On Monday, November 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587, bound to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, crashed shortly after take-off from JFK Airport, landing in Queens. The crash claimed 255 lives, roughly two-thirds of these Dominican.
The following Saturday, after a sleepless cab ride to JFK, I stepped onto an American Airlines flight bound to the Dominican Republic. Thanksgiving in the tropics.
We landed in the Dominican Republic three hours and one minute later, and I exhaled.
I had never had Thanksgiving anywhere but in the confines of my own home. And as of Saturday morning, I still wasn’t exactly sure why I was in the Dominican Republic at all, except, as my parents reiterated, for a change of scenery. “Isn’t this an adventure,” my mother asked countless times throughout the week. She’s been known to ask the same thing when we go to the Stop & Shop in Hamden — For a change of scenery.
Of course, I didn’t complain.
The landing field was close to our small hotel, just outside of Puerto Plata. As I swam in the afternoons, I heard 747’s rumbling above me. I looked up at their silver bellies. Just like that scene in Wayne’s World … except that it was me, not Wayne, swimming in the ocean, not sitting on the hood of The Mirthmobile. But moving on …
I walked West along the coastline, followed by a wild dog who seemed taken by the scent of my deodorant, and I watched as a young man in a beige security guard uniform drew a picture in the wet sand with a thin stick – an airplane: wings, turbines, and on its tail, what looked like “AyA.” American Airlines. With the conjunction in the middle, “American and Airlines.” I didn’t bother correcting.
Was he trying to get the attention of the passengers flying overhead, touching down less than a mile away? A welcome? Or was this rather a memorial to someone he had lost less than a week ago? Whatever its goal, it would be erased by the sea in a matter of hours, the artist long since disappeared into the brush along the shore.
It would have been quite easy for an American tourist to forget that such a tragedy had befallen the men and women of this small country five days previously. Our cab drivers and bellboys and waiters and concierges let on no sign of distress. They were taking the advice of our own President, and “returning to normal.” Going about their business, not giving the enemy satisfaction. And their business is to smile, so that Americans will smile. And tip.
The enemy for the Dominican people is not Osama Bin Laden. It is not any man, and it has no face. The enemy is chance. Coincidence. It’s bad luck. It’s destruction with no excuse, not even a bad one.
Had I not gone into the heart of Puerto Plata, I might have forgotten about Flight 587 altogether. The city was quiet. People stopped smiling as soon as they thought you weren’t looking, if they smiled at all. It looked like America on September 12th, but nothing like America on November 12th. Flight 587 was news for two days here. As soon as it was decided that this was not a casualty of our war, Queens moved to the back of the paper. This was awful, alright, but it was distracting from the task at hand.
My mother had decided long before our arrival that we would celebrate Thanksgiving with lobster, for a change of scenery, for an adventure. And so we selected what our guidebook told us was the finest restaurant in all of Puerto Plata. I even shaved, at my father’s request, for our holiday evening of four star dining, at what turned out to be a dingy second-story apartment, converted into a bar with a few tables.
The owner, Tim, was a Canadian expatriate. The menu was special this evening. Special and non-negotiable. Turkey, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, and apple pie, ordered special from New England. My mother smiled and cursed under her breath.
America had found us.
Our tour guide through Puerto Plata, a slight man named Porfidio, revealed his secret to life, something that he had figured out, he told us, using the loving power of Jesus Christ, his personal savior. “Make goals small,” he explained. “Then, you get them. If your goal is too big, you will be sad when you have nothing in the end.” Porfidio’s goal was to come to America, to see New York, to fly into JFK. It was only a matter of the plane fare. And Jesus was going to kick in a few bucks.
With my $500 ticket in hand, I flew away on Saturday afternoon. I watched the beach but saw no drawings. I watched Robert DeNiro in “The Score,” wished I hadn’t seen it and that he hadn’t made it. I hoped I didn’t die, and I didn’t. Lucky me.
I had beaten the random, conquered chance, won my little war as I looked out my window at the still-recognizable nighttime New York City skyline.
There it was.
I was thankful that I was alive, because, it seems, to be alive is fun, and it’s nice to go swimming. I was thankful that I was an American, because as an American, I’m free to get on a plane and go anywhere in the whole world and then come right back, a little bit smarter. I was thankful to be alive in America. And that, I guess, is what my adventure is all about, and what Thanksgiving is all about.
And I walked off the tarmac and inhaled.
Greg Yolen is a sophomore in Pierson College. No. Seriously. Sorry if that sounded sarcastic.