Three Events: Under Pressure

A small piece of burning crumpled paper stuffed into a quart milk bottle will heat the air in the bottle, causing it to expand. If a hard-boiled egg is quickly placed on the opening, the air will cool, sucking the egg into the bottle. This is important to remember.

During my childhood, there were three events that quietly terrified me.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 16-28, 1962

  1. No, my parents would not build a bomb shelter in the back yard.
  2. Could I run from school and make it home before the bomb hit? Undecided.
  3. The school principal is to be forgiven for saying during our A-Bomb drill, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” What could have prepared him for that scenario?

Allegheny Airlines, Flight 928, October 19, 1962

Stewardess Francoise de Moriere noticed a whistling sound coming from the service door at the rear of the airplane. The noise was due to air escaping from the pressurized cabin. She alerted the crew, who stuffed pillow cases around the door seals. Shortly before landing, the door blew open. Miss de Moriere was sucked out of the plane. 

That was on a Friday.

By the time we divvied up the Sunday paper that week, sprawled across the living room to read, the Courant would have had extensive coverage of the event. I was a reader, but I don’t remember reading anything about it.

My knowledge of what happened was slim. A stewardess had been sucked out of a plane and died. Her body was found in the wooded mountain park where, coincidentally, my family took hikes and had picnics.

When it came to explaining what had happened, the adults were useless.

Q. Why did it happen? A. The cabin lost air pressure, and the door blew out.                          As far as I was concerned, that was no answer at all. Air was air, yes?

Q, Why didn’t she grab onto something and hold on? A. It happened too quickly.                This answer was unacceptable. If an atom bomb was on its way, you ran home fast as you could. If the air was wrong in a plane, you grabbed onto something. Period.

Q. What happened on the way down? Was she alive while she fell? When did she die?    A. No one wanted to say. No matter how many times I asked.

Q. How did they find her? What did her body look like?                                                          A. Ditto answer above. “And,” said gently, but firmly, “don’t ask again.”

Over and over, I pictured the stewardess falling through the sky. No matter how many times I pictured it, I never figured it out. As for trips to Penwood Park? Well. It never looked quite the same again.

The USS Thresher, April 10, 1963

At a depth of twenty-four hundred feet in the Atlantic Ocean, only three hundred twenty-four miles from my house, the USS Thresher imploded. The nuclear submarine’s one hundred twenty-nine crew members and civilians were lost. The Thresher, lost at sea, remains on “Eternal Patrol.”

The hull collapsed in one-twentieth of a second.

Imploded. Imploded. Imploded.

Side A Brewing, La Grande, Oregon, March, 2018

The young woman sitting next to me was a year into her new job with the Department of the Navy’s division of nuclear regulation and safety. As she detailed her training, and spoke about how safe nuclear energy was, a memory surfaced.

“Something’s haunted me since childhood,” I said. She only needed to hear my first few words, and completed my thought. “The Thresher.”

“You know about The Thresher?” Yes, she did. There’d only been two accidents involving nuclear subs, she said. Her training covered those accidents extensively. “Everybody knows about The Thresher.” I let her talk about what had been learned since that event. She gave examples of how technology had evolved and what safeguards had been enacted. In a firm voice, she told me why she believed that “It will not happen again.”

For that evening, I believed her, and was finally able to put the Thresher to rest. The airplane tragedy and Cuban Missile Crisis quietly followed.

An Observation, and a Question

Did you notice anything about the three events? Go back and read the dates. It took me over fifty years to realize they all took place within six months of each other. I was twelve years old.

And as for the hard-boiled egg in the bottle? I did that simple experiment at home, months before the airplane and submarine accidents took place. It took me this long to realize I had known all along what happened, or at least knew as much as a twelve-year old could know.
















1 Comment

  1. Well, first of all, you’re a crackerjack writer, and I’m really enjoying these pieces. I especially like the contrast between the observations in the first three pieces, and the internal monologue of this one. My favorite image, though, will remain of the woman breastpumping “with military precision”. And in a Bible study class, yet. Please keep doing this.


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