The White Mountain Crash

The White Mountain Crash

Part II
( Read Part I )

The White Mountains ranged low and drab to the east, and the Sierra Nevadas rose grand and snow capped to the west. Crisp wind rippling down the valley fumbled over a rusting gas station on the outskirts of Bishop with a sound like strong men shaking out great sheets of canvas.

“You see that little thing at the top?” The kid pumping gas pointed around the back of my VW van. “That little thing sticking up?” The crest line was rugged, but had no distinct features except for a very small projection where he pointed. “I don’t know what it is but somebody put something up there where the plane hit.”

He told me the fire had burned for hours. On dirt bikes he and a buddy had tried to get to the site, but even with all the blazing airplane fuel, the moonless night was so dark they could not see five feet in front of them. And if they kept going the chances were good they would have ended up at the bottom of one of the steep ravines that scar the slopes.

I tried to align the marker on the eastern crest line with the gas station and one of the Sierra Nevada peaks, then headed back the way I had come on Route 395. The first chance I got I turned left onto a dirt road that seemed to run almost directly to the base of the slope below the marker. When the road ran out I parked on the flattest patch of ground I could find and turned off the engine. I was already high enough above the valley floor to have an unobstructed view for miles to the north and south. The gas station was a small box a long way off.

It was about 2:00 in the afternoon. The crash had occurred in complete darkness between 8:24 and 8:28 pm. I reckoned I had maybe three and a half hours to find the point of impact and get my act together before it would be too dark to see my hand in front of my face. I donned my goggles, hoisted my pack on my back, looped the strap of the ice axe over my right wrist, and began climbing a ravine that seemed to run straight up the slope to a vertical rise just below the marker.

It occurred to me that I could easily lose course and waste precious time wandering around. The marker was already almost concealed by the outcropping on which it rested and I knew that very soon I would not be able to see it at all. I decided to remain in the ravine until it ran out, then try to stay aligned with it behind me as I approached the crest.

I could not have invented a more strenuous approach. From bottom to top, the ravine was full of sharp, broken rocks of all sizes that I climbed over and around, drenched in sweat, hands and feet aching.

Around 4:30 the ravine flattened out onto a slope from which rose a sixty-foot-high wall of rocks. I was pretty sure the marker – whatever it was – stood on a plateau straight above me. I was exhausted. Wearier than I had ever been in my life, and a biting wind seemed determined to carry away what little energy remained.

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The White Mountain Crash

The White Mountain Crash

Part I

On March 13th, 1974, a chartered airliner rose into a moonless sky and moments later slammed into a rocky outcropping of the White Mountains near Bishop, California. All thirty-six people aboard were killed instantly, including a young actor named Richard P. Ackerman.

I first met Rick while building sets at a storefront theater on Hollywood Boulevard where he was performing. He was disciplined, hard working, and a genuinely nice guy. He was also a bottomless well of nervous energy that made the strange characters he played sparkle.

His “day job” was selling cosmetics. Sometimes he would arrive for rehearsals straight from meetings with clients. Dash in wearing a business suit, his hair neatly slicked back, perhaps a little uncomfortable that his actor pals would see him looking so dignified. Then, moments later, he would emerge from backstage entirely disheveled, zipper down, one shirt tail protruding bizarrely from the front of his trousers, and his hair a frizzled tangle bristling straight out from the sides of his head.

Rick knew how to be very, very funny by remaining entirely serious in the midst of preposterous circumstances. And since that is the essential human condition, he was often wildly entertaining even when he was not on stage.

My fondest memory of him is the night he gave my wife and me a ride home from a party in Echo Park, an old hillside neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. It was late, no one was on the streets, and a copious amount of marijuana had been smoked during the course of the evening.

Rick drove a VW Bug. My wife was in the front seat, I was in the back. We turned a corner, the street before us disappeared, and we found ourselves poised at the top of a huge slide. Looking down, the perspective was acute. Street lights twinkled progressively smaller and smaller in converging rows closing in on an impossibly distant end of all existence far below.

Rick edged the front wheels over that point where one knows in their belly it is all down hill from here. My wife and I held hands between the bucket seats. We were off.

From where I sat, Rick and my wife were silhouettes, as if I was one row behind them at a movie. And the image on the screen suggested we were about to leap to warp speed. But the soundtrack was from another universe. “Cosmetics is mostly about improving appearances,” Rick intoned. “But it’s about scents too. Smells and stuff. My all time favorite scent is what you get when you open a jar of Oil of the Tortoise. No kidding. It’s a face crème with this really delicate scent that’s, you know, a tad unusual. But it’s also really, really… Well, let me give you a sample. You’ll love it. I know you’ll love it. It’s so, so….mmmmm.” The scary, giddy moment was strangely magical. A feeling like falling past blurred wisps of light in a dark, dark sky, while a sweet and funny guy with frizzled hair erupting from the sides of his head rattled on about Oil of the Tortoise.

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