In the evening of Friday, July 9, 1982, the Waccamaw was steaming peacefully westward between Greece and Italy. Close to midnight, I was preparing to go up to the bridge and take over the watch. It was an uneventful night for me. Little did I know that half a world away where it was still the broad daylight of afternoon something terrible had just taken place. I would not know of it for another twelve hours and more. Even then, I would still not know.
My older brother Robert had gone into aviation and had become a pilot. After graduating from college, he learned to fly in the Navy. He spent eight years as a Navy pilot and flight instructor, and then took a job flying commercially with National Airlines. He flew as copilot aboard the Boeing 727. When Pan American bought out National, he continued on the 727 but under the Pan Am banner. Like me, he spent a lot of time away from home.
In the afternoon of Saturday, July 10, the Waccamaw was still proceeding westward. She was due south of the Italian peninsula and heading for the Strait of Messina. It was a beautiful day of sunshine and blue sky. I had come on watch again at twelve o’clock. Soon afterwards, Captain Aspiotis came up to the bridge, too. He went out on the starboard bridge wing, got comfortable in his chair, and tuned in a Greek station on his portable radio. Then, to all outward appearances, he went to sleep.
I went about my business on the bridge while Captain Aspiotis slept. Except to wonder how he could rest with the radio blaring in his face, I paid him no mind. After a while I went out on the bridge wing to do something—I don’t remember what now—and the Captain stirred himself to speak to me. As he straightened himself up from a slouching position, he spoke in the surprised manner of someone who had been dozing off but was suddenly startled awake by something unexpected. He gave me a jolt, too.
The news on the radio had all been in Greek, so he translated for me. “They just said there was a bad airplane crash in New Orleans. A plane was trying to take off and it crashed. Everyone on board was killed. It was Pan Am, a 727. It crashed right after it left the airport, and everyone was killed.” Then he shifted in his chair and resumed his slouching position.
I was stunned. For a moment I stood there silently while my brain digested this unexpected and terrible news. Then I started asking questions. “Did they say anything else? Did they say how it happened? Did they say when it happened? Did they mention any names? Is there any other information?”
“No, nothing else,” he replied. “That’s all they said.” He gave me an inquisitive glance, as if he might be wondering about all my questions, but said no more.
Inside the bridge, Mitch was at the helm. He had not heard this conversation, but he seemed to sense that something was amiss and asked me about it. I relayed the news to him and mentioned my concern about my brother. “Oh, man,” he sighed, and a pained expression showed on his face. “When we get in tomorrow, you better call home and find out.”
That was exactly what I’d had in mind, too. Bound for Napoli after passing through Messina, the Waccamaw would anchor there on Sunday morning. I would go to the USO and place a call to the family headquarters to find out about Robert. Meanwhile, the time dragged. I could do nothing but wonder, but keeping busy proved a reasonably good antidote until the Waccamaw reached the anchorage just outside the breakwater the next morning.
About midday on Sunday, July 11, I went to the USO and placed the call. It was early morning at home, and my father answered the phone. He was surprised to hear from me in Italy but caught on quickly. Before I could even finish asking, he interrupted and said emphatically, “Robert’s okay. He’s upstairs sleeping.” He explained that Robert had gotten into JFK very late at night and had come straight home and gone to bed. Robert knew about the accident, and he knew both the pilot and the engineer of the lost aircraft, having flown with them both before. I spoke with my father and then my mother only briefly. The purpose of the call was accomplished; my fears were allayed.
More thorough news reports about what had happened began to make themselves known, although the basic facts that the Greek radio had broadcast were accurate. A Pan Am 727 had taken off from the New Orleans International Airport bound for Las Vegas at 4:11pm local time. The weather was not pleasant. It was raining, and there were electrical storms in the area, although it was unclear if any of this had contributed to the accident. The aircraft came down in a residential neighborhood in Kenner, Louisiana, less than a mile east of the runway. All 145 passengers and crew aboard the airplane perished, as well as several people on the ground. A thorough investigation into the cause of the accident would be conducted.1
These forensic descriptions of what had happened satisfied the public’s and my own desire for objective knowledge and implied that more information would be forthcoming following the formal investigation. They treated this event as the news item that it was, but not as a news item that struck uncomfortably close to home. Because it struck only close to home and not at home, my reaction was one of mixed feelings. My initial fears for one of my family members had been relieved, but there remained upwards of 145 other families who were now grieving the loss of loved ones. My brother could have been on that plane had someone in the crew scheduling office at Pan Am decided differently, but he was not. Two of his colleagues perished in the disaster. He could easily have been with them. After all, he had flown with them before and he expected to fly with them again. Was there any rhyme or reason to this, or was it simply fortuitous?
I read about this reaction of mixed feelings much later in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s famous discussion of the problem of evil. As he concluded a chapter about Job, he offered this insight:
There is a German psychological term, Schadenfreude, which refers to the embarrassing reaction of relief we feel when something bad happens to someone else instead of us. The soldier in combat who sees his friend killed twenty yards away while he himself is unhurt, the pupil who sees another child get into trouble for copying on a test—they don’t wish their friends ill, but they can’t help feeling an embarrassing spasm of gratitude that it happened to someone else and not to them.2
These thoughts resonated with me. I would never wish a violent death in an aviation accident on anyone. And yet, it happened. I was grateful that my brother had not been on the aircraft that had crashed, but at the same time I sympathized with the families of those who did perish. The mixed feelings were relief, gratitude, sympathy, and embarrassment—a very awkward and uncomfortable combination.
Fortunately for me, I was young and busy and, I thought, quite able to not dwell on these feelings. The Waccamaw remained in Napoli for several days. I went merrily sightseeing to Capri and Pompeii in my off duty hours with the Pan Am accident filed in the back of my mind. It was easy to not think about it as long as I was busy. In the quiet moments, however, the accident intruded upon my thoughts and would not go away. I could not have articulated it at the time, but I was experiencing the Schadenfreude of which Rabbi Kushner had written.
After this interval the Waccamaw left Napoli. Eventually, she left the Mediterranean, too, and sailed for the United States. While the ship was docked in Norfolk months later, I happened upon a book of poetry written by Robert Frost. In time, I found a formal presentation of a radical idea of which I had only been vaguely aware previously:
And from a cliff top is proclaimed
The gathering of the souls for birth,
The trial by existence named,
The obscuration upon earth.
And the slant spirits trooping by
In streams and cross- and counter-streams
Can but give ear to that sweet cry
For its suggestion of what dreams!
And the more loitering are turned
To view once more the sacrifice
Of those who for some good discerned
Will gladly give up paradise.3
A startling discovery, Robert Frost proposed the theory that we humans had come to this world from a prior spiritual existence. Furthermore, we had done so willingly, to accomplish a greater good, and knowing that both good and bad things would happen in this life:
And none are taken but those who will,
Having first heard the life read out
That opens earthward, good and ill,
Beyond the shadow of a doubt.4
Lest anyone complain while in the mortal state, a caveat was inserted:
But always God speaks at the end:
“One thought in agony of strife
The bravest would have for friend,
The memory that he chose the life;
But the pure fate to which you go
Admits no memory of choice,
Or the woe were not earthly woe
To which you give the assenting voice.”5
If true, this theory would explain a lot in life. We agreed to come here in order to achieve a good end, but the memory of making this choice is withheld from us because it would mitigate the difficulties we would inevitably encounter. If we remembered making the choice, then, we would have little or nothing to wonder about and no basis for complaints about getting a bad deal. The line concerning “pure fate” seems problematic, but in conclusion the poet asserted:
‘Tis the essence of life here,
Though we choose greatly, still to lack
The lasting memory at all clear,
That life has for us on the wrack
Nothing but what we somehow chose.6
Now why would anyone choose this? What is the good we would accomplish by coming to the Earth? And even granting the good purpose, why would I experience a bad mixture of feelings about a disaster that did not happen to me or to my family? I detected these missing links in what were otherwise brilliant discourses.
Wanting the poet’s theory to be true, and sensing somehow that it likely was, I was pleased to be told that it was a Church doctrine and later to read a factual statement of it:
The term “pre-existence,” or more accurately, “premortal existence,” refers to a period of individual conscious and accountable life before birth into mortality on this earth. It is Latter-day Saint doctrine that living things existed as individual spirit beings and possessed varying degrees of intelligence in an active, conscious spirit state before mortal birth and that the spirit continues to live and function in the mortal body.7
As to why these spirits would willingly leave a perfect world and come to an extremely imperfect one, I imagined that there had to be some very compelling reasons. There were several, but one in particular ranked high among them:
To be tried and tested. Through mortality one experiences contrasts and opposites—health and sickness, joy and sadness, blessings and challenges—and thus comes to know to prize the good.8
The realization that we chose to come into this earthly state, knowing that it would be both good and bad and that terrible things would occasionally happen to innocent people, sheds a new light on the human condition. In addition to illustrating the experiencing of “contrasts and opposites,” as a learning opportunity, it emphasizes the spiritual nature of human beings and the very transitory nature of life in the earthly state. This means that we are first and last spiritual beings having a temporary human experience. In death, then, we are not just going to a spiritual realm, but returning to it. This realization makes tragedy easier to accept and understand.
Finally, in a religious culture that regards all human beings as brothers and sisters in the family of God, it becomes easy to feel a greater compassion even for complete strangers who suffer grievously. Since we are all spiritual children of the same Heavenly Father, it stands to reason that we are all siblings in a worldwide extended family. Hence, the natural feelings of sympathy and compassion for others in times of loss, a part of mourning with those who mourn (Mosiah 18:9).
The awkward mixture of sympathy and compassion for others with the relief that my own family had been spared remains but becomes less significant and more tolerable. Perhaps the German language recognizes this better than English. The word Schadenfreude which Rabbi Kushner used is a compound of two opposites. Schaden means damage or injury, and Freude means joy or pleasure.9 This compound certainly described my thoughts—a damaged joy, so to speak, an odd mix of happiness and sorrow.
With my present knowledge of the restored fullness of the Gospel, which I did not have in 1982, I can see that I was groping in the dark beyond a certain point back then. When I learned about the premortal existence and the plan of progression towards perfection, I could see the pieces to the puzzle falling into place. Suddenly, it all made sense. This revelation did not change the fact that bad things do happen to good people, nor did it make the accident in Louisiana less terrible, nor did it negate my comingled feelings of relief and sorrow. What these new teachings achieved for me were the ability to see these events in a different light, to reach an improved understanding of the nature and purpose of life, and to more fully comprehend the idea of universal brotherhood.
1 Summary of Richard Witkin, “145 on Jetliner Die in Crash,” The New York Times, July 10, 1982, p. 1.
2 Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, New York: Avon Books, 1983, p. 39.
3 Robert Frost, “The Trial by Existence,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, p. 20.
5 Ibid., p. 21.
7 “Pre-Existence (Pre-Earthly Existence),” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992, vol. 4, p. 1123.
8 James P. Bell, “Purpose of Earth Life: LDS Perspective,” op. cit., vol. 4, pp. 1180-1181.
9 The Collins German Dictionary, London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1981, pp. 262 & 564.