We're Going to Crash! And A Few Other Good Reasons to Learn Death Songs

Simon Moya-Smith
July 23, 2013

On a commuter jet now—US Airways flight 2128—New York City to Boston.

The takeoff was hard on the nerves—muscles tightened. The whole ordeal drove fear into the face of that Wall Street tycoon sitting across the aisle. We rocked in the air like a rickety boat on angry water about to capsize. The plane hit air pockets and vicious streams, firing the beast up into the ether and then back down again in what felt like a fatal nosedive. You know something has gone terribly wrong when the harried blonde flight attendant sits tensely by the cockpit, eyes wide shut. She grips at her chest on what can only be a rosary, and she mouths something of which could only be a prayer.

Moments later, things settle. The plane balances out. The long take off is over. Your guts slither back down your throat and assume their natural positions. Then the voice of a calm captain comes over the speaker: “We’d like to thank our loyalty club frequent fl…” His seduction is suddenly interrupted as the plane banks hard left, throwing me up and over the armrest. I’m alone in this row, but were there a person sitting next to me our heads would’ve surely collided, and then a crack of the skull would’ve sent me into a deep euphoric delirium.

The plane banks hard right. You can hear the sound of old, plastic-leather seats cracking and buckling. They’ve had it with the turbulence and so have we, the passengers, each of us wary and watchful—even readied for the inevitable death and destruction.

Audible gasps now fill the circulated air. Yet I continue to write this sort of epitaph on this, my notepad. Write: it’s the only thing I can think to do to keep my cool. I begin to imagine the plane hitting the earth; everything goes ablaze, but somehow the force of the explosion ejects this notepad. The pages and cardboard back are singed and ripped, but not too damaged. This, I ponder, will be a back seat, black box account of what happened before US Airways flight 2128 spiraled into American soil.

Write, Simon. Yes, it’s the only thing I can do to keep myself from leaping out of this chair, seat 13C, like a toad out of boiling water, and running up and down the aisle frantically asking anyone if they know the Death Song of my people. I look out the window. We’re over water now, which means the crash will be hard, but not explosive. This doesn’t bode well for this notepad. I check for a vomit bag in the seat back pocket to seal it in. Nothing.

And now I begin to thank Grandpa for teaching me how to swim those many years ago in that pool in Downey, California. The only solace at this moment is that thought and the sight of the cloud just there. It resembles some 1930s boxer with his dukes up—but the further we push into Boston the more the boxer dissolves and reshapes into nothing I can compare it to; and for fuck's sake this pen is almost out of ink—a writer’s black blood, type O-negative or B-positive depending on the mood and the lighting. I’m convinced writing by dim light prompts heavy pieces. “You’ll ruin your eyes,” Mom would say. “Yes, but this will be a damn fine piece nonetheless.”

We’re above the Atlantic. I can see sprouts of tiny islands and lighthouses and sounds and waves crashing, speedboats zipping across the white froth of the sea. Yet we’re still rocking. We haven’t stopped since we boomed out of LaGuardia. This is the crucial moment. The descent is happening now. I can feel it in my belly and in my throat. Keep writing. Keep writing. The ground is comin’ closer to my window, and pretty quickly, too. This is when I’d begin to sing my people’s Death Song if I knew it. But I don’t, and I feel like a man who squandered many an opportunity to learn it and didn’t. Many lessons have been learned at the final hour, and now it’s my turn.

The lighthouses look bigger now, and so does that island over there. It has grown exponentially in the time since I first laid eyes on it. The Wall Street fat cat there has his entire body pushed into his seat. His chin is up, and he has his head hard up against the headrest. He’s not looking up at anything, really. He’s just waiting for impact. Foolishly, I look out the window. We’re almost parallel with the tarmac. And then BAM! We hit the runway. The bow of the jet bounces like an East L.A. 1964 Chevy Impala up Whittier Blvd. The tires yelp. The shrill of the rubber is sweet music. "Sweet music" is, of course, a cliché. But here that’s all I can come up with. The blood has finally rushed back up to my skull. Yes, I can think again.

Nervous laughter erupts somewhere behind me. The Catholic flight attendant is back to the pro she was earlier when we boarded, before the fear: “We’d like to welcome you to Boston. … This was an on-time departure and early arrival.”

What have I learned here? That it’s high time I learned the Death Song of my people, and other songs, too, while I’m at it. And so should you. “Don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can learn today.” I don’t recall who first said that, but I have a newfound appreciation for that maxim. Time to learn. Time to write. And here we go.

Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, is a Master of Arts graduate from Columbia University School of Journalism.

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