I’m pretty sure every kid, when they first start paying attention to the world beyond the sandbox, gravitates to the Mysterious World – the world beyond the veil, populated by unicorns, sea monsters, Bigfoot, Atlantis, and fairies. My parents wouldn’t buy me the Time-Life “Mysteries of the Unknown” collection (currently selling for close to $400 on Amazon!) and I always felt like I missed out on my true calling, as a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist, because of it.
As a kid though, gravitating to the Mysterious World is right and proper and as it should be. They should be building fairy houses and messing around with dowsing rods. I would worry about a kid who sits around reading the Wall Street Journal and the price of sorghum on the foreign markets. They either will have had their imagination beaten out of them by their parents or they are the monstrous spawn of Mammon and Belial.
For me, it was always the Bermuda Triangle, that sinister area of the ocean where planes and ships have disappeared over the years. I poured over books of lore, watched all the specials on it from National Geographic to In Search Of… on the television. I conducted my own “experiments” by creating boats out of aluminum foil and seeing what it would take to send them to the bottom (I had little understanding of how displacement actually worked). No amount of rational thought could penetrate my well-constructed fortress of misunderstanding and lies.
I imagine the choice of Fortean belief is a regional thing. A while back I was traveling through the Iowa heartland with my girlfriend, and in a bookstore in Soldier, IA, I found two books I had been casually looking for over the years, Limbo of the Lost by John Wallace Spencer and The Ghost of Flight 401 by John G. Fuller. Both books discuss phenomenon tied into the region of the Mysterious World that every kid in South Florida knows about, the Bermuda Triangle. The lady at the counter was nonplussed. My breathless explanation about how I had been looking for them for years fell on deaf ears, and she later explained to my girlfriend that she had “no idea what I was talking about”. Maybe if I was talking about the Iowa Corn Monster she would have known what I was talking about.
To be clear, I no longer believe in any mystical explanation about the Bermuda Triangle, and it’s not Atlantis, it’s not time-warps, and it’s not…
AS I WAS SAYING, there’s nothing mysterious. It’s bad piloting or captaining plus weather and equipment malfunction coupled with local geography. The evidence is washed away by the tides and we’re left with nothing but to wonder “What happened?” We create stories with the crumbs of information left behind and cram them into our preexisting biases, and damn the facts (rundown a list of Bermuda Triangle disappearances and you’ll notice they tend to taper off after the implementation of GPS navigation and LORAN systems).
There’s a real human cost to this myth, and it’s something little kids don’t really ponder, especially if you think pilots and sailors were alive, abducted by aliens or thrown back in time to the Age of the Dinosaurs. As an adult, knowing that these men and women either died in the quick trauma of drowning or plane crashes or slowly of exposure and thirst is sobering, especially in the shine of my youthful imagination, but as tragedy plus time equals comedy, so does it create legends.
Flight 19 is arguably the most well-known Bermuda Triangle incident. Without doing a full retelling of the story (if you’re interested, I HIGHLY recommend Larry Kusche’s grounded, non-mythological account of Flight 19), it goes like this: 5 TBM Avenger Bombers took off from Ft. Lauderdale Naval Air Station for a routine training mission on a clear,, sunny day with crews of experienced pilots and navigators, and disappeared without trace. A rescue plane, the massive PBY Martin Mariner sent to look for them also disappeared.
Pretty mysterious right? Well, there’s a lot more to it that’s been swept under the rug by conspiracy theorists over the years – the weather wasn’t great, the pilots and navigators were trainees, the commander of the flight had made some grievous errors, the Martin Mariner was known to explode at inopportune times, etc. etc. Whether through deliberate misinformation by authors like Charles Berlitz, or misunderstanding of data by Gian Quasar, or just the telephone game of that is history, the myth has become more well known than the facts.
Which ignores the cold, hard fact that on December 5, 1945, 28 men died. They survived World War II to be killed by a burgeoning fantasy.
One of the things I do when I come to South Florida is I visit the Flight 19 memorial, at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport, which is at the site of the former NAS. The men have become the myth and in away they are now immortal. Wherever humanity goes, we will always take our myths with us, and 1000 years from now, there will be astronauts and rocket jockeys who will tell tales of a new area where spacecraft disappear, and inevitably people will search the records and they will find the story of Flight 19. I’m sure they’d much rather have lived mundane, Greatest Generation lives, but destiny is a capricious mistress.
I want to keep the myth of the Triangle alive, because I believe we need our monsters. Monsters inspire exploration, and in the literal world we live in, I see the fires of imagination struggling in the winds of the technological. We’ve killed all our monsters. We know Bigfoot is not a thing, the Loch Ness Monster never was, and unicorns were just misidentified oryx – but as adults we need to give up our ghosts too. We cannot hold slavishly to beliefs in things we know are demonstrably false because we want them to be true.
So to that end, while I was home in Florida for the Fourth of July Holiday/Orlando Poetry Slam/Shark-Con shows, I introduced my nephew to Flight 19 and the Marine Sulphur Queen (another famous triangle myth). He was absolutely fascinated. He never heard of it before, and was immediately consumed with trying to figure out what happened. He came to the conclusion it was a giant squid, which made me so happy. While he’s young, let him believe that somewhere in the Atlantic there’s a giant squid capable of sinking ships and pulling planes from the sky. I’ll eventually send him books that will wean him off the myth. Until then, let him look to the seas with wonder and fascination.
I hope he proves me wrong.