Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Watch the skies

Random stuff rains down on us from the heavens all the time. Most of what hits us from the heights is of no consequence, frankly. 40,000 tons of pulverized asteroids and comets - space dust -filters to the earth's atmosphere each year. Most of it vanishes above us before making landfall, but some of it settles on the ground and in the water around us in miniscule particles no wider than a human hair.

Occasionally, the heavens drop something larger on us - an actual meteorite or, by our own hand, a failing satellite. The satellites are usually good for a few days of panic as cable news outlets try to scare the crap out of people who think their house will be crushed by Sputnik's special needs cousin. Generally, they hit unoccupied spaces or oceans. And then the cable news morons have to start looking for another cheap scare to keep America in thrall.

Of course, every once in a while, one of these babies does hit a house. I love the stories of the people who are just watching tv when a small meteorite drills a hole through the roof and plops down on the carpet next to the Barcalounger. "Ah wouldn't have buhleeeved it if ah hadn't seen it with mah own eyes. Dang thing nearly knocked mah beer outta mah hand!"

Occasionally, you hear about "blue ice" slamming into a house. I always feel bad for the homeowners in these situations. First off, how the hell are you going to identify the miscreant airline? (I actually don't want to think about the logistics of melting down and examining the errant skypoop.) Does a typical homeowner's policy cover frozen airline waste? I may have to call Bob, my insurance guy, and ask him that. Just curious...

Sometimes, it's something terribly sad and horrible dropping from the sky. I recall the day of the Columbia shuttle disaster over Texas in 2003. Horrified, I ran to the phone to call my old college roommate who is a professor at a small state university in Nacogdoches, Texas. She and her husband had not turned on the tv that morning, and they had no idea that the shuttle was raining down on their little town in charred and twisted pieces of metal and flesh. "Don't go outside," I told her. I know that people just outside of Nacogdoches found human remains the next day, tangled with a flight helmet with the shreds of a NASA patch.

Just yesterday, Pam Hearne, a special ed teacher from Floral Park, New York, was at home when she heard "a loud crash". She went outside to make a grisly discovery - a sneaker and sock-clad foot lay in her lawn. That would be horrible enough, but let me quote the story to give you, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story:

"The leg, with hip and spine attached, dented the shingled roof of her garage before bouncing into the lawn."

Before bouncing into the lawn...

Apparently, Ms. Hearne's lawn was the final destination for part of a stowaway on a South African Airways jet bound for New York from Johannesburg. Another leg was later found in the wheelwell of the plane when it landed at JFK. He was likely shredded when the pilot extended the landing gear over Floral Park.

What kind of nightmare life makes someone do something insane like this? This isn't some idiot UPS'ing himself in a crate from New York to Texas. (That was just really stupid, by the way.) This is someone risking almost certain death (well, certain in this case) to get to New York - and get the hell out of Johannesburg. What must his life have been like? Who did he leave behind to be horrified at the manner of his death?

We'll likely never know. CNN will have moved on to the next headline horror before you blink.

Since 9/11, I admit I watch the skies with greater care. I live on one of the key flight paths for air traffic to the DC airports. At first, after 9/11 happened, there was the unnatural silence. I'd jump when the freight train whistled a half mile away. Then, when the planes reappeared, I'd hold my breath as they flew overhead. I remember standing in my kitchen, doing dishes, when the first plane came through and stopping, stock still. I thought I might pass out. Deer in headlights. Deer in headlights. Deer in headlights.

I would get freaked out in my car as I drove to work in downtown DC, following the C&O Canal and the Potomac down from Maryland, as planes skirted the river, headed to National Airport. An optical illusion as I turned into lower Georgetown gave the impression of planes heading straight for the White House. It messed with my head. It wasn't that I worried for the White House. I worried for my friend - precious and irreplaceable - at work a block away. Call me selfish. But, in the end, I think we're all worried about our friends and not the White House.

Watch the skies. But remember to breathe. And for god's sake, don't stowaway on a plane. Ever. Read "The Cold Equations" if that thought ever comes into your head. Just. Not. Worth. It.

1 comment:

Merujo said...

Oh, I think I know... just wait... heh heh heh...