Before World War II, airplanes were something of an oddity in the skies over Framalopa. We would stop and gaze at a Piper Cub chugging along through air, occasionally cutting its motor and gliding for a few seconds while we held our breath. I can’t recall ever seeing a commercial airliner winging its way from Tampa to Miami, not in those pre-war days. I do remember standing in our front yard during the early 1930’s and hearing a whine that grated on my nerves like the sound of an electric saw cutting hardwood. I looked up and spotted a dirigible, churning along at the top of the sky. Was it the Hindenburg?
At the time, the zeppelin seemed no more exotic than an airplane—any airplane. Pilots were the knights errant of the 20’s and 30’s, easily as heroic as explorers of the North Pole. Both courted cold, dispassionate death, explorers tromping across windswept ice glades in minus-50-degree weather, pilots in contraptions as fragile as the model airplanes we built from balsam-wood sticks and tissue paper.
Then came the War, and planes filled the skies all over the United States. Because the government established an Army Air Corps training base in our corner of the sky, planes were as numerous and natural as stars. By the end of 1942, single-engine planes were soaring and looping above us in such numbers that we no longer bothered to look up.
Occasionally a trainee would crash, and the local newspaper would report the grim details. One stalled and plunged into the Gulf of Mexico off Point of Rocks, and half the town drove out to the beach to gawk at the debris the waves were washing up. As Bill Booth and I walked barefoot through the seeping saltwater, looking for souvenirs, Bill suddenly pointed to a black root the size and shape of a man’s penis and said, “Well, there’s part of him.” We both laughed at death, no more than a casual acquaintance. The image came back to haunt me when, years later, I heard Bill had been killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam.
One day, when Jackie and I were pedaling our bicycles along Osprey Avenue, two planes roared above us. Nothing unusual about that. Then the roaring abruptly ceased.
“Look,” Jackie said, pointing his finger ahead, I followed his point, just in time to see a plane careen behind the row of buildings and pine trees that formed the horizon. Then I heard an explosion surprisingly loud, like the hollow boom of a cannon. I felt the pressure of it in my ears and the reverberation of it in my chest, as if, for an instant, it might jerk out my heart.
“Come on!” Jackie shouted, and began to pump the pedals standing straight up, the way we did when we wanted to gain speed quickly. I followed, trailing by half a block, lacking the physical stamina to compete with Jackie and sickened at the thought of seeing wreckage and a mangled corpse.
As we got closer to the scene, we realized the plane had gone down in what we called Black Bottom—about twenty square blocks of colored shacks just on the north edge of town. As we approached, I heard an ambulance crank up its siren somewhere off to the right—probably Schuyler and McClintock, the older and more respectable of our two funeral homes. Then I heard another distant siren from behind. Willie Mullis Funeral Home had gotten the news. The two ambulances would have another of their famous races. Local rules, imposed by the Florida Highway Patrol, were simple: The early bird got the worm—and in those times worms were precious.
Ahead we could see black smoke vaulting into the air in rich, toxic clouds. We rounded the corner and saw maybe fifty to seventy-five colored people, standing at a respectful distance, staring at a roof topped by an orange flame. Inside the flame we could see the remains of a plane’s fuselage and a fragment of the tail. I stood and studied the burning wreckage, trying to make out a head or the crook of an arm. After all, that was what everyone had come to see. I was fascinated and, at the same time, filled with dread.
Then Jackie called to me from across the street, where an even larger crowd of colored people gathered, most of them mute, some shaking their heads, a few mumbling to themselves. As I crossed the street, I saw the gash in the tar-paper roof, exposing newspaper and something protruding from it. At first it looked like a twisted board, a four-by-eight. Then it came to me. Wrenched into a grotesque shape, it was a human leg. My knees began to wobble.
Jackie grabbed me by the arm and jerked me toward the house.
“Hurry. You got to hurry before they close this place. You’ll never see anything like it again. Not as long as you live.”
He dragged me to the front door, where a large colored man dressed in loose-fitting overalls stood guard—self-appointed, I later realized, out of the fine sense of decorum that always surrounded death in the colored community.
“Josh, this is my friend,” Jackie told him. “Can you let him just peek for a second?”
The colored man shook his head sadly.
“Aw, you done looked, Jackie. You tell him what you saw.”
”Just for thirty seconds. In and out.”
Josh hesitated just long enough for Jackie to grab me and pull me inside. “There.”
Perched on a rafter was a pile of hair, as if it had been placed there by a practiced hand. A wig, I thought. A blond wig. Then I noticed that something had oozed from the hair and was dripping down on the rafter. Blood. What I was looking at was the top of a skull. I quickly glanced down and saw on the floor the bottom of a jaw, teeth bloodied. I turned cold, and my legs went crazy. I lurched for the door, and once outside, squatted and put my head between my knees. Fortunately, I never lost consciousness.
“Take deep breaths,” Jackie kept saying. Then, “I told you you’d never see anything like it again.”
It was only after I got home that I found out I’d been looking at Mark Pegram’s shattered skull.