angeles International Airport shortly after 9 in the morning on 30 June 1956 are also lost. All that remains is a placid blue sky, and a block of cut stone by some grass in a cemetery in Flagstaff. We’ll never know what they thought as the DC-7’s wing split the Constellation open like a can of soup, and as they all fell to the ground at varying speeds.
A memorial is a reflection, not a portal. Here are some names, it says. You fill in the rest. Whether I memorialize outlaw heroes, FBI agents, molested children, or would-have-been Kings of Pop is up to your whim.
In the early morning of 16 August 1960, as part of an Air Force experiment, Captain Joseph Kittinger departed from Tularosa, New Mexico, by helium balloon, wearing a pressurized suit. An hour and forty-three minutes later, from an altitude of 102,800 feet, the upper stratosphere, he jumped out.
Where the air is thinner, terminal velocity is faster. Kittinger reached a freefell speed of 614 mph before deploying his parachute. His descent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds. For more than fifty years, it was the record for the highest, longest, and fastest jump.
Jackie discarded one of the airplane pieces when she left Zion. She took the other back to her parents’ house and put it in a cabinet in her bedroom that displayed trinkets she liked. But somewhere along the way, maybe when her parents remodeled their house, the airplane part was thrown away, or it was put in a box somewhere, never to be seen again.
I asked her why she’d kept it in the first place. She said she wanted a memento of a time and a place and an experience, and the feelings that went with it. She wanted to anchor those memories to something physical and enduring.
Joseph Kittinger is now eighty-seven years old. Ritchie Valens would be seventy-four, Michael Jackson fifty-seven, and Patrick Swayze sixty-three. Jordan Chandler and I are both thirty-five. Bit by bit, the past is falling out from underneath us. Kittinger’s record has been broken. Another album has matched Bad’s five number-one singles. I haven’t spoken to Jackie in years.
I wonder if Jordan finds gray hairs in his beard. I wonder what he thinks when he thinks of Michael Jackson. I wonder whether he wishes he could buy back his anonymity. I wonder, if he could have a single moment from his life to keep forever, which one he’d pick.
There’s a picture of Michael Jackson and Jordan Chandler together, prior to Chandler’s allegations. Chandler is in the foreground, looking directly at the camera. He’s a beautiful kid. His expression is hard to read. It might be awed, smug, even bored. He’s wearing an orange button-up shirt with a stylish brown jacket over it, and a hat that looks straight out of the “Smooth Criminal” video. Jackson is slightly left of center, behind Chandler’s right shoulder. He already looks a bit ghoulish. I hadn’t remembered him looking that way until years later. In his arms, only partly in the photo, is a young girl. He’s wearing sunglasses and a black button-up shirt, and smiling just a little.
This picture lets us look back at a moment when Jackson and Chandler were only the King of Pop and an excited fan. The moment is still there. We can still see it. But with each passing year its significance evaporates more from our collective memory. The generations that experienced it are being replaced by ones that didn’t. We have the technology to record words, images, sounds—we can preserve all of these things indefinitely. But their meaning is constantly being lost.
Peter Tiernan has an MFA in fiction from Boise State University and an MA in creative nonfiction from Northern Arizona University. He was born in Maine and now lives in Idaho, where he works outdoors and spends his free time “writing, floating down rivers, and pondering the meaning of it all.”
Image credit: Chloe93 on Wikipedia. Burial site and memorial for the TWA passengers of the 1956 TWA/United Grand Canyon air disaster.