crash

The third plane crash’s wreckage on Salem Avenue in Elizabeth, 1952. via The Daily News

As I packed for a trip to Europe recently, my thoughts, and more so the thoughts of my wife, turned to airports, airplanes, bombs and terrorism. It is an unfortunate way to approach a trip, but almost inevitable today, especially if you are someone who only travels occasionally.

On my last domestic trip, it was the first time I saw at Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey fully equipped soldiers with helmets, body armor and automatic rifles on patrol. Did it make me feel more secure? No, I felt more threatened because it was reminder of earlier tragic events.

My wife even wanted to do some non-travel things before we left concerning our grown-up children, accounts, our will and such “in the unlikely event” that something happens to us on our travels.

It is a contemporary reality that young and old alike need to consider and come to some terms with the natural and technological and social disasters that are a regular part of the news.  For my own children, the attack on the not-so-far-away Twin Towers on 9/11/01 will be an unfortunate but key event of their youth.

As teachers, my wife and I were profoundly affected by the shootings at Columbine and other schools which felt like such a real possibility in our own lives and those of our children. That came much too close to home in 2007 when my son’s class at Virginia Tech was part of the shootings that occurred there.

My son was luckily, or miraculously, not hurt that day. Different people take a different take on that. I have gone back and forth myself in my thinking about that day. He is a faithful Hokie alum and rarely talks about that day. His professor who was killed is a hero to me.

One of his classmates who was shot, Colin Goddard, has become very active in gun violence prevention issues. He joined the Brady Campaign and works as a Senior Policy Advocate for Everytown for Gun Safety. He  was the subject of a documentary named “Living for 32” that shows how easily anyone can obtain a firearm in the United States without a background check.

A year ago, I read a book that came to mind again when my wife used that phrase which is the book’s title.  In The Unlikely Event is a novel based on real incidents and is a kind of memoir by Judy Blume.

Blume sets the novel in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey and mostly in the winter of 1951-52, when three catastrophic plane crashes occurred in less than two months.

Her protagonist, Miri Ammerman, returns to her hometown in 1987  to attend a commemoration.

The first plane that crashed barely missed exploding into a junior high school. The second crash was at an all-girls’ high school. The third crash was at an orphanage. It seemed like Fate or some power had targeted children.

The events forced the closure of Newark Airport for some months.

Miri was fifteen and before these crashes life was more about being in love for the first time and Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable,” and getting Elizabeth Taylor haircuts and family and friends.

Before that winter, it was a time was when airline travel was new and exciting. Everyone dreamed of going somewhere by plane. Being a stewardess was a glamorous job that showed up in novels, movies, TV and Playboy cartoons.

Of course, it was also a time of atomic-bomb hysteria, rumors of Communist threats and Civil Defense drills in schools, so the world could be seen through rose-colored or dark gray glasses depending on the day.

A succession of airplanes falling mysteriously from the sky would cause all kinds of rumors today, just as it did then.

Blume mixes in all of this uncertainty about life in a variety of ways. One day a woman shows up on the Ammermans’ doorstep, insisting Miri is her niece. She had seen a resemblance to her brother in a photo of the girl shown to her by a friend. Miri’s mother raised her daughter on her own and had refused to share any details about her father.

She falls in love with a boy from an orphanage in town. He’s a great guy and becomes a hero after he rescues survivors from the third plane crash. Is he her future? Can we contemplate a future in such an uncertain world when unlikely events seem to happen?

Judy Blume spent her childhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey, making up stories inside her head and eventually writing them down as an adult and becoming a very successful author.

I grew up in the same part of New Jersey fifteen years later than Judy Blume, but a lot of her stories feel like my own childhood, adolescence and adulthood.  She is better known for her young adult novels but has written three novels for adults and sold 80+ million copies of her books.

Three planes crash in a small town in New Jersey over the course of just two short months are unlikely events, but it happened. The attacks on the Twin Towers just across the river from that NJ town on 9/11 was also an unlikely event, but it happened.

In its time, those plane crashes were inexplicable. Communists? Martians? God? So many tragedies today – earthquakes, bombings – have an “explanation” but still seem inexplicable. The “why” of these events never seems to be fully answered.

Is Blume warning us? No, I think she wants us not be afraid to get on a plane, or take risks in life. Of course we should make plans and be cautious, but she reminds us that life is made up of unlikely events and that, fortunately, they “aren’t all bad. There are good ones, too.”

 

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