When the Sky Does Fall

MIKE BOWLER

November 06, 1993|By MIKE BOWLER

The sky does fall. It happens when catastrophe piles on catastrophe, sweeping away all sense of order and rationality. It happens when people are beyond tears, when they say, ''Can anything more go wrong?'' Critic Terrence Rafferty, discussing Peter Weir's film ''Fearless,'' about a plane crash and its aftermath, described the feeling as ''a sense of chaos -- of a profound, unassimilable wrongness in the order of the world.''

Sometimes it happens suddenly: A man, having lost his wife to cancer, learns that his son has died in an auto accident on the way to the funeral. Or he discovers that three of his closest friends have terminal illnesses. Or a woman loses her job the week after her husband loses his. Or an inherited disease that killed a child years ago strikes a younger sibling.

Sometimes it happens over time: On the tapes I made of him before he died, my grandfather, a Montana wheat farmer, tells of watching entire fields being swept away in the dust storms of the 1930s, this following years of privation in the Depression. ''We thought it would never end,'' he says. Some people in the Dust Bowl endured nearly two decades of misery, starting with the flu epidemic of 1918.

A part of the sky fell on me 30 years ago this month, on a Sunday two days after John F. Kennedy's assassination. As if by instinct, we'd headed from New York to Washington late that Saturday night. Before dawn, we were in the longest line in creation, inching toward the Capitol Rotunda, where Kennedy, our hero when we were 22 and he was King Arthur at 46, lay in state.

A late-night food stop on I-95 in Maryland had been a terrible mistake. We had gotten food poisoning, so that we had to alternate saving places in the queue while we took turns retching in the bushes.

But what caused the sky to collapse was the news received about mid-day by people in the line with portable radios. Kennedy's alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, also had been killed.

We huddled around the radios and wondered: What more can happen? All that was rational now seemed irrational. Our leader gone. His assassin gone. The sky had fallen.

Five years later, another part of the sky fell on one of my sisters. What happened to her was The Spring and Summer From Hell -- the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, the burning cities and the culminating police riot during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

My sister had worked in Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign and had been devastated by his death. But the proximate cause of her sense of ''wrongness in the order of the world'' was what happened that night in Chicago -- the sight of her contemporaries being beaten by a police force run amok.

The sky can fall on cities, too, on regions and nations and peoples. It has fallen on Bosnia and Haiti. Part of it fell on Baltimore two decades ago. Teachers, garbage workers and police went on strike in 1973-1974. A contrived (though we didn't know it) worldwide oil shortage caused months of gas lines and fuel shortages. The winter was unusually cold. More than one Baltimorean must have wondered if it would ever end.

The current source of cosmic despair in the cities is death by gunfire. It has become so commonplace that fatal shootings rate only a paragraph or two in the newspaper. We aren't personally acquainted with the victims, but each death diminishes us, each tells us that as a society we are failing. Each is a calamity piled on yesterday's all-but-forgotten calamity. It is numbing.

The bright side is that people who survive falling skies learn from the experience. In much the same way that those who survive crashes and serious illnesses come to appreciate how precious life is, people who survive numbing chaos reach a better understanding of themselves and their physical and emotional possibilities (and limits). When the sky falls, the result is not panic; it is endurance, for which humans have an astonishing capacity.

Some of the crash survivors in ''Fearless'' actually found their lives redeemed. My grandfather lived to harvest bumper crops and retire comfortably. That awful 1974 in Baltimore gave way to a better 1975. My sister joined VISTA and returned something to her country.

Perhaps we will decide that we can no longer endure the gun crisis. Then we will rise up and remove not only the guns but the urge to use them.

Mike Bowler edits The Evening Sun's ''Other Voices'' page.

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