On April 4, 1968, my father was returning home from a speaking engagement in Grand Junction, Colorado – connecting with a flight from Denver to Philadelphia. His regular flight had been cancelled and he’d been forced to hop a twin-engine puddle-jumper.
A volatile storm system had parked itself over the continental divide, a two-mile high Rocky Mountain Ridge bisecting the state on a North/South axis. The pilots were disinclined to make the trip, especially since my father was the only passenger in their 8-seater. Dad, a former British Army Major and paratrooper, was not easily denied. The three of them ascended.
It wasn’t long before the pilot and co-pilot regretted their decision. With only mountains below them, and no available place to land, they pressed on into an increasingly violent, turbulent storm – swimming in rain-whipped blackness, tossed about by sudden shifts of wind and terrified as lightning strikes grew closer and closer, scarring the dark like heavenly spears.
The pilot and copilot were hanging on every word crackling from the radio. My father, anxious to make certain they did their very best, was in the cockpit with them. Then, an urgent voice broke into the control tower feed with the astonishing announcement that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. For an instant the three men, precariously suspended above mountaintops, went silent. At last the pilot broke the silence with these words, “Finally! They finally took care of that fucking uppity nigger!”
At that moment my father did not think, he acted. Hand out he grabbed the pilot’s collar and pulled him forward. Then, fueled with the irresistible intoxicant we call righteous rage; he punched the pilot full force in the face, knocking him across the cabin. He reached out and repeated the procedure until finally the man, screaming in fear and disbelief, placed both hands on his face to stop the stream of blood pouring from his nose. With authority and conviction that were normal for him my father told the co-pilot to make do without his partner and walked to the back of the small, trembling plane.
There is something wonderfully insane about someone who would mercilessly beat a man whose well-being was instrumental to continued life, based only on moral outrage. There is also something wildly ironic about defending the memory of a pacifist icon with brute violence. I confess, like Dr. King, I believe passionately in non-violence. And yet, dear reader, there are moments when I ache to be that person, the brute my father was, raining down divine retribution upon sinners with terrible, swift justice.
Even today I miss Dr. King. Not just for what he did, but especially how he did it. It is the how of it that holds the greatest nobility.