This true story was first published in Boston Magazine, and later in my book of stories, The Willoughby Chronicles. I return to it now during this holiday time of pandemic separation. Like so many grandparents around the world, it’s likely I won’t see my grandkids on Christmas. But this story reminds me of how we are all connected through our love of family, and the infinite beauty of the simple concept of grace. Enjoy.
My father braced himself against the high wind, his hands shaking with age, his gray hair swept sideways. Rags of mist blew past like tumbleweed over the jagged rocks, and down below, about a quarter mile distant, the Lake of the Clouds came into view, then out, obscured by the fast-moving clouds. It could have been a scene from Macbeth, but we were actually on Mount Washington again—me, my father and my brother, John.
For years, it had been a family tradition that we climb on Hiroshima Day, August 6th, to honor the victims of the blast.
Throughout the 1970s we made it just about every year. Back then all five brothers made the trek, following Dad up the steep slopes of New England’s highest mountain. By last year, though, John and I were the only ones willing and able to go.
Dad took out his notes. It was time for “the speech.”
John and I had heard it a million times before, but somehow it still got to me. Dad spoke of the war in the Pacific. Kamikazes diving at his ship, so close he could see the fanatical eyes of the pilots, the sailors shouting for smoke to screen the ship, the explosions, the horror. He said to himself, “Oh God, just let me live through this day and I will do good things for the world. Just let me live today, please God.” He spoke of the atomic bomb. There was just no way, in his view, to justify the annihilation of a city. Everyone shared the guilt, he said.
There was a time I used to protest: “But Dad, you were at Okinawa. If Truman hadn’t dropped the bomb, you probably would have died in the invasion of Japan.”
Dad would shake his head sadly. “There’s always a way to rationalize cruelty,” he’d say.
This time, though, I just let him speak. I had the feeling this would be our final trip up the mountain.
Dad said it was our duty to carry on his work. The world needed to better understand human nature so that we could avoid war. John and I sat and listened without talking. The wind made a whistling sound through the crevices, and I could sense the ghosts of our past selves, all the brothers together, climbing over these same rocks.
John and I were just starting to get up, thinking the speech was over, when Dad said, “There’s one last thing I need to tell you. It’s a true story.”
John and I looked at each other, wondering. We’d heard the speech many times before and this was not part of it.
“Something happened a long time ago,” Dad said slowly, “that put things into perspective. I was waiting to board a flight in Los Angeles and this woman—she was a total stranger—came up to me and said: ‘Excuse me. I was wondering if you could do me a favor. I understand you have a ticket for the earlier flight. Would you mind switching seats with me?’ Well, she took my seat. And I took her seat on the later plane.”
Dad paused for a moment. He looked me in the eye.
Then he said, “Her plane crashed. Everyone on that plane died. And I would have died, too, if she hadn’t taken my place. So, you see, this is all grace. All the years since then, grace. Every day I’m alive is a gift. And I can’t waste that gift. It’s too precious.”
John and I were stunned. Finally, John said, “This happened?”
“When was this?” I asked.
“Oh,” he replied, “years ago. Before you were born.”
“So what you’re saying is that if this woman hadn’t switched seats with you, I would never have been born?”
My father nodded. “Yes, Ted, you would never have been born.”
I was shocked. Dumbfounded. The whole thing felt like something out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the old Frank Capra movie.
In the film, a guardian angel named Clarence jumps off a bridge to prevent George Bailey—the Jimmy Stewart character—from taking his own life. At the end of the film, when George hugs his daughter by the Christmas tree and she reminds him that every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings, forget it. I blubber like a big baby. All six feet six inches of me.
We resumed our hike, but in the days and months that followed I found myself preoccupied with questions.
If William Page had died young—and I had never been born—what would the world be like? Exactly where and when did this crash take place? Who was this mystery guardian angel who saved my father’s life?
I hunted for information. And what I found blew me away.
My father had escaped the most horrific air disaster that had ever occurred in America up to that time. It was June 30, 1956. A TWA Super Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 collided in midair, then crashed into the Grand Canyon. Everyone on both planes died—128 people. The first domestic crash ever for either type of plane. The first civilian midair collision over the United States—and in the wide-open spaces of the Great American West. Americans were used to thinking of the West as incredibly vast, and suddenly, in one split second, the frontier skies had limits.
Hopi and Navajo Indians held a 24-hour prayer vigil for the dead.
The New York Times showed a list of the passengers of both planes. Who was this mysterious woman? I badgered Dad with questions. He remembered she was not from California, and she needed to get home to her family. She was mature. Anglo-Saxon. I scanned the list. For the first time in my life I had an inkling of how people feel when they’re hunting for their biological mothers. After all, this woman, like my mom, was responsible for my existence.
I asked United Airlines for help in finding her, but they said I was looking for a needle in a haystack.
It’s just as well. What would I do if I found her? Hey, folks, don’t feel so bad—your wife/mother/grandmother died, but look what I have as a result?
So I’ll refer to the mystery woman as Kate. I picture her in the Los Angeles airport in 1956. She’s probably medium height, 43 years old, wearing pearls. Her blue dress is classic ’50s. She rushes into the crowded waiting area where many people are trying to get on the nine a.m. UAL flight. The airline can’t help her; the flight is booked. She scans the room for someone she can ask a favor of.
And then, in the same way the flick of a butterfly’s wing can set off a chain of events that lead to a hurricane, her eyelids flutter. Blink, blink. There’s a balding man in a bow tie. No, not him. Blink. That other one there. Hmm. No, he looks cross. Blink. Blink . . . blink. That man . . .
Kate sees my father.
He’s tall, in a charcoal gray suit, white shirt, thin tie. He has Gregory Peck good looks, black-rimmed glasses, dark brown hair neatly combed. Him.
“Excuse me, sir, I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”
Dad’s a gentleman, always has been. He opens doors for people. Even in Cambridge’s nasty rush-hour traffic he lets people go ahead of him, never swearing, always cool and calm. No matter how much the world swirls around him, he finds a way to be the eye of the storm. So when he sees Kate before him in the hectic terminal, he agrees on the spot. They go to the counter and exchange tickets.
Kate boards the flight.
Out of her window she can see another plane—a beautiful craft with three tails and four propellers. Very distinctive. Kate doesn’t know it yet, but this other plane is a TWA Super Constellation. It will leave L.A. three minutes ahead of her.
Kate settles down to read her book. Perhaps it’s The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, a New York Times Best Seller that week. She thinks, Thank goodness that nice man let me use his ticket.
Kate reads quietly, then falls asleep. About an hour later, the voice of Captain Robert F. Shirley wakes her. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re just passing over the Grand Canyon. There are some pretty big thunderheads ’round these parts today, but I think I’ll be able to steer clear of them to give you a better look.”
Kate stares out her window. Her jaw drops in wonder. Majestic towers of rock, and two rivers running deep through the rock. “The larger river is the Colorado,” the captain explains, “and the smaller river—the blue one—is the Little Colorado.”
Turquoise, Kate thinks, like an Indian necklace. How pretty.
At 10:31 a.m. and 21,000 feet there’s a sudden fierce jolt as the TWA Super Constellation and the United DC-7 collide. The tail of the Constellation is torn off, its fuselage ripped open from the tail to near the main cabin door. The DC-7’s left wing is severely crippled.
The Constellation crashes and burns about 1,000 feet up from the Colorado River at the mouth of the Grand Canyon. Aboard the DC-7, there is pandemonium. Those not wearing their seat belts are flung into the air as the plane careens.
The captain screams his last words into the radio: “We’re going in!”
Is Kate thinking, I’m not supposed to be here—it’s not my time?
Near the confluence of the deep blue Little Colorado and the muddy Colorado stands Chuar Butte, a 3,700-foot-high pedestal of rock. The DC-7 hurtles toward the cliffs of red-hued limestone, striking with such force that about half of the wreckage scatters over the plateau. During the following week army helicopter rescue crews will brave high winds and treacherous conditions to get to the remote crash site. They find only small pieces of the DC-7. Nothing recognizable has survived.
My Christmases are different than before.
Sure, I buy presents for my wife and children, but I don’t really care about receiving anything in return. I already have something that can’t be shrink-wrapped or put on sale. It’s that grace my dad was talking about. Grace—a funny word, not easy to define out of context. For me, it’s the smell of coffee brewing. It’s swimming in the icy waters of Willoughby Lake. It’s swallowing the moon and watching the light shoot out from my fingertips. It’s a passionate kiss I never want to end, that perfect moment in Beethoven’s Ninth when the soloists are all by themselves, soaring. It’s watching my children sleep.
I was raised a Unitarian. You’ve probably heard the joke: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian? Answer: Someone who knocks on your door for no particular reason. I tend to think that there are rational explanations for things that happen in nature. And that whatever science doesn’t explain now, it probably will in the future.
Kate was, I believe, the Accidental Guardian.
Still, it is not a huge leap of my imagination to think that something happened that day back in June of 1956. Amid the chaos, the Grand Canyon echoed with terrible sounds, from the rumble of thunder to the wail of bending metal, to the final horrific boom of exploding fuel. And yet, above all these sounds, simple and clear, there was the ringing of a solitary bell.
My dad—always the engineer—has a more grounded view. After we had trudged down the mountain he turned and smiled at John and me. He said, “And the moral of the story is: If someone asks you for a favor, do it.”