It was like a ghost scene from a movie. A man in a trench coat stepped out of the dense fog and identified himself as the pilot’s son. He wasn’t supposed to be in the accident site.
“How bad was my daddy hurt?” he asked.
I took a moment to consider my answer. The color photograph of his burning father was all too vivid in my mind. As a Stephen Minister, I was pretty sure that was not the real question he wanted to ask.
The air was still and white tornados snaked out behind airliners flaring overhead to land. Their vortices generated an eerie whizzing sound while they settled to the ground beside us. I was standing with an NTSB investigator in a pile of rubble that, the day before, had been a Piper Cheyenne with four souls on board. He gave me a slight nod, so I walked over to talk to the man in the trench coat.
I took a deep breath, and pointed to the airplane-shaped notch in the trees across the road.
“Can you see where the aircraft clipped the trees over there?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered quietly.
“Do you see where those large limbs crossed like an X right in the middle?”
I pointed to a log at our feet as thick as a telephone pole.
This is the top of one of them right here, and the other is over there. Do you see it?” I said, pointing about sixty feet away.
“Yes,” he answered.
I returned my gaze to the notch in the trees. His eyes followed. I gave him time to realize that those limbs were dead-centered on the cockpit.
“Your daddy died instantly,” I said.
The total stranger in a trench coat flung his arms around my neck and began to sob on my shoulder. I held him close and patted his back. He was a big guy, and strong.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Thank you,” he whispered over and over again. “Thank you. At least my daddy didn’t suffer.”
I have no idea how long we stood there, gently rocking while he wept. But in due course he needed a handkerchief. He stepped back, pulling it out of his pocket to blow his nose. He mopped up and made eye contact with me, then offered a solid handshake.
“Thank you,” he said, “for telling me the truth.”
Then he vanished into the fog just as mysteriously as he arrived.
“What was that all about?” the NTSB investigator asked when I returned.
“Pilot’s son,” I said. “I’m going to need a moment.”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
I strolled out by the tail of the aircraft. When the Piper Cheyenne clipped a house, it spun around backwards, and passed through a chain-link fence. The stretching of that fence is what allowed the passengers to survive the crash. I stood there and prayed. For all of us. Then I went back to work.
I got into flying because it was fun. I did it for thirty years. I got out of flying because it stopped being fun. Years later, I was diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD). Nightmares. Flashbacks. Crankiness. Panic attacks. And horrific images that keep coming back, night after night.
Then I met Ted, a quiet little sexton at out church. Ted is a Vietnam veteran. He has two purple hearts, a bronze star and a silver star for valor under fire. A tunnel-rat, he received a battlefield commission, and came home with shrapnel and PTSD. We have both been known to drink to forget.
I am a story-teller, and I felt the story about the real way the Vietnam War era changed a whole generation needed telling. Ted graciously let me use his combat history to develop a character named Raymond Thornton.
Haunted by memories of the war, Raymond’s old high school English teacher encourages him to write A Soldier’s Heart. In the process, they fall in love and get married. That’s the root of my first novel, Millie's Honor.
When I finished it, I thought I was done, but readers cared about Raymond and told me they needed to know more. That’s what prompted me to write Letters to Millie.
Although I never identify PTSD by name, Letters to Millie is a tale about Raymond’s battle with PTSD following Millie’s murder by an arsonist. It is a love story written for Vietnam vets. And, in the face of unspeakable violence, it is a story about hope, and family, and Christian community. It is a parable, told in contemporary terms.
The message is a familiar one. Alone, our demons can defeat us. But, with God’s help, and the unconditional love of our family and friends, we can get through bad times together.