White or maybe black

I was checking email at work when I noticed the smoke, which was white or maybe black. Sitting on the seventh floor with windows and views for miles, I often see smoke in the distance. It never makes much of an impression, and I rarely learn about what’s burning. Fires, I guess, don’t make for news.

But yesterday’s did.

Yesterday morning, a lunatic named Joseph Stack flew his Piper Cherokee single-engine airplane into an office building a couple of miles from where I work. Had I been paying attention, I would have seen the plane flying while I was wading through email and eating a mid-morning banana.

The news spread quickly at work. Only minutes after the suicide attack, a small crowd of people gathered next to the windows to look out at that smoke. I wandered over, stood next to them, and stared, too.

I’d like to say I was broken up by the sight. I knew the smoke meant pain and injury and death. But the truth is, I didn’t feel much. To me, the attack was just an odd story that provided a break during a typical day.

For me it was television.

After a few minutes, I returned to my desk and got back to email. The smoke was still visible then, but I’d lost interest. Besides, I had stuff to get done. There was that overdue specifications review to finish and a mock up to draft and a work out to try to fit in.

That afternoon, I poked around on the web. I learned more about Joseph Stack, that before the lunatic climbed into his plane, he’d ranted about the IRS on a blog and ignited his house. And then I clicked away to read the weather forecast and check my stocks.

I guess I just didn’t care all that much.

And my guess is my co-workers, who stood at those windows with me, didn’t care much either. While we looked at that smoke, we tried to figure out exactly where the plane had crashed. It was close to the Arboretum, we could tell, maybe a little south.

We wondered aloud about the size of the plane, and if it had been an accident. But we didn’t talk about the people. And nobody mentioned the awfulness of the smoke, the death it signaled, the terror it pinpointed, the people with their skin on fire just two miles down the road.

Then we shuffled back to our desks and held our meetings and ate our lunches and drove home and got on with our lives.

That night, I told my dad about the emotionless response at the job, and he said it reminded him of a Robert Frost poem called “Out Out” about a boy who loses his hand to a buzz saw and dies while his doctor and sister look on. “Out Out” ends with this: “And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

And that’s exactly what we did yesterday morning. The buzz saw snarls and the plane explodes and the kid gets plugged and we turn to our affairs. We keep going.

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3 Responses to “White or maybe black”


  1. 1 D S Gardner February 20, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Unfortunately, the 24-hour news cycle most of us have grown up with has desensitized us to the consequences of these tragedies. We’re so inundated with information that these scenes of destruction simply turn into particularly convincing special effects. It’s the rubbernecking syndrome writ large.

  2. 2 Andrew February 21, 2010 at 9:23 am

    I have to admit I was more interested in Billy Eli, the Rockabilly band in which “Joey” slapped the bass for a couple of years. They interviewed Billy Eli on CNN and he looked as if God had kissed him on the lips. Imagine the dumb luck that’s fallen into his lap.

  3. 3 Amanda February 24, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    I love that Frost poem. It makes my breath catch in my throat a little every time I read it.


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