A long-ago plane crash, the lives it ended, and the lives it began.
I never saw my father, and he never saw me. He died when the Air Force plane he was piloting crashed into a mountain in the North Cascades near Seattle in April 1948, six months before I was born. I have no memory of him, of course, but I’ve occasionally asked myself: Do I carry around a memory of something? I’m 67 now and haven’t had the feeling for many years, but I remember it vividly from my childhood: a sense of horror, accompanied by something unseen but still insistently visual, a slow-swirling mass of movement like the inside of a lava lamp, but colorless—a solemn gray sludge.
It’s possible that prenatal memories exist, and if so, perhaps this is one. It might date to the moment my mother was informed of her husband’s death and her body and mine were suddenly flooded with thick dread. It might have originated several months later when, still pregnant with me, she was almost electrocuted when lightning struck an outside water pipe as she was washing clothes in the basement of her parents’ Oklahoma City home. Or it might be nothing, just some lingering precognitive sense that has mostly faded away.
My father’s name was James Erwin McLaughlin. I was born Michael Stephen McLaughlin. In the unlived life in which my father did not die before I was born, I might have been Mike McLaughlin and not Steve Harrigan—Mike McLaughlin of Seattle, Washington, where my parents lived at the time of the crash, or maybe of Nashville, Tennessee, where my father was born and raised. From time to time in my real life I would ponder such things, but the truth is that, from an early age, I had trained myself not to be overly curious about him. I was born into a postwar world in which there was a feeling that a terrible time was over, that a tremulous calm now reigned and should not be disturbed.
After my father’s death, my shattered mother moved home to Oklahoma City, where she and my older brother, Jim, and I lived in an apartment that my grandparents built for us behind their home. It was a small two-bedroom place attached to the garage. Above the garage was another apartment, where her four younger brothers stayed as they began to sort out their lives after the war. In the main house lived our grandparents and our aunt Rosemary. Everybody in this extended household called our mother Marjorie, so that’s what we called her too, and did for the rest of her life. Rosemary and our four uncles—the “boys”—called our grandfather Daddy. So did we. Our father was Mac. That was how our mother referred to him on the occasions when she brought him up, that was how he had been known to his friends, and that was who he was to Jim and me.
For us, there was no sense of loss or grief. Jim had been only six months old when Mac died, and the household we lived in was already full of masculine energy—with Daddy and our four uncles no doubt consciously compensating for an absence my brother and I never really felt. And perhaps being surrounded by so much family helped to distract us from having an urgent need to know who our father had been, what he had been like, how he had died.
It was impossible not to want to know something; he was our father. Even so, I don’t think Jim or I ever exactly asked a direct question about him. We waited for our mother or our grandparents or Rosemary or one of our uncles to mention him in conversation, waited for the next fragment of information that we could grasp as it came floating by. It was reticence we felt, not indifference. Not at all. I understood that knowing about my father was crucial to my own sense of self, yet I could not bring myself to be the insatiably curious son who bombarded my mother with questions. How did you meet him? What did he look like? Was he really a war hero?
It would have felt somehow unnatural to ask such questions, to reveal the extent of my own hunger to know more when the spirit of the house was one of subtle concealment. I’m convinced that no one meant to actively dampen any discussion of our father, to discourage any questions. It seems to me that the trauma of his death, combined with the stoic values of the World War II generation, had created an atmosphere of discretion that bordered on silence. The war was over, the world was back in gear. The dead had not been forgotten, but America was driving forward, and it had determined that the time for mourning was past. That our father survived the war itself and died a few years later doesn’t lessen for me the feeling that Jim and I were part of a generation marooned in a culture that had not yet invented grief counselors or placed a premium on open emotional investigations of heartbreak and tragedy.
We had seen a few pictures of Mac, but I don’t remember a photo of him hanging in our Oklahoma City house. His medals—the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal—were not displayed. We would only learn about those later. There were no letters he wrote that we were aware of, no recordings of his voice, no home movies. But when he was spoken about, it was with pride, and we had an impression of a figure out of World War II heraldry, a fearless fighter pilot who once shot down an enemy plane and who, in the middle of another dogfight, was forced to bail out of his P-38 and was miraculously rescued from Japanese-held waters. We knew that after the war, he had been a test pilot and that he was a restless mechanical tinkerer who had once tried to invent a personal helicopter.
Some of this we learned from Grandmother McLaughlin, whom we visited three or four times at her farm in Tennessee, on land where the Nashville airport is today and that had been in the McLaughlin family since before the Civil War. Every few years we also saw our father’s sister, our game and lively aunt Dorothy, who lived with her husband and two children in Virginia and who was a dynamic career woman who had worked in New York for the Remington Rand manufacturing company. She and our grandmother didn’t talk much more about our father than the other side of the family did, but when they mentioned him, they called him James, not Mac. James was a name that seemed raw to me, stripped of mythology, the name of somebody who had once been a real boy and not the moniker of a glamorous fighter pilot.
But our visits to Tennessee and Virginia were few, and I was so tightly enclosed in the world of my mother’s family—the Berneys—that the McLaughlin side seemed puzzlingly different. The Berneys were cellular-level Catholics, their religion coursing along since medieval times from Ireland and Czechoslovakia. The McLaughlins were startlingly Protestant, and even more startlingly kind of easygoing about it. The sense I had that this part of my family existed across an identity divide was compounded by the fact that I could not locate myself genetically within it. I knew from early childhood that Jim was the embodiment of Mac. He looked exactly like him in the few pictures I had seen. Jim was tall and blond and confident, mechanically and athletically adept, with a boisterous, mischievous streak that was pure McLaughlin. He had none of the Berney fatalism that had formed my own worrywart personality, and he had visual evidence that Mac was his father every time he looked in the mirror. “Well, you don’t have to tell me whose son he is!” family friends would say when they saw Jim for the first time. I felt a spasm of envy at these moments. Jim had never known our father either, not really. But Mac had known him, had held him and talked to him and no doubt been filled with wonder to see himself so fully expressed in his son. I was the child he would never see and would never know. He never even knew if I was to be a boy or a girl.
My mother remarried when I was five. Tom Harrigan was sixteen or seventeen years older than she was, almost fifty. He was an independent landman and oil operator who had spent his youth as a roughneck in Argentina working for Standard Oil. He was tall and slender, already white haired, a man of warm and worldly humor. He had two knuckles missing on the little finger of his right hand, the result of some childhood accident he took delight in never explaining. He and my mother were introduced by family friends in Oklahoma City, where Tom’s mother and three brothers lived. He himself lived in Abilene, and that’s where we moved, away from our family compound to a new city beyond the Red River, where we were to have a new life in Texas with a new father. Our sister, Julie, and our brother, Tommy, were born in Abilene. They were our half-siblings, though the word “half” was never spoken. By any measure that mattered, they were our full brother and sister. But I was aware of subtle and not so subtle differences. Julie and Tommy had the full-on Irish good looks of their father, and they called him Dad, while Jim and I called him Tom. We also still called our mother Marjorie.
I remember a moment when I was growing up when Marjorie took Jim and me aside and suggested that maybe we should refer to her and Tom the way our brother and sister did. But the words “Mom” and “Dad” sounded strange and false. I couldn’t make myself say them, even just to try them out. The word for “mother” had always been “Marjorie”—there could be no substitute for it. And we still knew our grandfather back in Oklahoma City as Daddy. So there was Daddy, and now there was Tom.
We were already two degrees of fatherhood removed from Mac, and maybe because of that the active desire to know more about him ended up being set aside even more. Tom was our father. To express any interest or curiosity about another father struck me, even as a child, as unseemly and ungrateful. And anyway, Harrigan—not McLaughlin—was now our last name.
So as we grew up in Abilene and then later in Corpus Christi, we held up our end in an undeclared bargain of silence. We did the same as adults. Out of habit, out of concern for our mother’s deep emotional wounds, out of respect for Tom, out of some inexplicable interior caution of our own, we rarely asked about our father. When my mother did mention him, I seized up inside with a keen alertness I felt the need to outwardly disguise as mere polite interest. I wanted to know as much as I could about my father; I wanted to know who he had been so I could know better who I was, but my search for this knowledge remained mostly secret and mostly passive.
I dreamed about him only once in my whole life. I was standing on a remote jungle airfield when a plane, some sort of fighter aircraft, landed and taxied to a stop in front of me. Mac got out of the cockpit and stood by the landing gear in his flight suit, looking at me with a puzzled expression. Who was I? Why was he thinking he should know me? “Are you . . . ?” he said. Then I saw his face change, to beam with surprise and recognition as he figured it out. As for me, I was trembling at the prospect of a reunion that I knew was impossible but that even so felt supremely real. He was running toward me, closing the circle that had begun before his death, when the dream evaporated.
Many years after that dream, in 2000, I published a novel called The Gates of the Alamo, and on the dedication page I wrote, “In Memory of James E. McLaughlin, 1918–1948.” My grandfather was long dead, and so by that time was Tom. The dedication was, I suppose, an elliptical way of claiming my own paternal identity for the first time. Friends—some of them intimate friends who had known me for much of my life—saw the book and asked me who James E. McLaughlin was.
In 2009 a man named David C. Daniels, from Baxter, Tennessee, sent me an email asking if I was the son of Captain McLaughlin. He said he had a photo depicting Mac and three other P-38 pilots. Daniels had been trying to find the remains of one of the men in the photo, Francis J. Pitonyak, his wife’s great-uncle, who had been classified missing in action. In the course of his research he had come across the dedication page from The Gates of the Alamo. The photograph he sent shook me. I had never seen it before. It was taken in 1943 and showed Mac and the three other men standing at attention at an airfield in New Guinea after receiving the Air Medal. They were dressed in shapeless khakis, their garrison caps worn at a casual slant. My father was the tallest of the group, and he had a mustache that must have been a wartime affectation, since in every other picture I had seen of him he was clean shaven.
But the thing that startled me was this: I had an eerie sense that I was looking at myself. For all my life, for sixty years, I had just assumed that I had nothing of my father in me. From what I knew of him, from what I could observe of myself, I did not share his high-spirited, risk-taking personality. I did not have his six-foot-two height, his blue eyes, his blond hair. It had always seemed to me that I was nobody’s son and that only Jim was Mac’s rightful progeny. Now I saw something strikingly new. It was hard to say exactly which of Mac’s features lined up with my innate understanding of my own appearance—maybe it was the tilt of his head, the shape of his eyes, something about the bridge of his nose or the particular slouchy way he held his arms against his sides. There was an attitude, of wariness or slight inattention, that seemed not just familiar but foundational. All at once I understood what it meant, in a biological sense, to have a father.
A few years after I received that image, other photographs and papers—a lot of them—began to emerge. Many of them came from the garage of my aunt Rosemary, who died in 2012. It turned out that the vital traces of Mac’s life had not been lost, as I had thought, but had just been stored away long ago for a day when my mother might bear to look at them again. She had grown old without ever mentioning them, and as a result they had remained out of sight for so many decades that they had been almost forgotten. Among the torn and moldering papers was Mac’s complete war record, documenting his service in the skies above New Guinea as a pilot in the 8th Fighter Group of the 36th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Corps. He was part of the massive air campaign against the Japanese that made it possible for General Douglas MacArthur’s Allied forces to conquer the Southwest Pacific and advance toward Japan. He began the war as a second lieutenant and ended as a captain, flying 186 combat missions. His exploits were described not only in his citations for the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross (“The outstanding courage and devotion to duty displayed by Captain McLaughlin . . .”) but, as we later discovered, in books about the Pacific air war with titles like Attack and Conquer and MacArthur’s Eagles.
On July 11, 1943, he was piloting a P-39, escorting ten B-25 bombers as they flew over the Owen Stanley Range en route to attack the Japanese-held air base in Salamaua, when seven of the Japanese fighters that the Americans called Oscars descended from out of the clouds. In the intense dogfight that followed, my father made a head-on run at one of the enemy planes, which burst into flames and crashed four to five miles west of Kila Point. It was his only verified kill, though in a report he filed the following November he claimed “probable” credit for the destruction of a Japanese bomber.
He himself was shot down in March 1944. He and another pilot, Captain Warren Danson, had been flying at 25,000 feet in P-38s above Kairiru Island when they saw a dozen Oscars below them and decided to attack. Danson’s plane was apparently hit and began a steep dive. In his own plane, Mac was having engine trouble. It would have been prudent for him to pull out of the fight and return to base, but he didn’t. “With complete disregard for his own safety,” the Distinguished Flying Cross citation reads, “he continued to protect his fellow pilot, driving off 2 enemy fighters.” He did what he could, but Danson and his plane were never seen again. That was almost my father’s fate as well. Bullets from an attacking Oscar burst through the cockpit, spraying him with broken Plexiglas. He could no longer see out of the canopy, and so he bailed out, a complicated and dangerous maneuver in the double-fuselage P-38. He landed in the sea and began furiously paddling his inflatable raft to put some distance between him and the two Japanese-held islands that were only a mile or two away. In a daring rescue—“almost under the gun muzzles of the Japanese defenses,” as Lex McAulay, the author of MacArthur’s Eagles depicted it—he was plucked from the water by the heroic pilot and crew of a flying boat known as a PBY.
In this cache of papers we found the wartime history not just of our father but of our mother as well. There were photo albums filled with pictures of her with various unknown uniformed men and women, striding through military bases or smiling at the camera from their tables at officers’ clubs. There were hundreds of letters, written home to her parents in Oklahoma City when she was Lieutenant Marjorie Berney of the United States Army, a nurse serving at bases in Fresno, San Francisco, and Washington State. The letters told of how she learned to assemble and fire a machine gun, of how she stood with the other nurses on the tarmac waiting for the planes bringing in the casualties from Okinawa and Iwo Jima. But there was the other side of World War II as well, the frenetic military social life in which a pretty young nurse known as Brown Eyes Berney was in constant demand by dashing pilots like my father who would check out a plane and take her on a flying date, soaring over San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. She met Mac when they were both stationed at Ephrata Army Air Base, in the middle of the eastern Washington desert, and he was admitted to the hospital with a recurrence of the malaria he had contracted in the Pacific. This was in 1944, when he was a test pilot. One September day he had taken out a P-63 fighter known as a Kingcobra that had been written up for excessive vibration. As he was taking it for maneuvers to make sure the problem had been fixed, he heard a loud crack in the rear of the plane and turned to see that the entire tail section had broken off. “He bailed out,” Marjorie wrote her mother, “practically in my front yard and broke his ankle.”
“Late yesterday afternoon,” she wrote home to her parents after his ankle had healed and they were engaged, “the sun was shining and Mac went up and really cut capers in the sky. He’s really at home in that P-38. . . . He gave the hospital a buzz and I just held my breath for fear he’d break his neck or get courtmartialed. He’s not afraid of anything tho.”
Though my yearning to know more about my father had never formed itself into an active quest, I had—back in the late eighties or early nineties—gone to the library and requested microfilms on interlibrary loan from the Seattle newspapers for the week Mac’s plane had gone down. There were at least half a dozen articles, recounting the disappearance of the plane, the search for survivors, the efforts by local mountaineers to locate the wreckage and bring down the bodies. I had read through these articles with what seems to me now a strange lack of avidity. Maybe it was because I felt guilty and furtive, sneaking around on my mother somehow, probing for information that had been sealed off by her grief. In any case, I read the articles and put them away, and over time the words permanently faded from the thermal paper on which they had been printed.
Now, along with the other documents, here they were again, articles from the Seattle Times, the Aberdeen Daily World, and other newspapers from Washington State. They had headlines like “Overdue Plane Sought,” “Lost Plane Hunt Shifts to Cascades,” “Plane Wreck Found: Three Believed Dead,” “Pilchuck Climb to Crashed Plane Is Slowed By Fog, Snow.”
Pilchuck: that was the name of the mountain the plane crashed into, a jagged 5,300-foot peak in Snohomish County, about sixty miles northeast of Seattle. At the time of his death, Mac was stationed at McChord Army Air Base, where he was in charge of reserve flight training. He and my mother, who had been discharged from the Army by then, were living in the Seattle area, where Jim was born the previous September. The plane, a twin-engine AT-11, had been on a routine training flight, a short run of fifty miles or so from McChord Field, in Tacoma, up the coast of Puget Sound to Sand Point Naval Air Station. But in bad weather and low visibility it had flown dangerously off course, far to the northeast, and never arrived. Mac was the pilot, but according to the newspaper articles there were two other people onboard who also died: Lieutenant Francis A. Geyer, an Air Force reserve officer who was the co-pilot on the flight, and the crew chief, a tech sergeant named Carl T. Fields.
Over the years, I had sometimes thought about Mount Pilchuck. I wondered what it would feel like to see the mountain where my father died and where my life, before it even began, took such a dramatic turn. Jim and I had talked idly about going there someday, though we would never have thought to mention the idea to our mother, or even to seriously consider it while she was still alive. But the notion of visiting Mount Pilchuck was always there, and it was greatly revitalized for me by something else we discovered among our father’s papers. It was a Whitman’s Sampler candy box, that universal precious-objects container favored by the Depression generation. Beneath the cardboard lid was a scattering of unremarkable things like age-old receipts and keys. But there was also my father’s gold wedding band. When I slipped off my own bargain-basement silver ring and slid the one from the candy box on my finger, it fit perfectly (I’m wearing it now). In the box there were his dog tags and his wallet. The wallet’s interior pockets were filled with various brittle pieces of paper: a commissary card from McChord Field, an airman certificate vouching for his status as a commercial pilot, a driver’s license, a card documenting his monthly officers’ pay ($511.50), and another card that read “This is to certify that Capt. James E. McLaughlin is a member of the Caterpillar Club whose life was spared the 4th day of Sept., 1944 because of an emergency parachute jump from an aircraft.”
This referred to the accident that happened when he was stationed at Ephrata, the one that landed him in my mother’s hospital. It was the second time he had bailed out of a plane and qualified for membership in the Caterpillar Club. But he would not escape his final crash, on Mount Pilchuck, and as I looked through his wallet I realized what this box really contained. These were his effects, the things that had been retrieved from his body and brought back home to his widow. With his wedding ring on my finger, his falling-apart wallet in my hands, I felt the same sort of connective jolt I had experienced when I saw that wartime photo for the first time.
Marjorie died in April 2015, at the age of 94, at the end of a long slide into infirmity that left her confined to her bed, crippled by arthritis, her vision slowly fading. Her mind and her memories, though, remained strong until nearly the end, and so did my strange lifelong reticence about introducing the subject of my father. I knew that this had always been my fault. She would have willingly answered any questions I asked, would probably have welcomed them, even the most painful ones. But while she was alive, I kept myself locked in a prison of decorum, afraid to open the door.
But now it was time. There were only three of us left in the family that had once been six. Julie had died of a rare form of cancer ten years earlier, at the age of 49, a blow so dreadful that we worried our aged mother might not survive it. But she did. As she had done so many times before, she took the shock, absorbed the grief, and lived steadily on until the end. Jim had retired from his job as a vice president of Southern California Gas Company. He was 68, having trouble with his knees lately, but—allowing for a certain margin of decrepitude that also applied to me—he was in reasonably good shape. The idea of climbing Mount Pilchuck flared up with sunset urgency: it was now or never.
Tommy was younger than us by a decade or so. Like his father, he had gone into the oil business. When we mentioned the idea of climbing Mount Pilchuck to him, he was intrigued but initially hesitant, worried that this expedition belonged to Jim and me alone. But although we had different fathers, we shared the same mother. For all of us, the tragedy that befell her in 1948 was a primary fact of our existence.
Mount Pilchuck, we learned, was not some remote, unvisited summit that would require technical climbing skills to reach. It was a popular day hike, a round-trip of a little over five miles, with a 2,200-foot elevation gain that led climbers to an old fire lookout cabin perched upon a craggy aerie that offers one of the best views in the High Cascades. The guidebooks we consulted rated the climb “difficult” or “strenuous,” though we took heart when we found one that said it was only “moderate.”
We agreed to meet in Seattle in mid-September, when the weather was most likely to be cooperative and the trail not blocked by snow. Meanwhile, I discovered on the Internet that there were sites with names like AviationArchaeology.com that sold the official investigations of plane crashes, even ancient ones like my father’s. I ordered the report for the Mount Pilchuck crash, and in a few weeks it arrived in the mail. It contained 67 pages of terse data: weather reports, flight logs, maps,
maintenance reports, and summary statements. There were also photographs, some of which I had already seen in newspaper articles, showing in bleak black and white the snow-covered mountain slope where the plane had gone down. As I sorted through the report for the first time, I braced myself for what I might see, the mangled bodies of my father and his crew. How would I feel, encountering such a photo of a man I never knew, whose death I had never had any immediate reason to grieve? But there was nothing of that sort, only a single photo of the plane itself. It was mostly buried in the snow, just the broken right wing and the tail section rising out of the smothering whiteness. A man—one of the mountaineers who had first found the plane—stood next to it. His face was not visible. He was just a silhouette in a hooded parka and a billed cap with ear flaps, his skis stacked upright in the snow.
After a careful parsing of the accident report and the information set out in the newspaper articles, I began to understand for the first time the details surrounding my father’s death. It happened on a Friday afternoon, April 2, 1948. That morning Mac had flown from Sand Point to McChord, and in the afternoon, at 3:55 p.m., he and Geyer and Fields took off from McChord back to Sand Point. It was an IFR flight, the acronym for instrument flying rules, and since the report states that my father “proposed” the flight, its purpose was likely to provide him with a chance to add hours to his instrument rating. When the plane took off, the weather over McChord wasn’t good for flying, with low cloud cover providing a broken ceiling of just nine hundred feet. Visibility was three miles, with light rain and smoke in the air. He contacted air traffic control at 4:10 p.m. with a position report and again at 4:15, when, according to the newspaper articles, he indicated he was having radio trouble. That was the last contact. Some men in a logging camp twenty miles east of the town of Marysville reported seeing a plane pass by about five hundred feet overhead at 4:25 p.m. Twenty minutes later—to judge by the AT-11’s instrument panel clock, which was discovered to have stopped at 4:45 p.m.—the plane crashed into the southwest slope of Mount Pilchuck.
Nearly three dozen military and civilian planes began to look for the AT-11 from the air, and ground parties moved into place below, waiting to hear some indication from the air search of which direction to climb. One of the pilots looking for the plane was Millard Smith, a captain in the Air Force Reserves. Flying his own Cessna on his own time, he was the first to spot the downed plane from the air. He was also the first to see it from the ground. He joined a rescue crew that assembled at Verlot Ranger Station, outside Granite Falls. Outpacing his companions, he soon found himself climbing alone, into an increasingly fierce snowstorm. He caught sight of the plane and started uphill toward it, but he was almost swept away by an avalanche, and finally driven down by the storm to the relative security of the timber below, where he managed to build a fire. (It was thought he had perished until he appeared at the bottom of the mountain the next day.)
At around the same time Smith was trying to reach the plane from below, two other searchers, Ira Spring and Bob Craig, had reached the summit. From there they skied down to the wreck and saw at once that there was no hope of any rescue. They found the front part of the plane destroyed, driven into the dirt, the bodies of my father and Geyer jammed against the instrument panel by the impact. Fields lay dead in his radio operator’s position behind them. Spring took photos of the plane, with Craig standing next to it (he was the man in the parka I had seen in the newspaper shot).
There it was, set out with cold data in the official report and with occasional colorful description in the newspaper reportage, the story of my father’s death. The story, in a way, of the beginning of my life. The moment of branching fate that determined who I would be, who Jim would be, and that would destroy the family we might have had while bending the world in such a way that the family we were to become was made possible.
In my solipsistic musing about my own destiny, I must have read through the newspaper articles half a dozen times before I thought to wonder about the other men who died in the crash and the families they might have left behind. I went back and looked at the ends of the stories, where the survivors’ names are listed: “Sergeant Fields is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Troy Fields, Port Townsend . . . The sergeant lived in Puyallup with his wife and a daughter, Tracie Ann, 3.”
I doubted that Fields’s wife would still be alive, but a girl who was three years old in 1948 very likely would be. It took only half an hour or so of entering the name Tracie Ann Fields in Google to find her. When I called Tracie Churchill (her married name), she was astonished. I wasn’t all that sure why I was calling, and I was a little worried that she would regard this out-of-nowhere gesture as an intrusion, an act of trespassing curiosity with no real purpose behind it. But the curiosity was mutual. Yes, she really wanted to talk. She wanted to talk about her father and about growing up without him. She lived in Browns Point, across Commencement Bay from Tacoma. She was divorced and had a grown son. She was retired from her job in a local bank and lived in a tiny house with a garden and chickens overlooking the bay. And, yes, she would love to see us when we came to Seattle. She too, she said, had wondered what her life would have been like if that plane had not crashed into Mount Pilchuck.
And what about the family of Lieutenant Geyer? The newspapers had said he was unmarried, which meant that there were probably no children to contact. But once I started thinking about him I couldn’t stop, especially after we discovered several letters while going through my mother’s papers. The first was a condolence letter. I think it must have been the only condolence letter that she kept. It was written on April 15, two weeks after the accident.
My Dear Mrs. McLaughlin,
You will be surprised to hear from me I know. I am the mother of Francis A. Geyer and I and Frank’s father are having a sad time together for we were very proud of our son and very close as a family and the loss is hard to bear. But we think of you, the Captain’s wife, with the loss of a dear loved one and we are very sorry for you and with our son Jim, would dearly like to offer our sympathy for you. We are older, and for us life has offered other blows (though of course none like this) but for you who are so young it is doubly hard.
Perhaps it might comfort you to know, how highly our son spoke of your husband and how happy he was to fly with him. We have been told they did not suffer. So for that we can be thankful. Really we should not grieve for them, but that point we have not reached. Someone who saw my son grow up, wrote in her note that Heaven must be a lovely place when those so young and strong and good are there. We feel great sympathy for you and hope your little family may give you the comfort and joy that our dear son has given us in all his 24 years of life.
(Mrs. A. B.) Emilie A. Geyer
So Francis Geyer had a brother. After some Googling I found a 2011 obituary for Angus James (Jim) Geyer. He died at age 88 and had been “preceded in death” by his twin brother, Francis. Another few hours of searching the Internet led me to his daughter, Cynthia Wright, an administrator at a Catholic school in Seattle. I sent her an email, along with a scan of the letter written by her grandmother. “This is an incredible contact,” she wrote back, “and brings tears to my eyes.” She said she had three brothers. The eldest, Frank, was named after their uncle. Their father, “an incredible man, a wonderful father and grandfather,” had never gotten over the death of his own brother. She said the family was “taking it all in,” would be very eager to meet with us when we came to Seattle, and that her brother Pete was interested in joining us on the trek up to Mount Pilchuck.
The death of my father had always been so personal to me, so secret even, that it was strange to be talking openly about it with my brothers, to be making plans to visit the place where he died, and to be meeting strangers whose own lives had vectored outward from that long-ago tragedy in the same ways that ours had. It was like sunlight suddenly pouring into a dark room, blinding and warming and exhilarating.
My two brothers and I met in Seattle on a Sunday in early September. Our plan was to meet Pete Geyer at our hotel early the next morning and make the hour and a half drive to the Mount Pilchuck trailhead. Before then, we had an afternoon to kill, so we drove to the address listed on the driver’s license that we had found in Mac’s wallet. This was the house in the Seattle suburb of Tukwila that he and Marjorie bought just after they were married, where Jim had lived the first six months of his life and where, as likely as not, I had been conceived. Tukwila is just north of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, about ten miles south of central Seattle. We could see the buildings of downtown and the flat blue sweep of Puget Sound as we crested a hill on Tukwila International Boulevard and turned left onto 140th Street. There it was, as modest a little two-bedroom house as my imagination could have conjured. It had a peaked roof and shingle siding and a scrappy lawn in front.
Late in her life, bedridden, her health in decline and her mind casting back, my mother had told me that she had been sitting with Jim on that lawn, waiting for Mac to come home from work, when she learned that his plane had disappeared. That was a long time ago, a different world ago, but standing in front of the little Tukwila house, I could picture the moment with heartbreaking precision: a beautiful April evening, lingering daylight, the icy dome of Mount Rainier floating above the horizon to the southeast, dinner in the oven, a kitchen timer ticking down, a child happily puttering in front of his young mother in the grass. A moment of perfect contentment, about to be savagely ripped away.
At ten o’clock the next morning we stood in the parking lot for the Mount Pilchuck trailhead with Pete Geyer, nephew of Frank Geyer. He was in his mid-fifties but younger looking, lean and sandy haired, a prominent Seattle landscape architect with projects all over the world. He had brought along his friend Dave Monjay, whose occupation on his business card read “Retired (but still trying to figure out what to do when I grow up).” Dave was in his late sixties, but with the still-solid physical presence of someone who didn’t appear to have any plans to give up trekking in the mountains anytime soon. He turned out to be a crucial addition to our expedition. He had been up Pilchuck before. He knew how rocky the trail was above the treeline and had brought us all hiking poles to keep our footing.
We set out in hard-to-read weather, clear and sunny one moment and overcast the next, with icy fog visible on the granite peaks in the distance. The hike was steadily uphill, growing steeper as we climbed. For the first mile or so we walked beneath a sumptuous understory of hemlock and cedar and alder, the temperature rather chilly but the atmosphere so deceptively soggy in this closed-in forest that the brim of my hat was soon limp with sweat. As we made our way along the switchbacks below the tree canopy, Pete told us a little about his father, a financial planner who had died in 2011, at the age of 88, outliving his twin brother by 63 years. “That accident defined my father’s life,” Pete said. Jim Geyer rarely spoke about Frank—all his life the loss of his brother had remained a crushing sorrow—but the family knew how close the brothers had been. They had both served in the war. Jim fought in the South Pacific and won a Bronze Star. Frank had been a B-17 pilot assigned to the Caribbean. At the time of Frank’s death, the two brothers were planning an extended motorcycle trip through Europe together.
As we headed up the mountain the trail kept disappearing into jumbled fields of sharp rock where a missed step could mean a broken ankle. We weren’t trying to prove anything and were content to carefully amble upward, admiring the views of forest-fringed mountain lakes that were coming into view below us, and the slabs of bare granite looming above us. After an hour and a half of methodical plodding, we were almost out of the “gorgeous relict of ancient forest,” as my hiking guidebook described it. I had bought the guidebook at an REI in Seattle. Its co-author was Ira Spring, the same young mountain guide who had climbed through the raging storms in 1948 to find my father’s plane. Spring, who died in 2003, had gone on to become a well-known nature photographer, author, and environmental activist. In his memoir, he described breaking trail through waist-deep snow in search of the crash site. His account of the discovery of my dead father is, for me, frustratingly terse and unemotional. “After a night’s bivouac,” he writes simply, “we skied to the wreckage and found the crew dead.” But it seems also to have been a life-changing event, the experience that convinced him to undertake mountain rescues whenever his skills were needed. I wondered: Had it not been for my father’s death, would other lives have been lost because Ira Spring had not been there to save them?
The trail wasn’t crowded, but it was a popular hike, and every now and then faster people with steadier strides would slip in front of us. I watched one guy as he surged past me. He had a wispy hipster beard and wore a bandanna on his forehead, a fleece jacket, sneakers with no ankle support. How old was he? Maybe 29, the age Mac was when he died? It struck me—it struck me unsettlingly hard—that for many, many years now I had been my father’s senior. A hidden part of me had always pined for a glimpse of him, but now I realized, if that impossible wish were ever to come true, the father/son polarities would be reversed. I would want him to see me as his son, as the son he had recognized at last in that dream, but how could he? He was frozen in youth—stopped just like the clock in the plane’s cockpit. How could he ever see me as anything but an old man, growing short of breath on a steep mountain trail, fighting off cramps in his legs?
It was already afternoon by the time we arrived under the brow of the false summit known as Little Pilchuck and began following the trail toward the main peak. Everything was rock now, slabs of granite with a slippery sheen of mist. We crossed over the main ridge onto a plateau facing southwest down a deep gorge, so narrow and steep it looked as though it had been hacked out of the mountain by the blade of a giant ax. There were a few stunted trees on the edge of the precipice and some negligible greenery scattered underfoot, but otherwise there was no color, just the cold monochromatic gray of the rock that formed the canyon and a scrap of hanging cloud, steely and sodden.
“I think this is where it was,” Dave said, startling me. He had studied the coordinates listed in the accident report and marked the location on his map. We weren’t standing at the exact crash site. We were several hundred feet too high. The chasm below us was so forbiddingly steep and we were so fatigued that it would have been insane to even think about trying to scramble down to it. And anyway, the plane had been removed sometime in the fifties. But we were facing the right direction. If we had been standing here on the afternoon of April 2, 1948, looking southwest down this gorge, we would have seen the AT-11 flying blindly to its destruction. Here I was, as close as I was ever going to get to the colliding resonance of my father’s end and my own beginning. I braced for a wave of resolution or revelation, for something, but all I could register at that moment was the fatigue of a four-hour climb and the sense that the ridge where I was standing was a very stark and bleak spot indeed.
From there it was only another quarter mile to the fire lookout station at the summit. To reach it, we had to climb upward through a towering pile of boulders, and then up a wooden ladder. The station was a lonely little shack with windows on all four sides and an outside catwalk. It was filled with other weary hikers eating energy bars and staring out at the muzzy High Cascades spectacle it offered. The view was mostly socked in. But every few minutes the cloud dynamics would change, and we could see all the way to the west to Puget Sound. Inside the lookout, there was a log for climbers to sign. I wrote down why we had come, my hand trembling slightly with cold and creeping exhaustion. We asked one of the hikers to take a photo of us on the catwalk, with the foggy peak behind us. In the photo Jim and Tommy and Pete and Dave are all smiling, but I have a grimly composed expression. I wasn’t feeling sad, just somber. I still felt the distance of my father’s life, but I also felt, for the first time, an intimacy with the horror of his death.
I couldn’t get that stark gray gorge where the plane went down out of my mind. What a lonely place it must have been to die: no one nearby, no sounds but the plane’s twin engines, a growing panic on the part of the crew that they didn’t know where they were, only that hiding somewhere in the zero visibility outside the windows there was a wall of granite. I was aware as well of another fact, one that now seemed vividly immediate and important. When Spring and Craig found the plane, they couldn’t recover the bodies, which were wedged into the wreckage and would have to be cut out of the plane with heavy equipment. So Mac and Frank Geyer and Carl Fields remained in their plane in the snow on that desolate slope for another nineteen days before a group of mountain-trained soldiers from Camp Carson, Colorado, climbed Mount Pilchuck to finally release them.
It was late afternoon by the time we had picked our way down through the talus fields and followed the long trail to the parking lot. Our legs were triumphantly sore, my thigh muscles taut as rawhide. They were only slightly looser the next morning when Jim and Tommy and I walked through the massive galleries of Seattle’s Museum of Flight, staring up at the airplanes suspended from the ceiling. There was no P-39 on display, the plane Mac had flown when he shot down the Japanese pilot over Kila Point. But there was a representative of the plane that unfortunate pilot had flown. This was the Ki-43 Hayabusa, known to American pilots as the Oscar, the highly maneuverable fighter used throughout the war by the Japanese. And hanging from the ceiling was a P-38 Lightning, the legendary twin-fuselage fighter, known as the “fork-tailed devil,” that Mac had been flying when he was shot down himself. And then there was a version of the plane he had died in, the unglamorous AT-11. Commonly known as the Twin Beech, its primary function was to train pilots and bombardiers. After the war, it was used for transporting passengers, delivering mail, skywriting, anything that required flying people or goods from one place to another. As we stared up at it, I kept thinking about how ironically different it was from the powerful and lethal P-38. Mac’s final flight was in a stable civilian workhorse, an aircraft that looked—as it hung there in the museum—as safe as a family minivan.
Later that morning we went to see Tracie Churchill outside Tacoma. The daughter of Carl Fields was in her yard watering her plants when we drove up. She was in her sixties and had short curly hair. She wore a red sweater with big yellow flowers and a button in the shape of a lady bug. She shook our hands and invited us into a small apartment on the bottom floor of a house that overlooked Commencement Bay. The four of us talked aimlessly for a while, about Seattle traffic and about her arthritic lab, Tootsie, who kept an eye on us as she lay in her dog bed near the front door. The polite way that we all circled around the subject of the death of our fathers was, I thought, a leftover habit from childhood: don’t probe, don’t cause pain, wait for information to be revealed.
Our lives, we discovered as the conversation began to center on the crash, had been parallel in certain critical ways. Like Marjorie, Tracie’s mother rarely spoke about her husband. Also like Marjorie, she had moved in with her parents and remarried five years later. Like Jim and me, Tracie had grown up with a loving stepfather. She had been a year and a half at the time her father died, not three as it stated in the newspaper article I had seen. She had no memory of him. But she did have a teddy bear he had given her and a little heart pendant that she still wears every day. She spoke of him fondly, proudly. “He was a great man. A really fearless, adventuresome guy.” When he was a kid, he had been so bold and reckless he had lain on the railroad tracks and let the trains pass over his body. During the war, he had served on a bomber crew in Europe. His plane had been shot down and he spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp, keeping a diary in the margins of a New Testament.
She showed us a photo of her father in an oval frame. He was in uniform, very young, maybe 20 or 21, staring fervently and fearlessly at the camera lens. There was another picture, probably taken only a few months before he died, that showed him in the front yard of his parents’ house, the sleeves of his uniform shirt rolled up, smiling at the squirming year-old daughter in his arms.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Tracie said, echoing the questions that Jim and I had carried around in our imagination all our lives. “What would life be like if it hadn’t been for that crash? Where would I be? You can’t help but wonder.”
Tracie had other pictures and yellowing newspaper clips about the crash, one of which had a photo of her two uncles conferring with the rescue team about the search for their brother’s plane. And she had the condolence letters that her mother had kept. She allowed us to look through them, and I was struck by one postmarked Sapulpa, Oklahoma. It was from our great-aunt, writing on behalf of herself and her husband.
“We are the aunt and uncle of Captain McLaughlin,” the letter read. “His mother is my sister. She is just killed. Her only son was her pride and joy, just as your son is to you. We wait and watch for news of their rescue—but there is none. Capt. McLaughlin’s wife’s people are in Seattle with her—they live in Okla City—She has a small son and another baby expected—which makes it doubly hard on her for she is not well.”
Holding the letter, reading my great-aunt’s thick, purposeful handwriting, I kept returning to one phrase: “another baby expected.” That was me. So odd: in a stranger’s house outside Tacoma, Washington, hidden in a pile of old letters about a long-ago tragedy, I had just found the earliest reference I had ever encountered of my own existence.
As we were helping her tidy up her family papers and preparing to leave, Tracie offhandedly mentioned something about her brother.
“You have a brother?” I asked in surprise. I told her there had been no mention of any other surviving children of Carl Fields in the newspaper accounts.
“That’s because he wasn’t born yet,” she said.
The news that there was somebody else like me, another unborn orphan of the Pilchuck crash, was enticing but also oddly unsettling, like finding out that somehow I had an undiscovered twin. I wanted to talk to Tracie’s brother but felt as though I could use some time for this new revelation to sink in. It would be a month or so before I finally called Bram Fields. He sounded cheerful and curious on the phone. He said he was 67, older than me by a month. He lived in Tacoma and was retired. He had spent much of his working life as a mechanic and an assistant service manager for various automobile dealerships and most recently had worked on the greens crew of a golf course, a job he loved. In 2006, he told me, he had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. “Since 2008 I’ve had what they call terminal stage four. I keep pulling through, though.”
He said his and Tracie’s mother would talk to them once in a while about their father when their stepfather wasn’t around, though—as had been my experience during my own childhood—the information had been scant and on the fly. His grandparents told him that on the day of the crash, before the family had been notified that the plane was missing, his pregnant mother was asleep. All at once she snapped awake, sat up in bed, and proclaimed, “Carl’s dead!”
Bram said that his never-glimpsed father had always been actively alive in his imagination—even now, toward the end of his seventh decade: “I think about him probably four or five times a week, at least.” And, unlike me, he has always dreamed about him, “dreams where you can’t get there from here.” There’s always something in the way, something that keeps him at the last moment from turning around so Bram can finally see his face.
Only a few hours after my brothers and I said goodbye to the daughter of Carl Fields, we met with the family of Frank Geyer, the third crash victim, at Pete Geyer’s house in a venerable old Seattle neighborhood near the University of Washington. A Texas flag flew over the house in welcome. Pete—like us, still sore from the climb—met us at the door with his wife, Laurie. She was carrying Poppy, their seven-week-old baby, and they had three more excited children all under seven. Pete’s sister, Cynthia Wright, the Geyer family member I had originally contacted, was there with her husband, Kevin. As was Frank, the eldest sibling and the namesake of their uncle who had been lost on Mount Pilchuck.
There was a spectacular dinner of baked salmon, a meal that included butter that Laurie had churned by hand in a jar. Frank brought out a bottle of champagne, and we drank a toast to the three young fliers who, in losing their lives on Mount Pilchuck, had summoned this strange but warm gathering of our entwined families 67 years later. Like Tracie Churchill, the Geyers had artifacts to share: more newspaper articles, photographs, and letters. Among the most poignant of these mementos was a diary kept by Frank and Jim’s father. “Jim called,” the deceptively matter-of-fact entry for April 2, 1948, reads. “Frank’s plane missing.” “Tough Day,” he writes on April 7, and writes it again on April 8, and on April 12. “Very tough day.” On Friday, April 23, the plaintive penciled entry reads, “Frank came home at 4 pm. We only could see a flag covered casket. God Bless his Soul.”
Pete went down to the basement and brought up some of Frank’s personal possessions. His boxing gloves, a wool uniform topcoat, a World War II service cap. And there was also Frank’s leather flight jacket, much crinkled and splattered with paint, the lining in tatters. After Frank died, Pete told us, his twin brother, Jim, had gone alone on the European motorcycle trip the two of them had planned to take together. Frank’s jacket was so threadbare because Jim had worn it everywhere he went.
During the long discussion we had that night, there was one topic that no one ever brought up.
Whose fault was it? Were Frank and Carl dead because of our father, because of some mistake he made, a moment of poor judgment or inattention? The 67 pages of the official accident report offered no real consolation on that point, only contradictions. The Army Air Forces Accident Investigating Board concluded, “It is the opinion of the board that the pilot experienced either precipitation static or other radio malfunction.” This is bolstered, at least anecdotally, by multiple newspaper accounts that describe Mac reporting radio trouble. A month before the flight, a maintenance log noted that the AT-11 had been serviced for, among other things, an “inaccurate” radio compass. But there was another statement in the report that decreed the history of the aircraft “inapplicable” and insisted that during his position reports our father “at no time indicated radio trouble.” Its conclusion: “While on an instrument flight, the pilot overshot a radio fix, became lost, and crashed into a mountain.”
Maybe, maybe not. Jim and Tommy and I knew what we wanted to believe, that Mac overshot the radio fix, became lost, and crashed into the mountain because there was something wrong with the radio itself. Whether that was true or not, an accident like this involving such an experienced pilot was a shock, and it led to McChord Field’s suspending all instrument flying for both reserve and regularly assigned pilots. In any case, it was clear we would never really know. At the bottom of one of the accident investigation forms was a space where the pilot could offer a “statement of rebuttal” to the opinion of the investigators. In that space a clerk had typed the following: “Inasmuch as the pilot was fatally injured in the accident, it was impossible to obtain a statement of rebuttal regarding pilot error.”
We had another day before our flights home. We decided to use the time to drive a couple hundred miles east, to the town of Ephrata, Washington. It was on the airbase there that Mac had met Marjorie, in 1944. We drove through the mountain passes of the Cascades, crossed the Columbia River, and entered a flat and ragged landscape that felt familiar, almost indistinguishable from the Texas plains where we had spent part of our childhoods. The old Army airbase was now a sleepy general-use airport, with a small museum on the first floor of the old flight headquarters. Among the exhibits were letters and documents testifying to what an end-of-the-earth duty station Ephrata had been, a place low on scenery, diversion, and morale. “What have I got myself in for now?” one pilot in a letter home reported saying to himself when he got off the train. “Enlisted men,” read an official report trying to get to the bottom of so many personnel going AWOL, “are invariably disgusted with the facilities at this base.”
Marjorie had been sent to Ephrata, she believed, as punishment. She had been in charge of a group of nurses who had arrived at Hamilton Field, in Fresno, California, after two traumatic years in the worst of the Pacific war. She had refused to report the nurses after they had stayed up all night drinking and partying, and after that she was shipped off to the desert. But there was an upside to being a woman at Ephrata: you were outnumbered twenty to one by men. Marjorie’s letters home are full of accounts of dances at the officers’ club, of weekend jaunts to Spokane or Wenatchee, of suitors stomping off in anger when they heard she had a date with another pilot. “I went to the dance last night,” she wrote home in one letter. “Went with Mac. (Capt. McLaughlin—test pilot I’ve mentioned numerous times I’m sure.) He’s 6 ft 2” blonde curly hair like DD’s [her little brother] and blue eyes not as pretty. He’s a screwball and I did have a wonderful time.”
We asked Mike Wren, the director of the Ephrata Municipal Airport, if the base hospital was still standing. He told us it had been torn down long ago but that the ruins of its foundation were still there. He led us through a scrubby field to an expanse of broken, buckled concrete littered with shards of wood and rusty bedsprings. Here it was, the place our mother had met Mac, another of the great dividing lines between what might have been and what turned out to be.
I remembered Marjorie telling me, in the last months of her life, something she had never said before. After Mac was killed, stunned and frightened, she left her Tukwila house with its view of Mount Rainier for the last time and boarded the plane for Oklahoma City, with Jim in her lap and me in her womb. And she prayed to God the plane would crash.
I thought of that forbidden and unanswered prayer as Jim and Tommy and I stood in the ruins of that hospital. But I also thought of much else: of Mac buzzing the hospital in his P-38 to get her attention, of the confidence and cockiness that made her fall in love with him, of the bright future they had imagined for themselves. “I do hope you approve of your son-in-law,” Marjorie wrote home to her mother before she and Mac were married. “One of my patients read my palm today (professional ha ha) and said he saw much happiness in store and I know he’s right if I can have Mac.”
And she did have Mac, for a while, long enough for there to be happiness, long enough to have Jim and me. And there would be happiness afterward, happiness she could never have been able to imagine on that terrible flight home to Oklahoma City, a long and rich life with a new husband and two more children, a life crowded in her last years by a multitude of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her story, and Mac’s story, felt very particular and personal to us that day in Ephrata. But in the end how particular was it? What family has not been thrown off course somewhere by war or catastrophe, has not been visited by a sorrow so deep and hard it became almost a secret?
In my thoughts that day was another family, an unknown one probably on the other side of the world. I had gotten curious enough about the Japanese pilot Mac had shot down over the Pacific to wonder if it was possible to find out who he might have been. I had contacted Lex McAulay, the author of MacArthur’s Eagles, and given him the date and location for the dogfight that had occurred that July day in 1943. He kindly did some research and referred me to the index of a book about Japanese Army Air Force fighter units, which listed the four Japanese pilots killed over Salamaua on that same date and time of day. It was impossible to know which one of them it was whose plane Mac shot down. It might have been First Lieutenant Masashi Yanagizawa. It might have been First Lieutenant Kinji Kuroda. It might have been First Lieutenant Eiichiro Takeuchi. It might have been Warrant Officer Tetsunosuke Suda.
Whoever he was, if he had children, it was possible that they, too, like Jim and me and Tracie and Bram Fields and the nieces and nephews of Frank Geyer, had spent part of their lives lost in the silence of tragedy, wondering who he had been, who they would have been had he lived. I hoped that if they ever went in search of him, they would encounter—as my brothers and I had—not just the story of his death but the proven, and finally spoken, reality of his life.