“Was it the boogie man? As a matter of fact, it was…”-Donald Pleasance, “Halloween” (1978)
Next Monday is Halloween-that annual celebration of hobgoblins, ghosts and ghouls who are good-naturedly dedicated to scaring the living daylights out of the unwary. And sometimes even the very wary.
All of us can recall special Halloween days and nights of our youth. Parties, jack-o’-lanterns, bobbing for apples, skeleton suits, ghostly white sheets, masks and, of course, the tricks and treats. Great, good fun and great, good memories.
In my part of the Midwest, we hit the streets of my neighborhood the night before. It was called Beggar’s Night and, dressed in tattered rags in keeping with its theme, we went door-to-door yelping “Halloween Handout” instead of “Trick or Treat.” But the results were usually the same. Goodies, goodies and more goodies.
Of course, there was always the chance that a grouchy adult might shoo us away or even douse us with cold water. This occasionally happened when the resident couldn’t care less about Halloween and hated having to answer an incessantly ringing doorbell.
For many Americans, one of the most scary memories of that scary, final night in October came in 1978 with the release of John Carpenter’s “Halloween”-a truly macabre movie. Set in a small Illinois town, it begins as a deranged 6-year-old boy hacks his teenage sister to death. After 15 years in a mental institution, he escapes and returns to the scene of his gory crime on Halloween night with more mayhem in mind.
But I don’t have to hark back to Halloweens past or see a fictional story to conjure up a scary memory I’d rather forget. My truth was stranger than fiction. And Oct. 31 pushes the process along, regardless what else is happening in my life. Thus, every year on that date, I find myself recalling an epoch-making day in January.
Back then-in one of my other lives in Cleveland-I’d fly between that city and Detroit on company business about three times a month. To avoid traffic and save about two hours in ground time, I eschewed big Cleveland Hopkins and Detroit Metropolitan airports and took a commuter flight across Lake Erie.
Tag and Wright Airlines offered frequent service between small, convenient Burke Lakefront Airport in downtown Cleveland and small City Airport in Detroit. The bumpy flights in twin-engine prop jobs carrying up to nine people took about 40 minutes.
But after a couple of years, I had begun to have second thoughts.
Although an experienced air traveler, I disliked the scary ups-and-downs brought on by strong Canadian winds that whistled across the lake, knocked downtown pedestrians off their feet and seemed likely to knock my small plane out of the sky.
I clearly recall a mind-bending return flight when a vicious downdraft sent us hurtling toward the pitcher’s mound as we passed over the city’s huge lakefront stadium. Just about everyone aboard lost their lunch. Ugh!
So it came to pass that one day, while driving downtown for my regular 7:40 a.m. commuter air hop to Detroit, I suddenly decided that I’d had my fill of small planes-despite the convenience. So I parked, called my office about the change and boarded the rapid transit to Cleveland Hopkins and a big Northwest Orient Airlines plane to Detroit Metro.
Back in town a few hours later-following a pleasant, productive day in the Motor City-I called my office as usual for messages. What I heard in the next minute or so made my whole life flash before my eyes.
“Oh, Dick,” came my secretary’s excited greeting, “your wife was worried sick. She called as soon as she heard, and I told her it was alright. That you weren’t on the plane.”
“What are you talking about?” I gasped.
“You haven’t heard about the commuter airline crash?” she said.
“Crash? A commuter plane crashed?” I blurted out.
“It sure did,” she replied. “The same flight you were originally going to take. The one you usually take. Plunged through the ice in Lake Erie about nine minutes after takeoff. Nine dead. Seven passengers and two crew. No survivors.”
For one of the few times in my life, I was speechless. I was dumbfounded. Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for what I was hearing.
“Dick, are you still there?’ she said.
“Yes, I’m here. But I can’t believe it.”
When I got home, my wife burst into tears as I walked in the door. The next thing I knew, I was also crying. We both knew that someone up there liked me on that day.
The following day, the plane crash was a huge story in the newspapers of both cities. People at the office couldn’t stop talking about it. The women gave me big hugs and the men gave me hearty handshakes.
Even now, all these years later, I have a hard time believing it. How close I came. And I think about this every year. Not on Jan. 28 for some reason. But on, or around, Oct. 31. Halloween. Fright night. And I’ve never figured out why.
For some reason, it’s become an annual nightmare for me-proving that truth can be stranger than fiction. Happy Halloween, y’all.