Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

Jack D. Hunter's Blog

26 January 2008


It took a fatal airplane crash to start me on the road to living again.

I know that sounds like a line from a soaper, but it’s so nonetheless. I’d become indifferent to the world. Benumbed by it. Then there was this crash at the Wilmington, Del, airport.

It was in November 1947. I’d been back from Europe and the war with Hitler for about a year. I didn’t have any bullet holes in me, but I’d been badly scarred inside. And, because society expected it of me, I’d resumed my place as husband, father, and journalist and I’d gone through all the motions of earnest striving for the Babbitt kind of success.

But it was mostly play-acting, because it was as if the war had delivered a massive shot of Novocain right smack to my heart or gizzard, or whatever organ it is that lets a man feel and care. I’d seen devastation so thorough and so widespread it had become as impersonal to me then as power poles and billboards are now. I’d seen every brand of depravity. I’d seen death in most of its forms, including the Dachau variety.

Anyhow, this particular afternoon in 1947 was cheerless and raw, promising winter. I was a news reporter for Radio Station WILM and was returning to the studio after covering something downstate and was driving past the airport. Seemingly so close I could touch it, a Constellation, one of those four-engine Lockheed bruisers that roamed the world’s airways in the postwar times, came in for a landing, rumbling and rushing majestically over the Du Pont parkway ahead of my car. But apparently the pilot had undershot, because the main landing gear struck a rise of earth at the threshold of the runway.

Like some great gull tripped in full flight, the airliner tumbled. There was an incredible thundering, and the plane began a mad careening, a cartwheeling end-over-end, an eruption of fuel and oil and hydraulic fluid and broken wings and bouncing wheels and crazily spinning propellers.

In one of those weird compoundings of coincidence that sometimes serve newsmen, I happened to be among the first to reach the wreck. An intense fire — a seething incandescence that turned engine metal to lava — had eventually been subdued by airport foam crews, and after the police and rescue people and I could count five bodies in the smoke, I ran across the highway to a restaurant and called in the first report, so that at least a bulletin could make the later broadcast editions. Then I went back and talked with the airline maintenance officials, who stood watching, white-lipped and vacant in their shock, as the coroner began his melancholy retrieval.

Yes, the plane had been on a training flight. Yes, a federal inspector had been check-riding with the crew. Yes, it looked like a case of pilot error, but we can't say for sure at this time. Yes, we've got the names. I made notes, my fingers stiff in the wind and cold.

As I sped to the city and into the newsroom, I was more philosophical than excited. I'd seen plane crashes before, lots of them, from Nebraska through France to Bavaria. So I settled at the typewriter and began to write a new lead for the already-moving story.

When I reached the point in my copy where the victims’ names had to be listed, I reached for the phone. Spellings, ages, other obit material, had to be checked with the families. I listened as the phone at the first address began to ring. I checked my watch, wondering where the afternoon had gone and feeling the need for supper. It's a fact I remember well; I was truly that detached.

There was a click, and a woman’ s voice — cool, friendly and strong — said, “Hello.”

My God, I thought. She doesn’t know yet. In a household that should have been hushed with grief, her voice sounded composed and friendly and helpful. Obviously the authorities hadn’t reached her yet. I’d been the first to call.

I can’t reconstruct the conversation; I do know I was unaccountably inarticulate. I’m no longer even sure who the lady was. I think she was the flier’s wife. But wife, mother, or sister, she carried his name, and it was clear that she’d been crazy about him. And she had something else, too. An indescribable quality.

I had — still have — the distinct awareness that it was she who was helping me through this terrible, awkward interview. Because one thing I do remember is that, somewhere in my embarrassed stumbling, she said in that throaty voice, “You have a tough job, don’t you — having to call people about things like this?”

She had, of all things, sympathized with me — a faceless klutz on the phone.

When I got home that night, I studied my wife and kids and the modest little house around us, and they looked different somehow. I told my wife about the crash, naturally, but I couldn’t seem to find words to describe that lady, who, in her indefinable way, had done something to me, or for me.

There were many years of difficulty and heartache still to endure, but that night I knew something in me had altered. The little switch had turned on again.

Today, with the decades of hindsight available to me, I see that the lady must have had a fantastic faith of some kind — a faith that could enable her, in the worst of her own pain, to show concern for another. And in doing so, she’d unwittingly rekindled the hope process in a guy who had pretty much lost his belief in anything.

I can’t explain it, really.

But, as my wife used to say about life's perplexing subtleties, if I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand it anyway.

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.