At the time, I was living in Washington, D.C., working as a paralegal for a high profile law firm which specialized in aircraft crashes. Yes, before I got this job, I had not realized that planes crashed often enough so that a whole law firm could be devoted to only handling such matters. In fact, during the interview process, I asked the attorney-interviewer just that: “How do you guys get enough ‘business’ to stay in business? Do planes crash that regularly?”
In any event, we were plaintiffs’ attorneys in a fatal helicopter crash that had happened a couple of years previously in the Jacksonville, Florida area.
The actual trial was set to begin on March 6, 1991, and we flew down from D.C. on Tuesday, the 5th.
After settling into to our hotel that day, we met in a conference room to go over some last minute details about the case. Later that night, we went to the bar. I did not stay long and left my bosses in the bar. I retired to my room with its panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean. It was 75 degrees, and Florida was living up to its motto as “The Sunshine State.” Indeed, I was pleased, relieved really, to be, at least temporarily, away from and out of the incessant hustle and bustle of Washington’s cutthroat legal pressure cooker where, by the way, when we left the temperature was 32 degrees with light snow.
Even as we landed in Jacksonville, I could sense that well known, slower, Southern, “down home” feel; and as stated, the weather was spectacular.
Early the next morning, Wednesday, we gathered up our oversized “trial bags” brimming with deposition transcripts, witness statements, pleadings, briefs and motions, and all of our many exhibits.
I did not mind acting as chauffeur. After all, I was the “new kid on the block” with the least seniority, and so I drove our team in the rented van to the courthouse.
In February, my attorney-bosses had been down to Jacksonville and selected a jury. So, today, March 6, was opening statements.
Our case was straightforward and boilerplate: Our client was the deceased pilot’s family. We (they) were suing the company which manufactured the helicopter and the small airport from which it had taken off. We claimed that the helicopter itself had not been up to either federal or state safety standards and requirements. We also went after the airport and its lone air traffic controller. We believed he had been negligent in that he directed our guy into the path of an incoming single-engine “Piper Cub”-type plane, causing him to veer away too hard and too fast. He lost control of the helicopter and crashed, killing himself and two passengers. No one in the small plane had been hurt.
We were in court until about 4:30 p.m. I then drove our team back to the hotel. My immediate boss and his partner decided to hit the bar before going to their rooms. I was exhausted and said I’d meet them later either in the bar or the casino after I had some time to decompress.
I proceeded up to my room. As as I crossed the threshold, I saw the little red light on the hotel phone furiously blinking at me. I picked it up. The desk clerk said that I had an urgent message to call home. They’d been calling all day, she said.
“Call home?” I asked. “Did they say why?”
“All I have, Mr. Dyer, is that you are to call home immediately,” she said dryly.
So, I called Washington. My girlfriend answered.
“Hello…Herb?” she said.
“What’s up?” I asked.
She hesitated. I could hear her deep breaths. She was stone cold silent for a few seconds. Then, as though pleading,
“Call home, Herb,” her voice cracking.
Then, of course, it dawned on me. Oh, I realized, the message from the desk clerk meant call home home. Call the family home in Indiana. (I’d been living in D.C. for three years, after living in Chicago since…forever. But now considered Washington my “home”).
So, I called the family home in Michigan City, Indiana, my mother’s house, the home my deceased father (1989) had built back in ‘66-’67, the house I’d grown up in.
The phone rang and rang and rang. No answer.
“Hmmm?” I thought.
So, I called a cousin who lived down the street from my mother, and with whom I’d grown up.
“Nancy?” I asked. “It’s Herb. What’s going on? I got an urgent message to call home.”
Just as the hotel clerk in Jacksonville and my girlfriend in D.C. had done, my cousin in Indiana wouldn’t (or couldn’t bring herself to) tell me. She began to seriously, suspiciously, stutter— something I had never heard her do for as long as I’d known her. “Ca-ca-ca-Call my mother,” she said finally. “She’ll tell you.” Click.
Aunt Perlina was my mother’s sister and Nancy Jean’s mother.
Now I was beginning to worry as well as wonder. Obviously, something very bad had happened, and no one would tell me what it was.
So, I made yet another call…to Aunt Perlina. She picked up on the first ring.
“Hello,” she said. I could tell she’d been crying. I could hear, feel, the anguish in her voice, in just that one, long, lone word. The word pierced something inside me. From clear across the country, I heard the dread in her voice.
“Hello, Perlina, this is Herb,” I said, not quite in a panic yet. “What’s going on? What has happened” I was almost pleading.
She hesitated for a few seconds, and then,
“She’s gone, Little Herbert!” (My father was “Big Herbert”).
“Who’s gone? Where?” I asked, now gearing up to not accept or believe what I somehow knew she was about to tell me.
“Willie Lee,” she said. “Lil’ Sister!”
I felt the tears streaming down her face. “She had an accident this morning, and was killed instantly! She’s dead, Lil’ Herbert! My Sister is dead!”
I know it’s cliché-ist, but the earth really did stand still. I felt something in my head shift from right to left.
“What?!” I shouted into the phone.
Then we both, my Aunt Perlina and I, just bust out in hysterical weeping, long distance, right there on the phone.
I dropped the phone to the floor and sat — fell — onto the bed. I could not think. I could not see. I blinked one thousand times and finally closed my eyes altogether. Then opened them again. The sun-splashed room began to slowly dim and then begin a curious counter-clockwise rotation round my head.
I picked the phone back up. Aunt Perlina was still there… now in a deep, terrible moan. I did not, could not, ask for any details. I just told her that I’d be there in the morning…and we hung up.
I sat on that bed for what seemed like hours, crying, wondering, cursing. Cursing myself for allowing my mother to live alone in that big house after Dad died. Cursing. Cursing myself for not asking Perlina any questions. I started to call her back, but decided, no, I just gotta get outta here and back to Indiana…now.
But I could not stop crying.
Have you ever been in a deep and uncontrolled cry? If so, then you know what I mean. When you just can’t stop. Where your chest, your lungs, your whole body takes over your brain, and it reflexively heaves, sucking up oxygen, inhaling and exhaling, totally unable (or unwilling) to stop? All the while you are weeping a river, sobbing, trying to breathe, to catch your breath and make it stop. To make the pain stop?
At last, I stood up from the bed…and staggered toward the door. I don’t remember getting on the elevator, but I found myself standing in the open, large entrance to the bar where my bosses were drinking, laughing, talking to people they’d apparently just met.
I stood in that portal still crying, screwing my balled up fist into my eye.
My boss finally noticed me.
“Herb!” his voice a mix of concern and surprise. “What’s wrong?” He slid off his bar stool and hurriedly walked over to me. I could barely speak…or see.
“My…mother,” I tried to say. “My mother has been killed,” I finally spit it out between sobs, between cries, between half-moans.
“Oh, my God!” he said. He put his arm around me. He turned back toward the bar and said to his partner,
“Herb’s mother has been killed.”
“What?” said the partner. “Oh, no! What?”
My boss turned back to me.
“Come on, Herb,” he said. He put his arm around both of my shoulders.
“Let’s get you upstairs, and we’ll figure this out.”
They eventually took me to the Jacksonville airport and put me on a plane. They gave me two weeks pay in advance and told me to take as long as necessary. Not worry about my job, but to take care of myself and my family.
I arrived in Chicago late that night, and another aunt and cousin drove me from Chicago to Michigan City.
My mother had been driving down a street she had driven down for fifty years. It was about 10:30 a.m. Chicago time. She was coming from reading the Bible to one of the deacons in our church who recently had had both feet amputated due to “sugar” diabetes.
March 6 was also my Aunt Perlina’s birthday.
At a quiet intersection, my mother, apparently, hit the accelerator rather than the brake and ran into the side of a building, a dentist’s office. She was killed instantly. She did not believe in wearing seat belts. “What if the car catches on fire?” she used to say. “And I can’t get out?”
After leaving the deacon’s house, she was on her way to her sister’s, my Aunt Perlina’s, house to celebrate her birthday.
We buried her next to her husband and my father, Herbert Dyer, Sr., on March 9, 1991.
And I have been shaking my fist at God ever since that awful day.