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Later in the limousine, my mother was crying inconsolably. Two Chinese women poked their heads in the passenger side and one of them yelled in guttural Cantonese, “Stop crying! He’s dead, you have to move on, you have children and a family, you have to stop crying so much.” My mother just cried harder.
And then it was over. After the funeral, all of our grief and sorrow got buried, too. We never spoke of their deaths or the plane crash. It was as if the mere mention of it would bring back the flood of trauma and emotion.
Sixteen months later, in July 1965, the Civil Aeronautics Board released their findings. The crash was caused by pilot error, faulty equipment and inaccurate weather information. The altimeter was sticky and indicated the plane was 280 feet higher than it actually was. A Paradise Airlines dispatcher in Oakland had falsified the weather report in the Lake Tahoe area by reporting a thin cover of clouds and failing to disclose the blizzard conditions. The pilot erred in his judgment when he veered off course to land, thinking he could reach clear sky to the east. If he had been 300 feet higher, he would have cleared the side of the mountain. I remember seeing an article in Time magazine with a picture of the tail piece of the plane sticking out from the snow, but the vocabulary of the article was too sophisticated for my eight year old mind to comprehend. There was barely an acknowledgement of the findings in our household.
By that July, we had moved from our house in Castroville to a bigger one in Salinas that was built right behind Monte Mart because my mother didn’t drive. My aunt and grandmother never returned to Canada. Their home and restaurant in Halifax were sold and their possessions shipped to California. The living room in Salinas became a shrine to my father and grandfather and their twenty by twenty-six inch black-and-white portraits hung on each side of the fireplace. We burned incense and bowed three times to them on their birthdays and on Chinese New Year. We made regular trips to the Garden of Memories where John Steinbeck was also buried, but we never ventured away from the graves between the two eucalyptus trees where my father and grandfather were buried. The mere sight of their tombstones, with Chinese characters etched on black stone and their pictures set in an oval frame, was enough to set off fresh bouts of sadness.
Two years after the crash, in December 1966, our family was among the 170 claimants demanding $29 million in a wrongful death suit against the now defunct Paradise Airlines, the hangar in Oakland, the instrument repair company and others. Thirty-five days into the trial, the lawsuit was settled for $4 million which was disbursed among the families. I had no idea we were part of this large lawsuit. For the first time, I realized that while we had suffered in our private tragedy silently, there were eighty-three other families that had endured the same kind of grief we had long buried.
After two months of intense research and reading, I was left with a sense of malaise. I had trouble concentrating at work and snapped at coworkers. I was impatient with my husband. I was filled with questions that could never be answered by newspaper articles or interviews with my siblings and other families. I wanted to know what my father was thinking as the plane clipped the tops of the trees before the final impact. I wanted to know if they all died instantly and hoped that no one survived the crash and languished in the snow overnight. I wanted to know who identified his body and what he looked like. I wanted to know what happened to his overnight bag and the clothes he was wearing. I wanted to know who had emptied my father’s and grandfather’s wallets of cash and what happened to those looters who cut off fingers for jewelry. I wanted to know if they were still alive and whether they carried that weight for the rest of their lives, whether they felt the taint of death and shame for that deed.
I wondered if I had truly healed from the tragedy or whether I would ever fully heal. The sharp pangs of grief were as fresh and visceral as when I was seven. The longing and sadness were still there. There was no sense of satisfaction or closure in knowing all the facts. It did not make me a better person or make the tragedy less horrifying. It did not compensate for a life without my father. It did not erase the years of insecurity and doubt my mother passed on to me. It did not provide the reassurance and guidance that my father would have given me.
Knowing the facts accentuated the loss. My burning desire to know faded, even though there were more articles I could research, more facts to uncover. I wanted to know more and yet a part of me didn’t. I understood now why my mother and grandmother kept it buried all these years. I packed up all the articles strewn across my desk and placed them into a box. I didn’t need to know any more.