Of Memories and Plane Crashes

The memory is clear. A wet day, overcast, still more winter than spring in Nashville. We pile in the car–Mom’s orange-red VW Beetle, possibly the white VW microbus, that part isn’t as clear or important–and drive to Donelson Plaza.

Northwest up Murfreesboro Pike, right on Donelson Pike, follow that till it bottoms out, turn left, take the fork, drive up Old Lebanon Road. There was a Woolworth’s Drug Store and Dinette there. And Cain Sloan Department Store… or, if I’m being true to my child’s memory, it could’ve been Castner Knott’s. Four-year-olds don’t always notice things like that.

It is there, in an empty lot by the Plaza, that we see the plane. It’s battered and twisted and there is a temporary fence around it. There is at least one TV crew there, with a huge camera. There is a crowd.

What burns in my mind is the crumpled tin can body of the plane. I think, people died here.

The plane seems huge.

If memories are imprinted on a long reel of film, the frames around this moment are ghosted, too whited out by age and time to see. But I remember this broken plane and the destruction around it.

Or I thought I did. At some point I started telling myself I made it up. I cobbled together news footage and childhood fears and maybe some vivid dreams and came up with this memory.

planecrash72Then today, I found it. I’d remembered a real event, after all.

I discovered the plane had been carrying four men, and it had gone down, according to my father, on Todd’s Knob, a hill by Donelson Plaza. Dad’s memory for such events is striking in general and makes sense, especially here–he worked for the Nashville Airport Authority at the time.

Dad thinks we saw the wreckage well after it happened but before it had been moved by the authorities and that rings true. There were many people there, just gawking–and I remember that, too, because even though I was only 4, I took in all the other people there and something about them scared me.

We were staring at a nightmare, a tomb.

Speaking on the phone with Dad, he segues into his own childhood story of a plane crash he witnessed near the end of World War II. He was 9.

Jackie (my uncle, Dad’s older brother) and I were laying in the yard, watching fighter planes maneuver. Pretend dog fight.

Dad’s family lived near a plant built late in the war to churn out new fighters that would be sent overseas.

They collided, exploded. We ran to the field where they fell.

There were small squares of aluminum hot and burning the grass. Bits of parachute fabric fluttering on blackberry bushes at the fence line. People–kids, locals, farm folks, sharecropper families–were crowding in.

The military hadn’t closed off the area quickly enough. My grandfather, Dad tells me, made it home from work. But when they got in the car to go back out to the grocery, they were turned back. The road was closed.

Dad is stuck on one detail. It is his own moment of nightmare. Of staring at a tomb.

One girl found a finger.

That girl who found a finger, she carried it around for weeks, showed it at school.

[Newspapers.com]

#dad, #memory, #mini-memoir, #newspapers-com, #plane-crashes

Fishing Trip

(I have written about what’s going on with my father here. I wasn’t sure why I wrote the post below and still am not sure, but it is what it is.)

We rode up through the mountains and then through the forests to the lake. James’s son Kelly and I sat in the back of James’s El Camino. You and James sat up front driving and talking about whatever men talk about with wind bellowing in the windows and country music blaring through the speakers.

The lake revealed itself curve by curve, glimmering through the trees. A burst of reflected sunlight here, there a gray green slice of waves.

Then we were at the main lodge to check in. Kelly and I walked idly around the lobby, picking at brochures. I’d just begun driving. Kelly was 12. We’d played off and on for years when you and mom got together with James and Linda but I felt like I was saddled with amusing this kid. I wasn’t very good at it. I was 16. Too old for this.

You flirted with the older round women behind the check-in desk and I watched a master work. Your pale green eyes and devil’s smile. Both women giggled and nodded and seeing them so charmed I realized how much I didn’t know about my father.

Shopping at the convenience store on the state highway before we arrived, you’d bought nothing but garbage junk food and I thought, this is how men eat when no one is around to frown at them. 

We loaded into the cabin, you and James on one side, Kelly and I on the other. I stared at the lake through the windows. Beyond the rolling water, the rock faces rising to the trees. But for you and James and your beer-fueled laughter, it was the quietest place I’d been in a while.

Before we headed out with our rods and tackles we ate Ho-Hos and Twinkies and RC Cola, and you didn’t say a word about how fat I’d been as a boy or about worrying I might get there again and I loved you for it.

Under the white sun we floated and for a son whose father is a legendary talker it is perhaps remarkable that I remember nothing of any of our conversation. I know with our red hair and pale skins we burned. We burned, and we didn’t catch any fish.

Time has shuffled memory’s deck of cards–blown it apart and lost a few, really–and I can’t quite recall the order of the rest of our trip. So here is what I do remember:

  • We docked to gas up the boat and buy a few supplies and Kelly and I wandered the dock. It was like an outpost in another country. I couldn’t see any roads on the land around it. It was as if the smell of the entire lake had been concentrated there.
  • At some point I examined the fishing license you’d gotten me. My birthday was 2 years and 2 days off–11/5/1965. I never knew if you’d made me older on purpose, some game law, but I never asked you, either.
  • Neither you nor James ever caught a fish. Kelly and I caught 3 a piece. You wanted to show me how to clean and filet them and I watched, but I couldn’t do it. I could never do those sorts of things. By the time I was 16, I felt like you’d finally come to a truce with that. You and James fried the fish and we all ate and it was better than I thought it would be.

The thing I remember most clearly was how we took the boat out at night.

It was cool for a Tennessee summer. We dropped the fishing lines in the water where they drifted unbitten.

Eventually we fell silent.

I was 16. Kelly, at 12, was just the right age for fishing trips with Dad. Me, I was too old, too easily bored for this.

Yet I remember sitting silent in that boat at night on a quiet lake better than anything.

I was never going to be too old to drift there and watch the stars with my father.

 

 

 

#dad, #fuck-cancer, #mini-memoir

Old Tape

tape

My audition tape, circa 1998. Or 1999. Not sure.

I was always depressed. Often about a woman. Sometimes about my weight. Or just my life. And none of these things were truly that terrible. Depression would’ve come even if all other circumstances had been perfect. It’s genetic, I know that, now.

But I could sing, even if depressed. I might mangle the languages a bit, but I aimed for the intensity. That’s what I identified with when it came to opera. It’s overblown, big, and strange. It’s yearning, impassioned, and sad. I was raised in the south and heard mostly hymns, classic rock and country music before I turned 13. Once I was introduced to opera I felt what it was about. I understood it.

The competition was held at a theater in New Haven, Connecticut, in early spring. I’d recorded the audition tape months before. They took long enough to get back to me, I later wondered if I was just the least bad choice left to round out the competing singers to ten. But maybe that was my depression talking. Or being from the south. In spite of the presence of my first wife, who had a worldly and cosmopolitan air I felt I lacked (and who in hindsight was enormously gracious in going with me–our marriage was by then pretty rocky), I felt like a rube the moment we ferried across the Sound from Long Island to Connecticut.

I felt like a rube entering the theater and meeting the other singers. Every singer except for me had an established career. There was a tall bass who was a legitimate star in his native Taiwan. A tenor named Chuck who is today a staple in European and NYC opera houses. He’d already done Mozart roles with the New York City Opera. A soprano who’d won the Metropolitan Opera National Council final competition. I’d only ever won the first round of that.

The other singers were, to a person, friendly and personable. I particularly liked my fellow tenor. Tenors compete hard onstage, but we always get each other backstage, if we set that aside. In the world of classical voice, being a tenor can be very strange.

My ego wanted to surge at learning I had the most humble career of anyone there, at the time (I would go on to do roles with the Atlanta Opera and some good concert work–but it took a few years). It seemed promising. But I think the depression that was already hovering had begun to descend.

I’ve talked with other singers–other performers in general–and it’s often hard to recall anything that happens once you walk on stage. I recall nothing about that competition in New Haven. The light, perhaps. I did my best, but the dark anchor had already pulled me down.

My wife was frank but not unkind when I asked about it after. You just sounded under-powered.

One of the things I’d always had was sheer vocal power. I could project. Over 80-piece orchestras, 60-voice choirs, you name it. That day, I gave an anemic, careful performance. My wife said she heard someone behind her remark I had a nice voice, it just wasn’t very strong.

In the end I couldn’t truly be ashamed of how I’d done. The judges seemed to consider me in the middle of the field, fifth out of the ten in quality.

One of the judges was opera great Licia Albanese. One of the very first opera records I ever owned as a teen was a La Boheme she’d recorded as Musetta, with perhaps my favorite great tenor, Jüssi Björling, playing Rodolfo. I do recall what she said to me after.

You sing ‘Nessun dorma,’ said the old diva, you are not yet a Calaf. Not yet.

I received a modest, runner-up award check–I can’t recall the amount but it might have been $150–and my wife and I headed back to the ferry. Then we were on Long Island, at the small Ronkonkoma Airport. We were very low on funds by then, and there was no way to cash the check there. Our flight was to be the first out the following morning–the airport shut down at midnight, and flights began departure around 7 a.m. the next day.

We didn’t have enough money already in the bank for a motel.

We slept in the airport. At least I think my wife slept. I stretched out, the suit bag holding my rental tuxedo under my head, and listened to the muzak.

I remember scrounging change for peanut butter crackers from a vending machine around 5 a.m.

I don’t think I slept. No, no sleep at all.

#auditions, #competitions, #depression, #jussi-bjorling, #lenskis-aria, #licia-albanese, #mini-memoir, #nessun-dorma, #opera, #opera-singing, #tenor, #unipolar-depression, #werther