Two months ago, I had a bit of skin surgery…nothing big, but frustratingly common now. As the doctor was finishing up, he began cauterizing the incision, and an all-too-familiar scent filled the clinic room. It is said that the sense of smell is the sense that triggers memories of long-past events; I have no reason to doubt that observation.
As the doctor worked to close my skin up and seal off the little bleeders, the smell of my burning flesh suddenly projected back 49 years to an inferno on a mountain. I was no longer sitting on an operating bed in a small Northern Virginia dermatology clinic; I was standing, breathless and heaving, at the 11,000' level of a mountain that makes up one of the pine- and boulder-covered shoulders of Loveland Pass in Colorado. In front of me was the flaming wreckage of a twin-engined Martin 404 passenger plane, and inside what was left of the aluminum fuselage were 31 people — dead or dying as liquid aluminum trickled in rivulets across the forest floor.
I’d been driving in the mountains that Friday afternoon on assignment for my paper, the Longmont Times-Call. I was a 21-year-old reporter/photographer just learning the ropes on a small daily paper. I was also a pilot, familiar enough with mountain flying to know things can go terribly wrong in a split second if a pilot is foolish enough to make a mistake below the peaks. And the pilot of the Martin had made a terrible mistake.
I first saw the plane as it flew up the canyon toward Loveland Pass; it was too low to clear the pass, and it banked away, back toward the east, and I lost sight of it. Coming around a switchback, I caught sight of the plane as it came westbound again, this time toward the crest of the mountain I was on. It was still too low. I saw it slide out of sight just below the ridge line, and I knew in a moment what had happened. Whatever luck the pilot might have had had run out.
Ahead of me was a Colorado highway maintenance crew, already running up into the tree line. I pulled behind their truck, grabbed my cameras, and started up the mountain, tripping, stumbling, running, tripping again behind the crew. I reached the site of the crash. I wish I hadn’t.
That was 49 years ago this past October. And on the morning of my skin cancer procedure, it seemed as if no time had passed at all, such is the perverse power of smell.
I am not a combat veteran; I don’t know anything about the sounds and sights and smells of war, and for that lack of knowledge I am grateful, and my gratitude extends to the men and women I know who have had those experiences. God bless each one of them. But on the mountain that day, amidst the sheared and snapped trees, the carnage and torn metal and the sights…and sounds…and the smell, I was imprinted with an experience that rises from the past with every skin surgery I’ve had. It’s funny, but the older I get, the more powerful the images become.
When I got back home from the clinic that morning, I tried to nap, but sleep wouldn’t come. Later in the day, I rummaged through some water-damaged clippings from my early days as a reporter and found the stained pages of the Times-Call with my front page story. I share them here, maybe to purge some of that day from my sleep, or maybe just to face it and come to terms with smell’s terrible longevity.