Human Interest by Jennifer Ochstein

snorkeling gear on rock at shore

The kid, 14, had been dead only two short hours. The small single-engine Piper Warrior plane he’d been taking a flying lesson in crashed into six feet of lake water, flipped over its propeller blade and was now resting upside down less than a hundred yards offshore. Both wings of the craft had snapped; rather than perpendicular, they were flung down, propping the plane up so the undercarriage was visible just above the water’s surface. Both wing structures blocked the side windows and cockpit door. A rescue diver had to work underwater to free the body after several hours of wrangling and cutting cold, wet metal.

Once rescue workers pulled the body from the water and motored it to shore on a small boat, they hoisted it onto a gurney and covered it with a white sheet that soaked up the water and clung to its outline. As an EMS tech wheeled it toward the ambulance nearby, I caught sight of it. We all did: newspaper reporters, including me, photographers and curious rubberneckers alike, milling about between two Lake Maxinkuckee homes in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in rural Marshall County, Indiana. Everyone quieted; at least it seems suddenly quiet in my memory. A reporter from the competing newspaper snapped photos, the shutter clicks breaking through the silence like the distant report of rifle fire, fixing me to the moment. But what was the news? What was the public interest other than curiosity? The death of a boy from Florida in a lake in northern Indiana’s sweltering August humidity? That he died while attending a summer camp at an elite boarding school where the flying lessons were offered? That no one knows who—the boy or his instructor—had been flying the plane? That the plane crashed in the first place? The who, what, where, when, why and how of it?

We waited another two years, until 2007, for the how. That’s when the National Transportation Safety Board finally released its findings: a mechanical failure caused the plane to crash. Maybe that was the news, but by then the immediacy was gone.

Only the kid’s head was visible as EMS wheeled him away. Whoever draped the sheet over him stopped short of covering his face. “Why don’t they cover his face,” I whispered to another reporter. “They need to cover his face.” His face had the color of a fresh bruise, shiny like plastic, swollen so that his features were bloated and dulled as if he were wearing a latex mask. He didn’t look real to me. But death rarely seems real to outsiders. The photo of him in his hometown newspaper, likely one taken during picture day at school, does not match the one of him in my memory. Of course, none of this ended up in the story I wrote for the next day’s front section page since the purpose of the article was to inform locals that there’d been a plane wreck involving a teenaged student pilot. But it’s the sight of his dead face that made him real to me then, and the memory of it that makes him real to me now. It makes the camera’s shutter clicks ricochet with such force.

Shortly after pulling the boy out, police recovered the flight instructor, still a kid himself at 21, but I never saw his body—even now his death seems less real to me, a rumor, the way the teenager’s death probably didn’t seem all that real to those reading my newspaper article about it. Those in charge seemed to think better of shuttling the instructor’s body through the crowd of onlookers. Before rescue workers wheeled the kid by, the atmosphere was festive. We’d been waiting for the day’s top story. A 14-year-old boy dead in a plane crash.

I didn’t find out until recently that the boy’s parents had traveled from Florida to Indiana to be near him while he practiced flying planes—maybe a family vacation of sorts. The knowledge startled me. I was thinking about news I had covered as a reporter between 1997 and 2009, and I hunted online for stories from the boy’s hometown about the accident. The boy’s parents likely had been staying in one of the small cabins reserved for guests of the boarding school. If I’d known then that they were on campus, I would’ve sought them out for an interview. If I’d known, I would have led with it in my story. Grief on display. And I would’ve justified hunting for and finding those two shell-shocked people, interviewing them and leading with it by telling myself that this was human interest. While I wouldn’t have told myself I wanted to see their grief and show it to my readers, I would have known. I just wouldn’t have acknowledged it.

* * *

Here’s the look of panic on my loved one’s face.

I stood on shore, a black volcanic basalt rock beach adjacent to the Puuhonua o Haunaunau National Historic Park near Kona, Hawaii. My husband Sam, as I knew him, was gone, replaced by someone I’d never met. He looked straight at me, his eyes blank with dumb fear, but he didn’t seem to see me. All reason and intelligence was gone, replaced by some long suppressed survival instinct. His body had taken over. Eyes wide, nostrils flaring, mouth open, muscles locked and wrenching beneath the water’s surface.

I turned toward him when I heard him call my name, “Jenni,” as water spilled into his mouth and choked the sound of it into a thin and runny hybrid of half gargle, half speech. The sound, “Je-nki,” was clipped and broken. There and gone. But it wasn’t how he called my name that made me suddenly think I would now watch my husband drown.

The Hawaiian Islands are the remotest island chain in the world. At more than 2,500 miles off the mainland, they were created by underwater volcanic eruptions over what is called the Hawaiian hot spot, home to some of the most active and productive volcanoes on earth. The islands are layered shelves of once molten lava rock, cooled by the oceans. Built by volcanoes as old as 65 million years, the fully formed islands eventually drift away from the volcanic openings and are eroded by the ocean. In their place, new islands form. In several thousand years, yet another island called Loihi, now 6,000 meters under the Pacific, will emerge at first by fire and then by a cool hardening. Researchers have already seen the roots of it beneath the surface of the Pacific. As new islands form, the others drift out to sea and sink so that the oldest of the islands, Kure and Midway, eventually become atolls, then sand bars, then memories, then future geologic discoveries. The volcanic eruptions create a violent death and life cycle. Flying high above, the Hawaiian Islands look like specks, anomalies; where there should be nothing, there is, instead, human interest. The islands are a picture of us.

Sam had never looked small to me before, but the blue of the Pacific engulfed him, eroding and shrinking his 230-pound frame into that of a little boy. Stronger than we’d anticipated, the shore break collided with his body, at first shoving him forward and closer to me, then pulling him back out. Flinging his arms back and forth as if they were oars, he hacked at the water but went nowhere. Fifteen feet or so from shore, over a steep drop, he was trying to tread water just out of reach of a shelf where we could stand in the ocean chest-deep on cooled volcanic. Even still he seemed miles from where I stood watching panic erupt in his eyes, explosions of adrenaline forcing him to pump his arms and legs even harder.

Twenty minutes before when we pulled into the parking lot that day bent on snorkeling, a veil of dread dropped over me. I felt I might not survive the day. The veil brought an air of the dramatic, and I told Sam if anything happened, say, if I were to begin drowning, he wasn’t to try saving me. If someone had to die, I wanted it to be me.

I cannot swim. I really only float and rarely venture farther in water measuring higher than chest deep, still a dangerous endeavor considering a person can drown in insignificant depths—something like inches. Even close to shore, the wild ocean reminds me I am weak and in short supply of anything other than a large brain to try to think my way out of a predicament with indifferent nature.

Lying face down in the water, a natural position for a dead body to take in the water, causes my body to react. When snorkeling, I force my mind to remain present so my body doesn’t seize and my lungs don’t hyperventilate when I put my face in the water and propel myself forward on my stomach as I float and waves rush over my back. For the first few minutes I have to chant Zen-like meditations to myself, “just breathe you can breathe just breathe you can breathe just breathe,” while forcing long and deep inhalations through the breathing tube. Then my body falls in line and relaxes. But only long enough to stay this way for a few minutes.

Before our trip to this Hawaiian beach, I’d snorkeled several times in the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, always wearing a life vest or staying in water shallow enough to allow me to stand quickly if I needed. Sam had never snorkeled before. Had never been in the ocean. Even though he’s one of the 35 percent of Americans who can swim, he’s not one of the two to seven percent who are strong swimmers. When the veil dropped, it didn’t occur to me he might be the one to get into trouble.

After I told him not to save me, he looked at me and shook his head. He rolled his eyes.

“Okay,” he said and snorted. “Yeah, right.”

“I’m serious,” I said.

“Shut up.”

“I’m just saying. People who don’t swim very well should never try to save people who can’t swim,” I said. “Panic sets in and the drowning person can overpower the other, and then two people drown.”

“I wouldn’t not try to save you,” he said.

* * *

I’d felt panic before. It’s as if someone has sealed you inside a Tupperware bowl and unceremoniously burped the oxygen. You don’t think you will die. You know you will die. That’s the difference: the thin line between thinking about it and knowing it to be true.

When Lake Michigan’s undertow pulled the lake bottom from under me when I was six in summer of 1981, of course I didn’t think, “Now, I will die.” Instead, I clawed through the underwater, a dreamy world where you and everything around you moves with the slow throb of each wave that barrels into you. It is precise slow motion whereby a body seems stationary and then is launched as the wave crashes over, around, and into you. Underwater, when you know you will drown, you can’t ever move quite fast enough to match the shudder of fear that shocks each nerve ending, the fear that jolts bolts of electricity into your heart with such force you believe it might explode. With nothing to grab and the undertow pushing you farther and farther out so the purchase you might have had with your tiptoes as your legs extend and then contract is just out of reach, you allow your breath to escape the seal you’ve managed to create with your lips as you try not to scream—no one would hear you anyway—and your chest begins to burn because your lungs are signaling your brain that they (need to breathe) need to release the carbon dioxide trapped in them after your body has begun using up all of the oxygen from your last breath; the more your lungs burn, the more your body begins automatically opening the leaky airlock you’ve created in your nose allowing water to seep in so instead of searching for the ground beneath you, you begin to fight with your own body because the stupid meat doesn’t know better than to keep the water out—it just knows it can’t breathe and soon the lack of oxygen to the brain will cause you to pass out so you stop fighting yourself. The mouth opens. The airways relax. Water rushes in. The body doesn’t panic. It’s all in the mind and the mind forces the body to react. It knows it will die, setting the body in motion to save itself. Instead, it drowns you.

I don’t know how I made it back to shore. I don’t remember. The lake spat me out somehow. When I slogged through the sand over to where my mother was resting on her blanket, the lightning bolts finally fading, I didn’t know what else to say to get her attention except, “I almost drowned,” my voice as quivery as my limbs. She squinted up at me as droplets of lake water rained onto the sand and her blanket. She didn’t believe me. After all, I had been the child who told her I wanted braces for my teeth—kids with braces had rich parents and I wanted that distinction. I also said I wanted a broken bone so I could have a cast. I desperately wanted to be one of those kids who chose who would be allowed to sign their names to it. I liked the momentary attention such injury would bring and I was ready to endure pain to get it. When I really was hurt, my mother rarely believed it was anything serious.

“What happened,” she asked. I heard no alarms in her voice.

“I don’t know. I couldn’t stand up. I almost drowned.”

“You’re fine now.”

* * *

From the edge of the water, I watched another wave push Sam forward again and then back, washing our borrowed snorkeling gear—a mask and breathing tube—from his grip. He began turning his body away from shore and toward the plastic goggles and tube as the waves carried them farther and farther out. Lightning bolts began jabbing my chest.

“Honey. Honey, no,” I said, using my calmest voice. “No, Honey. Look at me. Leave them. It doesn’t matter.”

He looked at me, the same dumb fear widening his eyes so that they seemed to bulge. His arms flailed. Looking back toward the snorkeling gear floating away, he reached toward them again as if he could moor himself to the floating plastic. This time I yelled.

“Sam! Leave it!”

He snapped his gaze at me as the snorkeling gear disappeared under a heavier wave that pushed him forward and pulled him back again.

“I need to get it,” he said, trance-like, breathless. “They’re not ours.”

“Honey, it doesn’t matter,” I yelled. “Just swim toward me; here’s another wave. Let it bring you in. Swim toward me.”

I couldn’t tell if what I was saying registered in him and my mind began creating scenarios: I saw myself moving into the water and reaching out my hand for him to grasp. I saw myself inch closer to him and I felt my body move into the powerful break. As a wave broke around my knees and nearly knocked me backward, I stood straight. You cannot help him, Jennifer, my stern inner voice told me. You cannot help him. He will drown you. And in my imagination I watched a larger wave, the biggest one, break, roll back, and carry him further from shore. He would become so tired of thrashing his arms and legs that a wave would pull him under. And I imagined the next time I would see him was floating face down. And the next time I’d see him was when EMS were dragging him ashore. And then I’d see his face.

* * *

He has the same look I imagine a professor at the small college where I teach in northern Indiana had when he drowned last summer in a small, muddy lake in Michigan. An outdoorsman, he was a strong 69. I imagine his wife never would have questioned his decision to go fishing by himself—something he’d done a thousand times over the years—on a Monday morning when he’d have Kirk Lake in southern Michigan to himself. Police said he drowned while swimming after his small fishing boat as it drifted away. Drowned? Swimming after his boat? Hardly anyone could believe it. He was a strong swimmer. He’d hiked alone in the mountains. For him, being outdoors was like being home.

Rumor on campus hinted that, technically, he hadn’t been swimming when he drowned. This was never reported in the newspaper. Kirk Lake spans about 42 acres and has a maximum depth of 23 feet, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The shallows around the lake are five feet deep, and no one could’ve imagined that the professor had gotten in trouble swimming at that depth. But the ground that makes up the shallows near the shores of the lake is a thick, sloppy mixture of peat and clay. When he walked into the water to get his boat, he sank into the muck, got stuck. Rumor had it that police found him straight up, as if he were standing, knee deep in mud a few inches beneath the surface of the water.

* * *

The professor’s face was that of the blue-bloated boy. And for a moment, my husband’s face was the blue-bloated boy’s, the outline of his drenched body soaking through a white sheet as he lay on a gurney. There would’ve been reporters who would’ve wanted to interview me, quantifying and detailing the shock of loss, the face of human grief. I would’ve talked to them because I know how difficult being a reporter can be when an editor wants what she wants. As a journalist, I always found it surprising that if I asked, people who experienced tragedy were often more than willing to talk. I came to realize they wanted others to know their grief. Maybe the weight of it wouldn’t be so heavy if they could tell of it, share the person for whom they were grieving.

I would’ve described Sam’s blue-bloated face and how I knew that if I’d floated into the water, the weight of my husband’s panic would have drowned me too. That we’d both be dead. I would’ve described the type of person he was, but only the qualities that would make him seem wholly good rather than a normal person, both good and bad. His goodness is all I would remember in my eulogy. I would’ve told them he didn’t want to lose the borrowed snorkeling gear, and when you’re panicking you tend to focus on the wrong things, and I would’ve known because I’d almost drowned once. I would’ve told them he’d been an only child and, even after ten years of marriage, we had no children. I wouldn’t have told them we nearly divorced the year before. We were in Hawaii celebrating our tenth year—a renewal of sorts—the birth of a new island on which we could live. But I would’ve told them I couldn’t swim, and I’d been taught if you can’t swim, don’t try to save a drowning person. I would’ve told them it never occurred to me he wouldn’t have been able to swim in that 2,500-mile expanse of the Pacific. “If I can do it, anyone one can,” I reasoned. I would’ve told them we—I—ignored the clearly posted red sign. “WARNING. NO LIFE GUARD ON DUTY.” And when I knew he was in trouble, I should have screamed for someone to help—there were more than fifty people snorkeling, resting, picnicking, sun bathing on the rocks—but I didn’t because Sam couldn’t die. Not this way. The idea had seemed wholly ridiculous to me at the time. They would’ve forgiven me, maybe understanding that I couldn’t forgive myself. The reporters would’ve nodded and said they couldn’t imagine how difficult it must have been while thinking we were stupid tourists who didn’t understand the power of their ocean. I would’ve told them about the snorkeling gear again. I would’ve told them I yelled at him to forget about the damned snorkeling gear. I would’ve told them I’d been more scared in that moment than at any other time in my life. They would’ve let me cry as I tried to explain what happened because they would’ve wanted the photographer to get art to accompany the story.

Jennifer Ochstein, laughing/big smileJennifer Ochstein has published work in Connotation Press, BrevityThe Lindenwood Review, and her essay “Hunger Strikes” is forthcoming in Evening Street Review. Her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012. She is an arts writer for Hothouse Magazine and at work on a memoir. She earned an MA in English studies and communication from Valparaiso University in 2009 and an MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University in 2012. She currently teaches at a small, Midwestern, Christian liberal arts college. You can follow her on her blog or like her on Facebook.

IMAGE: Flickr Creative Commons/Ellen Munro

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  • This is an incredible piece, Jennifer. Very smartly constructed … beautiful language.

  • Jennifer Ochstein

    Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement, Pamela. And thank you for writing your piece. So beautiful.

  • sue

    Really terrific work. My heart was pounding…. I drank it in. Great piece!

  • Jennifer Ochstein

    Thank you, Sue! I’m always so appreciative when people read my work.

  • Medea Isphording Bern

    Stunning, shattering. A heartbreaking piece. Thank you.

  • Jennifer Ochstein

    Thank you, Medea. I’m grateful that it resonated.

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