I should have died. At 2:45 p.m. on May 25, 1979, Flight 191 lifted off the runway at O’Hare International Airport. Within minutes the jumbo DC-10, headed from Chicago to Los Angeles and crammed to capacity with 273 passengers and personnel, plunged to earth in a horrifying fireball.
I should have been on board.
The memory of the moment when I first heard the report on the radio jolts me with the same intensity today as it did then. I glance at the faded airline ticket still pinned to my office wall, and the questions start tumbling anew, along with the jumbled emotions and the inward glance over my shoulder.
Why did I miss the flight? Why was my connecting flight from New York to Chicago canceled? What prompted me to forgo my scheduled appointments in Chicago and fly home from New York instead? Was it simply chance? Coincidence? Luck? God?
I knew the factual reasons. I was wrapping up a long business trip which had taken me from my home near Los Angeles to Nashville, Washington, D.C. and New York. From New York’s La Guardia airport I was scheduled to fly to Chicago for three more appointments the next day, after which I would fly home to Los Angeles.
It was 5 p.m., and my flight to Chicago was supposed to leave at 6. But a lot of rain and heavy low clouds forced the cancellation of all outgoing flights that evening. Stranded passengers filled the terminal with frustration and anxiety.
I tried to decide what to do. No other flights to Chicago were scheduled until the following afternoon. Should I bother to try to get to Chicago when I’m supposed to leave tomorrow?” I wondered. “No,” I decided. “I’m supposed to go home.”
A clamoring crowd was badgering the lone ticket agent. The woman standing next to me was being particularly abusive, and finallly I said to no one in particular, “Well, I think he’s doing the best he can, under the circumstances.”
The clerk turned to me and asked, “Can I help you?”
“Could you possibly reroute me to Los Angeles?” I asked. He said yes and immediately turned to do it. I spent the night with cousins from the Bronx area and the next morning hopped on a 747 to L.A. Back at home, my wife had gone out and I was alone when the radio announced that the Chicago to L.A. flight had crashed.
The news floored me. I thanked the Almighty for life, but I couldn’t help wondering…”What right did I have to cheat death when 273 fellow human beings didn’t? Is the boundary between life and death so quirky, so random, so casual?”
I had never been in even the remotest danger during 23 years as an Air Force officer. More recently I had been on the South China Sea as media relations supervisor for a humanitarian agency, looking for Vietnam boat refugees. I had traveled all over Southeast Asia doing research about the agency’s relief efforts, visiting camps for boat people and refugees from Laos. During all that time I had no close calls with death.
I remember going from room to room in my house when I heard the report of the crash, almost as if I were searching for something, yet not knowing what to look for. I remember my heart pounding, excitement mounting, the strangest emotional high that I had ever experienced. I remember rushing to my attache case to get the unused airline ticket and holding it in a trembling hand as I read the terse symbols over and over again—”AA 191/May 25/2:45 p.m.”
What really bothered me was my inability to explain why my life on this earth had been prolonged. Could I simply shrug and accept the things people said when they tried to be helpful?
“It just wasn’t your time.”
“Don’t waste time thinking about it. You were just lucky.”
“Hey, you weren’t the only one. Hundreds of people miss their flights every day.”
To tell the truth, I wish I could believe that it was a freak stroke of luck. It would be a lot easier to deal with. The queasiness might stop. The doubts and nagging questions might be stilled.
It wasn’t that I was afraid of death. Since I had come to know and believe in Messiah I firmly believed that I would have been with him if I had gone down with the plane. But I didn’t always have that assurance.
I first tasted death’s effects as an 8-year-old. My older sister and I were first generation Americans, the children of Jewish Hungarian refugees. We grew up in the Depression, and when I was seven, my mother became very ill with tuberculosis. My sister and I went to live in an Orthodox Jewish children’s home in Brooklyn when our mother went to the hospital. She died a couple of years later. I remember sitting next to my cousin as our limousine left the funeral parlor.…
She said, “You know…God takes the best ones first.” And I thought, “Well if they’re good, why does God take them first?” Her answer was far too inadequate to offer me any comfort or hope.
My education portrayed religion as one armed camp against another. We Jews were good and the other guys were bad. I was bar mitzvah at the children’s home along with the other boys, without really knowing the reasons for it. I knew how to mouth the Hebrew words, how to properly affix the prayer shawl to my shoulders, how to chant the blessings, but I never learned why.
I moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to join my father, who had remarried. I went on to college, and the thought of God didn’t much occur to me. If there was one, he was very remote. And as for his promises to me, one of his chosen people, I never knew—let alone read—what those promises were.
It was a severe auto accident after I had graduated from college and joined the Air Force that triggered my first conscious thought of God in years. I remember my father telling me, as I lay in the hospital, that my mother’s prayers and intervention with the Lord had pulled me through. The concept was comforting, but it didn’t generate any further inquiry on my part.
More time passed. I married and had a son who was born with a profound hearing loss. My wife and I were both convinced that we could go it alone, and pursued every means at our disposal to deal with our son’s deafness. And, while we prayed in a simple way for strength and acceptance, we didn’t know that our son had a loving and gracious Heavenly Father whose mercy would be ours for the asking. We didn’t believe that he had a son of his own who, through degrading torture and death, freed us from worry, sin, disease and death.
But the time came when I could no longer go my way without questioning the purpose of life or death. I was serving in Korea away from my family when I met a missionary to deaf children who radiated the love of the Lord in a way I had never known before. I remember marveling at her eternally optimistic outlook, even in the midst of the most depressing circumstances imaginable. She and the children lived with little if any running water, no electricity, no plumbing, drafty rooms with Army cots and blankets spaced inches apart, a diet of cabbage and rice. Yet Maxine was thrilled for every brick, every sheet, every sock that came her way.
Through this example and contact with other believers in Jesus, I became aware that there really was a living and loving God. Yet I stubbornly refused to give God a foothold in my heart. It was easier to believe that he was distant.
But I could no longer ignore the reality of the Lord. When I returned home and was reunited with my wife and children, I began to seriously investigate the claims of Yeshua. I read from the Scripture—both books. In my youth there was only one Bible, the Old Testament. Any of my friends caught peeking at the back third of that black book would have been quickly punished by his peers.
Now, however, I discovered slowly and clearly that one book complemented the other, that what our prophets and wise men said during Moses’ time was fulfilled, letter by letter, in the B’rit Hadasha. The doubts I had so long harbored about buying one’s way to heaven with good deeds and money were answered in a very concrete way; I came to understand the open and complete forgiveness offered by Yeshua.
My redemption did not come in a flash or in a major emotional zapping. But rather, taking me as I was, dealing with my birthright of stubbornness, the Lord called me into his kingdom.
So why was my life spared a few years later? In an article for my company’s magazine, I wrote about the miracle of my having been spared. “Why me, God?” drew numerous responses. One from a publisher of Christian books is etched vividly in my memory. A long-time employee of his company had been aboard Flight 191. She had been on her way to the Christian Booksellers Association convention in Los Angeles, as had dozens of other passengers. This man’s words were comforting, yet strangely disturbing.
He didn’t question his colleague’s untimely death, nor did he try to tell me how I was supposed to live the rest of my life. He simply informed me of his conviction that God had further work for me, while hers had been accomplished.
It was a strangely persuasive response, and it lives with me to this day.
Was I spared for a purpose? Am I fulfilling it? God gave me the gift of life once at birth, a second time in Yeshua, and a third time on that day more than five years ago. It’s his to use, not mine to keep. I can do nothing else but offer it back to the Almighty with each new day he gives me.