PARTING SHOT

A choice of mysteries: science, Elvis, and the New Age

As the sage Frank Sinatra once observed, people find their faith in varied ways. “Booze or religion or broads,” he said. “Whatever gets you through the night.” In a rare lapse into modesty, St. Francis did not add that his own music must have helped many to endure some slings and arrows. Offstage the man seems to be a petty tyrant wreaking havoc around him, but in an odd way art buys penance. A song like “It Was a Very Good Year” makes up for a lot.

I thought of Sinatra’s words a while back-August 16, to be exact. Depending on your orientation, you may remember that was the day of the Harmonic Convergence of the planets, the dawning of the New Age. A loving, peaceful world could be ushered in, we were told, if 144,000 enlightened souls went to designated holy spots (ranging from Japan’s Mt. Fuji to 83rd and Central Park West in New York). There they would dance and sing and hug, washing away the accumulated bad karma of our violent, polluted world. From all reports, the New Agers more than made their quota.

Or you may remember August 16 as the tenth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. We were reminded that millions of people will not let Elvis die. The news magazines and the papers were filled with pictures of middle-aged; men and women who have turned their homes into shrines to the King. People in their forties join fen clubs and subscribe to Elvis newsletters. They dress like him, wear their hair as he did. They remember seeing him in Memphis or Las Vegas or somewhere. Maybe they touched his hand as the bodyguards whisked him into a limo. For these believers, the bloated, narcotized Elvis of the last years was not the real Elvis. They will always know him as the cocky, swivel-hipped kid who burst on the world when they were young. While he remains young, even in their minds, they will never grow old.

So mystics and followers of Elvis have reasons to commemorate August 16. But fate decided to give the day another, grimmer meaning. Around 8:30 that night, as believers chanted mantras and others wept in the streets of Memphis, Northwest Airlines Flight 255 lurched skyward from Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport, brushed a car-rental building, and burst into flames on a four-lane highway, killing 154 people. There was one survivor, a small girl whose relatives identified her from a chipped tooth and a certain shade of nail polish. For a while, rescue workers were uncertain whether she had been in the plane or in one of the cars crushed by the plane, so twisted and burned was the wreckage. She was quickly dubbed “the miracle girl.”

Our circle of sympathy is never as wide as it should be. I wonder if we could stand it if we really felt the pain arid despair of suffering humanity, as the saints and reformers would have us do. We can push back but never escape the boundaries of the self; your cancer is another fact in a world of facts, but my toothache fills the universe with pain. Still, though I had no friends or relatives on the Northwest plane, the day of the crash will stay in my mind.

While Flight 255 was burning in the highway, I was on a flight from Denver to Dallas. It was not a good trip, Something was wrong with the plane’s air conditioner, and the sticky heat made it larder to forget that we were in a metal shell six miles high, “cruising,” as the pilot breezily put it, at almost 500 miles per hour. As we made our way down the continent, I was reading the newspaper accounts of the candlelight vigil at Graceland, where 25,000 of the faithful gathered on Elvis Presley Boulevard to pay homage to their leader. On the New Age front, other believers were explaining how “vibrational toning,” a breathing exercise, would help bring in the New Age. The Hopis and Aztecs and Mayans all seem to have predicted something important for August 16,1987. Galactic synchronization. Cosmic rigger points. Cycles of heaven and hell, “he 144,000 celebrants, someone noted, matched the number of people who would be ’redeemed from the earth” in the book of Revelations. One believer had written a took, a la Chariots of the Gods, claiming hat the Mayans were actually from another planet. As I finished the paper, Northwest 55 was strewn over the four-lane highway in Romulus, Michigan, which was not a designated holy spot that day.

Nothing very dramatic happened on our flight. As we neared Oklahoma, the pilot came on to say that we were veering out of our flight path a few hundred miles to dodge nasty storm over North Texas.

We made the detour, but still caught the edge of the storm. For a long time we seemed to be rushing through a subway tun-el of fog just wide enough to admit the plane. Of course, our pilots could see nothing either. In the cockpit, numbers and dials, gauges and recorded voices told them where we were and where we had to go. Unseen radio signals leaped out from control booths hundreds of miles away, groping for us in the dark, talking us in. Machines conulted with machines and told their masters-their servants-what human senses could not know. In one realm of reality, we were conscious, vulnerable beings with our separate dreams and fears. We had somewhere to get to, as did the passengers on Northwest 255. In another realm, just as real, we were reduced to a pinpoint of light on a screen, a set of mathematical coordinates crawling across a grid.

Mystery piled on mystery: jet propulsion. Pressurized cabins. Radar. Computers juggling bytes and lives. In a little while the sky cleared, so I ordered a drink and flipped open a mediocre political novel. The every-day, humdrum miracle of flight had worked again-for us, and for thousands of others that day, but not for Northwest 255.

For two hours we had been in mortaldanger, as flyers always are, but most of usslept through it or squirmed in our seats, alittle bored. Like the New Age celebrantsand the Elvis worshipers, we had faith inprocesses we did not fathom. As the planelanded at D/FW Airport, we understoodwhat had happened about as much as we understood astrology, with its alleged influenceof the stars on human character and fate. Ihappen to believe there are serious flaws inNew Age thinking and in vicarious livingthrough Elvis or anyone else; I have mydoubts about the role of sacred crystals,pyramids, and chants in solving the world’sproblems. But perhaps we have only a choiceof mysteries. Maybe Sinatra was right: whatever gets you through the night.

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