I Wish This Were Fiction

A few years after the commercial plane crash that killed my grandmother, my university creative writing Professor told me in his critique that I had the raw material for a masterpiece. I wonder what he would have added 11 years later when I lost my father and youngest sister in a private plane crash.

Welcome to my life. I often wish I were a writer of fiction. I would prefer to be writing from imagination than from memory.

February 12, 1963. Lincoln’s birthday. No school. My mother, five-year-old sister Ivy, cousin Larry and I were headed to the airport in Chicago to pick up my grandmother who was returning from Florida. A few years after losing my grandfather, my family convinced my grandmother to take a vacation in Florida. She was with my mother and youngest sister Ivy at the beginning of her holiday. Before they left for home, my mother found a small hotel for seniors and my grandmother stayed on for twelve more days.

My beloved grandmother never made it home. The commercial plane she was on hit a squall during the first ten minutes it was in the air and crashed in the Florida Everglades. Everyone on board was killed. My grandmother was 67.

As if it were yesterday I can touch the raw agony of that day when we found out that we lost her. I was 17 and about to graduate from high school and head to college in the fall. 

We were assured her death was quick, but I will never really know if she had time to be afraid. That question tortures me when I allow myself to think about it.

Nineteen sixty-three was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. United States planes were being hijacked to Cuba. When my family and I reached the reservation desk at O’Hare airport, my mother looked up at the departure and arrival screen and read aloud. She found my grandmother’s plane number but there was no arrival time listed. When she finished reading the information, we turned to our left and saw a man with what looked like a motion picture camera pointed our way. In unison we turned to the right to see if he was filming a celebrity but there was no one there. Realizing that he was filming us, my mother started screaming “the plane, the plane.”

Suddenly airport personnel surrounded us and ushered us to a room on the airport’s second floor. This room was filled with the families and friends who had passengers on my grandmother’s flight.

“Go call daddy,” my mother was crying. I bolted out of that room with my cousin Larry and headed to the main floor searching for a phone booth. My call to my father was interrupted by reporters who had spotted us and had descended on us like vultures. “You and the little boy. Look toward the cameras,” they were shouting. Larry started to cry. “Leave us alone,” I shouted back.

The airline did not confirm what they already knew about the plane’s fate making us and the other families wait for several hours. We actually were hoping the plane had been hijacked and that the passengers were all safely on the ground in Cuba. When the news finally was delivered to us, we were numb. My mother sat staring into space, her face tear-stained, her eyes swollen red. Every few moments someone in that room would moan and start to rock in their seat and then burst into tears. The agony in the room was palpable. We had bonded in a hell of our own.

My father had earned his private pilot’s license years before my grandmother’s plane crash. He loved flying. After the accident, he gave it up for my mother’s peace of mind.

Years later my mother could see and feel my father’s longing to return to the sky. She gave him her blessing to go back to his passionate avocation. My father was a renaissance man. He was meticulous and quite brilliant.

December 20, 1974. The holidays were about to begin. My father and sister Ivy were flying in my father’s plane to our vacation home in Florida. My mother was already there waiting for them with my cousin Larry who was visiting. I was planning to join them the following day and would be flying commercially.

 As I walked into my apartment after work, my phone was ringing. My sister Linda’s voice was quivering and desperate. “There has been an accident. We are trying to find out details.”

I froze. This was the second time I had heard this scenario. Suddenly I raised my arm and brought it down with such force that I smashed the face of my watch against the table. I wore my watch that way for years because it represented what I felt like inside.

In Florida waiting for them, my mother was making phone calls from her end as well.

She finally reached the airport and was told there had been an accident.

“What hospital are they in?” she begged. There was a long pause on the other end and then the words, “I am so sorry. The report does not read that way.”

My mother and Larry started screaming. There was no way this could be happening. Her husband and sixteen-year-old daughter. This was not possible. Not again.

We were told from investigators whom we hired that there had been errors on the part of the air controller who was in communication with my father’s plane.

We could not bear to see them in their caskets. For months after the accident, whenever our doorbell rang, we thought that it was my father and Ivy coming home. It had all been a terrible mistake. They found their way back to us.

For years I have dreamt of Ivy returning. Genuinely not knowing what has happened, I ask her where she has been. She always smiles and does not answer. Then we embrace. Her hug is a homecoming. I never want to let go of her. I do not want to wake and know this is a dream.

I wish I were a writer of fiction.


Elynne Chaplik-Aleskow is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author and award-winning educator and broadcaster. She is Founding General Manager of WYCC-TV/PBS and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Wright College in Chicago. Her adult storyteller program is renowned. Her stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies including Thin Threads (Kiwi Publishing), Chicken Soup for the Soul (Simon & Schuster Distributor), This I Believe: On Love (Wiley Publishing), Forever Travels (Mandinam Press), Press Pause Moments (Kiwi Publishing), My Dad Is My Hero (Adams Media) and various magazines, including Jerusalem Post Magazine. Elynne’s husband, Richard, is her muse. Visit http://LookAroundMe.blogspot.com

Categories: Airplanes, Death

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