As kids, we played mostly in basements. At our farmhouse. At our piano teacher’s place in town. Even at church functions, when the grown-ups would usher us downstairs in what felt like a dank, dimly lit sepulcher filled with—what? My cousins and I never ventured far from the base of the stairs to find out. An old church basement is especially scary, no matter how fervently it’s dressed up and reimagined. This one sported a pool table. And some suspicious-looking couches, “gently used” donations from former parishioners in the late 70s, I imagine. It’s not very original to say that basements are creepy spaces. Like a building’s pocket, where things are kept from sight, stored for later, stuffed with discarded scraps that might become useful in the unforeseen future. But, also, a place we seek for safety in the storm—as we did one summer during a touring-choir’s nighttime performance. With the electricity out, how fun it can almost feel, being thrown together in the intimacy of a dark space. The shelter becomes a sepulcher once again, this time of secrets and speculations. The shared pleasure of being scared. Even without the storm, with the electricity fully on, my cousins and I loved to play the game of What Happened? The most popular theory was that, somehow, the plane’s exhaust system had failed, maybe backfired. (We were old enough to know about carbon monoxide.) They fell asleep, all of them. My grandfather and both uncles and, of course, the pilot. We knew it to be his fault, but we ruled it an easy mistake. The forgotten flip of a switch and—poof. That quietly, asleep. Their names uttered only in the whisper of a dream: Robert. Douglas. Dean.
That day Mankato was mild and dry, with 71 as the high and zero precipitation—that would come later—and a wind so light the tents didn’t flutter and house flies hovered over food in the dirt, dropped corndogs and fried dough and those little cones of nuts washed down with soda or lemonade freshly shaken in every concession trailer lining the rows of FarmFest Minnesota. It was Doug’s idea to go. My restless uncle didn’t give a hoot about the food you have to try or the raffled-off tools or the country crooner headlining that night. Only twenty-eight, he’d just split from the wife he still loved and hated; a college grad come home to farm beside his dad and I imagine Doug felt trapped in a corn maze, lost following a map with a key that’s outdated. He was dead-set on making some headway with Smith River Farms, get an edge in the market—for starters, buy some new equipment. Maybe he saw an ad for the event; maybe his former 4-H buddies were going; maybe the Ag business was booming in Minnesota. What I know is all three of them—Doug and his dad Bob and his younger brother Dean—they decided to fly to FarmFest in the middle of harvest, on a fall day warm and cloudless and perfect for browsing the exhibits, up and down each worn out row dotted with food and the sheriff’s horse manure that Dean might’ve stepped in eying a girl beside the Western riding gear, fingering a mint-plaid shirt and matching chaps. He’d just turned eighteen, a week away from orientation at State and no Jeep and a floor of coeds just beyond his door. Maybe Bob perused the craft souvenirs to bring back to my grandma, linen pie shells or corn silk angels sewn right on the cob—nothing she’d probably want, but she’d know she was thought of during her men’s outing and that’s just what it was: A father and two sons slipping from the field like they’re skipping school, whistling as a round hay baler birthed a perfect spool laced tighter than a boot; at a combine equipped with air-conditioning—if only their grandpa could’ve seen this—or the tillage equipment with the larger blade spacing, its wake as wide as a yacht’s and all of it lacquered to a mirror of the men’s hands on their hips, their peek at a watch: The sun’s about to dip—what time did Cliff say to meet us at the plane? And they board with the weight of a day’s bad-eating and the sons’ dreaming about the stuff they could lease and Bob’s glad, for a change, he gets to sit back and relax as Cliff jokes he’s the boss of this machine, and the radio cuts out with the weather ahead—overcast and wet—while below, Mankato fades to a green patch-quilt, the skin of the Minnesota River quivering through the window.
Lois Barber can’t sleep. Her husband Roy is up north on a fishing trip and without the night-time prattle about chores or the price of corn or the weather—you know farmers—she listens to the mist hitting the bedroom window and behind it, the cattle lowing in the distance, the deep insistence of some heifer in heat or hungry to be fed by Roy, not the hired hand who won’t scratch a calf’s back an inch or two above the tail—I’m not touching its ass—with every one he’ll pass; Lois swears Roy names his favorites like those derby racers, though he’d never admit it, his attachment toward the animals he fattens and loads every week the semi rolls in and the lowing grows louder, fervid even, until the truck pulls out and the wall clock reaches her ears again. It sets Lois on edge. She pads from the bed to the television set—the Reds are beating the Dodgers 4 to 2, but she’d rather watch the news—when something shrill pierces the roof, an engine overhead and she knows by the whine it’s a low-flying plane. She flips off the game, leaning on the set barely warm against her leg when it circles again, too loud and too close (she’ll tell a reporter, it sounded like it was coming right for the house) and when it strikes the ground, it makes an awful crack like when lightening hit the silo, rattling her mother’s Hummels in the curio cabinet, springing the cat from its clutch on the couch. She counts to ten; turns off the lights and pulls back the drapes. No sign of fire through the trees—just a field as wet and black as peering through a pipe.
Mrs. Lloyd up the road heard it too. She heard the dull thud like a heavy door slam, the way Henry will do when he’s mad. Before that, she heard the plane’s engine pitch high and then low, a buzzing as loud as a dentist’s drill to the head, springing Henry from the house to the driveway, his neck craned at the sky—the night was wet and cloudy; what did he expect to see?—but his wife had already deciphered the signs, the low altitude, the shrill whine; she guessed what it meant from her days as a stewardess strapped in the back on take-off and touch-down. She’d listened to the engines of a dozen different Boeings; she could pick them apart the way Henry can pluck the chords of a tune he once heard in the war—something about fear does that to hearing—and her ear was attuned to all the sounds of mid-flight; she knew when to cruise the aisle and when to park the cart long before the pilot’s green light; and on a few times, when to fuse her ass to the seat before he’d even broadcasted the need to turn around. How it tired her out, not the coming and going, not the waiting on people (Henry rang for help with his coat and lifted his cast; I had a little accident with a ram), how it hit her then—this life she was spending in a holding pattern, never making contact with anyone or any place within the space of a few hours, a few days at the most. Turning thirty in the Gerald R. Ford airport, she added up the delays and dialed the number scrawled in Henry’s left hand like a child learning to count, thinking this crazy thought, if I ever fly again, it’ll be from the cockpit, from the controls of a Cessna she’d rent just to show Henry his farm, the little patch of land she’d share and tend with him. The things we daydream. And when a plane does appear, she will say to a reporter her personal theory—that her trained ear could hear, in the long seconds before impact, the pilot suffered a heart attack or was otherwise ill, and one of the five passengers had taken the controls and was trying to land.
Mrs. Graham (Janis) Tucker of Quincy-Grange Road, the third witness that night, told the Daily this: She heard it alright but she never thought it was coming toward the house—some people like to exaggerate—no, it sounded to her like the plane was trying to gain some air, what’s the word, some altitude. (You know when you push on the gas pedal hard, say you’re driving up a steep incline like a mountain or those streets she’s seen on TV of San Francisco, how loud the engine revs, and not from speed but the fight against gravity? Well, that’s the sound.) They weren’t trying to land but to climb, and for whatever reason, they weren’t gaining ground or whatever you say in this case. It doesn’t matter, the cause; we might never know that. Just think of the poor men pinned inside. Just think of the wives and, oh God, the children left behind. For hours she watched the scene unfold, first the state police then the pumper unit—though from where she stood (by her car down the road), she never saw a single flame. Then the team that cut the pilot out (‘course she didn’t watch that; the reporter rubbed his eyes, trying to describe the sight of the parts they bagged in plastic), and finally early Friday (she’d gone home by then and fell asleep with the binocular strap imprinted on her neck like the ribbing of her nylon socks to the leg), the FAA had arrived. She counted four vans and twice as many shirts, the gold lettering on their backs popping out like a stat or final score she could almost read, and when she tried to approach her neighbors’ land, they shooed her away—and on the second pass, issued some kind of warning. What ticket could they give her? Loitering near a home near mine? She’d like to see them try. This had happened to her, to the farmers and wives nearby, and she was willing to bet, the folks in that plane probably knew us too—it’s that kind a community. Not to the neck-craners crawling by, trying to get a peek at the spattering of debris. Not to the men ankle-deep in the field, taking measurements and shots of God knows what. Not even to those reporting—no offense—they’re local, most of ’em, but they can’t package an impact like this in a quote. Then other times, they don’t seem to get what’s better kept off record. She doesn’t need her neighbors reading she sleeps with binoculars.
About a year after your mother’s two brothers and father died in flight, we shopped for a new car, a safe car, but the sales guy didn’t want to talk cars but about the crash. He had a theory (we didn’t know any better then) just how the Beechcraft flew and drew up his hand to show the plane circling back, and the flaps—now his other hand—folding in all that COtight, just tucked them all to sleep—then snapped his fingers you see? We were trapped. I pressed your mom’s back toward a blue sedan, but she wanted a wagon. Something boxy as a tank. Something with a bumper, she said, and circled back around the Buicks. Bought one with doors as dense as wood and paneled like it too. Tell me, can you make out the bumper on this coupé? Now they stuff ‘em full of bags—they’ve found that much out—so tell me how it’s still safer in the air than on the ground. Tell me why they’ll make a bag inflate and not a chute. Tell me your theory on that.
Too much ice cream, Cliff? But he can’t tease back, can’t holler over the buzz of the props, can’t even whisper the words of distress into the headset. There’s a drilling in his chest. The sense of something popping in his eye and pinching at the neck and every breath is a punch off beat with the drill—it fires back. How deep it sends him back into himself; how pain conflates all thought with organs and blood and limbs. He feels a thread about to snap, a string tightened to a blade cutting him at the waist—Cliff’s sick—and he straightens for a bit and turns his gaze. The steering column doubles then goes back, and somewhere on the panel a light begins to flash—for help—more urgent now but he can’t get his hand to lift, like the urn he hooked in the Sauk River bed, just a kid trying to fish in the town’s second dumping ground full of cardboard and cans he learned to feel around with the line, dragging the handle of a thing the size and weight of a baby’s body, pot-bellied and blue. He filled that urn with wild rhubarb, a gift to his gram like he’d picked it out at Branches for a dime. But none of this figures now, not the way he’s always maneuvered things; not the quick reflex and the right nerve it took to bomb those MiGs and earn him the title flying ace those years ago; not the hours he’s logged since buzzing folks around the state for a solid day’s pay and the chance to climb the clouds again, a calm not even water, not fishing, can match. None of it means he can quiet the drilling when it comes; that he can squeeze the blood and breath to lift his hand and set the controls to land; that he can tell them how it works, the only three controls they need to know—steering column, throttle, and brakes—to keep the nose up and lower the plane; to take them all down safely again.
No one knows why the Beechcraft crashed, but the report lists the weather as overcast and misting and above that, the phrase spatial disorientation. My pilot-brother gives this explanation: The body tells you one thing and your instruments another in conditions when you can’t see shit—in daylight, a web of gauze that tricks you like you’re sitting still, some sad parade float come unhitched in the middle of the cloud deck; at night, a haze so thick you forget it’s air, just a dark blanket draped over a cage and you’re the bird, in this case. Look, it messes with your perception, your sense of position in a piston aircraft known for its speed (300 knots at impact—that’s way too fast for a landing), so you tell me: When you’re flying blindly at that rate of speed something’s bound to go wrong; it’s what we call a recipe for emergency, when you can’t see out and up is down and down is (I almost said out) is up—you with me now? That’s why it’s called flying by the seat of your pants when your eyes should be glued to the panel. That’s why neighbors heard the engine whistle; he thought he was climbing when he dove toward the tree line like a glorified missile. He had no business taking off at night without his instrument rating. Weather was shitty, true, but he should’ve known the first rule you learn in aviation: Don’t trust your body. I’ve flown in worse and believe me, the body’s no instrument with an inner ear for a compass. You cannot listen to it. But there he was flying someone else’s husband, someone else’s sons, at that speed in zero visibility, and he must’ve felt it in his bones the plane was climbing, rising to a height where the clouds might break and he could see the approach, the direction home. I don’t know if he knew, or if he fainted. I don’t know if he even realized until it was too late.
They crashed on Mr. Barber’s newly-plowed ground, so soft the plane sank three feet deep like a seed itself, like an arrow unearthed. They crashed at a speed you feel on take-off, like they were being chased or got turned around. They crashed in a corner of Barber’s field, just inside the tree-line (and can you believe folks kept crawling by, shielding a hand over their eyes until an NTSB guy would wave ’em by. The way some people behave.) They crashed in a field like one my dad picked clean of rocks for a quarter a piece, plucking them from field to backhoe, its bucket full as a popcorn bowl. But it’s no picnic, this kind of harvest combing rock from dirt set down when ice crawled and culled and covered everything that grows now in the wake of a tiller spitting up stone and, once, a plane’s debris strewn across the Barber’s field—wiper blade and wing still working its way out, surfacing before the eyes of a boy who drops his rock to study this glint in the ground, this chip of metal cool and scratch-blue from its field tomb. He slips it in a pocket and forgets it there, until he bends low again and something stings his skin.
Before your grandpa and uncles, my own dad died when a drunk driver tried to light his cigarette (a book of matches, no less, all splayed in his lap) and no one wore seat belts so it didn’t matter, slow or fast, you weren’t going to walk away folded in the dash—at least, that’s the picture flashed in my head. For years I got sick at the smell of a cigarette (guess that’s good, I never smoked) and dreaded going back-roads home. But someone had to run the farm. They asked me Blake, what will you do? and I hadn’t a clue, not one damned clue how I’d harvest all that corn myself and feed the hogs too, how their squealing drove me to search for Dad’s .22. I just thought if I could scare ’em quiet, just a second or two, I could figure out what to do. But then I saw this image of myself running and rifling, like I was above or on the outside, and it scared me so much I folded right there in the dust and shit to scream with the hogs. It helped somehow. Meantime friends were meeting to plan a harvest bee—I’m telling you how I got the idea—to channel all that manpower, all the wagons and tractors; an army of augers; every combine here to Quincy quit their fields for a day to pay my dad this last respect, this harvest-gift three days after we’d laid him to rest.
When a thing goes down, we turn to order. We cultivate what sense will come—when a drunk drops a match-book in his lap; when this drunk kills Blake’s dad, and neighbors rush to harvest what’s been left; when, years later, a plane plunges into Barber’s field; when that same plane carries three of Blake’s friends—a father and two sons, the Smith men—he will rush to the barns to feed their cattle for days, weeks, until the feed gets thin and the memory of that harvest bee works its way back to Blake, an image he sees walking past the feeder calves and the friends’ notes still etched in chalk on the dates the calves were weaned, and Blake sits down again in grief; when he’ll call a meeting and two hundred people, farmers and wives all arrive—some down the road, some across state lines—and sign up their time, their pies, pulled pork, and coffee ’round the clock while reporters mill and the combines buzz nonstop; when the granaries wear a sign we’re closed to all but the volunteers for Harvest Day; God bless you when the corn’s this wet and yet they’ll pave every acre of a sixty thousand bushel count; when the weather mists just like it did, you know, the night they missed their approach; when the prattle takes a lower tone at the papers’ update—the cause remains unknown—and is it any wonder; when an impact’s that fast the fuel evaporates and debris is the least of the recovery that combs one corner of Barber’s field (a month to the harvest bee); when they found one victim in a tree.
I ask your prayers for the departed [especially __________]. Pray for those who have died. Silence.—”Prayers of the People,” Form II, Book of Common Prayer
We’d been asleep for a couple of hours when the phone rang. I answered and our church pastor asked to speak with your dad, asleep next to me. It was September, the start of harvest. My dad and brothers were putting up silage that week. They’d heard about a farm show several states away, and rather than drive—to save time—they took up the offer to fly, to be piloted there by a guy who flew planes in the war and managed a John Deere dealership. Hadley was his name. My brother Dean started at State the following week, but he was home harvesting corn, hopping in his jeep to meet up with this or that friend before they’d all leave. But a seat on the plane opened up. Doug’s friend backed out and Dean—he’d just turned eighteen a few weeks before to that new feeling, that budding freedom—he jumped at the chance to fly with Doug and Dad. But I didn’t know that. We drove to Mom’s and I walked down the hall to Dean’s room—to the door steeped in bumper stickers ’cause Mom forbade him from cheapening the jeep—and she looked up at me. She called after me. He’s with them. I pray you’ll never hear, never know, the full weight and sound of this response.
Growing up, I nursed a fear of ghosts. It might’ve been my sister’s show, the one with trench-coat Robert Stack as host (an off-shoot of another hit, Have You Seen This Person?) or, hell, the theme song alone with strobe-light drum and siren notes and who knew a synthesizer could act possessed—YouTube it yourself—but no, the show was just a stage for other ghosts I feigned in the doorway as I slept, never with my back to the frame; I don’t know why, but I had to face them when they came. They never did. My mother made me count to a hundred. But by ten the waiting drove me from my bed to nestle beside my younger brother Jon (now a pilot, uncannily) whose likeness to our uncle Dean throws back the oval shape of his face, the blue-gray eyes and crooked smile—even their handwriting bears the same slant, same shape, like somebody wrung out the letters and draped them on the line to dry a little thinner, slightly wilted to the eye. I tease him but it’s not lightly. I’ve learned to sleep with my back to the door. I’ve learned to dream instead of count. I’ve had to close my mind to the shadows that already stretch before me.
My mother tells me her dad had such big hands, a large man, broad-shouldered and tall but emotional, voice clamped mid-pitch like my mom will get when she sings certain hymns. I only wanted to touch his hands and all that’s tethered—the onion poultice that healed his colds; turpentine for wounds (it’s true); the chainsaws he sold on the side to battle his debt; and the flat he changed on a Cadillac, all leather and chrome, when who was in the back but Marilyn en route from Detroit to Chicago, all flutter and color of scent pressed in the handkerchief she gifted to him when he greased his cheek (that’s my hand in the plot). And it’s all the same; he would’ve stopped anyway; he was that kind of man could take and fix anything but his own deep ache—that old refrain—at whether to stay, a man later identified by his wedding band. My grandmother was told she could gather some clothes (it helps sometimes), to lay in his place something he’d touched.
A passer-by, a guy who drove truck hauling grain, spotted it first and jumped from his cab to knock on the nearest door. I am sure my grandma crossed her arms, so cautious and probably pressed for time, dressed in her nursing uniform (when she worked for the state), and it makes me think she knew this guy; why would she follow him otherwise? Or maybe she looked into his unblinking eyes—big as saucers, we say—and realized (when she worked for the state) he needed help. Or maybe she heard in his tone someone else’s emergency (you have to come see), the adrenaline surge to the legs. She follows his hand stabbing the sky at a spot about a quarter-mile high, over a channel of the lake where she and my grandpa lived at the time half the family would die in a plane, and you better believe I see the cliché—done to death, we say—the cigar-like craft hovering in the air long enough for a fishing boat to pass and wave at my grandma and then, bam—it disappears, silent as quicksilver slipping from the palm or like a dot of static on the television, that quietly, gone. Not a trace of exhaust in its place. But the image will stay perched in their minds; they try to describe it, first to each other, then to the town when the Daily shows up and here’s the take-away: the peculiar stillness of a thing so near to the ground, you’d expect to hear some fire in the engine, some kind of idling sound. It wasn’t flying at all. What my grandmother saw wasn’t any kind of flight she recognized.
Rachael Peckham is the author of Muck Fire (Spring Garden Press) and the recipient of the 2010 Robert Watson Poetry Award. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and received a notable mention in the 2012 Best American Essays. Most recently, her work appeared in Hotel Amerika, and Under the Sun. She currently teaches Creative Nonfiction at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.