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A silver lining

Earlier in this series I told the story of a plane crash in the heart of New Hampshire’s Pemigewassett Wilderness that took the lives of my father and another doctor, and also of their unsuccessful attempt to survive in the aftermath of the worst New Hampshire blizzard in 40 years. Aware they probably wouldn’t make it, they had written letters and sealed them into a plastic bottle. I had showed them to members of the Dartmouth Outing Club one recent weekend.

 

And what of the cabin stocked with food, fuel and sleeping bags only 1.8 miles from the crash site? The two men had hiked through deep snow for a mile before writing “the trail petered out” and that they had turned back. When I was growing up, my grandfather would say, "if only they hadn’t turned back!"

 

The missed opportunity gnawed at him and despite the obvious challenges they faced of a blizzard, deep snow and huge drifts, it gnawed at me too. I hiked back to the spot years later. Among the may things I wanted to know was why hadn’t they gone farther?

 

The site is beautiful, glorious birches flutter next to Pemigewassett river. There was the square rock that I could see in the old photos. The spot looks almost manicured and there is a plaque from the Dartmouth outing Club. That day when I came upon it, there was a huge gash in the tree from a bear scratching its claws – a sentinel watching over the site. And between where the plane would have been and where my father had probably fallen, a million tiny butterflies danced in the sun. I felt that, if there are souls, these here were at rest.

 

And what of the trail and their failure to find the cabin? I discovered that the trail had served as the bed of an old steam logging railway. The old ties are still hidden below the path, their tar keeping the bed above as free of growth as if a gardener had tended to it daily. I also learned that the trains would cross the river on trestles and where that happened, the rail bed would end and the trestles would begin. When the loggers left, they took the rails and the old trestles with them. And so you follow a beautiful trail and then it peters out, falling off into a dense thicket of trees and brush, for there are no more trestles.

 

Years after the crash, my uncle took an Eastern Airlines DC-3 from New Hampshire to New York. The man next to him turned out to be the son of the patient my father had flown to see in Berlin, New Hampshire. He was extremely grateful and told the story of his father who had been near death that day. I can only imagine that moment. In trying to piece it together, I believe my father had diagnosed a heart valve condition, something would have been a death sentence, but for new techniques being developed at places like Harvard (not that far away), and at Georgetown University (near where my father had spent his internship at Walter Reed Hospital). I suspect my father had arranged from him to travel to Boston and have such a procedure – perhaps one where the surgeon opens a very tight heart valve with his finger. Crude, but a person is wheeled in dying and his wheeled out feeling cured. What a moment on that flight, one man grateful for having regained his father, the other for learning that the last professional act of his brother was to save a life.

 

The set: www.flickr.com/photos/gcquinn/sets/72157614857803871/

 

More to come

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Taken on February 21, 2009