Joan Jett Wisdom

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The crazy kids back when life made sense.

Who was the first one to sing, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone?” I remember the Joan Jett version, You don’t know what you got till it’s gaw-aw-aw-aw-onnnn. Joan wasn’t just whistling Dixie, my friends. You lose things, and it hurts. You lose living things, and in an instant the world stops spinning and everything goes flying in all directions, and usually only then do you realize what you had and don’t have anymore; how blessed you were when the parts of your life all fit together so nicely day by day, routine by routine. Then suddenly, there’s a big hole in your existence. Things go all out of whack and you’re stumbling about all fuzzy-headed because your days are numb and your nights are sleepless.

Do you ever wonder how Clark Gable survived January 16, 1942? He was ripped from the ranch to fly up to Vegas in dead of night, then driven this way and that, sequestered at the El Rancho, forced his way to the mountain, tried to climb it, got stopped partway up by news that his wife was dead, was taken back to the El Rancho, sweated out victim retrieval, was given a piece of her jewelry that had been pried from her body, and had to pick out caskets. If ever a man appeared to be shell-shocked, it was the Gable seen in those photos at the El Rancho, hiding behind sunglasses as he walked across the parking lot and climbed inside a car.

Today we know “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. I suspect I am tasting a bit of that over a recent trauma, where memories stab into your brain with no warning, memories that are too horrible to process, and startle and hurt as much the fifteenth time as they did the first. Or they wound even more because you’re still trying to come to grips. Soldiers and law-enforcement professionals suffer such trauma and it can endure years, decades, lifetimes. Those first responders to the crash of Flight 3 tasted it, like the one rescuer who told of stuffing body parts in mail bags said, “I still see it in my dreams sometimes.” He said it 50 years later.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Gable at the El Rancho.

Gable showed all the signs of PTSD, not just that weekend but for the rest of his life. I wonder which moments produced the flashbacks. You have to know he never went back to the El Rancho. I haven’t investigated to learn if he ever stepped on another Western Air DC-3 like the one chartered to rush him to Vegas. I bet he lived that moment on the mountain, “I’m sorry, Mr. Gable,” over and over. And that moment when he was asked if he wanted to spend time with Lombard’s body, which was in the next room. And that first bad memory, when MGM VP Eddie Mannix and PR man Ralph Wheelright barged in the front door of the Encino ranch to interrupt prep for a dinner party, two bundles of nerves to announce that the plane was down. It was the instant his royal, carefully crafted, highly insulated, pampered and preened, forever-adolescent movie-star life stopped making sense. Clark Gable liked being an actor because he could portray successful, secure, confident people quite unlike himself, but on that Friday evening his bill of 10 years was due, and the world got to see the other Clark Gable, the real-life one.

And then, oh, the grief. Inhuman, what he endured, what any husband or wife endures when the spouse exits suddenly. And this spouse, with her shtick, her sayings, her constant carrying on, talking a mile a minute, high-high energy every instant she wasn’t asleep. She would buy outlandish hats just because he disliked outlandish hats. She dared kid the king, and how he loved her for the audacity. The hunting trips wherever, the premieres where they dressed to the nines, the ranch with its orchards and horses and tractor and constant carrying on. Santa Anita, aaaaaaaand they’re Off! The shouting matches and jealous brawls and how they hated each other and loved each other. Driving at 80 with the top down and laughing their heads off. All that………….removed. In its place, silence. In its place, stillness.

It was no longer his life. He could make no sense of life.

The most telling and recurring theme: His friends didn’t want to be around him anymore. He was that different. His hands shook; his hands always shook after that weekend. He had been laid bare for the world and what good was a hero so vulnerable under the shining armor? He never got to enjoy a giant, classic movie hit again. Some of his pictures made a lot of money, but he became the King of Hollywood in name only.

You don’t know what you got till it’s gaw-aw-aw-aw-onnnn. Whoever or whatever you hold dear, go give it a big hug. Look at it and appreciate and imagine what your life would be like without it. I’m feeling a personal loss right now because I dared take for granted and maybe you can profit from my misfortune. Give him or her or it a kiss. Look him or her or it square in the eye and say, “I love you” like maybe it’s the last time, because you never know when it will be.

One comment

  1. Things can happen very suddenly in life, and in the blink of an eye your life can change forever. With it, that general feeling of comfortable complacency that you had about someone that was very dear to you, can suddenly be ripped away.

    And, yes, it is definitely analogous to a feeling of shell shock. That feeling of being in some kind of terrible nightmare from which you are just wanting to awaken, wanting to see that person again. And give them a big hug for all the times you neglected to do so. It’s some kind of initial defensiveness that our brains play upon us, I suspect, immediately after the sudden death of loved one, a kind of coping mechanism, that early wish fulfilment, that feeling of “this can’t really be happening.” But another part of your brain tells you that it really is happening. And that is the part, the rational part, that finally kicks in, much to your regret, as you have to deal with reality.

    As you then start to deal with the roller coaster process of mourning. And I’m sorry you’re going through it now, Robert.

    My father died very suddenly. My mother told me later, and I don’t know how long the feeling lasted, that it felt like someone had cut off her right arm. For a long time I wondered if she would ever really laugh again.

    And then one night she did. It was while watching Johnny Carson, of all people, on the Tonight Show. And this was a deep, hard laughter that came from her diaphram, laughing so hard at something Carson had said that she had tears coming from her eyes. Only this time my mother’s tears were from laughter.

    I never stopped being grateful to Johnny Carson, for providing my mother with an outlet by which she could really, truly laugh again. (Previously, on those rare occasions in which she had smiled or laughed a bit, it had often been compromised by a feeling of guilt for having done so – guilt at laughing after my father had died, almost as if she was being disrepectful to him by doing so).

    But not on this occasion with Carson.

    Everyone mourns in their own way. Some need company, while others may shun it.

    And, unfortunately, we all go through it at some time or other. Gable, as you pointed out, Robert, changed as he he went through it. I have no doubt that he looked back upon his Lombard years as the happiest of his life. At times they must have almost seemed like a kind of distant dream to him. Was I really that happy, genuinely happy, back then, he might have asked himself a few thousand times.

    In Gable’s case he stoically learned to live with the pain of her loss. (As well as whatever feelings of guilt and regret that he had over what he considered to be his contributions to the circumstances that lead to her death). Being stoic and emotionally isolated was Gable’s modus operandi, supplemented, I suspect, by an increasingly heavy concentration on smoking and booze.

    Speaking for myself, it’s my experience that the pain of a loss of this kind will gradually become somewhat dulled with time. How much time I cannot say. We learn to cope, as did Gable. But it’s also an ache of the heart that never really leaves us.

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