Nantucket Memories

Postcard from the End of the World

September 11, 2012 0 comments

reprint from Yesterday’s Island/Today’s Nantucket – by Phil Austin

May 6 came and went again this year without the slightest mention of the Hindenburg disaster that occurred in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937.  My father was exactly twenty years old at the time of the tragedy, which killed about three dozen souls of the 200 passengers that were aboard.  The ship was on the verge of docking at the end of its maiden voyage, a relaxing, transatlantic flight from Germany, when it suddenly and violently exploded directly in front of a large crowd of relatives, reporters and the idly curious.
He recalled he was driving back from Manhattan, where he worked in the art department at Macy’s, to his hometown of Montclair that day. Hearing the first panicky news reports booming through the car radio of his beloved Ford Phaeton convertible, he turned the car around and headed back to Lakehurst, a few miles down the road.  Arriving on the scene, he’d came upon a dread vision straight out of Dante; heaps of smoldering, grotesquely unrecognizable bodies that had been living, breathing, laughing human beings only a half hour earlier, small groups of dazed survivors wandering around the sandy grounds of what is now the Naval Air Center, blankets thrown over their hunched shoulders.  It was the loose sand that saved many of the jumpers, by burrowing down to escape the licking flames and the falling pieces of melting aluminum tumbling from the heavens.  There was a lost, hundred-yard-stare in everyone’s eyes that day.  Clotted groups of weeping, wailing relatives, eyewitnesses, newspapermen, gruff, official men in uniform, hardened New Jersey cops and firemen openly draining warm, honest tears from their stern, tough-guy faces.
It was a scene he would never forget.  It was a scene, he once confided to me in a moment of rare, fatherly candor, that first gave shape in his young mind the beginnings of a belief that the end of the world was indeed really possible.

* * *

8:00 A.M.:  My father has a morning appointment at the Nantucket Cottage Hospital.  His catheter has become clogged.  Inserted weeks before, the 12 inches of 1/8 inch plastic tubing is now a life-threatening obstruction.  It is a personal affliction never spoken of in polite company.
8:15 A.M.:. Hoisting him into my old van is backbreaking work for so early in the morning.  I glance around, but there is nobody on the street at this hour; not a soul watches us drive off, him bravely smiling out the windshield into the bright morning’s glare, occasionally wincing at the unknowable discomfort, perhaps even rivers of fresh pain washing over him.  I have no idea.  He hasn’t passed water in two days, and only last night admitted to it.  He’s a hopeless stoic, which continually irritates me, because I have to pick up the pieces at the last moment, call in to work, rearrange the chaos of my own life.  I’ll probably need the whole day.  He and I are on totally different schedules.  It is as if we stand on opposite hilltops, gazing at two entirely different sunsets.  But I must remind myself: his seed created my life, my neurons, my history and my future.
8:30 A.M.: At the hospital, a chatty, older woman with too much makeup checks him in, fusses over his Medicare card which he laboriously extracts from that ridiculously fat wallet full of long-expired driver’s licenses and A&P discount cards.  It is a vanity left over from a past life, that wallet.  A useless bit of ancient history.  He no longer needs money, or a driver’s license or discount cards.  The police took his license away months ago, when he drove his station wagon into the front of the bank, comically on Customer Appreciation Day, a festive occasion of free hot dogs and balloons and little plastic calendar magnets.  His foot had gone numb for some mysterious reason.  Now even the bank is a distant memory.  I have power of attorney over his dwindling life.  I buy his food.  I pay his bills.  I take him to the places he needs to be.  He’s like a newborn baby, but with one important difference.  He doesn’t have the rest of his life to look forward to.
Still, when the painted, smiling clerk asks for his Medicare card, it is he who gropes through the wallet, proudly hands it over like a burnt offering. She looks away, as if ashamed by the formality, the parchment-thin skin on his lightly shaking hand, variegated with dark blue veins.  The exertion of returning the wallet to his hip pocket leaves him breathless.
8:45 A.M.:  I locate a wheelchair to sit him down in while we wait. How’re you feeling?  I ask.  Great, he says, couldn’t be better.
He’s lying, of course.
We wait together like this for a half an hour.  Man and boy.  Which is which?  I haven’t a clue.  For some reason, on this morning, the emergency room is packed with people, mostly strangers, a few familiar faces.  He nods off a couple of times.  Voices drift from the inner sanctum of the examination rooms.  An orderly strides purposefully through the lobby, clutching files, scanning faces, calling names.  A short black man from housekeeping rolls a large plastic bin on castors, wordlessly emptying plastic waste baskets spread around the large, bright waiting room, occasionally pausing in his work to glance up at the soundless television in the corner, permanently tuned to CNN News.
I ask my father if he wants something to drink, realizing the idiocy of this seconds later.  He hasn’t voided his bladder in two days.  He shakes his head no.  I’m fine.  How about a magazine?  “No,” he says, then adds, in a fierce, emphatic whisper, “Just the doctor, please.”
I quickly get up, leave him there for a minute to try and track down somebody who knows something.  These people have no idea the depth of discomfort this old man must be feeling right now.  They process, poke and prod, ask a few questions, prescribe this pill or that procedure, then it’s on to the next.  Some doctors will tell you in confidence that people basically either heal themselves or they don’t.  Occasionally they can understand the ongoing dialogue we have with our immune systems, but mainly it’s gibberish and blind faith.
9:00 A.M.:  An ER nurse at a desk glances up.  When I tell her my father’s name she assures me soon, they’re pretty busy today, and we both wonder why, at this time of year.
Returning to the waiting room, towards the thinning hairs on the back of my father’s head, now fallen low onto his chest as he snoozes.  Voices have risen to an excited, burbling pitch.  A few people have gotten out of their seats to crowd around the television screen.  Chattering magpies  I peek between their shoulders at the screen, thinking of sweepstakes and celebrity diets.
I have entered the room just in time to see the instant replay of an enormous, speeding airplane plowing into an enormous, glinting tower in the middle of the richest, if not the greatest city on earth.
It is September the 11th.
My father suddenly wakes up, looks around, and winces from a jab of burning pain.
For some reason I am now remembering what he once told me about the Hindenburg, the uncharacteristic poetry describing how he felt about the end of the world.
I am glued to the screen.  A second plane has just pierced a second tower.  No replay this time.
It’s going to be a long morning.

* * *

A young doctor in a green operating suit, handsome and fit, probably a serious jogger, passes through the waiting room, never taking his eyes off the television.  I overhear him telling a nurse in the hall that the two planes that hit the World Trade Center in New York were both sitting on the Boston runway at the same time he was boarding his small commuter Cessna bound for Nantucket.
I saw their faces, he’s telling her, meaning he’d gotten a peek at every one of those passengers now vaporized to gray ash, now floating to heaven from the burning pyre that used to be floors and floors of swank offices balanced high above the rich caverns of commerce.  And the streets below the inferno reduced to a cattle chute for a mad stampede of hysterical New Yorkers running only for their lives, not money or exercise or fame.
Someone in the waiting room approaches the TV screen, an older woman in a red French beret.  She kneels down on the carpet, tracing with her fingertips over several small black objects the morning news cameraman has zoomed in on.  She turns back to the rest of us.  People are jumping, she whispers.  Look, from the windows.  People are jumping.  My father stares straight ahead, out the window, hands gently folded in his lap, like an obedient choirboy.  His opal eyes are a million miles away; enigmatic Sphinx, patience, waiting.

* * *

The first tower has just collapsed.  Amazing, from a metaphysical point of view, it just simply folds in on itself, like a translucent veil of smoky liquid falling to earth.  Nobody in the waiting room can speak.  A young woman carrying a clipboard breaks the silence.  No more than a girl, she calls out my father’s name, who brightens when in the presence of youth and beauty.  It is a vestigial memory, a pleasant reflex.  We wheel him into the tiny cubicle, where I get him settled in and return quickly to the television, to CNN, to the horrifying, falling buildings.
The end of the world has arrived, coast to coast, in living color, in real time.

* * *

We are all waiting now.  There is talk of a nuclear attack.  Where would we go, those of us on Nantucket, thirty miles at sea.  A CNN talking head is speculating about the suicide hijackers maybe being Muslims from Saudi Arabia, perhaps Palestinians trying to wreak revenge on the US for supporting recent attacks by Israeli troops against the Gaza Strip.  But it’s all total speculation this early in the game.  The World Trade Center is a symbol for these people, the anchor is explaining, meaning the United States is a gigantic bulls eye for terrorist enclaves like Iraq and Palestine and Afghanistan.  He says the FBI will begin a sweep on likely suspects, a code word meaning people of dark ethnic, religious, or cultural persuasion, meaning Iranians praying in mosques, Pakistanis opening up convenience stores, Egyptians driving to daycare centers.  In short, anyone unfortunate enough to be born with strange-sounding last names, anyone wearing shawls on their heads or women covering their faces or anyone having suspiciously odd notions of God.
A third plane swoops low over Washington, DC and into a busy spoke of the Pentagon, barely over-flying the White House.  A fourth corkscrews itself into an empty Pennsylvania field.  The President, the anchor tells us, was not in the Oval Office, but had been reading a story to a classroom full of Florida school children when he got the news of the first planes in New York and is already aboard Air Force One.
I feel safer already.

* * *

I get up and tiptoe down to the cubicle.  My father is wearing a baby blue hospital Johnny.  His pink knees jut out from the cotton.  He sits patiently waiting for the lady doctor, who has already come and gone, wishing her to reappear and make the pain go away.  How’re you feeling?  I ask, knowing full well what he’ll say.  Just fine.  Never better.  I tell him about the hijacked planes and the falling buildings.  He shrugs and asks me when we can go home again.  The brute politics and horrors of modern life are an academic exercise.  From his particular vantage, the end of the world is an extremely subjective thing.

* * *

He wanted to show me the crash site.  Back in the early sixties, when I was about seven or eight, I had absolutely no interest in the Hindenburg, or zeppelins, literally any information disseminated by anyone over the age of ten.  We were on our way down to the Jersey shore, to visit my grandmother, his mother, in Rumson.  She was a critical, hyper-tensive woman who seemed to have little need for young boys in her tautly controlled widow’s hermitage.  She lived in a claustrophobic, stucco-covered bungalow on a quiet street that was so inundated by climbing ivy that it made the rooms night-dark in the middle of the day.
It was a short detour off the Garden State Parkway to Lakehurst, where the Hindenburg had crashed and burned that long-past day in 1937.  To my father it was less than yesterday.  A guard in a glass shack gave us a pass in the shape of a little zeppelin that we put on the dashboard, and we drove into the Naval Air Base, a vast, empty expanse of crumbled asphalt mixed with occasional scrubby weeds.  Typical military base junk land: flat, infertile, ugly.  We walked over to where an historical marker, another little zeppelin, atop a wind vane on a pole, denoted the exact spot of the tragedy.  Someone had placed a large wreath of plastic flowers at the base, but it had long-faded in the dense, shimmering swelter of a New Jersey heat wave.
It had been raining that day, my father told me, and I looked away, anxious to leave.  Lightning too, he said, then told me a story I’d heard several times before.
It was on the car radio and I drove right over, he said.  The police stopped all the cars, but I still had my old high school press pass, from when I used to cover sports for the Montclair Clarion, so they waved me in.  It was horrible.  People were screaming and crying.  The air was thick from this acrid smoke rising from the charred, twisted wreck, because the firemen had doused the thing pretty quickly.  The fire had nothing left to burn when it ran out of hydrogen and zeppelin parts and people.
I listened to him talk himself out.  Then after a while we got back into the car, turned in our little zeppelin pass to the guard in the shack and drove back to the Garden State Parkway, down to the shore, to Rumson, to the grandmother who stared icily at the back of a young man’s head while he played with his cars on her precious Oriental carpet.
I don’t know if it made him feel any better, after all those years, to see that cursed place again, the place where he’d learned, in a pretty substantial way, for a twenty-year-old, that nothing lasts forever.  I like to think it did.

* * *

A few days later, the doctor puts my father into the hospital.  He’s dehydrated and weak, his blood PSA, the dreaded cancer marker, is pegged in the red zone, and the hormone drugs are no longer working.  Time to get psyched for the end of the world.  The nurses stick a couple of fluid IVs into him, fluff up his pillows, turn the TV on, and leave him alone for what seems like hours at a time.  Even as close as it seems to the end, I’m selfishly grateful for the break from the constant worrying about when he’d need to finally go into the hospital.  But it’s momentary relief replaced by a crushing guilt I haven’t done enough while he was still at home on my watch.
One day I bring him a few of his old paintings, totems to remind him he’s an artist, a man of vast talent and substance.  In short, a once and future king of his own universe.  He barely notices when I prop the three small paintings up on the windowsill for him to see better, merely blinks and mumbles, “not my best work.”
Out at the nurse’s station, I ask why his eyes are so glassy and his once-mighty grip so weak.  Nancy, the young RN only here on a six months rotation from Denver, a woman just passing through, nonchalantly tells me they’ve started the morphine drip.
I picture the first plane hitting the first tower.  A puff of vapor trail, a silver arrow piercing delft sky blue as Chinese crockery, the first tentative wick of flame, computer paper wafting down like apple blossoms, the window jumpers, backs to the searing heat, embrace the cool of the morning and step out.

* * *

After work today I notice that someone has dropped off an enormous bouquet of wildflowers in his hospital room.  Exquisitely brilliant poppy reds and canary yellows and royal purples.  My father can’t possibly know they’re here in the room.  Most of the time he sleeps, but still I visit as often as I can.  I don’t want to miss anything.  I ask Nancy, when she pops her head in to check on things, about the flowers.
She shakes her head. I’m not sure, she tells me.  They were brought in this morning. I get on at three.  I can ask.  She wanders down the hall, returns in about fifteen minutes, a stricken look on her face.
From a wedding, she explains, that had to be called off, but the flowers were already ordered, I guess.  Somebody from the Trade Center, getting married on Nantucket.
We stare at each other.  Then down at the face of my sleeping father, who has made a hoarse, yelping sound.  His eyelids flutter once, and his eyes pop wide open.  They are the eyes of a frightened boy in a dark room full of monsters.  Nancy reaches down for his hand, gently strokes his wrist with her thumb until he closes his eyes again.  Just having a bad dream, she says.  He never woke up, she assures me, as if it is a small blessing to not be around for your own life to unwind.

* * *

Later:   The TV says today that the tower attacks were the handiwork of a rich, Saudi building contractor’s son named Osama Bin Laden.  He leads a group of disenfranchised militants by the name of al Qaeda.  The FBI is already hot on his trail, and his footprints lead right back into Afghanistan. The dogs of war are barking their heads off.
I cannot care any less.  Not even if the conspirators were Bugs Bunny, Mr. Rogers, and Katy Couric can I care any less.
My father died this morning.  Around 3 AM Nurse Nancy called. He’s going soon, she’d said.  Now’s a good time if you want to come.
In the three minutes it took to get there, he was already gone, or maybe she just didn’t want to break the news.
Sitting alone for a few minutes with his body, no tears will come.  Only months later, when I happen upon a paper bag that I’d quickly stuffed his paintings into, the same ones I’d brought to the hospital for him to remember the magnificent journey of his artist’s life, only then did I cry.
Coming home from the hospital, memorizing the finality of leaving him for the very last time, two deer a hundred yards ahead, frozen in the headlights, pause at the edge of the road, ghostly and serene.  For several minutes I sit gazing through the windshield.  There is a reverent solemnity to this single, disconnected event, listening to the low thrum of the car motor, the whisper of the heater fan, the faint ticking of a wristwatch measuring the seconds, the minutes, the hours remaining until we must endure the next end of the world.