I just returned from three days at Cinevent, the annual celebration of Golden Age Hollywood in Columbus, Ohio. I got plenty of opportunity to talk about Fireball there, and about my next book, with the likes of author and archivist James V. D’Arc, author and blogger John McElwee, Errol Flynn Slept Here co-author Michael Mazzone, and legendary Warner Bros. archivist Leith Adams, among many others.
While there, John dropped an 8.5×11 sheet of paper in my lap. It was a flyer pertaining to a topic I hold dear, the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3. In a nutshell, a self-dubbed “adventuresome couple” intends to climb to the site and pay for the trip by retrieving crash items and selling them to those who pay $25 in advance for one item; $40 for two.
I’m staring at the flyer now and will scan it for inclusion with this column. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I know I believe in free speech, free choice, free will, and free enterprise. Many aspire to these “free” concepts and today of all days, Memorial Day, they take on special meaning.
I guess I say, more power to you, Adventuresomes! By way of full disclosure, I purchased a piece of crash wreckage somewhere around 1998, back when eBay was new and I was obsessed with the site and anything related to it. In the back of my mind I asked myself, Is this creepy? I asked, but participated in the auction anyway, bidding against others for this item. A week later I held the piece in hand, a rib from the empennage, and yes, I was uneasy having in my possession part of NC 1946, the Douglas DC-3 born in February 1941 in Santa Monica, California, that would live less than a year and end up strewn in a million pieces over the side of Mt. Potosi, Nevada.
A decade later I would finally climb Potosi to visit the site as research for Fireball. Only then did it hit me where I was and what the wreckage represented. Only then, struggling to stand on sheer mountainside at the spot where 22 humans were blown to bits along with that infant of an airplane, did I comprehend the reality that I stood at something akin to a gravesite. I understood because human souls reached out and touched me. The pilot made contact. The co-pilot. The stewardess. Fifteen Army Air Corps guys. I felt them there. My communication with these souls infused life into my writing. Suddenly, the manuscript had a soul of its own.
That’s one of two enduring memories of my day at Potosi: having those people reach out and touch me in a most physical way. The other is the sheer danger, the sheer exhaustion, of the climb up and back. There are two ways into the crash site: One is the way I went, four-wheeling to the embarkation point, then snaking up the mountain, which I felt I had to experience since I would be describing what the first responders faced trying to reach the site. The other way in involves riding the ridges by four-wheeler to a government gate, then hiking a long way and descending from the crest into the crash site—the route used to bring up bodies from the wreck. In the bullet points atop this flyer, the author describes “2.5 miles of hiking up into steep and rocky terrain.” He leaves out words, most appropriate descriptions, like perilous and life threatening. I trust the Adventuresomes are hardbodies who employ a good guide. Thanks to months of training and planning I had both, and it helped and didn’t help. I never would have found the site on my own because it’s a tiny pinpoint on a vast mountain. I had the luxury of following the guide as he used decades of experience in wilderness to lead me up contours of mountainside that could be climbed. But he couldn’t lend me any sure-footedness that day and despite being reasonably coordinated and physically prepared, I tumbled over time and again, smashing on the rocks and bloodying myself as I’ve described to you in the past.
Adventuresomes, and anyone else who takes on Potosi (I met another future climber in Columbus and urged him also), please don’t underestimate this mountain. It’s a killer. I’ve known several people who tried the “easy” way into the site and many didn’t make it for various reasons. Season is a consideration; weather; snakes; equipment; terrain. A normal wilderness hike is great fun, but if you’re struggling for your very life to climb 5,000 vertical feet on 45-degree angles or worse, with footing that gives way unexpectedly, the experience is something else. Even leaving at dawn, we had to hurry to make it back down the mountain before night swallowed us whole, so difficult was the round trip, with less than 90 minutes spent at the site. You can’t move at night on the mountain, believe me. I wouldn’t even underestimate the first and last parts of the journey by four-wheel drive, because the desert path we took, colorfully named Ninety-Nine Mine Road (it passes the old mine entrance), is not for your average driver. I wasn’t behind the wheel the day I went to Potosi—I couldn’t have made it on my own because this is serious off-roading and I don’t have the experience.
If you are trying to lug anything extra back down the mountain, say, crash debris, if you put it on your back it’s going to a) weigh you down, b) add extra bulk, and c) change your center of gravity as you try to navigate the steep terrain.
It just occurs to me now that maybe Fireball inspired the Adventuresomes to attempt the climb. I’m not going to make any value judgments about the wisdom of selling crash wreckage to offset costs for the trip. I’m disqualified from making them anyway because I am a past purchaser. On all counts I simply advise, be cautious, dear couple. I want you in one piece to buy my next book, and if that book with James Stewart as main subject inspires you to visit places like Tibenham, East Anglia, where the 445th Bomb Group was based, or Hamburg or Frankfurt, which the 445th bombed, be advised: these places will welcome you with no dangerous climbing required.