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Authors: Robert Sabbag

Down Around Midnight

BOOK: Down Around Midnight
Table of Contents
Too Tough to Die
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario,
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in 2009 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Robert Sabbag, 2009
All rights reserved
Sabbag, Robert.
Down around midnight a plane crash and its aftermath / by Robert Sabbag.
p. cm.
eISBN : 978-1-101-05771-1
1. Sabbag, Robert. 2. Aircraft accident victims—United States—Biography.
3. Authors—United States—Biography. 4. Survival after airplane
accidents, shipwrecks, etc. 5. Aircraft accidents—Massachusetts—Cape
Cod Region. I. Title.
TL553.9.S33 2009
[B] 2008046688
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To Patricia
he flight was an hour and a half late out of LaGuardia: Air New England Flight 248, the last of the night, bound for Cape Cod. With New Bedford shut down by fog, the stop-over there had been canceled. New Bedford-bound travelers had been pulled off the flight, and the plane was approaching Hyannis with the remaining eight passengers aboard. It was two and a half miles out.
A lot of things could have been different. Not that I had any control over them—it was just my lucky day. Ted Kennedy had been aboard the previous flight, or so it was later reported. The direction in which the senator had been traveling was the subject of conflicting accounts, a question that remained unanswered for me until twenty-seven years later. But I could never escape the supposition that, had he been traveling north that night, given a slight delay, he might just as easily have been traveling on my flight. The senior senator from Massachusetts: that could have made things different in a whole lot of other ways.
The plane hit the trees at 123 knots. It lost its wings as it crashed. They were sheared off, taking the fuel tanks with them, as the rest of it slammed through the forest. In an explosion of tearing sheet metal, it ripped a path through the timber, cutting through thick stands of oak and pine for a distance of three hundred feet. Whatever memories time erases, it will never erase the memory of the sound of it.
The seat belt held up. Nothing else did. I hit the belt with such force that I took the seat forward with me, ripping it right out of the fuselage. My back broke as I was thrown forward, wrapped around the restraint. The lap buckle snapped my pelvis. Through some mysterious marriage of aerodynamics and physiology, my arm broke through the steel band of my wrist-watch, exploding the links—the inevitable measure, as I came to see it, of the physical forces at work, of the mechanics conspiring to kill me. The g-load peaked at around six. My forward momentum was absorbed by a collision with the upright seat back in front of me. Its impact with my face raised a welt over my eye, crushed the cartilage in my nose, and displaced one of the bones in my neck. Most of my bleeding was internal. I came to a stop with one knee on the deck, still strapped in, soaked in jet fuel.
It was going to be a long night.
The story I will tell, the story I remember, begins here, in deep woods, shrouded by impenetrable fog, in mid-June in 1979. A story of survival, of varying displays of courage attended by the ever-present fear of failing to display it, of a dark night of the soul and the days and years that followed, in the end it is a story about memory. About the things we can never forget. A story about how, even in our forgetfulness, the present is inevitably haunted by the past.
In the spring of 1979, I was half a celebrity, the author of a book, my first, that several months earlier had spent three weeks on the bestseller list in New York. I was living in Greenwich Village, I was thirty-two years old, and the topic of the book, cocaine, put me at the center of a circle of new friends and acquaintances who were far more celebrated than I.
Cocaine's elevated position in the popular culture of the 1970s is difficult to exaggerate. Periodical rights to the book,
were purchased by
Rolling Stone;
an excerpt appeared in the magazine at the time the book was published. Following the book's publication, excerpts appeared in two other magazines:
High Times,
certainly an obvious choice, and
Town & Country,
probably not. Unless, of course, you were paying attention. Cocaine at the time, conspicuously pouring out of every night-club, was no less indispensable at the hunt club. The common denominator was disposable income. To snort cocaine was to make a statement. The perforated septum was in vogue, a mark of social standing that before the seventies and coke's outright ownership of the night had been restricted largely if not exclusively to victims of congenital syphilis.
Cocaine's enhanced visibility coincided with the publication of
and as the book's author, I was held at least partly responsible for the high profile the drug enjoyed. Some people behaved as if I'd invented it. But the nonfiction book featured a living protagonist, luxuriating in his own notoriety, who was quite happy to take credit for introducing the nation to cocaine's questionable pleasures. And that, along with the book's widespread critical acclaim, enabled me to enjoy my celebrity as a phenomenon with a respectable, legitimate foundation, a consequence of the same kind of honest accomplishment associated with the musicians, movie stars, and other millionaires I was routinely running out of control with.
The previous fall, with new money in my pocket, I had broken ground on a house some three hundred miles from Manhattan. Situated on the edge of a salt marsh, overlooking Cape Cod Bay, the house was now nearing completion. In more than one way, I felt I'd arrived. It wasn't that I'd never owned a house, though that was also true; it was that I'd never really had a fixed address. The eight years I'd lived in Manhattan—I was now on my third apartment—was longer by a good five years than I'd lived anywhere else in my life. My arrival on Outer Cape Cod, anchored to a thirty-year mortgage, signaled a kind of coming to light.
Having recently set up camp within the unfinished walls of the house to participate in its construction, I returned to New York in the middle of June to devote a weekend to what passed for business: the National Fashion and Boutique Show. A trade fair held three, maybe four, times a year, the show opened on June 16 at the New York Coliseum, and there I joined Zachary Swan, the former cocaine smuggler featured in
who was negotiating licensing deals with manufacturers of drug paraphernalia. As a result of his efforts, a variety of products, marketed through the nation's head shops—those now-vanished fixtures of the American landscape that flourished in the Age of Aquarius—would boast, for better or worse, merchandizing tie-ins to the book.
Drug paraphernalia, of course, represented only a tiny fraction of the merchandise trafficked at the Boutique Show. But you were unlikely to see the Hallmark buyer in attendance at the
High Times
party. The party, aimed at the magazine's advertisers and crawling with the usual suspects among New York's “beautiful people”—along with drug dealers, smugglers, criminal lawyers, policy advocates, and people like me—was a special feature of the Boutique Show, a celebration hosted by the magazine's publishers whenever the fair came to town. It was at one of the larger
High Times
parties, thrown at Studio 54 (it could have been at the magazine's Christmas party), that I first met Andy Warhol. He was standing in line, waiting his turn at one of the nitrous oxide tanks. What we might have said to each other I can't remember now, and it was very much in keeping with the tone of the event that I probably couldn't remember it then. As Kinky Friedman was moved to say in such circumstances at the time, “I can't even remember the Alamo.”
Swan and I had first attended the Boutique Show in the fall of the previous year, and among the first people to introduce themselves to us was a contingent of entrepreneurs from South Hadley, Massachusetts, a college town situated in the Pioneer Valley, on the east bank of the Connecticut River. They represented a variety of businesses, all of which seemed loosely associated with a head shop located there, just off the Mount Holyoke campus. A couple of them had been marketing a game they had invented, or the rules of which they had formalized, a dice game they called Cosmic Wimpout. I would meet these people again, along with some of their friends, but never really know them that well, and I never saw them after the following March, when Swan and I signed books in South Hadley after a television appearance in Boston. But I did read about them in the paper. Late on the night of June 17, two of them, along with their girlfriends, were driving back to Boston from a Cosmic Wimpout tournament in Eastham, a town on Lower Cape Cod, when a young woman walked out of the woods in Yarmouth Port and flagged them down on the Mid-Cape Highway. Drenched in aviation fuel and stained with blood, she had been walking for an hour, and she told them, “I've got to get help.”
The woman's name was Suzanne, and she was one of seven other passengers with whom I'd boarded the plane that night when I left New York to return to the Cape. “A petite, brown-eyed brunette,” as the local newspaper would later describe her, with straight, shoulder-length hair, dressed entirely in white, she was a nineteen-year-old college student, a Rutgers University sophomore, and she was the only passenger to whom I had spoken at any length prior to the crash. Summering on the Cape with her family, she had been visiting friends in New Jersey, celebrating her birthday. She had planned to drive, but as a birthday gift, her parents had bought her a round-trip plane ticket. We were sitting next to each other, on opposite sides of the aisle, and when the announcement signaling our descent to Hyannis put an end to her socializing with some other students on the flight, she engaged me in conversation. She was a chatterbox, maybe she was nervous. She wanted to know what I did for a living and what kind of car I drove. She advised me to tighten my seat belt. I had been wearing it, in airline parlance, “loosely fastened about the waist” for the duration of the flight. I must have been slow to follow her advice, because I remember her reaching across the aisle and pulling it tight herself.
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