A Visit to Alabama
A Place Far and Hard
March 14, 2008 we lost my brother David. He had spent over a decade in the Marines, survived three combat tours in the air and on the ground. Roughly two months before he was to leave the Marines and join the civilian world, he was killed when the plane he was flying in, a T-34, crashed in Alabama. It was a terrible shock to us, and as brothers we had not been particularly close, but as our ages increased and his time in the Marines came to a close, we found ourselves speaking far more often. I think all of us, his wife Erin, his daughter Lizzie, our parents and my sister, and many others, feel robbed of good times yet to be had.
It was hard to conceive what happened, partly because the report we were given was that the aircraft crashed into the side of the mountain while in bad weather in Alabama. I confess that I did not know Alabama had much in the way of mountains, so I resolved that I would one day visit the scene. And last March, the opportunity arose as I travelled to Jackson Mississippi for business. I took an extra day and set off on the three hour drive. All I knew was the rough area, and calls to the local police for additional information were fairly unhelpful. I had pieced together some basic information from the news reports and found the area, Chandler Mountain, but it is 10 miles long, fairly wooded, and lightly populated. I drove around for an hour and couldn't make any progress relative to the one picture I had seen that was of only a cliff. I found a teenager raking leaves who knew of several plane crashes and pointed me to one area to search. I found a town hall and the receptionist game me another area eight miles south.
I just started asking anyone I could find. And bear in mind I am a New Yorker now in rural Alabama asking strangers for directions to a plane crash that had happened eight years prior. I was more than out of place, and people were a bit standoffish to strangers until I explained the story - which for the most part then led to one wrong spot after another. I found myself at a motorcycle club at one juncture straight out of Sons of Anarchy, asking elderly people along the road, and just standing around hoping someone would stop and give me some ideas. One gentleman came out of his house and was around that day in 2008. He pointed me to the spot, described the scene and said they never saw it coming. It was humbling. And strange. The same gentleman offered to buy my watch and made crude jokes about prostitutes so I guess you never know what you're going to get on the side of the road in Alabama.
With a better idea of where I was going, I could narrow my search to a fairly small area. I found a woman out for a walk who also knew exactly where it happened. She sent me to the end of a dirt road where the trailer is parked, sending me to drive my New York self to a hidden trailer in the Alabama woods to knock on a stranger's door. But she was right and that was it - it was the exact spot. The owner's daughter took my information and the owner called me later that evening and invited me back the following morning. He couldn't have been nicer - but it was also clear strangers wandering around his property was not his thing.
I took this picture that morning. The cliffs to the left are where the accident happened. Having gone through grief now, I reject the idea of closure. As a friend said, it doesn't get better, it gets different. That observation has remained true over the last nine years. Perhaps it's a bit of peace achieved by finding the place where it happened. If nothing else, it's knowing that there is a spectacular view in a place that holds both beauty and tragedy - and a reminder that despite today's rift between blue and red America, we're still one country where a stranger from New York City can go to rural Alabama, ask strangers for some help, get a tour of the area and invited into their home to find some understanding in a searing event in my life that has forever changed the entire family and the way I look at the world and each day. Small solace, but it certainly looks like someone from above was looking down through the clouds that morning.