By Jeff Smith
JULY 28, 1997: IN MY CHILDLIKE imagination there are two things that have always equated to wealth on a scale Croesus himself would have envied: unlimited long-distance phone calling, and free air-travel.
I'm not even that big on chatting on the telephone, and time has turned me into a bit of a provincial, but somehow the notion of being able to ring up my man Jones in Flagstaff whenever the fit seized me--or even catch a flight to Pulliam Airfield if his kids had the line tied-up--without a care as to cost always struck me as the sort of freedom from fiscal restraint that put a fellow up there with the Gettys and the Waltons.
Hell, I've got a friend now in Slovenia and an ex-wife in Germany, and surprising them with a 3 a.m. phone call or an unannounced drop-in would elevate me to the jet-set status my humble antecedents taught me to marvel and admire.
Which is why this business about TWA flight 800 strikes me as such a colossal waste of resources. Bear with me on this: I am not making light of what the mainstream regards as a contemporary tragedy. (Even though I reserve the term for the classically defined fall of the great and mighty to low and mean circumstances, via the agency of hubris or some other character flaw.)
Since the mysterious crash of that airliner off Long Island, just a year ago last Wednesday, staggering numbers of man-hours and huge sums of money have been expended trying to establish the cause of the wreck, so that, presumably, it will not happen again. Why we as a society do not want this sort of thing to happen again is not so bonehead-obvious a question to ask, nor as idiot-simple as one might think to answer. Ask it and you'll get from those officially and informally involved a lot of rambling, abstruse technical, sociological, financial and emotional arguments against crashing airliners, but it all comes down to one thing:
Nobody wants to die in a flaming ball of wreckage falling to earth from a great height.
But let's take this deceptively simple truth a little further, whittle away at it with Occam's razor and see if we can't distill it to its barest essential. Is, for instance, dying in a plane crash worse than succumbing to cancer? Give me the ball of fire every time. In fact if you toss out drifting off peacefully in sleep after Willard Scott has wished you a happy hundredth, the short, sweet denouement of air disaster is about as good a way to go as any. At least the 230 people who perished in TWA flight 800 were all tickled about flying to France, right up until they all went surfing.
So what people really mean, bottom-line, when they make such a huge fuss over a plane crash or a train wreck or some terrorist bombing something containing large numbers of what we of the press refer to as innocent victims, is...
...we don't want to die.
I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but we're going to: every mother's son or daughter among us. This crazy little thing called life is a no-prisoners proposition. I am of the belief that if we accepted this immutable fact with greater stoicism, we could make the hours, days, years we spend alive on earth, way more fun.
And that, I firmly believe, is our purpose in life. Par-tay. Boogie down. Le bon ton rolle. Nor do I accept the criticism of those who say this is a lightweight view of the divine purpose of humankind. If we embrace the notion that we're here to have a good time, and take that philosophy to its logical conclusion, we, each of us, will be nice to our fellows, because that's the best way to get them to be nice back, and all manner of good things will flow from thing fountainhead of fun.
Like for instance we all might be able to pick up the phone whenever we felt like it and call our best friends. Even in Papeete. Or jump on a jet and fly there. They do have an airport in Papeete, don't they?
But we'll never be able to afford to fly to the South Pacific, you and I, so long as every time an airliner crashes (and it still happens less often, with lethal results, than the numerical likelihood of any of us finding our way to the Beyond behind the wheel of our cars), everybody demands a federal investigation, a reconstruction of the scattered wreckage, a full-scale re-enactment of the crash--using a very expensive duplicate of the very expensive airliner that crashed in the first place--and on and on and on, including dredging a considerable percentage of the Atlantic Ocean to pick up dribs and drabs of crash victims who had already received a burial-at-sea that generations of sailors would have been honored to have mark their exits.
Hey, I am honestly sorry for the sadness of the surviving families and friends, but these people are dead already. They aren't going to be any
less dead or more honorably dead because a bunch of kinsmen who became overnight media mavens are making outrageous demands of the airline and the government that tens of millions of dollars be spent so that Uncle Bob's spleen and the thumb and forefinger he had wrapped around his complimentary vodka and tonic when he met his maker, can be exhumed from the sea-bed and re-sumed in bronze jewelry box under six feet of dirt.
The dead from Flight 800 should have been left where the fates felled them. You got a loved-one in the drink? Want him underground? Help yourself, but wait an hour after eating.
And what about the plane? How are we going to prevent such future tragedies? We aren't. We can't. If a missile shot Flight 800 down, by mistake, odds are it won't happen that way again. Not precisely that way. If it was on purpose, the culmination of some evil conspiracy, well of course it will happen again. And if as is by far most likely, it was just an accident, well shucks, these things happen. Spending a bazillion dollars to reconstruct and re-enact the crash is going to do nothing but cost the airline and the taxpayer a lot of money, and put my dream of unlimited free air travel that much further beyond my reach.
Which bums me out.
You know what we need to guarantee the safest, most reliable means of air travel humanly, technologically possible? Let the aviation industry build them, in a competitive marketplace; let the airlines buy and maintain them, in a similarly competitive marketplace; and (lest you think I've become a registered Republican in my old age) let we the people, through the agency of our government, regulate within reason.
These people are not out to kill us. They need us. Our ticket dollars pay their grocery bills. Let's kill all the lawyers and assume a little goodwill for a change.
That, and make mandatory that every executive of every company that has anything to do with airplanes that fly people places for money, has to fly somewhere in his airplane, on his airline, once a month, by lottery. Might be today, maybe next Tuesday. Could be to Paris on the Concorde, could be Sarajevo on the oldest 707 in the fleet.
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