The Damn Dumb Bad Luck That Killed JFK Jr.

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The air is clear, blue-golden — such a sweet, frictionless light that from a hilltop I see the Catskills across the Hudson, miles to the west. In a wetland by the road, a great blue heron prospects for frogs, standing poised in the early evening clarity, utterly still... then strikes with a lightning flash of beak. At my approach, the heron rouses itself in a cumbersome fluster, and rises in the air and flaps off in prehistoric, slow-motion grace, topping the red pines.

Coming home, I settle down at the computer screen and read the news on the Web. Something catches my eye — old business. The National Transportation Safety Board has decided that John Kennedy Jr. probably became disoriented in the night sky almost a year ago off Martha's Vineyard. The novice pilot's "spatial disorientation" caused the crash. We knew that, didn't we?

Time is elastic. That weekend seems either two days, or possibly 10 years, ago. On that evening, by chance, we were having dinner with a friend at her house on Martha's Vineyard. The sun had gone down. We ate dinner in the afterlight, looking out over Vineyard Sound. We peered toward the mainland and one of us said, "There's going to be a storm." A dark, ominous haze had gathered — disorienting indeed. The water of the Sound had become indistinguishable from the air — all was an inky continuum, a squid's cloud. Only when we looked higher, into the upper air, did we see vestiges of light. We lit a fire and talked awhile, and night descended. The storm never came. We went to sleep.

The next morning as we had breakfast, Coast Guard helicopters clattered back and forth across the Sound, flying low, searching in patient grid patterns. I logged on to check my e-mail, and saw a news headline: "JFK JR.'S PLANE MISSING."

I knew John, but only slightly — liked him, admired him. The things they said, after the crash, about what a nice guy he was — all that was true. He had patience, and, I thought, a suave acumen. I'm fairly certain that he had political plans, that he might have methodically beefed himself up for a Senate run sometime after he had matured into his forties. And after that, after he had left the mere gorgeous hunk image far behind, then.... Instead, he died at 38.

John's father said, "Life is unfair." There's an essay question: Has life been unfair to the Kennedys? Discuss. (Give due attention to both sides of the question). Was life unfair to John?

There is a scene in the movie of "The English Patient" in which the party is riding across the dunes of the Egyptian desert. All is laughter and good humor until, in the fraction of an instant, a flicker of inattention, the car's wheels turn wrong, the vehicle flips over, and the characters' universe is suddenly, irreversibly changed — all in that laughter-to-disaster instant.

We recognize the moment; we have all, at one time or another, felt the shock and disbelief of the decisive stroke that alters everything. It strikes the famous and the obscure impartially. I knew an aged cowboy in West Texas, with the unlikely name of Cecil, who was driving down a highway one morning and took his eyes off the road in order to reach for his tobacco pouch, and veered fatally into the path of an eighteen-wheeler.

What's the lesson, if any, of something like John Kennedy Jr.'s death? I feel, still, an anger and disgust that just about overwhelm the sense of sadness: What a damn dumb inexcusable thing! And the two women died with him. The Kennedys have been testing the limits of their dispensation for three generations now. In the last generation (Joe Jr. and John and Bobby), death had historical context and therefore the dark prestige of tragedy. But when planes go down in incompetent or reckless moments, or when a guy skis into a tree while playing high-speed downhill touch in the Rockies, there's not enough tragedy involved to make a hero.

And there's not much more to tell your children except: For God's sake, be careful! Stop showing off! Don't be an idiot! Don't act like a Kennedy!