And yet, occasionally some far-flung piece of news stabs you right to the heart when you least expect it.
The disappearance of a Malaysian aircraft and its 239 passengers into the southern Indian Ocean may set a record for the hours of cable TV news broadcasts it filled on the basis of virtually no new information. But for me, the idea of a moment of panic over a vast body of water brought to mind a piece of my own life from more than 30 years ago.
I was on a long night-time flight to London for a magazine interview with British writer Alan Sillitoe, best known for his story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” that was made into a fine movie starring Tom Courtenay. My wristwatch still said midnight from U.S. time, but we were hours ahead of it and sunrise would be waiting soon in England. The pilot came on the intercom and said we were approaching the North Sea. I had read about the area many times, but the words never seemed as bleak as they did now: North. Sea.
This being February, I pictured in my mind the vast expanse as being darker than the devil’s closet and filled with chunks of ice besides, and I found myself wondering how much momentum a big jet actually had — namely, if the engines all quit right now, could we possibly glide to one of England’s westernmost beaches, say, before touching down?
But the long monotony was making me increasingly sleepy, and I hoped all good things for aeronautical engineering as I dozed off.
What woke me up was a violent jarring of the plane, and the sensation of being dropped straight down some gigantic elevator shaft. This new circumstance barely had time to register when the plane seemed to stop dropping (always a good sign) and was instead buffeted from side to side by intense winds.
By now, several children were crying and several adults gasped — a few even screamed — out loud, just as in a real disaster movie. The pilot spoke in a calm voice and said that an unexpected thunderstorm was the cause of the turbulence; in a few minutes we’d be past it, and all would be well. This news would have been more encouraging had the huge plane not still been shaking like a child’s small, held toy, and those North Sea ice cubes suddenly felt close enough to touch.
Then a strange thing happened: Judy Collins started singing “Amazing Grace,” a cappella. I was obviously imagining this fact because none of the other passengers seemed to be hearing the song, but imagining made it no less real. At this point I gradually realized I was wearing the music headset I had put on earlier, confidently selecting the “Folk/Gospel” channel before figuring out that the music player was not working at the moment.
Apparently the shock of the plane hitting the storm was the equivalent of a good strong kick to the music device, and “Amazing Grace” just happened to be the next song cued up.
Then, several things happened in succession. I found myself unconsciously breathing to the slow rhythm of Collins’ vocal, which served to slow down my racing heart. The loudest of the passengers began to settle down. And the up-and-down, side-to-side slamming of the plane’s body began very slowly, as the pilot had predicted, to subside, replaced once again with the sensation of a good car being driven on a smooth highway. “Amazing Grace” ended, and I breathed possibly the deepest breath of my life.
It’s scary, how instantly the “new” in news can dredge up an intense five-minute slice of memory from half a lifetime ago. And for that slice to vanish, just as quickly.
It’s a helpless feeling, especially with the lives of real people in the balance. All I know to do is to wish, for the Malaysian passengers and crew, some kind of grace. Even if it’s grace that would, at this point, have to be amazing.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 p.m. on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com and is archived afterward on his website.