FlashbacksCollege. I couldn't wait for it. Suffering through high school I was promised that, don't worry, you'll love college. They'll "get" you there. Oh, how I was counting on that to be true. I would be going away from home to a big university with a great drama department and devoting 15 credits a semester to pursuing my passion. My PASSION! Musical Theatre. And there would be others there, too, for the very same reasons. Those were the people I was told would be the friendships that would last my lifetime. It was supposed to be the best time of your life.
The year I went away to school, we showed up from all over the country. All of us eager and anxious, awkward and nervous, looking to find in one of these other kids a kindred spirit, for a sign that, yes, we were in the right place. The signs came quickly. Through the process of going from a bunch of kids who liked to sing and dance to becoming artists with a craft we got to know each other very intimately. We had to. We spent every day together in the theater building from 8:30 in the morning sometimes till 11 at night. We worked together in practice rooms, rehearsal studios, or sometimes even a hallway if that was all that was available. We grew. We learned. And we became family. We lived together, ate together, partied together--all in our little bubble of the Drama Department. There were no big lecture halls for us. No need to put a social security number on a paper. We knew everyone by first name in all the classes, freshmen to senior. There was only one Nicole, only one Miriam, only one Turhan, one Theo...etc.
As if this bliss wasn't enough, our school offered us the opportunity to travel to London for a semester in either our junior or senior year. Although students from the university at large went, for the drama students it meant we'd get to study acting with faculty from RADA and LAMDA and members of the RSC. We'd see everything we possibly could in the West End, at the National Theatre or the Barbicon. We'd go to Stratford and walk the hallowed ground of William Shakespeare and see his plays performed at the Old Globe. We'd study voice and classical texts, learn period movement and dialects. We'd have art history classes that took us to Paris for a long weekend and which also provided us with an intimate knowledge of the exhibits at the National Gallery or the Tate. And each week they would cart us around on day trips to make sure we got to Windsor or Canterbury or Bath or Brighton. Just as everyone promised that college would be the best time of our life, the students who had been to London promised it would be the best semester ever.
My sophomore year many of my closest friends in the class ahead of me opted to go to London their first semester, junior year. It was always weird when people were away in London. Part of our family was missing back home. But we were glad they were having the opportunity. So we wrote copious letters about the casting of this show or that, made cassette tapes of us rambling on about all the Drama Department gossip and sent them across the ocean to the kids in London so they would feel close. As that semester drew to a close I was looking forward to seeing my returning friends. We wouldn't even wait for the next semester. We'd get together over Christmas break. I think Janie was planning a New Year's Eve party that year.
My last final that semester was December 21st. As soon as it was over I was planning to hop in my car and head home to Jersey for the holidays. A four hour drive spent singing along to Christmas music by myself. It was about 6 PM when I arrived and walked through the door of my childhood home. Expecting to walk into the vibrancy that is my mother's kitchen the week before Christmas and be met with a warm, happy embrace, instead my mother was very quiet and asked "Michael, when is Hank coming home from London?" Hank was one of my best friends from school and had spent Thanksgiving with us the year before.
"Not till the 26th," I said. "His parents are flying over to London to spend Christmas with him before heading home."
"Oh, thank God." was her response.
There had been a plane crash, she explained. The story was still breaking on the evening news. It was Pan-Am flight 103 out of Heathrow which exploded in mid flight over Lockerbie, Scotland killing all 243 passengers, 16 crew members on board and 11 people in the town below. Among the dead were 35 college students from Syracuse University returning from a semester abroad. THIRTY-FIVE.
Then the phone started ringing. Frantic calls from friends still at school, others who were already home. Do you know when Tom is coming home? What about Julia and Mike? Or Annie and Theo? Turhan, Miriam, Nicole. Each of us trying to piece together what we knew from letters from our friends or calls to parents who might know who was coming home when. By the end of the night I had compiled a list in a notebook of dead friends, friends who were safe, and ones we didn't know about yet. It turned out that of the 35 students on board, six were from the Drama Department. I had only just turned 20.
It was not long before a Libyan terrorist group claimed responsibility for the explosion. Somebody actually did it on purpose. My friends had been murdered. Plastic explosives. It was timed to explode over the Atlantic Ocean so recovering bodies and evidence would be virtually impossible. But the explosives went off early raining down humanity and debris onto the hills of Scotland, killing innocents below. The flight was specifically chosen because of the number of Americans who would be on board. The 35 college students were a nice touch, too.
Memories between that day and when I returned to school are fuzzy. I remember the news coverage. I remember the images of family members who had gone to the airport to pick up loved ones. A mother who could have been Nicole's, lying flat on the floor of JFK wailing to heaven. Pictures in a magazine of Lockerbie where one could make out the images of people still strapped to airplane seats, a girl with long black hair like Theo's. Descriptions of how the explosion happened, and what the victims would have experienced. They should have died instantly, their lungs exploding from the change in cabin pressure, but later forensic evidence revealed that victims were found clutching babies, crucifixes and hands. I remember memorials being planned. Meeting Turhan's brother who bore a uncanny resemblance to him, now a walking reminder of his dead sibling to all who knew him. I remember going to Port Jervis to Theo's memorial and the outrage her parents felt when the remains of their only daughter were sent home and they were informed they could come to the airport to pick up their "parcel."
I remember returning to school and the memorial the Drama department had to honor our own. It was in the theater--our temple. We lit candles and sang songs and people read poems, shared memories, played recordings and showed pictures. We cried, we prayed, we held each other. And we will never be the same.
There has not been a single time since December 21st, 1988 when I didn't wish someone a "safe" flight rather than a good one. There is not a single time I fasten the seat belt on an airplane that I am not consciously aware of the possibility of being blown out of the sky. On days when I know loved ones are flying, my father on a business trip, my sister going to Italy, my parents on vacation, that I don't listen to the news for reports of plane crashes. I can't put the thought out of my mind until I know they've landed. Hell, I can't even watch Lost! Yet when some other heinous and senseless act of violence is committed against innocent people, I still feel the same sense of shock and helplessness as I did that December 21st. It doesn't get easier.
At some point after the crash someone in our group dubbed December 21st "Dead Friends Day." Not out of disrespect or flippancy, it was just our way of dealing with it. We didn't want to call it Pan Am 103, that was a flight number. This was the day our friends died. And so, "Dead Friends Day." And every single December 21st that has come and gone since, I have remembered them, these beautiful, smart, funny, talented, promising kids and thought "Dead Friends Day." And I probably will for a lifetime.