In 1943, my maternal grandfather almost blew up.
He was in the Navy, during WWII, and flew in planes for maintenance when they moved from island to island. The Pacific was a chasm of unpredictable violence, but in his memoir, he wrote that he enjoyed the adventure.
Grandpop switched out shifts with his friend one day. The man needed more service hours in order to get transferred back to the mainland. Grandpop agreed to help out and his friend took his spot on the plane.
The plane, which happened to be carrying all of his friends, exploded that afternoon. It was an accident.
Mom tells me that day haunted grandpop for the rest of his life. I can’t say I blame him, though the idea of guilt over what could have been has never affected me personally. It’s always what has been that haunts me.
It’s almost exhilarating to think about that close call now, because it’s almost like I’m spectating on the events I had no direct connection to, that happened two generations ago. The unpredictability and impossibility of that coincidence and, subsequently my very existence, fascinates me in the most uncomfortable of ways.
I try to speculate the possibility of not existing because of it and I really can’t, because I’m already here.
I almost failed to exist again in 1944, when my paternal grandparents were flying in their tiny plane down to Georgia for their honeymoon. How they could afford a plane during World War II has remained a mystery to my dad and his brothers, since they never thought to ask their parents while they were still alive.
Grandma Washburn is a legend to me, because everyone swears I would have liked her. She beat a copperhead to death with a frying pan in her fireplace once, down in Tennessee. She was a skilled, awarded marksman; her rifle’s still upstairs in the attic. She couldn’t navigate well, but she could fly an airplane when I can’t even drive a car.
While flying down in their plane, they stopped in a valley in Tennessee for the night before trying to leave the next day. The air was so heavy, dad told me, grandma couldn’t get over the ridge. Grandpa was navigating for her and knew they had to get over before they reached a restricted zone he spotted on the map.
They made it just in time, a few minutes before getting to the restricted zone, and went on their way.
A couple years later, grandpa looked it up and realized they had almost flown over Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Atomic City. The birthplace of the Manhattan Project, where they built the Bomb.
“They would have been blown out of the sky,” dad told me and I believe it.
It’s easy to think about the what-ifs, when we know just a few minutes separated the possibility and impossibility of my future birth. I find some sort of comfort in the idea that this story connects our family to something larger, even if it was just a speck in the grander story of Oak Ridge or the war.
I wonder if, had they gone over the line, if anyone would have known it happened at all.