[A note about the music I chose: Although tastes differ, this is a gorgeous version of a touching Michael Jackson song; it "gets me" every time... Also, the "sandy beach" reference reminded me of the fun times back in Jackson and Lakewood, New Jersey. Those of us who knew and loved the subject of this post can agree that he was surely "gone too soon."]*
Ten years ago, at around breakfast-time on May 14, 2004, commercial pilot Thomas F. Lennon took off in a small freight plane for what was to be a routine courier run between Philly and Baltimore; the cargo bay behind him held mostly canceled checks and other commonplace financial documents bound for the Federal Reserve. Instead, his flight and his life ended in the driveway of a private residence just outside his destination, BWI Airport. Whenever a small plane goes down in some tree-lined suburb and the utter catastrophe that could easily have occurred is avoided, the media tend to report the news in language that translates to "only the pilot was killed." I have heard that exact phrase used on a number of occasions since the crash recounted here. In this case, the "only the pilot," Tommy Lennon, was my nephew. He was 34, the youngest of my sister's five children; her only son. He had been married for just a few short years.
|He hadn't even outgrown his baby face.|
We tend to mythologize loved ones who die in tragic circumstances, so one doesn't want to overstate, but eyewitness reports suggest that Tom made a determined effort that morning to steer his faltering aircraft clear of a school, a bus stop and other public venues, until finally the plane's mechanical issues sent him hurtling through a thicket of trees. That collision dictated his final landing spot in the driveway. He died at the scene.
Tommy Lennon was a joy to know. Ever ready with a smile for everyone. He didn't just find common ground with people; he met you on your ground. Tommy was a nice guy, a good guy—the kind of guy of whom acquaintances said, "He'll do anything for you," and it wasn't just a throwaway phrase. Whether the help you needed involved a wrench or a ride or mere moral support, Tommy was your man. And yet there's no describing my nephew without mentioning his devilish sense of humor. His sister Chrissie, who lives in Boston, might use the local vernacular in describing her brother's wit as "wicked sharp"...and oh was it ever! When we were all younger and got together more frequently, those of us sitting nearest him would be convulsed in laughter at regular intervals by some patented Tommyism. He could fire off barbs with the best of them, comments on the goofs and gaffes unfolding around him...but always in good-natured fun.
In sum, then, this isn't like those eulogies where mourners must strain to find positives to talk about, selectively editing the unkempt narrative of the deceased's life or the inconvenient laundry list of his personality traits. (By comparison, my eulogists, if any, will have their work cut out for them.) In Tommy's case, you'd almost have to temper your praise so as not to sound corny or insincere.
The family get-togethers are fewer and farther between these days. His four sisters—those little girls I used to "water-taxi" on my back as we all cavorted in the lake near Jackson, New Jersey—have moved into middle age. They, of course, have families of their own to tend to. Like the ever-expanding universe, the relationships have veered off in various directions, far from the original nucleus that bound us years ago: the all too familiar script of familial unraveling. Their kids were still youngsters in 2004, and had barely gotten a chance to know their uncle before he died. But their memories of Tom, though limited in quantity, are abundant in quality. They smile when they're asked about him.
We all smile when we think about the Tommy we knew in life. And that's as fitting a tribute as the tasteful plaque on the ground that anchors an understated memorial in my sister's backyard in New Jersey. Rest in peace, Thomas F. Lennon. You were far more than "only the pilot," and we'll always miss you.
* Best viewed on a PC. Smart-phone users may have to sit through an ad. Sorry.
** Roughly a quarter of the total MU-2 fleet has been involved in fatal mishaps. In a report published in December 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conceded that the MU-2 is seven times more likely than similar aircraft to crash due to a loss of control. If a commercial jetliner were at the heart of a similar cluster, there is not a chance it would it still be flying.