In the Shadow of the El (excerpt)
New York City. July 28th, 1945.
This much I’ve figured out: the brown bomber will have been about forty stories above the rectangular tarred tops of the tenements, all of them lined up east of the Third Avenue El, the wing and nose wheels of the plane groaning open claw-like, as it prepares to land in dense fog in what the pilot mistakenly believes is the Newark airstrip. And though those walking or driving the clop-clop horse-drawn carts or pre-war flivvers on the street below, or those few on the buckled tar roofs feeding their pigeons in makeshift wooden cages cannot see it because of the thick soup-like fog which has plumped down over the city from off the North Atlantic, the twin-engine bomber is roaring above the cobblestoned streets at two hundred miles an hour, rattling dishes and window panes and forcing plaster ceiling dust down on the tenements below. After all, it’s just one more noise in a city of nonstop noises—sirens, fire engines, the clack-clack of the Third Avenue El up the street, a mother shouting out a window after her child. Only this sound is eerier, more foreign, than the shouts and neighing and honking on the street below.
At the controls of the Mitchell bomber, christened the “Old John Feather Merchant,” sits Colonel William Franklin Smith, twenty-seven, a year younger than my father, but—unlike my father—a graduate of West Point and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. Handsome and fit, for the next two minutes his features might still remind one of Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, as Smith’s trimmed mustache is no doubt meant to evoke. Three years married now, Smith is the father of a baby boy, and against the odds he’s managed to survive fifty missions over France and Germany in the face of splintering enemy flak and hornet-like Messerschmitts in conditions far worse than the white blanket enshrouding New York on this late July morning.
And because the fog has grown more and more impenetrable as the plane nears Manhattan, Smith has been told to circle LaGuardia Field on the northern end of Queens on Flushing Bay and land there once air traffic abates and wait for the fog to lift. From where he’s sitting, the controller tells him, he won’t even be able to make out the top of the Empire State Building.
But Smith decides to stay on course to Newark Airport. After all, he’s only a few minutes away from his destination now, and he’s flown in conditions far worse than this. How many times, after all, has he piloted back over the English Channel and the white cliffs of Dover after a bombing raid with flak everywhere, often with his radio out and only his instincts to go by?
But now, looking down through momentary rifts in the fog, he must be wondering just where the hell he is as he begins his descent into what he thinks is Newark. And then, with a shock, he realizes that the bridge down there isn’t the George Washington but the Queensboro, connecting mid-town Manhattan with Queens and Long Island at 59th Street, and that the narrow spit of land below him is Roosevelt Island and that this is the East River and not the Hudson even as the wheels of the bomber shudder open and lock into position.
And now he’s banking hard to his right and then straightens out as he begins flying west over Fifty-first Street, past the posh early twentieth-century brownstones on Beekman Place and then over the dun tenements along First and Second Avenue where I live among the Irish- and German-American families. And a second later he’s flying over the old synagogue and then the Third Avenue El. And then it’s the majestic twin neo-Gothic spires of St. Patrick’s and in another instant the jazzier Art Deco towers of Rockefeller Center and the RCA Building.
Welcome to New York, Colonel Smith, with its skyscrapers dwarfing Paris’s Notre Dame and that brazen Johnny-come-lately, the Eiffel Tower, or Dresden’s bombed-out Frauenkirche Cathedral and the crumpled remains of the Berliner Dom. And now, desperately, he begins retracting his landing gear to decrease the drag on the bomber as he makes a half-circle over Fifth Avenue, where construction workers stop what they’re doing and look skyward as now the bomber heads south, clawing its way upward as fast as it can.
And now Smith’s at six hundred feet, the propellers biting into the mist-thick air as he struggles to reach double that height as fast as he can. Out his thick left metal windowpane, he can just make out the Art Deco crown of the Chrysler Building. And now he’s at eight hundred and fifty feet and the twin engines are snorting and farting. Then it’s nine hundred and he’s climbing at a forty-degree angle. And then, like that, waiting for him through a break in the fog like that iceberg waiting for the Titanic, he catches the granite Cyclops of the Empire State Building staring directly before him, which, at 1250 feet is the world’s tallest building, and in that instant he realizes he is going to marry it forever.
At 9:55 A.M. the nose of the bomber hits the north wall of the building seventy-nine stories above ground level and in an instant disintegrates, octane flames bouncing helter-skelter through the offices of what turns out to be the Catholic War Relief Service, where workers on this Saturday morning—most of them women—have been busy for the past two hours trying to get much-needed relief supplies to Europe’s devastated cities. In addition to the three men on board, the impact ends the lives of eleven others as it spews flames across the tiled floors and cubicles, acrid smoke billowing ten stories up from the point of impact. And suddenly the building is rocking back and forth with the jolting force of a heavyweight who has just been blindsided by his opponent.
The left engine shears off by the force of the impact, then careens across the seventy-ninth floor, cutting through the building’s central elevators, scissoring the elevator’s steel cables and sending its young female operator hurtling a thousand feet down the black shaft, then careens its drunken way on, smashing through the building’s south wall before dropping downward, finally thudding to a stop on the roof of a building across the street.
A mini apocalypse, this, prologue to that greater disaster that lies waiting half a century and more into the future. Nine eleven, September 11, 2001, an event which will claim over three thousand lives and leave New York looking more vulnerable than ever, the city’s boxed Twin Towers imploding in upon themselves one after the other, so that the Empire State Building will once again reclaim its title as the world’s tallest building. Except, of course, for those towers in Shanghai and the unreal city they call Dubai, where human waste collected in its towers must be carried away in caravans of trucks that line up for their exquisite chore each day. But this is here, now, a Saturday in late July 1945, in gray fogbound Manhattan, and this is the Empire State Building, just fourteen years old, billowing smoke drifting amidst the clang of fire engines and police sirens and the ambulances below, as the Punchinello figure of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who reads comic book captions from the papers on the radio to kids like myself is shaking his head in disbelief, trying to take in the enormity of what has just happened.