All about the fields, from Southampton to Montauk, pumpkins of all sizes still lie scattered. Bales of hay and pots of mums in purples, yellows and white line the highway. The skies are gray and there is a wind blowing out of the north. The ocean waves are rising, banging against the already smoothing sand. The dune grass is beige, the cattails bend and snap, the remaining leaves crackle and the geese are flying hundreds strong across the coast. The berry bushes have turned deep red, and there is a darkening brown of bare branch and naked ground that greets the walker bundled in a sweatshirt, the biker with his helmet. I am a city person, yet I know when the harvest is over and the frost is approaching. I know when the seasonal line has been crossed, and I need gloves to keep my fingers warm. I know when I set my watch back an hour that I haven’t changed the earth’s rhythms. The turn around the sun is not determined by the time on my wrist. I’ve only fooled myself.
They say that the Long Island pilot who peeled off in a direction of his own with a very expensive plane and crashed miles away from his base in the Western mountain ranges was suicidal. They found his body and other evidence that they feel proves it conclusively, but I’m wondering what happened to his bombs and why no one can find them. I’m wondering what made a young pilot so angry at himself that he would slam his plane into the rocks, and I’m wondering who failed him when and why.
Except for the plane, the story is not so spicy. Young men get depressed and some kill themselves, throwing their bodies under trains, hanging themselves in their parents’ garages, overdosing on something chemically antagonistic to life that goes into their veins or down their throats. Some smash the family car, leaving the monthly lease coupons in a drawer, wasting the down payments. But very few go so far as to take United States property of enormous value and leave it crumpled like old tissue on a hillside. It seems unpatriotic to take with you your expensive training in updrafts, radar, wheel lifts, fuel gauges. Even more, it seems countercultural, counterrational, to wipe out the vehicle that was intended to defend your country, your way of life, from the unknown intruder. Unless, of course, you hated your folks, hated your hometown, raged against the white picket fences, the Pizza Hut, the local cineplex and the Wal-Mart parking lot.
Dear soldier pilot, what made you so furious that you turned that rage against yourself in bone-breaking death, and why did you give away your bombs? Has some angel of the Lord scooped them up so that mortals can’t hunt with their toys? What, I wonder, happened?
Now, I know the difference between fact and fiction; it’s something like the difference between the hamburgers grilled on the patio, and the ones at Burger King. Nevertheless, it seems possible to me that more than clinical depression snatched our pilot lad. He would have done it in the bathroom or in the hallway if that were the case. It seems to me that those missing bombs are going to turn up in someone’s attic, and it makes me nervous to think of whose. I think we’ll find that someone planned a rendezvous in the high, barren cliffs and that someone is running around right now in Belfast, in Kurdistan, in Gaza, in Baghdad, in Pakistan, in Kashmir, in Myanmar, waiting for the right moment to go on stage and demand something that can never be given.
Yes, it’s true I’ve seen more bad Hollywood movies than is good for the brain. Yes, my overstimulated paranoia jumps and leaps at the sound of official investigations that declare nothing is really wrong with our Air Force, just a screw loose in a screwed-up kid. Yes, Vincent Foster really committed suicide, but he didn’t take any Government property with him. Yes, probably there was only one assassin in the Dallas tower and, despite our fondness for James Bond, the forces of evil are no better organized than the forces for good.
But something disturbs here. I see the young boys riding around in Jeeps with red-on-black stickers on the back bumpers: D.A.R.E. These stickers mean that those kids have received drug cautions in their schools. Good. But what else is in their heads? Have they listened to their local police, or have they turned their adolescent faces to the wall and made jokes to ward off the things they feared? Who failed our pilot: his mother, his girlfriend, his teacher, his superior officer? Is he some mystical communal sacrifice to the Gods of War, a peacetime offering to the devouring forces, for whom the body count is always too low? Oh, poor, bloody earth. Halloween night is just for children; the real thing knows no seasons and can’t be bought off with a candy bar.
It’s also odd that all the regular things, Little League, school teams, bike rides with friends, trips to the ice cream parlor, necking in the woods with your first girl, all the Americana of our towns, should produce a young man with a desire to die loud and noisy, heavy metal crashing all the way. Mental illness or chemical imbalance can be blamed, but I wonder if that’s not a little easy, like blaming the loss of this plane on mechanical failure, ice on the wings. The choice of crash site tells us that this boy was a mystery to his friends and that his demons were not noticeable enough to win him a discharge or medical attention. It means that just as the smallest sparrow can hide in the reeds atop the dunes, so the darkest of human thoughts can be camouflaged for a long time. We wear masks not just on Halloween.
I’ve been on planes over the Rockies and have seen the occasional cluster of lights that signal human dwellings. I’ve seen the clouds with moonlight floating over them and the dark blues of the sky stretching right to the end of the galaxy. I’ve felt the smallness of my lungs, the frailty of my bones, the weight of my mind, water and carbon, ash and dust. I’ve been in the air when the sun rises and the pale spread of light hits the eye, a reminder that no one is watching me: The plane flies forward, its shadow on the mountain below for a fleeting instant. Awe comes and brings with it either a whiff of the sacred or a certainty of its absence, sometimes both at once. It may be that a frequent flier, a pilot for example, goes mad from too much staring at the edge of the earth, the light reflected from already dead stars, the cold moon, the longing for something or someone to hold him.
It may be that this pilot figured out that flying about with bombs in your cargo bay, staying in formation, practicing for attack and parry, filled him more with terror than with joy. We like to think of our warriors as unwrinkled as their uniforms, as simple as children playing King of the Hill in the backyard. But, after all, they have their own bad dreams in which their planes explode far in the mountains, out of fuel, bringing death at last. Would it be better to keep pumpkins in the bellies of our planes?