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Storytelling Workshop: “Leviathan”

May 31, 2020

This was the story I told in my first ever story slam (a virtual one) on May 15.  The topic was food.  I would find out a few days later that my story won the slam, meaning I am headed to the next level of competition at the end of the year.  

I had never heard a real explosion before.

Of course, you hear them on t.v. and in movies, and you think that’s what they sound like. Until you hear a real one.

It was September 25, 1978, just before 9 a.m.  I was in Mr. Mikholan’s sixth grade class, sitting at my desk next to Sandra Van Den Akker doing math problems.  I didn’t like math very much, but I liked Sandra–mostly because she smelled vaguely of coconut. 

The explosion hit just after nine. It was louder than a thunderclap and shook the entire school.  A couple of the students in my class were actually knocked out of their seats.  It was San Diego, California, and even though we were only in sixth grade, we knew what an earthquake felt like.  And this wasn’t it.

Mr. Mikholan had been both my fifth and sixth grade teacher, and I knew him well enough to know that he had earned two purple hearts during the second world war. We all turned to him and he didn’t look the least bit worried, or the least bit anxious.  Indeed, Mr. Mikholan did what he always did–he told a corny joke.

“Don’t worry,”  he said.  “Someone next door just dropped their pencil.”

We laughed, nervously, not because we believed him, or because it was funny, but because we thought that if Mr. Mikholan was calm, then everything was going to be all right.

That thought didn’t last.  Mrs. Lee from across the hall ran in and announced to all of us that she “Had just seen a plane crash!”

PSA Flight 182 Crash Animation - YouTube

We all filed over into Mrs. Lee’s class and stared out her window at a pillar of black smoke.  The window was the complete length of the classroom–and all you could see was the smoke.  Later we would discover it was a mushroom cloud, but we were too close to see any shape. 

Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 182 collided with a Cessna in the skies over San Diego, and the Boeing 727 crashed down to the earth taking the lives of 144 people.  It landed four blocks from my elementary school.

I walked home in a daze–the whole neighborhood seemed to be in a trance.  We could still see the cloud of smoke from every direction.  It smelled of burned metal, plastic, and other things that did not seem familiar.  We would later hear of stories about neighbors finding chunks of fuselage on their rooftops, body parts in their backyards.

When I got home, I was alone.  That was unusual, because my mother was usually there.  I looked around the house and the yard, but there was no sign of her.  I called a couple of her friends and finally found her at Elsie’s.  “I’m sorry, I couldn’t stay at the house alone.  Not on a day like today.  Are you all right on your own until I get back?”

I didn’t know how to reply, so I just said “Sure.”  After she hung up, I tried my dad at his apartment, but there was no answer. I stood in the living room, with no idea of  what else to do, where to go, or even what room I should be in. 
It was then that Guy Valencic and Mike Snyder showed up with their gloves and balls and asked, ‘Hey, you want to go play double-plays?”  And I said, “Sure.”  I grabbed my glove, and we played in front of Guy’s house, because what else was there to do?

We played for a while, and hardly talked to each other–until we noticed cars would slow down near us, and drivers would lean out their windows and ask, “Hey, do you know where the plane crash site is?”  We were so pissed off that these strangers would come into our neighborhood to be voyeurs to our grief that we started lying to the drivers and giving them false directions.

After a while, we didn’t want to play anymore, so we decided to head home.  It was dinner time, and there was no sign of my mom, but I knew my father would now be at work.  I called him there.

“Do you have anything to eat?”

“Sure, “ I said, “but I don’t know how to cook any of it. I’m afraid to try.”  

“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to try and get off early.”

Early turned out to be 11 p.m., so there we were at a fast food restaurant called Jack in the Box at 11:30 at night.  I was eleven years old on a school night, and I had a chocolate shake, a burger with two patties, and a plate full of french fries–the kind of meal my father would have never let me have on a normal day.

We talked about baseball, about the new Superman movie, about Sandra Van Den Akker smelling vaguely of coconut–we talked about anything but the leviathan that had fallen from the sky that morning.

**********

A few months later, I was at my father’s apartment and we were watching the news.  The newscaster announced that investigators had located the black box recording from flight 182’s cockpit.  The news station plated some of the tape. 

There is only one part of the tape I remember. The pilot was flying inverted, with a wing on fire, knowing he was moments from his own death. He spoke with a calmness that I imagine wasn’t much different when he ordered his breakfast from the flight attendant an hour earlier.

“That’s a school. I’m going to try to get us to the freeway.  I’m not letting this thing come down on a school.”

I shut the television off and turned to my father.

“Can we go get some ice cream?  Please?”

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