Updated: May 17, 2022
Note - "Safe Landing: A Family's Journey Following the Crash of American Airlines Flight 191" follows three siblings' incredible journey over the last 40+ years grieving their parents' sudden loss, coming together as a family, and working hard to honor the lives of all 273 lost on Flight 191. It's an inspirational Chicago story about love, family, and how tragedy gets a big word, but it never gets the final word. It's available for purchase here in our Long Overdue bookstore
As the stewardess made final take-off announcements, I looked to my right and left. Every time I’ve flown since that fateful day, I have the same ritual; I count the seconds as the plane increases speed down the runway.
Thirty-one seconds. This was the amount of time the DC-10 airplane was in the air before losing its left engine and crashing in a field north of the runway. The crash’s impact was so intense there was little left of those on the flight, and debris was scattered everywhere. All 271 passengers and crew on board and two individuals on the ground lost their lives.
A DC-10 was broken apart, lives were lost, and all the lives of families and friends would be forever altered after the crash of American Airlines Flight 191. It is still the worst non-terrorist-related crash in American history.
Yet there we were, 25 years later, clicking our seat belts on an American Airlines flight. Along with our families, my sister and I were off to witness our brother Jim’s wedding in Hawaii. This was the same destination our parents (known as “Nudy” and Bill) left for on May 25th, 1979.
In September of 1978, I was 29-years-old, single, and managing one of the most popular late-night bars in all of Chicago. I shared a very large apartment with a college friend on the “Near North” side, just steps away from Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan. In Chicago, proximity to the lake is everything.
I’d become a serious runner competing almost every weekend in 10k races around the city. I’d been training for several years to compete in the new Mayor Daley Marathon (later called the Chicago Marathon). I finished my first marathon with a respectable time of 3 hours, 29 minutes. Not bad for my first time!
But the highlight of the day occurred at the 18-mile mark. This is a critical point in a marathon when many runners “hit the wall.” As I approached the 18-mile marker, Mom and Dad were there to cheer me on. They were easy to spot in the sizable crowd because “Nudy” was doing a headstand! Needless to say, I picked up the pace, and I’m sure I had a big grin on my face for the next several miles.
Headstand in a crowd of people? That was just a typically eccentric and supportive act we were all accustomed to as the children of Nudy and Bill.
One of my fondest memories of Mom standing on her head was in 8th grade. Our family was celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at a local restaurant in our parish called Deasy’s. The owner was a rather stern Irishman but was fond of Nudy, as all the adults called her. Mom gave me a “head’s up” that the owner had asked her to stand on her head as part of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Mom told me she’d be wearing a taffeta green dress and was going to let her skirt fall to display a ruffled green undergarment with a shamrock on her backside. She wanted me to be prepared when her skirt fell in front of a couple hundred parishioners. Don’t worry, it’s all planned.
Needless to say, as a teenager with some of my classmates present, I was slightly embarrassed. But I was proud of how Mom could do something this crazy with style and grace.
Or how about this one time after a Cubs game. If my memory serves me right, the game went into extra innings, and, back then, there was no cut-off for beers served at Wrigley Field. The raucous crowd was in full party mode.
After the game, we all went across the street to the Sports Corner at Sheffield and Addison for additional cheers and fun. We were all singing and dancing and then, next thing you know, Melody, Mom, and I were standing on our heads on top of the bar! The place went wild!
No other moms I knew during the ’50s were focusing on yoga. Mom taught us the lotus position and the infamous headstand. We would be at picnics with other families, she would clap her hands, and then, like a performing circus, we would all go stand on our heads. All the other kids and adults would try this out, and then Mom would help them learn the proper technique.
Mom and Dad were both very personable and easy to know to the outside world. Dad was genuinely easy-going. He was always there to help, whether taking kids waiting at bus stops to school or helping at our parish with various requests. He would also help neighbors and friends with any breakdowns in their homes. When I was a youngster, I truly felt there wasn’t anything Dad couldn’t fix or do.
Mom had a much stronger personality, yet she was very likable and fun. The only exception was when things weren’t done to her specifications. That’s when her Irish temper would come out. I grew up knowing Mom was not afraid to stand up for you if it was deserved. She always had your back.
And perhaps the most memorable (and most mysterious) example of Mom having my back was in January of 1979 when Mom wrote me a letter commemorating my 32nd birthday. This letter would ultimately guide my life for decades to come.
Mom often wrote notes on cards, but this was a 2-page typed letter. I can’t remember her ever writing something like this before. In this letter, she shared many thoughts. She gave me directions on taking care of our family when she was no longer around or able. She stressed the importance of having patience and always making the effort to get the family together.
I knew Mom had a few reservations about this second honeymoon trip, but this was the first time she talked about her mortality, at least to me. I remember reading her letter and thinking I wouldn’t have to worry about these things for many, many years.
Little did I know, this letter would be read at their memorial service, and become my personal directive