Years ago when I was applying to the drama department at Carnegie Mellon University, I auditioned with a monologue from a Thornton Wilder play called “Our Town.” The play was set in small-town America, the likes of which even then, I’d assumed had disappeared from the American landscape. I was wrong. “Our Town” still exists and I was there for four eye-opening days over this past Memorial Day weekend. The town is called Greenville, population about 1600 which swells in the summer when tourists arrive to fish and hike. Greenville is located in central Maine where the temperature in winter can plummet to thirty below on the mountainside at night.
My reason for being there had to do with the fiftieth anniversary of the crash of a USAF B-52 on Elephant Mountain in late January of 1963. The people of Greenville have commemorated this tragic event for the past twenty years observing memorial services at the site both in January when the crash had occurred, and on every Memorial Day since. I was accompanying one of the two survivors of that crash who had been to the site several times before, but this particular trip held special significance for him.
The crew had been on a terrain avoidance training mission practicing to avoid Russian radar when, due to turbulence and metal fatigue caused by low-altitude flying, the plane’s vertical stabilizer tore from the tail section. Captain Gerald Adler, the plane’s navigator and father of two, ejected, clinging to his ejection seat which bent when he landed in waist high snow on the mountain. His parachute never opened. He is, so far as I’ve been able to determine, the only person to have survived ejecting from a B-52 without parachute deployment.
Unable to get to his survival kit which was wedged in the bent seat, he used his still folded parachute to shield himself from the icy wind and freezing temperature as he sat on that mountain praying for rescue. An interminable twenty hours later his prayers were answered in the form of a red-handlebar mustachioed angel, Senior Master Sergeant, medic Eugene (Slab) Slabinsky who dropped from a hovering helicopter and carried him to safety. Captain Adler had suffered a skull fracture and several broken ribs and ultimately lost his lower left leg from frostbite. He remained in the hospital for fourteen months recovering from his injuries. The residents of Greenville call him a hero. He calls himself “a lucky survivor.”
On May 27th, fifty years after the crash, in a memorable moment for those of us watching, Jerry Adler and “Slab” Slabinsky, rescuer and rescued embraced as they were reunited. Also on hand were several of the original searchers, more than a dozen family members of the deceased, active and retired military, residents from nearby towns and members of the Moosehead Riders Snowmobile Club of Greenville.
Although many of the present members of the club had not been involved in the search by snowmobile and snowshoe for survivors, they have kept alive the memory of the catastrophe which cost the lives of seven of the B-52 crew, and touched the lives of nearly everyone in Greenville. On this stormy very cold day in May, after a moving service in the clubhouse, we made our way, by foot and by jeep, up Elephant Mountain to a monument at the site of the crash where debris from the plane is scattered.
I saw no mansions in Greenville; neither did I see any homeless. What I did see was a young soldier take off her parka in the pouring rain to cover Captain Adler and protect him from the elements during the ceremony on the mountain. I saw lots of flag waving but no flag desecration during the Memorial Day parade. I saw and heard a wonderfully dissonant marching band composed of the town’s children. I heard and saw strangers, too many to count, come up to Captain Adler thanking him for his service and conveying how honored they were to meet him. I did not see any protestors. What he and I experienced was incredible kindness and generosity, expressions of love and appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy in this country, and great respect for those who have served and are serving today.
The residents of Greenville don’t lock their doors. There is relatively no crime to speak of. You might run into a moose that resents your presence when you’re driving up the mountain but that and the snow is probably the greatest hazard you will face. Don’t get me wrong. Greenville isn’t Utopia. Life there can be hard. The bad economy has taken jobs and Mother Nature is often unforgiving. And you probably would be hard-pressed to find a store that carries ball-gowns should you ever require one. But these are hardy folk and they are there for each other and for the country. Many families have one or more sons and/or daughters serving in the military, willing to do their part in defending the rest of us.
I don’t know if there are many more Greenvilles in Maine or anywhere else in our country today, but it is my sincere hope that there are.
This guest blog originally appeared on June 14, 2013 on The Perseverance Press Authors’ Blog, Get It Write.