Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Art of Flight

Recently, I was doing research at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, and I came across the above typescript page. It's from Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, which won the National Book Award in 1985 and became the book that propelled DeLillo to fame as a post-modern writer. (For anyone who is interested, you can see this and his other papers at the Center. But as is custom in special collections, you may bring only an eraser-less pencil into the reading room and only staff will be allowed to make copies of manuscript pages.)

Although the page above is from a passage that never made it into the published book, it is vintage DeLillo. Here is the entire passage typed-out:
The plane bounced off the turf and came down again a quarter-mile away, grazing one car on busy State Highway 114 and demolishing a second car, whose driver was decapitated. The plane skipped across a grassy field, ricocheted off a water tower, then burst into flames as it slid across the tarmac. "It was like a wall of napalm," said Airline Mechanic Jerry Maximoff. The tail section, with one of the plane's three engines and the last ten rows of seats, was the only recognizable part of the wreckage.

Somehow 31 people, including three flight attendants, initially survived the impact and subsequent inferno. "It was all sunshine until we actually started coming down," said Jay Slusher, 33, a computer programmer who was going to catch another plane for his home in Phoenix. "Then the rain started, very heavy. It became so dark you couldn't even see out the windows. The ride got rougher and rougher. It seemed like there was something on top of the plane, pushing it to the ground. The pilot tried to pull out of it. The speed of the engines increased. We started rocking back and forth. Then we were tossed all around. I saw an orange streak coming toward me on the left side of the floor. I thought we were going to explode. At that point, I said, 'Well, it's all over.' The next thing that happened is that I ended up sitting in my seat on my side. I looked up and I could see the grass. I said, 'Thank you, Lord,' unbuckled my seat belt and jumped out."

Gilbert Green, 21, a football player at Florida State University, was sitting on the right side of the plane as the fire broke out. "It started to singe my arm," he recalled. "Right then the plane broke in half and I was shot out of the way of the fire. [The fuselage] broke off right in front of me. All the seats in front of me went the other way." Most of the survivors were in the smoking section. Said one: "That's the first time a cigarette ever saved my life." Even two dogs in the rear cargo section were saved.

Rescue workers toiled at first in a nearly horizontal driving rain. They placed yellow sheets over the dead, quickly assessed the severity of survivors' injuries and warned area hospitals by radio about what type of cases to expect. The Rev. Richard Brown, who was giving last rites to the victims, was startled when he saw the stomach of one, a baby, "going up and down." He baptized the infant instead and alerted medics, but the child later died. Most of the injured were taken by helicopter or ambulance to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where doctors had tried to save John F. Kennedy in 1963. Officials were heartened by the local response to appeals for blood donations. Some 1,500 people lined up to give.

As night fell, a large crane lifted pieces of wreckage in the search for bodies. Four were found under the landing gear. Floodlights illuminated the scene, which included the grotesque sight of corpses being loaded into refrigerator trucks labeled LIVE MAINE LOBSTERS. All three members of the cockpit crew were killed. The pilot, Captain Ted Connors, 57, had flown for Delta for 31 years. One passenger survived because she made a lucky decision. Assigned a front seat before takeoff from Fort Lauderdale, Annie Edwards, of Pompano Beach, Fla., shifted to a rear seat beside a friend, Juanita Williams. Both survived. They were among a group of women going to Dallas to attend a convention of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority. Other passengers were heading for Los Angeles, the flight's last stop. Friends checking the arrivals list there found a curt message: "Flight 191. See agent."
Despite how gripping this writing is, DeLillo decided to kill it—in fact, the plane in his book never crashes, it merely loses all engine power for a few minutes and then makes a successful emergency landing. The passengers stand around the airport unable to quite leave, opting instead to recount their story of near death: “They were not yet ready to disperse, to reinhabit their earthbound bodies, but wanted to linger with their terror, keep it separate and intact for just a while longer.” The near fatal plane crash, thus, is a bond forged out of air, but embodied in people; it is an averted experience that yet throws bare life into stark relief.

What if the emergency landing hadn't gone very well, and some of these passengers actually suffered terrible deaths—wouldn't that have made a better story? Apparently, DeLillo thought otherwise. And this is where, it would seem, fiction cannot compete with real-life, because the above passage is not unpublished DeLillo; it's the Time magazine article about Delta Flight 191 that crashed on landing at Dallas-Forth Worth Airport on August 2, 1985.

Why did I type up part of the magazine article on my old Underwood, spill coffee on it, crumple it up, and deliberately mislead you, Dear Reader? To prove a point: this piece of journalism sounds as much like a post-modern novel as anything going today. But don't take my word for it—read the Time article yourself. Just beware: for some odd reason it's dated April 18, 2005, almost 20 years after the crash.