Big Old Jet Airliner by
100
(171 Stories)

Prompted By Close Calls

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It’s May of 1978, and after months of interviewing with myriad state agencies, I finally get a full-time job. I am a Deputy Attorney General, which sounds pretty darn impressive to me, and I hope to others as well. Three weeks after I start working, the voters of California go to the polls and pass Proposition 13, a revolutionary tax-cutting measure with implications that will only become fully known over time. One of the bills implementing Prop 13 is called SB 154, which provides bailout funds to local governments to replace the money they will lose from property taxes, but imposes certain conditions on that money.

I am booked on a flight on PSA, called "The World's Friendliest Airline," with smiles painted on the front of all their planes.

All up and down the state lawsuits are filed challenging the provisions of SB 154, mostly in the superior courts, but some in the Courts of Appeal, and even a few in the California Supreme Court. Since all the lawsuits make basically the same allegations, the state needs to have a coordinated response to all of them. For some inexplicable reason, perhaps because it is a mind-numbing and basically thankless job, my supervisor assigns it to the most junior lawyer in the office — ME!

Luckily for me, I have a fabulous secretary, because she does most of the work, making files, getting them organized, making sure answers are filed and court appearances are calendared all over the state. But I have to travel all around making the appearances over the next several months.

In September, there is a motion in the superior court in San Diego, and I am booked on a flight that would get me there early that morning on PSA, the most popular airline in California (as Southwest would later become). They call themselves “The World’s Friendliest Airline” and have smiles painted on the front of all their planes, as you can see in the Featured Image. The flight starts in Sacramento, stops in LA, and then goes on to San Diego, arriving there in time for me to get to court at 10 a.m. For some reason that I no longer remember, my supervisor decides a few days beforehand that I shouldn’t spend all that travel time for what is likely to be a 10-minute argument. He asks a lawyer named Henry from our LA office to handle it, and papers are filed with the court and opposing counsel substituting Henry’s name and contact info for mine. The first leg of my ticket is cancelled, and the second leg, from LA to San Diego, is transferred to him. Then, unbeknownst to me, at the very last minute, possibly even the very morning of the hearing, the case is taken off calendar, so Henry does not get on that plane to San Diego.

That flight, PSA #182, on Monday September 25, 1978, collides with a private plane over San Diego, just before coming in for a landing. Both airplanes crash in a residential neighborhood, killing everyone on board, as well as seven people on the ground who were in their houses.

In 1978 there was no instant news the way there is now, and it was only that evening, or maybe even the next morning, that I heard about the crash. I was numb with shock. I came so close to being on that plane. And then — oh my god — the unbearable realization that Henry must have been on the plane. You can imagine my relief when I found out the hearing had been continued and he had remained safely in Los Angeles. If Henry had been killed making an appearance on my case, I would have been wracked with guilt. Of course I felt terrible about the 135 people who died, and as the names of the passengers were revealed, it turned out that almost everyone I knew knew someone on the plane. But I couldn’t help being thankful that at least none of them was there because of me!

 

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Wow, Suzy, this story is the true definition of a close call. I can’t imagine how shaken you were when you learned the plane had crashed. It reminds us that our lives can turn on a dime by something totally out of our control. Luck was with you, my friend.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Holy jeez! Knowing the prompt and then seeing your title, it was pretty clear even before reading the story what the close call was going to be about. But by starting the story by talking about Prop 13 (which even we on the East Coast knew all about), you really built up the tension. I mean, we all knew that Prop 13 was a horrible tax law, but it somehow caused planes to crash?
    What is amazing about this story is how it involves not just a close call for you, but for Henry as well. Did you two talk about it later — maybe over a drink or three? And you also make clear your deep sympathy that, while this was ultimately just a close call for you and Henry, this was a tragedy for so many other people.
    Thank you — and phew!

    • Suzy says:

      Henry was much older – admitted to the Bar in 1960 – and I actually googled him while writing this story to see if he was still alive and I could contact him. Apparently he is still alive, but I couldn’t find any contact info for him.

  3. A close call indeed Suzy, I understand how torn you must have felt.

    Why were you taken off the case and thus off that plane? I try to believe that everything happens for a reason, but with the arrival of Covid 19, what can we now say?

    On a happier note, thanx for the shout-out to Bonnie Raitt! I’m not a big song guru like you but she happens to be a favorite chick singer of mine. I saw her in concert only once years ago, and would love to see her again.

    A few summers ago we had tix to see James Taylor who performs every July 4th at Tanglewood, My husband doesn’t like Taylor, and was going just to please me, but at the last minute, anticipating the long drive in holiday traffic, he convinced me to give the tix to friends and skip it that year.

    The next day our friends told us Taylor’s surprise guest was Bonnie Raitt.
    My husband now owed me one!

  4. Wow, Suzy — the classic close call story! How many times have how many people counted their blessings for having missed a certain flight and at the same time mourned those who hadn’t?! Beautifully crafted story with a poignant ending that has me feeling both relieved that you’re here with us, and saddened for those who aren’t.

  5. Marian says:

    Ay, ay, the truest close call, Suzy. And, the circumstances were so out of your control! The only incident that I can remember that even comes close was when one of my friends had been vacationing in Cape Cod the week before: 9/11. She was booked at Logan to come back to California on the plane directly after the one that hit the twin towers. Needless to say we were all creeped out, and a week later she drove to Chicago and flew to SFO, where I picked her up. Still gives me the shudders.

    • Suzy says:

      I think a lot of planes were grounded after 9/11, so the one your friend was booked on may not have even taken off. That was such a scary time! Interesting that she felt comfortable flying out of Chicago. I think I would have taken the train!

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wow, Suzy, chilling! As you gave all the background, and how you weren’t actually traveling, cancelling all the legs of the trip; well, what a set-up for that huge impact! As one might say, “There but for the grace of God, go I”! So glad it wasn’t you, so sorry for all those souls lost that day.

  7. Wow. What a powerful ‘what if?’ I’m not a fatalist, so I’m not gonna wax philosophic about fate and destiny. Just glad you made it. I like the present tense narrative. It gave your scary tale immediacy.

  8. John Zussman says:

    A harrowing story with exquisite details, especially PSA, which brings back many memories. As others have said, very well told, and I think present tense gives it even more immediacy.

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