In the Midst of Tragedy

It’s been over 40 years but I remember it like yesterday.

September 4, 1971.

Our family had recently moved to the fishing town of Sitka, Alaska. We were there to start a new life as my parents looked forward to joining together in marriage. The plan was that my new stepdad’s father would come for the wedding and then stay for a visit. I only knew John the elder, as a grandpa; a kindhearted story teller who would sit back with his pipe and entertain the children with stories of his adventures. We all looked forward to his visit.

But, it was not meant to be.

It was a typical rainy fall day in Sitka clouds low in the sky limiting visibility even at the ground level when we headed to the airport to meet the plane. What should have been a short half hour trip turned into an agonizing affair marked by extreme darkness. Today, it’s hard to imagine, but back then we were without the benefit of 24 hour news running in the terminal or the immediacy of social media, even cell phones. As we waited with other families for the flight’s arrival we began to observe whispering agents in the small one-terminal airport. Late planes were not unexpected in our rural setting but the continuation of the flight from Juneau to Sitka should only have taken thirty minutes so when hours had passed we knew nothing was right. Eventually, our family learned that the plane had not reached Juneau. Officials still just told us it was delayed though my parents knew better.

My sister and I were sent home with a cab driver friend who shut off the top news story on the radio, but not before we heard the announcement that a plane was feared crashed on approach in the rocky mountain range near Juneau. It helped prepare us for when our parents returned home in a very shell shocked and unbelieving mind. The announcement and the reading of the passenger list on our town’s one radio station also alerted friends who immediately surrounded my parents with amazing love and support. As they gathered together they learned that the folks could be flown by the airlines where ever they needed to be with the rest relatives while waiting for confirmation but only ‘immediate family’ was included in the airlines offer. This was in the days before a ‘significant other’ could count as anything important and for a few moments they all pondered the situation but only a few moments, because it was realized that my parents, already planning to get married, had their wedding license in hand. If they got married we would be immediate family. And with amazing speed the wedding was organized.

Each day has only 24 hours but it seems this day lasted far longer as that evening we proceeded to the little Lutheran church we had been attending where we were met by Pastor Ted. One of the church members had been cleaning up the church when she heard the news and quickly rearranged the altar with flowers for a wedding. Small town news travels fast and another friend arrived to play the organ while several others appeared in time for the ceremony. It almost seemed like a real wedding.

I don’t know how much my parents remember of their ceremony but my young impression was that everyone in attendance, rather than being seated, was gathered around them in a circular arrangement, like angels shielding them from the pain. After the service a friend who worked in the jail next door provided an impromptu reception with jailhouse cookies and juice. It continued to rain but I remember the church appeared to glow that night. Was it from the lighting…or was it from the outpouring of love? We were not deserted in this time of heartbreak breaking pain; even in our worst grief we could feel the comfort of peace. God was with us and there is no doubt that Jesus was carrying our family through this trial.

The disaster ended, as they do, with a huge painful loss, sorrow not just for our family but the many others impacted by the crash, followed by a slow recovery marked often with regret, guilt and survivors remorse. In the short term, it was tremendously difficult; many families never do overcome such sorrows. Still, over the years my parents chose to embrace a life well lived and move forward with the help of their faith, family and friends and on this day they also celebrate 43 years of marriage.

Today I am reminded that in the midst of tragedy, there is still love.

4th of July family gathering. After 43 years they still hold hands. There is love.

4th of July family gathering. After 43 years they still hold hands. There is love.