When I Fell from the Sky (Almost)
“We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live” (Joan Didion’s 2006 collection title)
I miss the softness of your hands in mine, my thumb tracing yours. Thinking how lucky I am.
Do it again.
The winter sun on my face, warming the back of my neck, above the shirt collar, sweatered arms, fingers and palms peeking out as I hold the hardcover book open to the page in front of me. Sitting in the garden in a long-ago Indian winter.
Do it again. Now.
The first time I saw snow . . . or rather the first I was in snow (having seen it from afar in Darjeeling in the northeast of India) was in Chail, an alpine-like valley in Himachal, near the western Himalayan foothills, about 25 miles from Shimla. In the midst of one of the most turbulent, feverish, frenzied times of my life, over a half-century ago, the snow was quiet, dazzlingly white, laying thick and alluringly all around me. I sipped clove-soaked tea from a English china teacup.
It was the start of the longest stretch of the journey ---London to Delhi---nonstop. On board with 305 passengers including 23 crew members on an Air India Jumbo, flight 310 out of Heathrow. It left 37 minutes late from its scheduled departure time at 10.22 a.m. London time. It was April 5, 1986.
I was a cigarette smoker then. And I also drank alcohol. The airlines allowed both. Just think. Closed, air-controlled, pressurized cabins at 35,000 feet with a bunch of us smoking. And so it was. I had my drink; I had my cigarette lit; I had my book open and my headphones plugged into the jet’s music system.
I’d left New York the day before. On what then was an annual sortie to India to update parts of a travel guidebook, I would use the work to see my mother in Kolkata. In those days, I always took the window seat (like a little boy who made those short trips to Bagdogra, at the eastern foothills of the Himalayas from Kolkata. That was the nearest airfield from Darjeeling, long before the Indian Air Force started using it as a base. It was, at that time, almost four hours to Hill Cart Road and the Mall in Darjeeling by Land-Rover taxis via galvanic switchback roads making the steep ascent, with the ravines spiraling down to the fast-flowing Teesta River).
In about half an hour, what I later found out was over Belgium, I looked out the window and saw plumes of smoke ballooning from the engines off the wing on my side of the plane. Well, I thought, the professionals are at the wheel and took another sip of my drink. My seat was near the middle galley, and I noticed the flight attendants buzzing about probably a bit more energetically than the cramped space warranted. Moments later, the intercom crackled, and the captain informed us tersely that there was a mechanical problem, and we were returning to London. The billowing smoke was actually jet fuel being dumped over the Belgian countryside.
One of the passengers leaped up from his aisle seat and lunged toward the exit door. The flight attendants tackled him as in a rugby scrum and dragged him to into the galley where some male passengers and flight attendants subdued him. Perhaps fear propels us into action in stressful situations, however misguided.
One of the flight attendants rattled off instructions over the intercom. We were exiting by sliding chutes out the rear exits. NO SHOES OR SHARP OBJECTS. NOT EVEN SPECTATCLES. JUST YOUR PASSPORT. ALL LUGGAGE WILL BE OFF-LOADED LATER.
If the plane doesn’t blow up, I thought.
Within another thirty minutes we had landed back at Heathrow and headed to the fringes of one of the runways, far from the terminals. Ambulances, fire trucks, police cars, and airport vehicles were racing at high speed toward the aircraft.
I have no memory of getting to the exit. I remember feeling my inside jacket pocket to make sure I had my contraband glasses. Did I check for my passport, that most-valued document for any international traveler? Nope. I was almost blind without my glasses, and I was more concerned about that.
Hit the tarmac within seconds and started running in my socks toward the perimeter. Within a few minutes we were hustled into a building. We were told to produce our passports and we’d be given temporary 24-hour visas so we could move about London, get hotel coupons for accommodations and meal tickets. That’s when I had to fess up about having left my passport on my seat. If the officers muttered anything about my stubbornness or stupidity or both, I don’t remember. I do remember that there was an Indian woman whose Indian passport had been stolen in Chicago. She’d been allowed to board the flight because Air India had assurances from her family in India that they’d bring papers to Delhi airport. This unscheduled London layover wasn’t in the plan. U.K. immigration asked if someone with a legitimate passport would offer to be the temporary guardian for this woman so she could spend 24 hours in England without being in immigration custody. I volunteered.
We spent hours roaming around London by foot and mass transit. Obviously, we talked. We knew each other’s names and skimmed our histories to date. Yet, today, I have no memory of her name or any other identifying detail ---where she lived in Delhi for instance. I do have this photograph taken at the Thames Embankment, I am guessing. Maybe a reader in India might recognize her---she’s someone’s daughter, niece, aunt, maybe even a wife, possibly a grandmother.
What was the dumping of the jet fuel about? It was a hoax call to Heathrow saying there was a bomb on board. The airlines at that time on the North American continent to India routes were on high alert. In 1985, less than a year before, Air India Flight 182 from Montreal to Bombay via Delhi blew up near Montreal killing 329. Responsibility was taken by a Sikh terrorist group in Canada that wanted a separate country for Sikhs in India called Khalistan. It was the deadliest act of aviation terrorism till 9/11.
If this type of event happened today, I’d have fired off a hundred texts across the world and called a dozen people. In 1986, none of that was a remote possibility. My mother saw news reports the next day in the Indian papers and hoped that I wasn’t one of the 39 or so passengers injured by abrasions and fractures coming down the chute. I did call Lisa, my first wife, in New York but I don’t remember whether it was a collect call or not or even where the phone was.
“There are moments in childhood that attract heat in our memories, some for their sublime brilliance, some for their malignancy.” (~ Jesmyn Ward, “A Cold Current”)
There’s some heat here ---- the softness of a hand, the warmth of a winter sun, the whiteness of freshly fallen snow, and the moments before what could’ve been a catastrophe. No malignancy, malice, or enmity. Regret, yes. For having forgotten the woman’s name. Someone with whom I spent less than 24 hours of my 621,960 hours on this earth.
(All photographs are property of the author)
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