Oh, Mary

Seattle’s Lost August

September 6, 2018
Roger van Oosten

It’s finally over.

August 2018 was one of the strangest, most unsettling months in Seattle’s recorded history. It was a month where this city came face to face with horrible truths.

We endured one of the longest droughts we’ve ever had and experienced weeks of smoke from fires up and down the Pacific coast. It was the second time in two years that smoke and ash settled in and clouded the city. General consensus from experts is that we can expect more of the same in the future. In August, Seattle was dry and brittle. The Seattle freeze was replaced by the Seattle cough.

But if this past month will be remembered, it will be because of two remarkable and disturbing stories that broke through the crowded media landscape and drew national and international coverage.

From July 25 to August 11, an orca whale carried a dead calf on its back. On August 10, a man named Richard Russell stole an airplane from SeaTac, took off and later crashed and died.

Neither story was easy to explain or shake off. They were even oddly related. Russell was in contact with air traffic controllers during his flight to oblivion and at one point he asked, “Hey I want the coordinates of that orca, you know, the mama orca with the baby. I want to see that guy.”

Though media from around the world weighed in on the cause of each event, the fact remains that no one will ever be able to fully comprehend what happened or why. Both incidents remain a mystery.

By all accounts, Richard Russell, known to friends as Beebo, was well liked, even loved, and a steady, hardworking man. He was a member of Horizon’s ground crew and knew some aspects of working in a plane, such as how to use the radio. He had never actually flown a plane before, but he admitted, in an absolutely stunning dialogue with an air traffic controller, that he had played video games.

The recorded conversation between Beebo and the controller stands as an important document of our age. In communications with the tower, Beebo is contrite, a little dizzy (he didn’t know how to balance the oxygen in the cockpit), excited and resigned to fate. He apologizes for messing up the controller’s day; he performed some stunts; he visited the same old sites, like Rainier and the Olympic Mountain, most pilots do; and he openly mentioned how much people on the ground loved him. He sounded like the guy you meet up with at the bar and share a laugh.

The controller kept trying to steer Beebo to an airstrip where he could talk Beebo through a landing, something he had never done before. Beebo responded, “ I think I’m gonna try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good, I’m just gonna nose down and call it a night.” He did the roll and then crashed the plane on a forested island. Reporters later wrote that pilots and controllers they interviewed didn’t know what “nose down” meant. But no expert interpretation was needed. The meaning was clear as day.

Beebo’s story doesn’t give us much to hold onto. It’s hard to draw any good direction on how his story might help our own stories.  He did say at one point, “Man, the sights went by so fast. I was thinking, like, I’m going to have this moment of serenity, take in all the sights. There’s a lot of pretty stuff, but they’re prettier in a different context.” And that hit home. We live in turbulent times, when events spin helplessly out of control. There isn’t enough time. Most times, expectations aren’t met.

If the Beebo story is devoid of hope, the orca story is even worse. Someone thought to name the orca Tahlequah, but assigning a name and feelings to the event just made it worse. For 17 gut-wrenching days and for more than 1,000 miles, that mother orca carried a dead calf on her back. She shouldered the burden of death, and somehow made all of us smaller in the process.

What the hell was she doing?  What did it mean?

If you’re looking for answers, you won’t find them here. Which is alright since no experts, not even ones who had spent a lifetime studying orca whales, could make sense of it either. During those days, when the story was on the front page of papers around the world, a lead online story, it was something to behold if only because of its heartbreaking strangeness. The shear struggle was beyond comprehension.

Seventeen days and 1,000 miles. It was like she was making a statement to the world: we are dying out here. Help us.

Whether any orcas will survive is an open question.

After the mother orca released her calf to the mercy of the sea, Seattle was choked by smoke for two long weeks. Whether we will survive is also an open question.

August 2018 is blessedly over. But, God help us, we can never forget the month when a nice guy, a buddy, a husband decided to follow some strange impulse and find serenity, but found only that the beauty went by so fast there was no joy in it. Or forget that a whale reminded us that life is short and fragile, and death follows us.

So before we nose down, before we release our loved ones to the mercy of the sea or land, we should pause to take in the beauty of our lives, hold our loved ones near, remember that we all carry despair in our hearts, and understand that the only true release from despair is the strength we draw from each other.