Jim Z. and my dad both worked at the sub base, and they drove to work together, taking turns behind the wheel. I know Mr. Z. breathed a sigh of relief when my dad finally sold the little red MG because, as it seemed with English cars at that time, this one could be tempermental. There was the time they were on the turnpike going 60 or 70 mph, and the steering wheel disengaged and fell onto my father's lap. "Here, Jim," Dad had said, "Take the wheel."
Mr. Z. blanched while Dad stuck his finger in the drive shaft, or whatever the housing is called to which the wheel was attached. He could manuever the inward bits enough so to get the car over to the shoulder and reattach the wheel.
Another time, when they were approaching the toll booth before they crossed the bridge, the brakes went out. Completely gone, and they were driving turnpike speed, so it was not going to bode well, as all other cars were stopping to pay the toll. This was years before EZ-Pass, and all cars had to stop, and give money to the collector. Dad pumped the brakes and kept pumping. Enough air got into the line, i guess, because he was able to stop and pay the toll. Tra-la-la.
When Dad wasn't driving them in the MG, Mr. Z. would drive them in the Simca. It was white with white interior. When Dad sold the MG, he had removed the seatbelts and given them to Mr. Z. to put in the Simca. The red seat belts contrasted sharply with the white interior, but you certainly couldn't overlook them. As the advert at the time said, "Seat belts are lumpy only if you sit on them."
Dad was several years younger than Mr. Z. I don't know how many, but Mr. Z. served in WWII; whereas Dad was almost 15 when the war ended, and he ended up serving in the Korean War. Both had been in the Navy, and although both were now civilians, they worked for the Navy at the Sub Base. They didn't talk much about what they did, because they worked on classified things, and sometimes they had to travel to other places to do whatever it was they did.
I always thought that sounded exotic, and Dad would come back with goodies for us kids. Once he had to travel over my birthday and sent me flowers from the florist since he couldn't be there on the day itself. Mom and i had gone to town to run errands, and when we came home, a huge bouquet of flowers were waiting for us on the front porch. They were beautiful, and i was stunned when Mom read the card and saw they were for me. Even though i was old enough to read, i could scarcely believe it.
Sometimes Mr. Z. would have to travel, sometimes Dad would. They didn't usually travel together, usually one stayed behind to hold the fort down at the Sub Base while the other one went and did whatever.
The Z's lived kitty-corner from us, and Mr. and Mrs. Z. had three daughters. The oldest was about five years older than i, the middle one two years older and in my brother's class, the youngest, Cindy, about a year and half younger and two grades behind me. All of us kids in the neighbourhood played together, although the oldest daughter was enough older that we didn't play together much. That five years made for a very big gap. Still, we had neighbourhood ball games, those of us younger would play hide and seek (or as we said, hide and go seek), and we rode our bicycles everywhere.
When it was time to come home, our parents would yell for us. If we were at another house playing baseball, hearing one parent call usually signalled to all of us that our parents would be calling next, so we'd end our game and go home. Mr. Z. always called for his girls, and when we heard his voice, my brother and i knew it was time to go, as we ate supper pretty much the same time the Z's did.
My parents would throw a neighbourhood party every so often. Sometimes these were planned events, and sometimes spontaneous. For instance, one day, my dad saw Mr. L. who lived next door to Mr. Z. painting his house. Dad invited Mr. L. over for a drink when he was done. Mr. L. thanked my dad and when they were sipping libations, they thought it might be nice to have a cookout. So, Mr. L. went home to tell the family, my dad got the charcoal fire started, and looked to see what we had on hand to grill. Mr. L. brought stuff over, and Mr. Z. saw Mr. L., asked what was happening, and when he found out, he got some food together and told the family they were going to a cookout at our house.
The spontaneous parties were always the best because everyone brought something, and no one really stressed about it. There was always plenty of food to go around, the kids would help a little, sometimes by making the salad, others by watching the younger kids, or sometimes, we'd just play.
At one of these spontaneous parties, we reminisced about the MG, and Mr. Z. said how relieved he was to carpool with Dad's more reliable Chevy. Next, we laughed about the time that i had a balloon that popped on his whiskers. It startled all of us, and none of us had heard of that ever happening to anyone else.
It was late spring, and you could feel summer in the air. The party broke up a bit early because Mr. Z. was flying out to someplace for work. Originally, Dad was going to go, but then a problem cropped up at the Sub Base, and both Mr. Z. and Dad felt that Dad was better able to handle the problem at the Sub Base, and either of them could handle what needed doing for the business trip. So, they switched places. As Mr. Z. left, he and my dad were joking about something, and they kissed each other good-bye. We were all laughing as they feigned broken hearts at parting. All of us enjoyed the silliness.
Monday was a brillantly sunny day in early June, and i could taste summer in the air. I was almost done fifth grade, and would be 11 in a few months. I rode the bus home as i usually did, and when i stepped off the bus at my usual bus stop, a stillness filled the air. I could almost touch it, and it disquieted me.
My brother had gotten home earlier because he was in jr. high, and they got out of school a half hour earlier than we did in grade school. So, he was already home when i got there, just as always.
"Where's Mom?" i said as i came in the house. Even though my mother worked at a neighbouring school's library, she usually was home when i got home from school. Her car was in the driveway, but she wasn't in the house.
"She's at the Z's," he answered with a frown on his face.
"What?" i asked with some impatience. My brother had grown moody since being in jr. high, and there were times i irritated him just by asking a simple question, which irritated me a great deal. Just because i two grades behind him, didn't mean i was stupid.
"Nothing. Mom will tell you."
See, i knew it was something, and to be told, "Nothing," when i damn well knew it was "something," irked me all the more.
"Why can't you tell me?"
He saw i wasn't going to let this go and was in no mood to talk. I tried to feign indifference but didn't succeed. I wanted to know what was happening. If Mom wasn't here, but her car was, then why couldn't he tell me anything else. Mom wouldn't normally be a the Z's this time of day. She'd be starting supper, looking to see how much homework i had, and if i should get started with some it before supper or wait and do it all after.
Mom came home, and she didn't look right. Her face was very drawn. She looked at me, and then at my brother. "Did you tell her?" Mom asked as if i weren't there.
"No, you told me not to, but she kept asking. I still didn't say anything."
Now i knew something was clearly up. Was it about me? Had i done something wrong? I scanned my brain, recapping the last week's events. Nope, couldn't think of anything. "He's right, Mom, i did ask, more than once, but he wouldn't say anything. What is it?"
And in a quiet, faraway voice, she told me that Mr. Z.'s plane had crashed. They were coming into land, the pilot misjudged where the landing strip was because of the fog, and they crashed. Mr. Z. and nearly everyone else on board had been killed.
I blinked hard a few times. My brother said, "See, that's why i couldn't tell you." A huge lump was growing in my throat. Mr. Z. had kissed Dad good-bye! He was the last of the Z family to leave our house that day of the party, and i had turned around to look at the clock. 3:33. And i felt a chill as i looked at it. Had it really only been two days before?
My mother had been speaking and i came back to the conversation to hear her say, "Cindy will be getting home from school soon. When she gets off the bus, we're going to tell her that her mom had to go into town, and when Mrs. Z. is ready, she'll call us, and then we'll send Cindy home. You're not to tell her what happened, Megan, do you understand? Her mother will tell her, she just needs a little time to collect herself."
I nodded, and my eyes started to fill. Oh, this would never do, i couldn't cry right now. That would give the game away. I blinked hard, and my mom suggested that i get a game that Cindy liked to play. I nodded, and got a game ready. Because Cindy was two grades behind me, she was in the primary school and got home on a later bus. The bus came, Cindy got off just like always, and i heard my mom call to her, asking her to come over to our house. Cindy did, and my mother explained that her mom had to go into town for something and would call when she got back.
I don't know how long Cindy was at our house, maybe a half hour. We played a game that she liked, and i couldn't believe i could talk to her normally when there was such a huge lump in my throat. How such a beautiful day could feel so sad. Couldn't Cindy feel the stillness in the air, too, as i had? Couldn't she sense something wasn't quite right?
I was relieved to hear the phone ring. My mother answered, and said shortly after that, "Oh, it's no problem, yes, we'll tell Cindy you're home."
And here, my mom told Cindy her mom was home now, and i couldn't believe how my mom delivered the line. Just as if there was nothing wrong.
I closed the front door after Cindy left, got the game, and went to my room to put it away, when i heard Cindy scream. I could hear it through closed windows. It shattered the stillness in the neighbourhood, and the tears flowed freely down my cheeks. I closed my bedroom door, lay on my bed, and in huge, gulping sobs, processed what my mother had told me.
It turned out that the co-pilot and stewardess survived, although the co-pilot lost both his legs. I think one passenger survived, too. Mr. Z. had been in submarines during WWII, and i had wanted to work on a sub. Girls weren't allowed then, of course, and i was born a generation too early to get my chance. Dad said that Mr. Z.'s fear during the war was that he'd burn to death in a sub. He didn't, but he did burn to death on the plane. They had to identify him by his dental work.
There was an investigation as to what happened with Allegheny Flight 485. Part of the problem was the airport, as the landing strip was at the edge of a swamp, so it made landings tough with the fog. Some people wanted to extend the landing strip, but environmental groups, which were new then, didn't want the swamp flora and fauna disturbed by that any more than they already were.
They blamed the pilot for the crash, and there was talk of suing. I remember wondering what good suing would do. It wouldn't bring any of those people back. The pilot lost his life, and the co-pilot lost his legs plus had to live with that the rest of his life.
The Z.'s families were in Chicago, and there was to be a service there. Mrs. Z. was adamant: they would fly to Chicago for the service. She ignored the protests of her daughters, telling them that they were living in the 20th century, and flying in an airplane was a part of that. Like it as not, they were flying. There and back. I remember thinking how brave she was to be so adamant about it, and how i cried happy tears when they made it back safely.
Since he was a veteran, Mr. Z. would be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. This was before it was so full, and my dad told my mom that even though he could be buried there, too, since he fought in Korea, he'd rather be buried beside her. She wanted that, too.
My father never spoke of how he would have been on that plane, but for a problem at the Sub Base he was better able to handle. I sometimes wondered if he felt guilty about it. How many times do we do something so small as to be considered inconsequential, when rather it leaves a huge ripple in the pond?
Today's weather was very much like that June 7th in 1971. That early taste of summer, the delicious feeling of warmth, brilliant skies, and sunshine. I welcomed it after the long, cold, winter we had. In the late afternoon, i felt a bit of melancholy, as i recalled that earlier June 7th, hearing the news and Cindy's harrowing scream. I can still hear Mr. Z.'s voice calling the girls home for supper. Hear him laugh with my dad. And i smile through the melancholy. If i have to have a last memory of someone, there's something comforting about it being a happy one.