The Indelible Scene

The web, satellites, radar, and all the gizmos that promised a smaller, more connected world, have let us down

    Early Monday I built a fire as I’ve done each morning of this cold winter. The fire first raced through crumpled, balled-up stories. “Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science” and “The Postwar Paralympics” and “Kiev Says Russia Seized Gas Plant Close to Crimea” — up in flames. Maureen Dowd moaning about Obama, too. And Bernard Malamud’s quote, “stories are stories” in The Book Review. So true.

    The broadsheets scared the cat at first rattle and crunch, then they ignited sticks snapped to stove-lengths from branches fallen from the old linden out front. I watched in the dark as the flames spread like orange tongues to taste and then consume the oak and hickory logs.

    “Saying Missing Jet Was Diverted, Malaysia Opens Criminal Inquiry” — the headline shriveled to ash like the Wicked Witch of the West, and would, as the day wore on, settle into the ash pan through the stove grate mixed with wood remnants and the rest of the Gray Lady. By day’s end it was all right there in black and white.

    Flight 370 had disappeared into thin air like smoke up a chimney. We are outraged and frightened. The web, satellites, radar, and all the gizmos that promised a smaller, more connected world, have let us down. The earth is a big place after all. We are back in time, back to when ships sailed over the horizon never to return, simply swallowed.

    On the beach Monday afternoon I came upon a piece of the jet, its 18th or 19th-century equivalent. It was a length of worm-eaten oak. Three trenails (tree nails), or wooden pegs, identified it as a section of ship sunk long ago and pushed along the bottom by the sea’s slow peristalsis. If hope had been held out, the holder was long gone. Such finds are not unusual on Montauk beaches, usually after a big storm.

    Every so often I come upon eroded aluminum and guess that it could be yet another piece of TWA flight 800 coughed up by the sea. It will take me back to the early morning of July 18, 1996, on board a Coast Guard small boat off Moriches, the ocean on fire with burning jet fuel, helicopters circling overhead, white flares descending on small parachutes, bodies and bodies, and thousands of pieces of torn jet skin. The scene remains indelible.

    We were asked if we wanted to speak to grief councilors. I did not. I felt bad for the people, of course, but somehow that was the least of it. I was buoyed by the response of the living, their goodness and humility, embers that sadly only seem to flare in the face of tragedy.

    “Stories are stories,” as Mr. Malamud put it. The one about Malaysia Flight 370’s disappearance is also the story of how excessive pride — in technology, or in self — goeth before, and in our confusion, after the fall.

    If it’s not found, I want to believe the big jet and its people flew through a wormhole, like in that episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I hope they land in a more peaceful and humble future.