(Artwork: artist unknown)
In ninth grade high school English, we read that famous William Carlos Williams poem:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Beyond its bucolic and haiku-like simplicity, the poem always makes me think of chance and circumstance, of moments and things, animate and other, brought together in seeming random fashion, often to unintended, unexpected effect.
The words came to mind two weeks ago when that Continental Airlines commuter plane fell from the sky outside Buffalo, New York, not far from where my father was born and less than 70 miles west of the upstate town where I grew up.
Fifty people died, one in the house the plane struck as it hit the ground. The 49 on board had flown from the Newark airport in New Jersey, just outside New York City. It was a very windy, icy day. Flights were delayed for hours and many decided not to fly - the media were filled with stories of the lucky few who had opted out or missed the flight. The friend of a friend here in Manhattan had chosen to drive instead. So much depends ...
And then the realization of the impact just fifty lives can have - fifty people brought together randomly with the single common thread of the passengers' need to fly to a place little more than an hour or so away; on business, a brief getaway, to see family and friends.
The night after, we attended a small reception at the home of my friend Tom Fontana, television writer and producer. It was for a new writing program he and others have started up at Buffalo State College, his alma mater. Much talk of the fatal crash - people who knew people who knew people ...
Beverly Eckert was killed on the Continental flight. Tom had been there the night she and her husband Sean Rooney met at a Buffalo high school dance. Sean had died on the 98th floor of the World Trade Center's south tower and she had become a dedicated member of the bereaved families fighting for a 9/11 commission and counterterrorism reforms. "My husband's life was priceless, and I will not let his life be meaningless," she wrote.
Eckert had been heading for Buffalo to mark her husband's 58th birthday with a return to his high school, which has established a scholarship in Sean Rooney's name. She had spoken to Tom a couple of days before the crash, excited after a White House meeting the families had with President Obama. "Beverly didn't really change as a person after 9/11," Tom recalled. "But her evolution seemed to accelerate. She suddenly saw the world in a much larger context than ever before and her commitment to make it a better place consumed her."
When we got home from Tom's reception, word that musician Gerry Niewood had been on board, too, flying to a performance with Chuck Mangione and the Buffalo Philharmonic. I knew the accomplished jazz woodwind player only slightly from working on music shows here in New York, but my younger brother and sister had played with him when he and Chuck's brother Gap came to our high school for concerts and "music lab" workshops with the kids.
They both recalled Niewood's Afro-style hairdo in those days, a mighty halo of curly red hair, striking under the spotlights, although my brother Tim, a trombonist then, said, "I mostly remember being scared and in completely over my head when actually performing" with Niewood and the other pros.
A couple of years later, Tim attended a concert Gerry and the Mangione brothers performed with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. They were playing "alongside these very staid, tuxedo-clad musicians. [The orchestra] wore a collective expression of consternation as they struggled to keep up with the jazz musicians ... I remember thinking, 'I know exactly how you guys feel ...'"
A few days after the crash, my colleague Bill Moyers came into the office with a full-page obituary from The Economist magazine. Another person killed in the accident, Alison Des Forges, was senior adviser to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. She was one of the first from the outside world to sound the alarm about the genocide in Rwanda that began in 1994. Her calls for international intervention went largely unheeded - the Pentagon would not even jam the signals of Rwandan radio stations directing the murderers to their victims.
Half a million people died in that slaughter, and while much of the world still looked away, Alison Des Forges went to Rwanda, investigated the genocide and produced an 800-page definitive account called "Leave None to Tell the Story" that helped put many of the guilty behind bars. "She took extraordinary risks," The Economist reported, "rushing to the scenes of massacres and questioning killers when their blades were barely dry."
Attention must be paid. Alison Des Forges, Gerry Niewood, Beverly Eckert. In bad times, we do well to remember good lives. So much depends on them.