THE YEAR 1955
For many people, a particular year or series of years is always in the back of their minds. My friend Russ was in the Pacific, 1942-1945, during World War II. Until he died in 2014, nightmares from those years on a minesweeper continued to wake him up. Another friend, who is now in her fifties, spent her high-school years during the 1980s caring for her invalid mother, who was slowly dying of emphysema from decades of smoking. Unhappy memories and melancholy regrets concerning the lost years of her adolescence haunt my friend to this day. Another friend was tortured in 1982 in his native Central American homeland by that country’s C.I.A. for suspected labor union strike activities. In California, thirty-seven years later, he continues to suffer from PTSD, which seriously impinges on his ability to work and hold a job.
For me, the year 1955 always affects me. That was the year when my father died in a plane crash into the Sandia Mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. I happened to be walking by the hall telephone in my house in Amarillo, Texas, when the phone rang. It was early Saturday morning, February 19—three days before my fourteenth birthday.
I answered. A voice responded, “Hello, this is TWA calling. … Is Mrs. Phyllis Nicholl available?”
When I yelled, “Mama, TWA is calling!” from the other room my mother screamed, and she began sobbing hysterically. … She knew! … My father was supposed to be coming home on a plane that morning. She didn’t have to take the phone from me to know that they were calling to inform her that her husband’s flight was missing.
With my father’s death, everything changed in my life. Once the funeral was over and people stopped coming by the house to tell us how sorry they were, a strange silence set in during the day, and at night I could hear my mother crying herself to sleep in her lonely bedroom. We went from being middle-class to being poor. My stay-at-home mother had to find a job. My little sister, who was only nine, was absolutely devastated. She was her daddy’s little princess. … Everything changed. … Just when I really needed my father’s advice on how to navigate my teenage years, he was gone.
To this day, that day in February 1955 is always with me. Apparently, the pilot deliberately flew the plane into the mountain because of personal problems with his marriage. My father shouldn’t have been on the plane—he drove everywhere, but this time he was flying. Why had he been working in Albuquerque for the last several years, and not living with his family in Amarillo? All sorts of questions are yet unanswered and wander around in the back of my mind—every day and to this day.
So a few years ago, when I began to imagine my stories, I automatically put the year 1955 at the center of each. Through my tales, I’m still dealing with the sorrow, the regrets and the questions from that Saturday in February, which turned my life completely upside down.