To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream — ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…
— Hamlet (via Shakespeare)
Once upon a couch, I fell asleep watching the pregame show before the final game of the 2000 World Series (the Mets-Yankees Fall Classic). Soon I descended into dreamland and encountered some quirky characters — and learned of the soon-to-be events of 9/11. Now, we hope to help Flight 93 above western Pennsylvania…
… Iron Man soars beside us, coming from the other side of the zooming plane. He nods to our right, toward the cabin: “It’s clearly a hijack situation, Max. Your intel was correct. I could see four hijackers in the cockpit, and they’re in control of the flight. I believe the pilots are dead — there were bodies on the cockpit floor.”
Ashen-faced, Miracle Max says, “It’s as we feared. What can we do to help?”
Iron Man looks at Max and says, “I could—”
“I know, I know,” Max interrupts, presumably referring to a previous discussion I wasn’t privy to. “But Iron Man, if you break into the cockpit and puncture the exterior of that plane at this altitude and speed, you’ll risk the lives of everyone on board. Yes, there’s that movie I saw about a bomb that tore a hole in a big jet plane, and the plane was able to travel for miles and land safely — but those were different circumstances. It’s like I said before: If you break into the cockpit and kill the hijackers, you’d surely doom the passengers and crew too.”
“Hold on,” Iron Man says.
“We’re already holding on,” Max replies, exasperated. “Not everyone can fly as fast as you, pal.” Max and I are tightly grasping the airliner’s left wing or else we’d be left behind. His flowing white hair is shining in the sun like a crown.
“No, I mean wait a minute — I’m picking up phone transmissions from the plane,” Iron Man says, his computer in high gear. “It’s a passenger speaking with his wife on the ground. She’s telling him about the terrorists who crashed the other jets into the Twin Towers — listen to this.”
We hear a man’s voice emanating from the speakers in Iron Man’s high-tech metallic suit:
“We’re going to rush the hijackers,” the voice says. “We’re going to attack. I’m going to put the phone down. I love you. I’ll be right back.”
A different man’s voice comes from a different phone conversation as he talks with his wife many miles away: “I know we’re all going to die. There’s three of us who are going to do something about it. I love you, honey.”
A moment ago, the sun was radiant, brighter than a million lit-up Christmas trees. But now it has ducked behind some clouds, and glancing far below I see shadows from high billows that darken the patchwork farms-and-fields quilt like stains on a comforter.
Then we hear another man’s voice on another phone line — can’t tell who he’s speaking with, but soon he pauses and apparently turns to some fellow passengers: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.”
Next we hear a woman’s voice on yet another phone call. She’s talking with a man who must be a loved one somewhere on terra firma. She says she’s filling pitchers with boiling water — it sounds as if she’s a flight attendant. She concludes abruptly: “Everyone’s running to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.”
“I’ve got to go too,” Iron Man says. “Got to take some action. Wait — I’m picking up some transmissions from inside the cockpit. It’s the hijackers. They’re speaking Arabic, so I won’t put on speaker but will translate for you.”
So Iron Man translates what the terrorists are saying to each other: “They’re trying to get in here. Hold, hold from the inside. Hold.”
“Some men are there.”
“Trust in Allah.”
“Is that it? Shall we finish it off?”
“No. Not yet.”
“When they all come, we finish it off.”
As Iron Man translates, the airliner rolls violently from side to side, and then up and down. Max and I barely maintain our grasp of the left wing as we ride this insane, fiendish roller coaster.
Iron Man continues translating: “Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest.”
“Is that it? I mean, shall we pull it down?”
“Yes, put it in it, and pull it down.”
Iron Man shouts, “I can’t stay here with you — time for Plan B, Max. Farewell, my friend, and I’ll see you on the flip side.”
Max and I let go of the wing as Iron Man rushes to the front of the plane. Suddenly, Flight 93 nosedives toward earth at an unimaginable speed, and Iron Man holds on to the jet’s nose, trying to prevent the descent.
“He ain’t the captain, kid,” Miracle Max says softly, “but he’ll go down with this ship if he can’t save it.”
Max reflexively reaches into his pocket, perhaps searching for a magic pill or elixir to save the day. His hand comes out empty — and United Flight 93 plummets, and plummets, and plummets … and crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside. Blood stains the comforter.
We had begun our aerial journey like three kings, beckoned from afar, apprehensive yet hopeful that we would somehow assist the safe advent of this fragile flight. Now we are like deposed monarchs — powerless, empty, brokenhearted.
In front of me, in midair, flashes a blue sign (with a gold border) that I’d never seen before. These words stand out to me:
Welcome to SHANKSVILLE
‘A Friendly Little Town’
Shanksville Honors the Heroes of Flight 93
(I’m not sure whether I’m seeing the actual sign — perhaps an image of the sign is being broadcast to my eyes.)
Later, I learn that a field in the town of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, became a makeshift graveyard for the people of Flight 93. A shank to the heart and soul, indeed. But the heroic actions of the passengers prevented the plane from being used as a missile in the manner of the planes that hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Their bravery saved many lives that day.
The blue Shanksville sign fades away into another blue sign — namely, the bold blue sky that Miracle Max and Iron Man and I have been soaring through. Now, though, Iron Man has perished trying to rescue Flight 93. And Max and I are slowly losing altitude.
Then a rush of rage — at the terrorists — surges through my heart and mind. In my next breath, the rage is followed by familiar questions and sentiments upon such a tragedy: How could God allow another horrific event like this? Why didn’t He do something to help these people? And actually, is God even there?
Typhoon waves of despair engulf my soul. An abject sense of meaninglessness mangles my vision. Doubt wraps around me like a python and begins to squeeze.
Miracle Max and I are descending, yet for some reason the descent is slow — but Miracle Max? An acid steam of bitterness rises in me … what a joke of a name! Max had no miracles for these people. He should be stripped of that moniker. But I don’t voice this. For one, Iron Man was also unable to stem the terrorist tide. And after all, it was Max who enabled me to glide through the air (along with himself) and get to Flight 93, to give us at least a chance to help.
“Max,” I say, “do you believe in God?”
“Yes, I do,” he replies, though now I notice a nuanced change in Miracle Max — he still looks and sounds like Max, but it seems that perhaps someone else is talking to me. “It’s tough not to when you look at the design of everything from the stars to the human body. You really think the universe happened by random chance?”
“But even after senseless tragedies like this?” I counter — I, who have grown up in the church and believed in God since childhood. “How do you explain that and make it fit the paradigm of a loving God?” I quickly add: “I mean, I have some thoughts, but I’m wondering what you think.”
“Paradigm — look who’s using the fancy words,” Max says. “Well, kid, presuming God does exist, He gives people choice, right? And the key to choice is love — God wants people to love Him. For that to really happen, they gotta have the power to choose. You know, that free will thing. Love from a puppet or a robot — obviously, that’s not true love. By the way, my friend Westley — my buddy from ‘The Princess Bride’ — he knows something about true love: ‘As you wish.’ I think that’s exactly what God says to people. And God wants people to say to Him: ‘As you wish.’ That’s true love. But it means people are able to choose harmful wishes and actions.”
I protest, “But why does free will automatically mean some choices will be harmful? Why can’t everybody just make good choices with their choice?”
“I don’t know for 100 percent sure, kid,” Max admits. “But I think it’s ’cause human beings can choose what they wanna choose. Being able to choose only good wouldn’t really be a choice, now would it?”
I start to say something, but Max looks up and continues: “Plus, there’s this: God gets harmed too. He hurts too. Yes, we human beings know a thing or two about suffering, but God? We can’t pretend to know what His suffering is like. Whether you’re talking Jewish theism or Christian theism, God grieves, hurts, suffers like no other. And why? It comes back to true love. God wants our love, kid. Look, here’s a scene from the best movie of all time — yeah, of course, ‘The Princess Bride’ — and it sums up what I’m trying to say about how God hurts as it pertains to the humans he loves.”
A large, dark screen appears in the sky — looks like a movie screen — and from it emanates a piercing, anguished cry. Now we see Inigo Montoya and Fezzik, and Inigo says, “Do you hear that, Fezzik? That is the sound of ultimate suffering. My heart made that sound when Rugen slaughtered my father. The Man in Black makes it now.”
Fezzik says quizzically, “The Man in Black?”
Inigo replies, “His true love is marrying another tonight, so who else has the cause for ultimate suffering?” Then the screen vanishes.
“True love,” Max says. “It’s the best, and it’s the worst.”
The golden-and-green fields and farms below get closer as we drift downward.
“The other thing I wonder about,” I observe, “is that they say God is omnipresent, everywhere at the same time. But maybe we misunderstand what that means. Maybe it means He’s everywhere by His Spirit, but He also has a — a locational presence. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, God sometimes speaks to people in a certain place, and then He leaves that place. So maybe God is everywhere by His Spirit, but His distinct presence isn’t everywhere simultaneously—”
“I hear you, kid,” Max interjects.
“—and maybe that’s why He doesn’t intervene more often. Because He isn’t everywhere locationally. Of course, that’s a lot of maybes.”
“I got one more for you: Maybe all these maybes are all we got, when you boil it down,” Max says wistfully. “But some maybes are better than others: Give me the maybes that are true, kid.”
Suddenly, a specter floats toward us, appearing out of the sky. It resembles Max, actually — ancient face, wild white hair, frail frame.
“It’s my alter ego,” Max says matter-of-factly. Turning toward the phantom, Max shouts like a New York cabbie, “Hey, whaddaya doin’ here?”
The specter of Miracle Max points into the sky and an image appears. A family opening presents around a Christmas tree. A Mom, a Dad and three children. Laughs, smiles, an occasional hug.
Smoke obscures and dissipates, and we see another image: the same family around a Christmas tree. The Mom and the three children — but the Dad is missing. Faint smiles followed by quivering, heartbroken faces.
Max — the real one, not the specter of Christmas future — says quietly, “If those heroes on Flight 93 hadn’t taken action, this family would have lost a husband and Dad. Maybe, my friend, that’s the best answer to these questions.”
I object reflexively, “But why did it have to happen at all? Why couldn’t everyone survive?”
“Can’t really answer that — I just don’t know.”
“And anyway,” I resume, “maybe this family would still be together regardless. How do you know this guy is still alive because the passengers on Flight 93 fought back against those terrorists?”
Miracle Max replies, “Trust me, kid — I got a good source.”
To be continued …
© Bruce William Deckert 2015