"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, June 10, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace Part 12: The Fear of Flying

The next extant letter for 1956 is dated 5 July, the promised full response that Bishop mentioned in her postcard. This letter contains a number of ongoing and new subjects, and the next couple of posts will focus on them in turn.

Bishop’s dislike of flying was something she mentioned on more than one occasion to Grace. One of my previous posts introduced the subject of air travel.

Grace’s view of this mode of transportation is unknown, but it might have been similar to her niece’s because Bishop mentions a recent news event that clearly unsettled her, something she thought would interest Grace: “Weren’t those airplane accidents ghastly.” So upsetting were they that Bishop observed she would not have gone to Diamantina (a trip she took in April) “after them.”

Of course, I wondered what plane crash had happened, and thanks to Google and the internet, I learned about a tragic mid-air collision of two aircraft over the Grand Canyon, on 30 June 1956, only a few days before Bishop’s letter, so indeed a very current event. It was the first airplane crash in aviation history causing over 100 deaths. 128 people perished.

Commercial transcontinental, transatlantic/pacific flight was still in its early years, though expanding rapidly. This terrible accident clearly shocked the world. Bishop noted, trying to lighten what for her was a dark subject, told her aunt about a painter friend of theirs who had recently flown to Europe. When, upon arriving, he was asked how he liked the flight, his said, “It was the longest fright I ever had.”

Bishop is, of course referring specifically to the Colorado tragedy in her letter, though it is interesting that she writes “airplane accidents” (plural). As I searched online, I found a site that lists plane crashes that have occurred in each year, planecrashinfo.com, and discovered that there were over 50 plane crashes in the world in 1956, including one on 15 May, when a Canadian air force plane crashed into a populated area in Orleans, Ontario, and killed over two dozen people on the ground.

I myself am afraid of flying. Like Bishop, I have flown in spite of it; but never comfortably. We are told that flying is safer than driving in a car; but for some reason, it doesn’t feel like that. Well, humans are quite irrational on many levels. I wonder how many of these 50+ crashes Elizabeth and Grace heard about in 1956, multiple accidents each month, most not of the magnitude of the one in Colorado, but they all added up to a deadly year in aviation.

I am not sure when Bishop’s first flight occurred. From birth, she was a frequenter of ships and trains, which continued when she began to travel on her own in the 1920s and 1930s. Her first vivid description of flight that I have found appears in a journal she kept in August 1951, when she made a trip to Nova Scotia and Sable Island. For some reason, Bishop chose to fly, from New York to Boston and then on to Nova Scotia.

The trip journal begins with a description of this flight, which seemed to fascinate more than frighten her. On the New York to Boston leg, she wrote that they saw only one other plane, miles off, and commented in a way that invokes her poem “Manners”: “It seemed wrong not to hail it, for the 2 planes not to approach each other & talk over the strangeness of being there at all – It didn’t seem possible.” The plane landed at an airport in Dartmouth, “a clearing in the fir woods,” and she took a little ferry across the harbour to Halifax. For the Nova Scotia to Sable Island leg, she boarded the HMCS Cornwallis (a Coast Guard resupply ship) to make the journey. She approached Sable Island by sea.

In May 2008, I had the great privilege of going to Sable Island, thanks to a kind invitation from Zoe Lucas. Along with writer Janet Barkhouse, we went by air and I felt quite reassured because our pilot was a woman, Debbie, and very experienced. A regular trip for her. It might have been the least nerve-wracking flight I’ve ever taken. I wished Bishop had seen Sable Island from the sky. She would have appreciated its striking appearance way out there in the vast ocean.
 Sable Island by air, May 2008. Photo by Janet Barkhouse
Janet Barkhouse (centre), Sandra (right) and
Sable Island Station Manager Gerry on the South Beach
In her 1951 journal, she was fascinated by the geography beneath her (the plane flew only 11,000 feet up): “N.S. looked lovely from the air — fresh dark greens, red outline, glittering lines of rivers — more animated than Maine had looked — & that amazing cleanness that strikes me every time.” By 1956, flight was more common, but the skies were becoming more dangerous, too. The adventure was turning into an anxiety, at least for Bishop.

The next post will look at a subject for which Bishop had little acumen: business.

No comments:

Post a Comment