January 17, 2012

January 13, 1982

Thirty years ago last week P and I were in Washington D.C.--house hunting and preparing for a new adventure, our move east from California.  After exploring options in the District of Columbia and its neighboring suburbs, we found a perfect house to rent in Bethesda, MD just a block away from the DC border, and about five blocks away from the Metro stop at Friendship Heights. Over the course of that week we familiarized ourselves with the area, met P's future coworkers and were hosted at a lovely dinner at his new boss's home.  For me the most challenging part of the trip was adjusting to the bitter cold.

On the final night of our stay we had no heat in our hotel room.  We were lying on the bed wearing our coats while wrapped in blankets and watching the NFL playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. The game was so exciting that we kept throwing off  the blankets and jumping out of bed to cheer for the Niners.  Each time the layer of frigid air hovering about knee-height prompted an abrupt end to cheering and a quick leap back on the bed.  Later that night our sleep was interrupted by the persistent bleating of the hotel's alarm system.  We were assured by the front desk that there was no fire, but in that cold sleepless night we might have welcomed one.

Monday morning, January 13th, we woke up to snow.  I was enchanted.  The icy frosting on the streets and buildings transformed the capital.  As a native Californian my exposure to snow was primarily limited to family ski trips.  It was my first time experiencing "city" snow. Later in the day riding in the taxicab on the way to the airport I wiped away the condensation on the car window and peered through swirls of snowflakes at pedestrians and cars battling the blizzard.  After I lived through 18 years of wintry storms the novelty of snow would wear off, but on that gray afternoon it seemed like nothing more than a beautiful, benign inconvenience.

The Potomac River carves out the western border of the District of Columbia, with a series of bridges crossing over the river to Virginia.  That afternoon our cab traveled across Memorial Bridge to reach National Airport.  The traffic was bumper to bumper, and the heavy snow challenged both visibility and manoeuvrability.  We had plenty of time to make our flight and we remember chatting with the driver about the weather and our impending move.  It wasn't until we left the cab and entered the steamy warmth of the airport that we learned the horrific news.  As we had been inching our way across one bridge, a few miles down the river Air Florida's Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street bridge killing almost everyone on board as well as motorists in cars on the bridge. The plane broke apart in the icy Potomac.

Everyone in the terminal was terrified.  Boarding an airplane is an act of blind faith for me.  I know there are scientific explanations of how flying "works," but I have to confess that I still categorize it as a miracle.  That day the miracle failed.  Within a half hour of the plane crash another tragedy occurred in Washington. Three people died and more were injured in an accident on the Metro.  The two disasters paralyzed the airport and all of Washington DC.

Flights were cancelled, but I'm sure that no one there was eager to consider flying anyway. We couldn't return to our heat-less hotel in the District because of the Metro accident, and in the pre-cell phone era there were long lines of passengers anxious to use the pay phones.  Paul waited his turn and somehow, with the aid of a Yellow Pages ad, found us a place to stay in Virginia near the Metro line.  We stored our big suitcases in a locker at the airport and walked through the snow to Metro.  It was only possible to travel west, away from the epicenter of the dual catastrophes.  When we got off  the subway in Arlington we had a snowy trudge to reach Scotty's Highlander Motel.  I'd never stayed in a place like that before.  Thin walls, thin blankets, low opaque plastic dividers between the bed and the toilet--it was a bargain basement hotel.  That night it was our sanctuary.

There was an Italian restaurant next door that sold us greasy slices of take-out pizza.  The only reading material available was a copy of the National Inquirer.  It was the first and last time I ever read a complete issue (I'll admit to looking at the covers that scream out from the racks at grocery store checkout lines), but that night I was glad for the distraction the tabloid offered.  I remember calling my mom back in California.  When she answered, I told her right away that we were all right.  This tearful announcement was met by bewildered silence.  Thirty years ago news, even catastrophic news, wasn't shared as quickly as it is today.  If you weren't listening to the radio or the TV, you didn't know anything had happened until you opened up the newspaper the next morning. Unless you got a phone call.

I was stunned my mom didn't know. P and I were so caught up in the events of the day--couldn't the airline we were traveling on have made the same poor decision not to activate the anti-icing system one more time--that it seemed impossible that everyone else wasn't aware of them, too.   It felt strange to have my immediate need to reassure her prove unnecessary.  Of course she said all the right things once she understood.  And of course it wasn't about hearing her words, it was hearing her voice.  A bit of home.  A reminder of normal--3,000 miles away. We flew back to Los Angeles the next day.

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