Clark Gable grief

Last Flight

The anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 3 is coming up again this Friday, January 16. Last January 16, the day of the launch of the Fireball hardcover, I stood at the base of Mt. Potosi and stared up at the crash site thinking about all that went on 72 years earlier. The crash, the fireball, and the emergency response from Las Vegas. I possess a decent imagination and stood there in the quiet desert morning reliving all the events, retracing the steps of Deputy Jack Moore, Major Herbert Anderson, Lyle Van Gordon, and dozens of others as they tried to save the people on the mountain. I thought about Clark Gable’s stay in Las Vegas and his endless glances toward this angry giant of a mountain that had swatted Ma out of the sky.

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

Mt. Potosi on the 72nd anniversary of the crash. Wreckage of Flight 3 remains below the cliffs in the saddle of the mountain ridge about dead center in the photo.

After paying homage at Potosi, we drove down from Vegas to Santa Monica for the launch event at the Museum of Flying, a fraction of a mile from the factory where Douglas DC-3 number NC 1946 was manufactured in February 1941, less than a year before it would crash on Potosi. At 7:07 P.M. last January 16, I stood in the quiet and the dark outside the museum under a DC-3 that’s mounted on stanchions there—a display item to commemorate the Douglas Corporation and its remarkable aircraft. The DC-3 is a sleek, beautiful aircraft that revolutionized commercial air transportation. It’s military version, the C-47, helped to win World War II.

I continued to stand under the plane until 7:22, the moment of impact. What an eerie feeling, looking up at the belly of a DC-3 and thinking about the physics of such a beast, fully loaded with passengers and cargo, striking rock cliffs at about 185 miles per hour. Shivers ran up my spine as I stood in the January cold and darkness as 22 lives were extinguished. Boom. Gone.

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

Under the belly of the beast in Santa Monica.

When you read accounts of the crash in 1942 newspapers, the DC-3 Sky Club is referred to as a “giant airliner,” which today is funny because the DC-3 is dwarfed by passenger jets we’ve all flown in. Still, standing underneath the vintage twin-engine plane is an eye opener. It is a giant all on its own, with a broad fuselage, lots of storage capacity, and engines powerful enough to provide dramatic lift even with the plane crammed to the hilt, as it was that fatal January night.

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

The Douglas aircraft plan in Santa Monica in 1952 next to Clover Field–later Santa Monica Airport. The plane that would be Flight 3, NC 1946, made its maiden flight from this field early in 1941.

This year, January 16 falls on a Friday just as it did in 1942, making it easier to relate not only to the events of Carole Lombard’s last day, but to pick up the story on Wednesday morning January 14 as she arrives in Chicago along with her mother Elizabeth, dubbed “Petey” by Carole, and press man Otto Winkler. This coming Thursday January 15 we can recall the speech and flag raising at the Indiana Capitol building in Indianapolis, which took place at 3:00 P.M. Eastern time, the bond sale at 3:30, and the Cadle Tabernacle appearance at 9:00. Night owls among us can think about Carole, Petey, and Otto sitting exhausted in taxis as they and their considerable luggage are driven to the Indianapolis Municipal Airport after 1:00 A.M. We can think of them climbing the aluminum TWA staircase and stepping onto Flight 3 in the darkness at somewhere around 4:30 A.M. Eastern.

Anniversaries are always a time to stop and reflect, and this one will be especially meaningful to all who have been drawn to the last flight of TWA’s DC-3 with wing number NC 1946 and its precious human cargo.

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

This DC-3, renamed “The Spirit of Santa Monica,” was built in the Douglas Corp. at the end of 1941, prior to the crash of TWA Flight 3, delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps in February 1942, and transferred to the U.S. Navy that same month. At the end of World War II, it was purchased by Nationwide Airlines and flew as a commercial liner until 1953. Like the plane on which Carole Lombard and her companions died, the wing span is 95 feet and the length from nose to tail is 64 feet.

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.