Sunday, November 29, 2009

American One

Since our son was born my wife and I have seen exactly three movies. We simply can’t make it through an hour-and-a-half or two-hour movie without nodding off. And because we’re almost always too tired to read before bed (what we did previous to our son’s arrival), we have found watching an episode of a TV series an indispensable nightly ritual. Our son is now two-and-a-half years old, which means we’ve run through innumerable series—from Six Feet Under to The Forsyte Saga to Magnum P.I. (okay, sometimes my taste isn’t very discerning).

Our latest fascination is with Mad Men. I’m not that interested in ad men or in the scenes of early 1960s New York City. But the dialogue is so sharp and smart that I wasn’t surprised when the first episode of the second season featured the main character reading, and later reciting, from the poet Frank O’Hara’s collection Meditations in an Emergency. Frank O’Hara is not only the right poet for the job (he wrote quintessential “city” poems), but he is also the first poet I was obsessed with. In fact, it’s not O’Hara’s city poems that interest me as much as his love poems, which, by turns, play sentimentalism off banality and surrealism off realism. I would even go so far as to argue that O’Hara is the greatest love poet of the twentieth century—though most poetry readers know him almost exclusively for his “I do this, I do that” poems, often thought of as simple, random lists written while walking the streets of Manhattan.

Mad Men is anything but simple. In the second episode of the second season, the precipitating event is a plane crash. And not any plane crash. American Airlines Flight 1 took off from Idlewild Airport (today’s JFK) on March 1, 1962, in clear skies. Two minutes later the plane nose-dived into Jamaica Bay. Despite many being famous millionaires, none of the 95 passengers and crew survived. In the Mad Men episode, two of the ad bosses walk into the agency that morning to find all their employees in a massive football-style huddle. It is an eerie moment for the viewer, not only because everyone is huddled up (around what turns out to be a radio), but because everyone is taking the news as if a loved one had been on the plane. Or maybe, it is more important that they are huddled up around one media device, not football-style but campfire-style. On the entire floor of a Manhattan ad agency, that little boxy radio was their only link to outside news; it is a quaint sight considering even the most mundane or remote office floor today.

As a plane crash, American Airlines Flight 1 isn’t very interesting. As an example of the reporting around a plane crash, it’s fascinating. “Tragedy in Jamaica Bay” reads the headline of the March 9, 1962 issue of Time magazine. “It was ideal flying weather” is the first line. The same day “American One” (as the doomed plane is called) crashes, John Glenn is given a ticker tape parade in New York City for being the first American to orbit the earth.

Here is a passage from the article:

A minute after the crash, it lay like a giant, shattered fish just beneath the transparent waters of the bay, with scattered debris and flakes of aluminum skin glinting on the tufts of marshland. The only signs of life were clouds of wheeling sea gulls, roused from a nearby bird sanctuary, and a dozen helicopters that whirled to the scene like a swarm of dragonflies.

If I were teaching this piece, I would draw my students’ attention to the sheer amount of figurative language in the description. The plane is described as a giant, shattered fish—a fish, but first turned enormous, and then solidified into something that could be shattered. Scale and material are warped along with the main subject in question; in crashing, the plane has left the figurative ground. The fishiness continues with the “flakes of aluminum skin glinting on the tufts of marshland”—we are in a phantasmagorical nether region, between land and sea, fallen from the air. The imagery becomes even stranger: disturbed sea gulls become “wheeling” clouds (to mix metaphors atmospheric and machinic), and helicopters become “a swarm of dragonflies”—the plane crash has landed us humans in a world where categories of the human and non-human collapse, and everything is subject to dramatic revision.

What is so interesting and somewhat naive sounding about this Time article is the tone of near disbelief: To acknowledge the reality that a new, cutting edge aircraft could—gasp—crash! The innocence both soothes and piques my interest, until the article arrives at a familiar trope that I thought only got bastardized in the late 1990s: irony.

Ironically, 17 passengers had transferred to American One at the last moment, when a United Air Lines flight was canceled.

What exactly is “ironic” about a flight being canceled and passengers being rerouted? This happens everyday. Nearly avoided crashes do not always constitute irony any more than crashes consummated. When we sense an intriguing or inexplicable coincidence we often call it “ironic,” when we really just want to say “what an intriguing and inexplicable coincidence.”

It is this same impetus, I believe, that is behind what my college religion professor termed “God of the gaps.” Whenever a certain phenomenon or event can’t be explained or accounted for, people often attribute it to God until at some point it is demystified. The article ends by stating that the crash “may keep its secrets hidden forever in the muck of Jamaica Bay.” Perhaps at some point in the future someone will stumble upon one of those secrets—of its 25,000 acres of marshland, the bay is losing about 40 acres per year.

In the end, the Time article about the crash seems more distant than the crash itself. The article foregrounds the fact that there were multiple millionaires on the flight—is that, finally, what made it a “tragedy”? And yet, there I am at the end of the Mad Men episode—my wife in the bathroom brushing her teeth and our toddler fast asleep in our bed—turning on the computer. I’ve done my research on American Airlines Flight 1, and now it’s time to check eBay again—I’ve been watching dozens of auctions for weeks now, trying to find a good deal on a Fisher-Price airplane from the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Three weeks later I will get a box in the mail with a plastic airplane made in 1980 (it won’t be as nice as the earlier models but it’ll be far less expensive). And I will have to teach our son not to kick the plane against the wall, but to zoom it on the floor and then up in the air around the room. No matter how many lessons, though, he will prefer to use the plane in the bathtub, and he will teach me that better than the vintage Fisher-Price houseboat, which I spent too much money on a month ago, the plane will indeed float.