Monday, September 01, 2008

Out of the Fog: Tragedy on Nantucket by Cindy Lou Young

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 162 pages
Publisher: Black Lab Publishing LLC; 1st edition, 2008
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 097428159X
ISBN-13: 978-0974281599

"There is some good to all that is painful," writes the author, Cindy Lou Young, in conclusion to her remarkable story. She is one of but a few survivors of a plane crash that happened 50 years ago in Nantucket, when Northeast Airlines Flight 258 took off from LaGuardia Airport for the island of Nantucket on August 15, 1958. On board is then 18-month-old author of this book, Cindy, along with her young mother, Jackie. Baby Cindy survived, mother Jackie did not.

It has taken a long time for the author to be able to tell her story, and in telling it, perhaps to fully face it. Indeed, in her foreward she writes: "I think to let something go, you need to fully understand it." When a story is filled with so much upheaval, disaster, addiction (that of her grandparents, who raised her, and subsequently her own), and a striving to connect with her parents (mother, of course, deceased, but young father disappeared for much of her life), understanding life fully can take at least half a lifetime.

Cindy begins with a background that sets the scene for her own life. Her grandparents are both alcoholics - a grandmother, Annie, who comes from Holland, and a grandfather, Arnold or Arnie, who comes from Latvia. The two immigrants have bonded with little else in common, it seems, but the disorienting state of being immigrants and falling into drink to handle the difficulties of their lives. They have a daughter, Jackie. At age 16, Jackie meets a brash young man, 20, falls into a first flush of romance, and becomes pregnant. In spite of his family's protestations, the young lovers marry. The odds are against such youth and inexperience, however, and as most such young pairings go, theirs, too, quickly heads for divorce. They were contemplating divorce, or whether still to make a go of it, when the plane crash happened and cast its own deciding vote.

The first chapters of this slim book (I read it in one sitting of a little over a couple hours) are a retelling of the night of the crash. A few photos show parts of the debris and rescue workers. The story is gripping. A fog rolled in over Nantucket, as it so often does, and with flight regulations stating that a plane cannot land safely with less than half a mile of visibility, that range all too quickly disappeared into the thickening fog. Whether the final transmissions to the pilot were heard are not clear. They warned that visibility was in moments less than one-eighth of a mile, but perhaps by then it was too late. In tiny Nantucket, there wasn't even an air tower to talk the pilot in. The pilot missed the runway and ripped through pine trees, somersaulted and went up in flames.

A few survived, and at first, it seemed the young mother, Jackie, might be one of the survivors. When a rescue worker, climbing through the burning debris, heard her call from where she was trapped, she simply shouted to him, "Save the baby!" and asked nothing for herself. The baby was set under a pine tree, out of the range of danger, and very nearly forgotten in all that took place in the next hours, as rescue workers and community members worked frantically to save whomever was still living, and remove whomever was not. When Cindy was located again a bit later, her clothing had been singed off her, her charred teddy bear was gripped tightly in her hand, and she was covered with pine needles.

Later featured in various newspapers and Life magazine, the baby girl was too young to have any memory of the crash, and was termed a "miracle baby" as she had survived with only a scratch on her chin.

But this is hardly the end of the story. While news reporters go on to report other stories, and magazines feature other stories, lives can be affected deeply by such events, and Cindy's is no different. She is a child without a mother, and Jackie's parents, Annie and Arnie, quickly step in to parent her while dealing with the devastating blow of losing their own daughter. Alas, they are ill equipped. Both are steeped in their alcoholism. Losing their only child, Jackie, has made the angst of life only worsen. The next section of this story is about Cindy growing up in a home where addiction rules, albeit not without love.

Nor do most addictions come singly. Addictive behavior in one area often leads to other addictions, so for Annie, there is a struggle with alcoholism paired with obsessive-compulsive housecleaning, and for Arnie, bouts of alcoholism come with the cycles of manic-depression. Young Cindy responds as most do who are bound to addicts, initially blaming herself, trying to make things right and save those she loves:

"... if I could somehow be good enough, or say and do the right things, the problems with drinking would go away. The one thing that I have come to understand is that nobody has any control or responsibility for the actions of another. It took me a long time to learn and accept this ..."

Before she does fully learn this important lesson, however, Cindy herself adopts the behavior of her grandparents. As is often the case, addicts pass addictions on to the next generations. By age 10, she is already drinking and experimenting with drugs. She seems doomed to follow in this path of tragedy. Surely, the "miracle baby" has not survived only to continue the addictions that plague her family ...

Indeed, she is not. The final chapters of this book are about Cindy's coming out of her own fog. She tells of surviving a failed marriage as she finds she is time and again attracted to men with addictions, but later finding a new husband, although also an alcoholic, but this time a man who is willing to fight the battle alongside her. More, this is a conclusion of daughter finding her bearings, searching out her missing father, understanding various members of her family and community, and tracking down the stories of other survivors of the crash of Flight 258. Her recounting of crash survivor Lita Levine, a young artist who loses her hands, is a story in its own right.

Out of the Fog: Tragedy on Nantucket is by no means a literary book. If I can't give it two thumbs up, it is certainly not because it wasn't a gripping story. It really is hard to put down. But perhaps it should have been one of those books written "by Cindy as told to ..." and so written by a professional author who might have captured these dramatic scenes and storylines with even greater power and literary finesse, as they so richly deserve. As it is, one can only imagine what a blockbuster this story might have been, had it been given a more professional handling, delving even deeper into the various fascinating tangents here only touched upon. The editorial and grammatical mistakes (mostly missing and errant punctuation) were also a tad bothersome.

Nonetheless, my hat's off to Cindy Lou Young, now Houghton. She is, without argument, a quiet hero and still pulling off a miracle or two. As she shows in her own paths, life is to be lived, every moment appreciated, every loved one held dear, for one never knows when the next moment might be the last.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2008

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