theNEWMEDIAREADER · 1990s · Writing on the Edge, 1991 · McDaid
About "The Planes"
When the idea for an asynchronously created hypertextual "essay" was suggested [see "Writing on the Hypertextual Edge"], I figured that the only way I could craft a contribution was by resorting, metaphorically, to the language of plastics, or perhaps (for those with more carbon-based biases) to DNA. Not knowing what the initial contributors would write (and hence, what I could link into) and not knowing what hooks I should want to provide for those to follow, I tried to construct a monomeric narrative. That is, a narrative with a long chain of similar, loosely linked Storyspace places without too much sub-level or interconnection.
(Have I read too much Pynchon? Yes.)
So I began (and finished) writing without ever having seen a word from the other contributors. My idea was that when I got the accreted narrative, I would bind the text to it, in much the same way as polymers cohere, or strands of nucleic acids link to complementary chains. Hypertext, I suspect, is an enactment of these fundamental metaphors of connection: gluons, mitosis, polymerization.
Gluons, according to one theory of subnuclear dynamics, are the hypothetical force-bearing "particles" which moderate interactions among quarks. This gluon force has the peculiar property of increasing with distance; trying to pry a proton apart (to free the three quarks inside) only increases the "number" of gluons binding them together. Add enough energy, and instead of freeing the quark you pass the threshold for the creation of a new particle. The infinitely extensible text. In mitosis, as every schoolchild knows, cellular DNA replicates, separates, and aggregates itself into two child-cells. The infinitely (well, subject to the Hayflick limit) repeatable text. Polymers arise as monomers (simple molecules) gang up to form long, interesting chains, whose characteristics can differ in important ways from the free monomers in isolation. The end result of some catalyst, (like WOE) polymers are examples of unexpected properties arising from simplicity and recursive iteration. The infinitely emergent text.
What you see here, however, are naked monomers. You can imagine points of contact as well as points of disjunction. Perhaps that represents an even more interesting, and perhaps, fruitful enterprise, since the nature of hypertext (for you, the reader-author) is YOUR creation of links and nodes, not mine. Please try to view this text then, as a side-chain of the on-disk writing whose points of connection may be situation-inevitable, or perhaps deeply thematic; idiosyncratic, or just imaginary.
And, above it all, fly the Planes.
And, as always, above it all, fly the Planes.
I think that one of these sentences, variants which ocurred to me last night as I struggled to fall asleep, will be the first sentences of the story. But I cannot decide which. For some reason, I like the assonance. I am not sure why, but I am sure that something will come to me. Perhaps not now: it is early, and I have a conference to hustle out to. But it will come, inevitably. I had a dream... a nightmare, actually, from which I awoke in a blood- thumping sweat, in which I said, "I know how to do this as well as it is known how to be done."
And THAT is truly terrifying.
That, and the Planes.
I always notice, when I drive out of New York across the Whitestone Bridge, what a sweeping approach LaGuardia has from the north. As you're driving up, toward New England, the Planes are curving in to the left of you, and from the middle of the span, they seem to descend past you, so that you can watch them from the top down, as they come in over the water.
Just waking from another dream; another vision. We talked, yesterday, about flying into LaGuardia and SFO: which is scarier—the maneuvering or the fog. Seeing the ground constantly twisting to avoid condos, or not seeing the ground because the effulgent Bay steams up a white carpet to Welcome you... (Howdy, friend air traveler! Come on in! Nothing but Smooth, Soft Billowy Whiteness in here...)
In the dream I was descending through
No, it's the same one. I can't talk about it.
In the Taurobolum, we stood naked, under the grate, and waited for the blood of the God/dess to pour down on us. That moment of warm, sticky ecstasy comes to me whenever I think about them: Tenerife, Gander, O'Hare...
We have no Gods to sacrifice to, anymore (and we (whitemaleculture) don't even Mention the Goddess, unless we're Tom Robbins, and we intend to do a shabby job) and the Universe has been universally agreed to be a harsher, rougher place, so the Judgement we accept is not the Failure of the Hero/ine, but only the inevitable Fucked To Deathing of the Schlemiel—something old Jesuit Joe Campbell never prepared us for.
Two hundred and seventy-five people died in the DC-10 impact in Chicago. That's more than Reagan expended defending the airport in Beirut.
"Airports," Said Ron, "Just happen to be flat."
The Planes know that.
What shall I do... what shall I say? Go back in and dermabrade, or assume this stuff is the ineffable tattooed Word? First thought, worst thought? How can I talk about this process? What are we. What Am I? What can I... need I... say about this decrypted world, this bracketed Husserelian existence? If all that exists is hexis, how can we tolerate the Planes?
Saturday's routine afternoon melodrama: cleaning the apartment. Except, while vacuuming the windows of the inevitable greasy black grit, a horrifying synapse closes. It was totally normal, standing at the front window, with the DustBuster™, hearing the rumble of a 727 go by right overhead, at about 800. And I looked up, and something made me see the back end of the plane like a critter's anus (I think it's the way the buttocks of 747's resemble a cat's, viewed dead-on) and it occurred to me to wonder where the effluent burnt hydrocarbons from the Jet-A ended up.
I thought I might have the answer in my hand.
She's out on the sofa reading the Times. We talked about the Epiphany of the Black Grit. Seems when she moved into the Slope years ago was when she first noticed it. Never made any connection betweeen the birds going by every two minutes and the ubiquitous particulate residue... but now that you mention it...
No one has ever discussed Fallout from the Planes. Oh, I guess there's the usual talk about social impacts (the culture of Insane Speed) and metaphoric layers (Fear of Flying) and even cognitive sequellae (Oxcarts of the Global Village) but those aren't really something you have to vacuum once a week.
Are The Planes shitting on us?
And, above it all, fly the Planes.
And, as always, above it all, fly the Planes.
I just realized why those sentences kept occurring to me last week. It was July ninth. The anniversary of Kenner. In a way, it was the Kenner crash that first made me start thinking about the Mortality and Morbidity of the Flight Path. Here was this sleepy little suburb, ducking indoors in a sudden late afternoon thunderstorm, now Visited by a 727 from New Orleans International.
The Plane never made altitude; seems like it took off right into a microburst, lost lift, clipped a tree and a power line, (which pretty much sealed its fate) and came down hard.
In one of the houses blasted by the impact, a 16 month-old-baby was found alive, though her mother and young brother were killed. I remembered that, years later, when everyone marvelled over Cecelia Cichan.
154 dead; 1 survives.
With the Planes above it all.
For me, the dream is always the same; always LaGuardia. As long ago as college... when, I must confess, I did most of my flying... I had this nightmare. I was coming into LaGuardia from the north; a very common approach, weather systems in NY mostly moving up from the southwest. Anyway, there I would be, watching Manhattan pass by, curving up over Yonkers, and then, spending what seemed like an voiceless eternity slowly descending over the south Bronx, until finally, we were over the Bay.
I remember glittering wavefronts throwing back sunlight; sailboats dancing amidst flat funnel dapple; and delicately, ponderously, the 27 slowing, well below any speed of "flight" in one's mind, until it felt like it was poised, dithering, over the few feet that separated it from the flashing waters of the East River. You never saw the runway. Ever—until two seconds before touchdown.
But in the dream, of course, we never touch down. We hit the end of the runway, poking out on stilts in the Bay...
The Eighties turned out to be the Decade of Random Fear. We had come through the Sixties, which at least had some Meaning, we were stupefied by the grinding corporate facticity of the '70's, and now we had to deal with the fact theat John Lennon and ronald reagan had been shot by people who wanted to kill them not for any militaristic or social goal, but only because they were unhinged and had access to weapons.
In Japan, I hear they call them Yukaihan, "thrill-seeking criminals," folk who engage in crime not for any personal gain, but simply to fuck the system and giggle.
How does killing Olympic athletes or El Al pax qualify as political discourse?
Only when TV covers it.
I had a student, a volunteer firefighter who responded to the Avianca flight 52 crash at Cove Neck, Long Island, January 25, 1990. He was well bolted-together; he spent his time at the scene doing his job and trying to help those who could be helped. But afterwards, he wondered. News crews were literally coming through the trees, attempting to interview still-hemorrhaging survivors in Military Anti-Shock Trousers with sandbagged necks.
On the other hand, he told me that on at least one occasion, which you may have become familiar with from the inevitable replays, the firefighters ASKED the newscrew to enter the fuselage because they had a nice, actinic kicker-light on their camera. The result, that straight shot down the twisted tube of the pax compartment with crying children and pinned victims, is something we may never forget.
America's most haunted.
I also had a student, an older, returning one, who was a director at News12 Long Island. They were, for most of that horrible, doomstruck night, the only people at the scene. They got in before the barricades went up, they knew the territory, and they got their microwave relay aimed. For most of that night, everybody just piggybacked their feed. And this student of mine was sitting in the control room back at the station, punching it up.
What could he do? He had no way of talking to the field crew. Should he have asked the folks in mastercontrol to run a film, instead? For 8 hours, HE was deciding, literally, what everyone in America saw. He told me that this only occurred to him later. And he also told me, and I agree with him, that he would not have changed a call.
We MUST see what the Planes look like...
When they fall.
It's always so strange, on the anniversary of the moon landing, to remember... not necessarily with one's own memories, but recalling intersubjectively the memories of the succeeding generations: distempered by the Vietnam war, disfigured by hard and bitter missile diplomacy, ignorant of the most basic rudiments of even their recent past. The kids I teach have no memory of a space program which had a purpose. The moon landing is as distant as Iwo Jima; an image of conquest from the distant there-and-then.
Indeed, they have spent their recallable lives under Reagan and the Shuttle, and much of it with the memory of Those Who Slipped The Surly Bonds of Earth, etc., though without any of the critical consciousness one might imagine that imparts. Indeed, if they were going to meet God, it must have been Him on that conference call with the engineers at Morton-Thiokol.
And you know, two of the oxygen packs had been activated.
Conscious on the way down.
The way the Planes like it.
Sometimes, when I can't sleep—because she's there, or because she's not—I will lie there and hear them. The nights with low clouds are the worst; engine whine, power roar as they settle into final right above the park. Some, I know, will already have their gear down. Some, seeking a smoother ride, with more throttle and gear up. I can feel the clouds shudder with their passage, but see nothing but the drifting base of the citylit cloud deck.
I have always known that I will die in a plane crash.
Not known it in the labile, statistical way that I confess to in therapy. Not kennen. Wissen. From the inside. I have always known, in articulated points of bright fear, what it will feel like when it happens; how the picoseconds rattled off of the universe's quantum clock will come all shotlist and special effects: Now the fuselage strikes the runway, now the right wing rips off, now the yaw begins, now the spark, now the fuel ignites...
Even that says it poorly.
Last night, I had a dream about a bridge. I suppose it was the Manhattan—a few years later than the Brooklyn, none of the Roebling style, all grey-scale supreme court acceptibility... what am I saying, that I distrust the capacity for fellow... uh... Americans... to either believe science or follow the Constitution? (Hm. You're looking at the record. We accepted random stop&search ops; we blew up a teacher assuming viton rubber was good past its stated range. Not only are we dissociated and fragmentary, we're stupid as the day is long.) No, really.
All it was was a dream about the bridge: I was crossing over, and was suddenly confronted with the actual Fear: the fear of the Created. We mostly ignore it, everywhere outside the Antimagic-circle, we want to believe that all we have to do is walk to work; it's not true—we depend on this technology to the point of absurdity and fear. Five miles away, I have to use a bridge, a tunnel, or a subway to get into "The City." This is reality?
Not for us out here. Just watch. Oh. The DC8...
It was a Friday afternoon in December of 1960, and my father had worked the pre-christmas nightshift, stopped off for a few with the boys. He was on his way down Flatbush Avenue when he heard what sounded like a muffled explosion; he thought it might have been above and to the right, but he couldn't see through the low cloud cover.
Then he COULD see. Something big and flaming came out of the clouds, headed toward him and disappeared behind the buildings on the next block. He felt the pressure wave of the explosion first and dropped behind a car. The shockwave blew the plate glass window out of the Bohack's supermarket behind him, and when he looked up, there was a river of burning fuel advancing down the street.
The two Planes, a United DC-8 and a TWA Super-Constellation, made "mid- air collision" part of the vernacular.
I don't think my father ever got over it.
Tonight, of course, NIGHTLINE features the Sioux City crash. One survivor talks about sitting next to a teenage girl. "We made plans," he sez, "about how we would escape."
Unfortunately, such plans were rendered academic when the DC-10 entered the corn belt 2,000 feet short.
Her family wanted to know if she talked about them in those last moments.
It made me cry.
Who lives; who dies. A matter of routine and Diagnosis Related Groups. We depend not only on "technique" but also the Social Contract.
When the Boeing 727 was introduced, there was a series of crashes (inevitable in the shakeout period of any new high-tech device) that some blamed on the T-tail design and the slower "spooling up" of the engines. Some folks ended up in Lake Michigan; some on runways. It was wondered why there was a 40 degree flap setting if it wasn't recommended.
It's statistical, you see. Jake Garn and Sally Ride know that.
Of course, it makes me feel much better that Eastern Airlines was indicted today on charges of falsifying maintenance records and conspiracy. I flew into Hartsdale on Eastern in March of 1987, for a conference. I am glad that the folks at the hub were taking such good care of the vehicle that I risked my life on at 29,000 feet. "Oh, hell, just install the backup there and put the bad gauge in the backup. That's why there's TWO of them..."
It should be axiomatic, it should be tattooed on the foreheads... or sand-etched into the headstones... of Western Capitalist Cultures, that whenever Economic Forces and Safety Factors go mano-a-mano, Safety Factors end up in the ER while Economic Forces are out having a beer with their mates.
It makes you feel even better about living Right UNDER them, eh?
She's here tonight, but tomorrow she won't be. Business trip; a short hop to Hartford, Connecticut. It's hard to belive that people would fly to get somewhere they can drive in less than three hours; the reaction I get is always the same: But you can get there in half-an-hour! Half an hour in a Shorts 360, punching through some of the worst sectors in the Northeast ATC grid.
I mean, just the IDEA of taking off from LaGuardia is frightening. No room for error on THOSE runways, as the folks on USAir flight 5050 found out last year. I think "Here goes nothing," was one of the last recorded utterances of the neophyte co-pilot gunning the 737 toward the East River. Okay, props get up there faster, much faster, granted. But then, there they ARE, you see, up in the shoulder-to-shoulder density of NY TRACON.
I had a flight out to St. Louis, last year, where we had no fewer than six "fine tunings" of attitude and altitude between left turn-out and getting past Newark.
It's sort of like a highway, except that you can only HOPE that everyone's painting the lane markers in the same place.
David Letterman did a 10 most common reasons for taking Eastern airlines. Among them: not having to wait for safety checks and always getting emergency clearance. Would have been funny, if...
Of course, her flight was uneventful. She wonders, vocally, why I worry. I suppose that she understands, but I wonder: does she? Imagining the inevitable has never been selected for—we have bred for a race of hominids that have to imagine they are indestructible: why else would there have been the history we have? My God is bigger than your God. Oh yeah? Eat THIS! Evolution knows that the best way to deal with intelligence is as an epiphenomenon: the one that lives through the fight AND has enough brains not to eat the rotted antelope lives to reproduce. Now if World War Two is the fight, and capitalist Burgerlichkeit is...
Never mind. Ronald is always listening. We must imagine that we are immortal.
Another news item: Avianca announced tonight that it was prepared to make payments of $75,000 to each of the survivors and families of the Cove Neck crash. And darned fine non-exclusive payments, too... folks can still sue, apparently. Awful nice of an airline which ran a flight deck where it seems that nobody kept a close enough eye on the totalizer.
I mean, take the Sioux City crash: an uncontained failure in the number two engine spews debris through your hydraulic systems. The plane is, simply, uncontrollable. With the help of a check-pilot who happens to be aboard, you manage somehow to make it TO an airport, maneuvering by altering the thrust in the wing engines. Pretty fucking amazing job, turning what could have been another O'Hare into a survivable incident.
And then, you have this 707, this reliable old bird that you run into the ground for lack of fuel.
Small change from the Planes.
On the news, the NTSB "announces" that there was a near-miss "sometime this week" in Long Beach CA, with an American Airlines Plane executing a Sudden Avoidance of a GA student pilot doing touch-n-goes.
Also news of another US military "copter crash." Y'know, we hear so MANY "copter crashes." Honestly. Take a few spare braincells, and listen, for the next few months, for how many US military folk are killed in "copter crashes."
Makes you wonder who's more full of shit.
Eastern has started a new ad campaign. Spinning off the look of their shirtsleeves-rolled-up-court-appointed-trustee fielding questions at an ad-hoc mass meeting in a hangar, we now have a "pseudo news conference." He stands at a podium, the camerawork is all "shoulderheld Betacam™ jiggle" and the sound is mikey.
It is a historical problem, he tells us. It has nothing to do with the Eastern of today. In fact, he says, his wife and children fly Eastern. Do we think he'd let his children fly on unsafe planes?
He's an airline executive. If the federal indictments are true, several airline executives let many people's wives and children do just that. And why is it always the Women and Children who are hostages to corporate rule?
A quaint reminder of the Law of the Sea, perhaps.
The Planes have no such romantic streak.
We just spent the weekend moving a friend from Manhattan out to Long Island City, hard by the tanks. These big tanks, which hold gas, or fuel oil, or whatever, are drab brown landmarks, poking up near the Kosciusko Bridge on the BQE. Near the top, they are painted with rings of red and white check stripes. Even the vent caps are painted. The effect is sort of incongruous; as if these giant buggers were going somewhere, and movie cameras needed to track their roll and yaw.
Of course, the truth is the exact opposite. The Planes use them. When the approach to LaGuardia is over our house (that is, from the southwest) these tanks mark the point where you end your downwind leg, and make a right turn crosswind.
I thought the Planes were low over our apartment here in Brooklyn. Out there, I could see the gear on the Lear.
Have you ever read Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon? Saying it's "about" anything is kind of like saying that Moby Dick is "about" a whale. But in a sense, it's "about" civilization living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, which Pynchon personifies in its embryonic form, the V-2 rocket. So most of the novel follows the characters spread out across Europe during and right after WWII dealing with this newfound Power: push a button and have folks 200 miles away blown into a bloody mist.
And I am drawn, over and over, back to Hanna Arendt's observation that that thing we must most closely notice about evil is its banality. Evil is not in the twisted mind of Adolph Hitler or Harry Truman; evil is the everyday actions of the people whose names we never know which made such great evils possible.
And THAT may be the ultimate problem with Pynchon's Rainbow. Not that it's WRONG... but that it encourages a vision of history which allows us to dismiss the evil in the everyday.
Compare the number of people killed by ballistic missiles to the number who died in Plane crashes since 1945.
I am afraid of August; of being here.
We drove up yesterday, to my grandparents' house here in Rhode Island. It makes me think about it.
The first time I saw a Plane, crashed. It was 1975. I was still in that adolescent attraction to speed and disaster. I had a blue police-band radio with a rubber whip antenna squawking beside me as I sat in my parents' porch building a monster model on a card table. And the call came over.
I was out of the house in seconds, grabbing a poncho for the rain, and stomping on the gas in my secondhand Plymouth Fury. I knew the backstreets, I had a Minolta SRT-101. I really WANTED to get a photo in the New York Post. I kept listening as more and more units were called to respond. By the time I got to the Belt Parkway, out there in Queens, just short of JFK, a perimeter had been set up. But I knew the area. I parked on a side street, pulled up a loose corner of chain-link fence, and there I was.
A Plane; sitting in pieces, amid the still-being-hosed wreckage of homebound cars. And something else I hadn't expected, but recognized instantly...
The smell of blood.
I threw up and ran back to my car.
I have just been watching, with increasing horror, the Special Reports. If what has been said so far is to be belived, Iraq has invaded Kuwait. How big, how bad, yet to be seen.
And I was afraid of a plane crash...
When Herb Morrison narrated the arrival in Lakehurst of the Hindenburg, in May of 1937, World War II was already a fait accomplii. It is prescient to look back on that footage, skin panels of the great dirigible beginning to glow, the sinking flare, the buckling crash, cantilevered backlit steel chasing groundcrew silhouettes before it; you can look at that, and with the right eyes, see a generation caught up in the flames of technology.
"Get this, Scotty," says Morrison, before he excuses himself to vomit. The ovens were warming up. And the Planes had a message: No false Gods before Us. Never mind that a helium dirigible would have been safe; had the US, the only major helium supplier, been willing to sell to Germany. We needed a forcible object lesson: speed, not comfort; speed, not safety.
From time to time, folks bring up the idea of lighter than air craft. But there's this file footage, you see...
The semiotics of airports are essentially the same as the Transporter Room in "Star Trek"™. You will recall, if you have ever seen the show, that characters step onto the transfer plates, dissappear in a blur of shining lights, and re-materialize wherever they have been sent to.
There is something strikingly similar about airports. The idea of a firm separation between the public areas and the passsenger areas (terrorists necessitating historical inevitability?) concretizes the Indeterminacy of Those Who Are About To Fly. Just like in Star Trek there were any number of Evil accidents that could befall the transported, once you have passed through the Security Area, you have become a probability.
And you quite literally, as it would have appeared to our tree-dwelling ancestors, disappear off the Earth in one spot, to appear in another. To critters who evolved covering ground in lopes, this must surely be Magic.
It is good that this magic is boxed off, separated from reality by Security folks. Indeterminacy is what we are trying to get rid of.
Unfortunately, Indeterminacy is the Nature of the Planes.
Of course I was lying. The other day, when I described the 27 that crashed short on the Belt Parkway, and I said I puked and left. Of course, I didn't. My heart was pounding and my whole chest felt tight as an overinflated tire, but I didn't leave. I stayed, and I shot. And because I was wearing the FDNY windbreaker, or perhaps because nobody noticed, they let me stay.
Then I drove back to Nazareth High, where I was in charge of the camera club, and developed all six rolls. I did up 5x7's and hustled over to the Post. I was a highschool kid with a camera; they were pretty awful. The assistant photo ed bought three of them, one of which actually ran (IMPROVED by the 120-line screen) the next morning.
It was then, when I saw the photo, with my credit, that the wave of nausea truly struck.
Is it possible to Witness and yet be Used at the same time?
Flight attendants... prepare for departure...
[Back to the Writing on the Edge special section, 1991 index.]