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The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky: A True Story


The night my brother died, I slept fine, back in my old bed in my old room in the old house where I grew up. I came downstairs late the next morning. My father and stepmother had left for work, but I was on my first day of Christmas break from college. I had nothing to do, and the entire day to do it. I found the newspaper laid out on the kitchen table. The headline ran in giant letters across the front page --- PLANE WITH 259 ABOARD CRASHES, DESTROYS 40 HOMES IN SCOTLAND. I started to read:

Lockerbie, Scotland --- A Pan Am jumbo jet bound for New York with 259 people, many of them Christmas travelers, crashed last night into this Scottish village, exploding into a huge fireball and setting ablaze dozens of homes and cars. No survivors from the Boeing 747 were found. The cause of the crash was not immediately clear, although speculation centered on either structural failure or sabotage.

There were other stories on the bombing as well: "Fire Fell from the Sky 'Like Liquid.' " "All On Jet, 11 in Town Are Killed." There were also pictures --- a Scottish police officer peering into the plane's crushed cockpit lying in a field; houses and cars on fire; a woman collapsed on the floor of JFK airport (she'd just been told that her daughter was on the plane). I skimmed the stories. I also checked the sports page and the police blotter in the suburban "Neighbors" section. A pizza delivery man had been robbed of $120 at knifepoint not too far from where I lived. News is just news to those not immediately affected, and my brother, David, was not supposed to fly until later in the week.

I finished breakfast and puttered around. At around noon, I turned on the television. Again, the bombing. Now there was news footage from Scotland. I remember the blue lights of the ambulances streaking into town and the hospital doctors looking useless waiting for injured passengers who would never arrive. There would be no injured, the anchorman said, "only dead." I remember the houses on fire and that cockpit in the field still looking sort of like a cockpit. It was Thursday, December 22, 1988. David had been dead on the ground in Scotland since Wednesday night, but I didn't know it.

I have come to think of the impact of my brother's death in dramatic terms: a curtain dropping on my youth, a terrible storm that left me shipwrecked, the start of a new life. But this language came much later. Events unfolded in a much more everyday way: The phone rang and my father, home early from work, answered it. A sales agent from the airline said she might have some unfortunate news about a David Dornstein. Is this the family of David Dornstein? The agent said she needed to check the final passenger list. She said she needed to cross-reference one thing with another. She said she needed to speak with her supervisor. She said she needed to get people in London or Scotland or New York or somewhere to "sign off." She said things were still a little confused. So could you please bear with us? Could you please hold?

My father waited on hold by himself initially, and then he called upstairs to me. I found him at his desk. "Pan Am is on the phone," he said. David boarded the plane at Heathrow, the woman from the airline had told him, but for some reason she wasn't ready to say that David had been on the plane when it exploded. My father held the phone away from his ear and let his head slump. I could hear the airline's hold music through an amplifier my father had put on the phone because of a bad ear: Dionne Warwick's "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" . . . a Muzak version of "When I'm Sixty-Four" . . . that trumpet song by Chuck Mangione-Do do doooooo, do do-do do-dooooo, da da da da-daaaaaaaaa. The phone call from Pan Am was strange, and the news likely tragic, but the experience of being on hold was familiar. It was as if we had called the airline to book a flight, a winter getaway. Except we hadn't. The airline had called us, and this, we knew, could not be good.

When the woman from Pan Am came back on the phone, my father mainly listened. If he said anything it was on the order of "Hmm hmmm" or "Yes, I understand." Maybe he said nothing. Then he set down the receiver. The message had been delivered.

Neither of us spoke. If we said nothing, if we shut off the lights, if we stood perfectly still, would the news go away? No. My father and I both had heard the final ax blow land, even if the tree had not yet tipped and fallen. We took a last quick look at the world as we had known it, and as the world still seemed to be --- but for the fact of that phone call --- and then it all came crashing down.

What happened next for my father is not for me to tell. He may not even recall the details; we've never spoken about it. But I remember my own reaction, and it still troubles me. I didn't cry or put my head in my hands or collapse like the lady from the picture at JFK. I was still. I understood the loss as my father's, for the most part, and I thought about how to console him. I looked down from above as the scene in the bedroom played out: those two pitiable souls, my father and I, rats in a maze of grief they had just begun to feel their way around. I felt sorry for them, but sorry like I might feel for the survivors of an earthquake somewhere (there was one in Armenia that same month); sorry like I'd initially felt for the victims of Flight 103 when I read about them in the paper that morning-which is to say, not that sorry at all. It was intolerable for me to have a personal connection to this story, so I simply decided not to.

My father began making calls --- one to a friend to cancel dinner plans, another to my sister, who said she'd be right over. My stepmother walked in from work a few minutes later and collapsed in the doorway after hearing the news. My father helped her to a chair. I didn't know what to do. I walked back upstairs. The book I'd been reading was still propped open at the place where I'd left off. A glazed chocolate doughnut sat on a white napkin, half eaten. I am embarrassed to say that I finished it. I was hungry. Now what?

David's old room was next door. I peeked inside. The room was just as he had left it, but now, I knew, it had become a room in a museum. I lay down on David's bed, thinking maybe I could channel his spirit through his sheets and blankets. The house was quiet for a while.

Time had been suspended, a giant parenthesis had opened up in my life, and I could have stayed there a long time. But then the doorbell rang and the parenthesis closed. Men and women in their hats and coats were arriving at a house of mourning. Well-wishers. They walked through the front door on the verge of tears. They talked in small groups, with hushed voices. Someone asked me where we kept our drinking glasses, almost apologetic for wanting something to drink at a time like this. I pointed someone else to the bathroom. A dozen or so people were in the house within an hour.

Soon the Eyewitness News team would be in the living room. David's picture, yearbook-pose false, would be beamed throughout the tri-state area, the local angle to the international news story. Mothers mixing noodle casseroles would glimpse my brother's face and think, How handsome (my father would later mistake a picture of JFK, Jr., for David). And then: How awful.

I was overwhelmed by a sense of the wrongness of what was happening, or if not by the wrongness, then by the sheer pace of events. I felt that David would have been disappointed at how quickly we had accepted the news of his death, and how readily we had set in motion the machinery of memorialization. One minute he was alive in our minds, headed home from a long time away; the next minute the phone rang and we were burying him.

I refused to be enlisted into this gathering army of the bereaved. I slipped out the door and into the backyard. I dropped to my knees on the frozen ground, thinking I should pray, but I didn't know any prayers. Then I lay down, looking up. It was cold, but I couldn't be bothered with so small a matter as my own warmth. I had ventured out into the winter night to make some kind of celestial connection with my dead brother and I assumed I would be insulated from such worldly concerns by the sheer drama of the situation.

I don't know how long I was outside. At one point a jet flew overhead, and I watched the blinking lights on the wings and tail move across the sky. I thought of the snug world inside the cabin, the ice clinking in the first-class glasses, the reading lights being dimmed, the endless rearrangements of blankets and pillows at the start of a night flight. And then I wondered what it would look like if the plane suddenly split in two and all of the people inside spilled out. Which is to say: I tried that night, but it would be years before I could even begin to imagine David's fall.


I have started this story a hundred times in the years since David died, but never finished. Let me begin again.

Once upon a time, I had a brother. He was older, bigger, wiser, more daring, more passionate, better spoken, and much better looking. He traveled farther away from home than I ever imagined I would. I admired him. I was nineteen when he died, a sophomore in college. Now I am in my midthirties. I have some memories of my brother, but not as many as I'd like to think. And each time I check, I seem to have one fewer. If at first I found it hard to believe that David was dead, now I find it hard to believe that he ever lived. David's life has come to seem like a story I made up, a fairy tale, no more real than words on a page. I sometimes find it dispiriting to think that this is what a life comes to, that this is how it ends. But I can imagine David smiling about it. Words were his life. And now the words he left behind would be more vital than ever.

David was a writer. In the years before he died, he was working on something big and, at least to me, mysterious. He wrote night and day, filling dozens of spiral notebooks with his fevered thoughts and phantasmagorical dreams. For a time, he told people he was trying to write down every thought that had ever occurred to him. When he slept it was on the floor, surrounded by books and papers. He renounced beds. Later, he swore off banks, keeping his money thoroughly liquid-a wad of cash tucked inside the pages of a book called The Irrational Man. This was David: He played out every idea to the end.

One day David left home. He left the country. He said he had to go, but beyond his initial destination he didn't know where, and he didn't know when he would be back. He was twenty-five. He pledged not to return until he had written something substantial or until he had otherwise settled the question of his future as a writer. Before he left, David copied into his notebook a passage from the novelist Thomas Wolfe about the extraordinary troubles Wolfe had with an early novel:

I had been sustained by that delightful illusion of success which we all have when we dream about the books we are going to write instead of actually doing them. Now I was face to face with it, and suddenly I realized that I had committed my life and my integrity so irrevocably to this struggle that I must conquer now or be destroyed.

We know this story: A boy heads off into the wild to kill a bear, and he returns to the village a man. But in this case, the boy did not come back. A newspaper feature called this "A Tragic Twist on a Young Writer's Life." According to the article, David carried a manuscript with him onto Pan Am Flight 103, the draft of a brilliant first novel finally on its way to expectant American publishers. But the novel was presumed lost in the wreckage, loose pages of it spread across Scotland along with seat cushions and insulation and other bits of the disintegrating 747. Coming-of-age stories usually end with some obstacles being overcome and the way ahead finally clear. But this one seemed to have ended, at least in part --- at least for David --- at the bottom of the North Sea with the rest of the lightest debris from Flight 103.

Was the "Tragic Twist" story true? I didn't know. I remember meeting David's best friend, Billy, a month or so after the bombing and talking to him about what we should do with David's writings. Even if there were no novel to publish, I argued that we could put together an edited collection of some kind. David had filled a giant cardboard box with his notebooks and manuscripts. He labeled it in thick Magic Marker: the dave archives. I told Billy that there must be material in there for several books. I remember thinking we needed to strike fast, while the world still cared about the people on Flight 103, but Billy and I never formed anything like a plan.

David's papers sat unread for a long time. At one point, I decided to catalog them. I ordered the notebooks chronologically and straightened them on a shelf. I sorted loose typescripts into color-coded files. I was careful to read only enough of each thing to fix a label to it: fiction, poetry, plays, letters, etc. I told myself it was too sad to read these pages, too difficult, too soon, too much, but my reasons were much simpler. I feared what David himself had feared: that what was inside those notebooks, what was typewritten on all of those loose sheets, was not good enough to justify all of the big noises he'd made about it. I feared that the grand plan had never been realized and that David had hidden this fact from himself in a mass of paper. I feared page after page of throat-clearing about a book that David would forever be on the verge of writing. Wasn't the "Tragic Twist" story a much better way to leave things?


Excerpted from THE BOY WHO FELL OUT OF THE SKY: A True Story © Copyright 2011 by Ken Dornstein. Reprinted with permission by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky: A True Story
by by Ken Dornstein

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375707697
  • ISBN-13: 9780375707698