The bulk of my manuscript for The Map of My Dead Pilots is with my agent these days – she’s giving it a read and preparing it to make the publishing rounds. I know there are a few gaps still in the narrative though, so I’m working on four different chapters on a variety of subjects one of which is the Summer of 1999.
On June 5th 1999 my father died. It had been a long hard death of fighting cancer every blessed step of the way and the pain he was in, even with all the morphine, was unbearable to watch. The week after he died my brother and I were killing ourselves to get through as much of his house as we could, to prepare for the funeral that we were entirely responsible for, and to somehow cope with the reality of our new lives without him. Who says you get time to grieve after death? We had no time for anything. We just had all we had to do and all we were never going to get done.
Less than a week after my father died I got a phone call and learned that a Company pilot had crashed into the Yukon River. He was a good guy, and I don’t say that lightly. This was one of those guys that everyone just liked. He did the job, had a family, had plans for an aviation career. He was careful and kind and a friend to everyone. And for reasons that even now have never been completely explained, he put his plane down into the Yukon and he died. He had a mechanical failure, he couldn’t keep it in the air, he crashed. We had never lost a plane at the Company so completely; we had never had a fatality accident. And this was a really good guy.
And so my summer continued.
I went back home to Fairbanks just over a week later – I’d been gone for a couple of months at that point and was way behind on my graduate thesis. It’s been so long now that I can be honest – I was set to graduate in December, the first draft was due in September and I had not written a word, not one single word. My committee was very kind and offered to push back the due date, the graduation, everything. But I was afraid that if I didn’t write it then I might never write it (something I still believe is true). So I pushed on and that summer I interviewed 100 pilots as the final part of my research. One night in July a bunch of us were out a restaurant, hanging out in the big open bar, talking airplanes. I was interviewing all the pilots I could find there, still working on getting my 100 when I met a pilot who was in town visiting some friends. I didn’t know her. I explained the thesis, we all talked about the questions for the interview and then she mentioned a company she used to work for in the Northwest coast. I told her a friend of mine had worked for them there in 1995 but he crashed. And then she put her beer down and said “You knew him”. And I said the same thing. She was there when my friend crashed, my college friend who crashed into the side of a mountain, and immediately she started talking about how crazy it was, how it made no sense, how the whole thing was such a huge waste.
And I kept thinking you were there, you were there, you were there. This friend crashed into the side of a mountain on a clear sunny day; trapped in a box canyon that he could not climb out of. And she said sometimes these things just happen and you have to let them go and all I could think was why did this have to come back now, this summer. Why do I have to think about him and how his accident didn’t just happen, how it was so preventable, so beyond ordinary, so unbelievably wrong.
The summer of 1999; it was just one wrong death after another.
The pilots I interviewed those couple of months told me the flying was hard or scary or insane. Or they told me it was easy and overrated and nothing exciting. They said their bosses made them fly while the guys sitting next to them said they begged to fly. They were each and everyone of them brutally honest and flagrantly lying. It was the most revealing and disappointing and frustrating experiment I have been part of, interviewing those pilots. I never found out what makes them do the things they do; I only learned that there are dozens of them willing to do it; there are pilots who will fly and die because that is what the job makes them do; that is what happens in the kind of place where we lived.
But none of this helped me live without my father.
I’ve been writing about that summer, about the irony of discovering someone who brought me back to the 1995 accident at the same time that so many of my friends were struggling with the more recent 1999 tragedy in the Yukon. I knew I would write about my father’s death too because it was so recent that summer that it influenced everything I did and wrote then. But I didn’t know that it would affect me still so much today; that what I write nine years later would still be more about him than anything else. And then I realized that it was that length of time that was causing it – that nine years was what was tripping me up.
Could it really be nine years already?
The truth is that when I write about my father’s death, when I think back to the conversations while he was dying, it is never going to be nine or ten or twenty years ago. It will forever be just five minutes that have passed in my life since he was gone. And so the summer of 1999 is forever frozen there with me, sitting beside me, in all of my present and future.
And so the dead pilots are with me too, all of us together in the summer that will never fade away.