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Age 0-6 months
Vesna Vulović was twenty two, from Belgrade and working as an air hostess. She had spent time in England after finishing university and wanted to travel. She got the idea of applying to an airline after seeing her friend in her uniform. She had low blood pressure and worried she would fail the medical, so she drank seven cups of coffee beforehand and passed. The flight was from Stockholm to Belgrade with a stopover in Copenhagen. She had been assigned the flight in a mix up with another hostess who had a similar name. She had gone shopping in Copenhagen with her colleagues though she would have preferred to have visited some of the other parts of the city. But it was winter, January, and cold and her friends were good company.
The flight landed and all the passengers deplaned though one of them seemed to be nervous. She noticed this. She could see him on the tarmac, arguing. She boarded with the rest of the cabin crew and prepared the plane for the passengers to board. When they did she stood in her assigned post and greeted them with a practiced smile and a word in English or Slavic. This was the last thing she was to remember until she woke up in March.
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The week Vesna woke up to see her parents and a room of doctors looking down at her, an Atlas Centaur rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, in Florida, USA. Seventeen minutes after launch it was travelling at 32,114 mph, carrying Pioneer 10, the first probe aimed at Jupiter. It took an hour and a half to reach interplanetary space. Nine and a half hours later it was passing the Moon and was the fastest human made object ever to have existed.
It joined Vesna Vulović in the Guinness Book of World Records. One of them for travelling up. The other for travelling down. They both travelled very fast.
What Vesna didn’t remember was the flight. She didn’t remember the take off, or serving the passengers their drinks. There were not many passengers. It was January after all and the DC9 was relatively empty. Forty five minutes after take off, a bomb exploded in the baggage hold and the plane disintegrated. Vesna fell through six miles of sky until she hit the ground. She was screaming, covered in blood. Her uniform and blood were easy to see against the snow. A man called Bruno Honk heard her screaming. He was a medic and was able to stop the bleeding until rescuers arrive on the scene of the crash. Both her legs were broken, her skull was fractured and she had two broken legs, a crushed pelvis, and she was bleeding internally. But she survived.
That April The French Connection won big at the Oscars, with awards for Best Picture, director, screenplay and actor with Gene Hackman picking up the award. Jane Fonda won for Klute. George C Scott had been nominated but he didn’t turn up to the awards. He never did. He had gone on record, calling it a meat parade. And that was when he had won for Patton. He turned the award down. The French Connection was gritty police procedural which broke new ground in the way it showed the cops as not simply the good guys. Popeye Doyle, played by Hackman, was a violent racist, who had no meaningful relationships outside of his job. He was so obsessive in pursuit of his enemy that towards the end of the film it is unclear whether he is shooting bad guys or fellow policeman.
America had come to this level of uncertainty about good guys partly as a result of the Vietnam War. Here, they had learned from all the mistakes they had made during the Korean War and were able to replicate them almost exactly. The generals were beginning to look like barbarians and simpletons, dropping bombs which cost tens of thousands of dollars on villages with a cash value of five dollars. Napalm stripped little girls of their clothes and their skin as they ran towards the photographer and in the White House Richard Nixon was worrying about his re-election campaign and wondering how he could get an edge on his opponents.
When the doctors wanted to move Vesna, they offered her an injection to put her out for the flight but she said she didn’t want one. She couldn’t remember the bomb going off so she had no trauma from it really. She flew to Prague for more treatment. She had been in a coma for a month and then paralysed. She was in a wheelchair and it was assumed she might never walk again, but she was alive and out of danger. She left the hospital in June, around the same time Pioneer 10 passed the orbit of Mars. I’d enter the hospital at the end of the month. I was inside my mother at the time but she had become agitated enough to realize I was on my way out.
I was born on the stroke of midnight. The nurse asked whether the birth should be registered for the 28th or 29th of June. One story I have is that mum dithered and by the time she’d made up her mind it was the 29th. Now, she insists that she liked the idea of my being born on St. Peter and St. Paul’s day. Like the good Catholic she was. “So what are you naming him? Peter or Paul?” the nurse asked.
John, it was to be. After my Uncle Jack. My dad’s elder brother. Don McLean was number one in the UK charts with Vincent. One of the few songs I can sing all the way through. “Starry, starry night,” it goes. “Paint your palette blue and grey.” It was about the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh whose mental health problems, remarkable talent and premature death fed into the romantic notion of the misunderstood artist. “Maybe the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you,” is Don McLean’s conclusion, which was the dominant strand in Van Gogh scholarship for many years. It was also a line I’d occasionally use to explain my otherwise inexplicably low position in society for the next fifty years.
I was born on the 27th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. A Thursday. I spent three days in hospital. Dad picked mum and me up from Stanley Street Hospital in Ulverston, in the North West of England. A thirteen minute walk from the hospital, in Argyle Street, Stanley Laurel had been born June 16, 1890. He’d only spent a few months in Ulverston, but the town claimed him as they have yet to claim me. I went home to 13 Marsh Street in Askam in Furness. This was the house my dad had grown up in. It backed on to the football field and the street collapsed into the sand dunes which looked out to the miles-wide bay of the Duddon Estuary and off to the Irish Sea. Sunsets turned the sky orange and showed the Isle of Man in the distance. These were the longest days of the year. July was a hot month.
In Montenegro, Vesna Vulović was recuperating from falling six miles out of the sky and landing on a hill. The man who gave her lifesaving medical assistance, Bruno Honke, had named his new granddaughter Vesna in her honour. She was famous now. She was made on honorary citizen of Srbská Kamenice, the small village where she landed. She’d been pinned in the fuselage of the airplane by a food cart and the part of wreckage she was inside had crashed into the woods. The trees and the fuselage cushioned the impact. Her low blood pressure meant that she had passed out quickly, which helped her heart to not explode with the shock of the impact. She could now move both her legs and was determined to walk again.
Grandma Prudence lived in Marsh Street, my dad’s mother. Dad and mum, and my brother Francis lived there too. He was two years old. Another June baby. Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer met in Reykjavik, Iceland to play chess. Spasky was the World Champion and a Soviet citizen. Fischer represented the West, was difficult to the point of impossible and had been encouraged to play by Henry Kissinger, in the hope a victory would be a propaganda coup. It was billed as the Match of the Century and for the only time in the history of the world, chess was front page news across the world as the Cold War rivalry played out. To prepare for the game Spasky was coached by another Grandmaster who knew Fischer’s game while Fischer took late night swims, played a lot of tennis and boxed.
An asteroid hit the atmosphere over the US. It was an Apollo asteroid. It skipped off the atmosphere but lit up skies across the western US and Canada. Pioneer 10 shot through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter speeding faster than anything made by human beings had travelled before. Instruments on board found atoms of helium in the vacuum of space and studied the Solar winds.
In Askam, family came to visit and mum, Rosaleen, looked after her two sons and her mother-in-law, while her husband was at work. She was helped by dad’s many sisters, who seemed to number in the hundreds. She only had two all with the same suffix: Kathleen and Maureen. August the dry weather broke. The first hint of Autumn in the air. The wind blew off the sea. The tides took the water out to the horizon, fifteen miles away and then back until they were stripping the dunes of their sand. A house at the end of Marsh Street would fall into the sea.
Vesna was beginning to walk once more, her broken legs and her back healing. When she went from one hospital to the next, the government provided security for her, worried that whoever had blown up the airplane might want to finish the job. There was a popular song in the charts in Yugoslavia called “Vesna the Air Hostess”. It was about her. Miroslav Ilić, the singer who sang the song, was the same age as Vesna, twenty-two. Vesna’s mother and father had both sold their cars so they could pay for Vesna’s treatment. Vesna felt guilty about surviving. She remembered nothing about the flight, but she did remember the co-pilot that morning talking about his wife and children. She remembered the shopping trip with her friends and how she had been irritated that they wanted to just go to shops instead of properly visiting the city. She asked the company if she could come back and work for them as an air hostess. They said she could have her job back but it would have to be something else. No one wants to get on a plane with someone who was famous for being the only person to survive when their plane exploded. No one knew who had set the bomb off. No one was arrested.
After all the build up, the chess games between Spasky and Fischer were shit. Spasky had prepared for all the games expecting Fischer to make an opening he habitually used, but he didn’t use that opening at all and so all the preparation had been for nought. Add to this he made dumb mistakes. The kind that made him want to take back the move and have another go the second his hand had let go of the piece. Fischer was better, but still not up to the standard he expected of himself. It didn’t matter. Hardly anyone knew what a good game of chess looked like. All they knew was that the American had won and the Ruskies had lost. Bobby Fischer Day was declared on the day of his victorious return to New York.
Attention switched suddenly to Munich where the Olympic Games were interrupted by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September who took the Israeli team hostage. In the end, eleven Israeli Olympians were murderer. Bombs went off in Ireland. The police regained control of areas the IRA had designated no-go areas. Gary Glitter was in the charts. Richard Nixon beats George McGovern in a landslide election. But only half the eligible electorate turn up to vote. “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash tops the charts in States: an anthem to unwarranted optimism. It seems consciously designed to be played over footage of atrocities as an ironic counterpoint. In Vietnam, the US Army turn over bases and munitions to the South Vietnam Army, to Vietnamize the war. A peace mission including folk singer Joan Baez will deliver Christmas presents to American prisoners of war. They will be in North Vietnam when the Christmas Bombing campaign begins. Over ten days, 20,000 tonnes of ordnance are dropped across Vietnam, killing over a thousand people. The industrial infrastructure the bombing is designed to destroy doesn’t really exist anymore. The campaign is a kind of fuck you, just before the Americans pull out. It will be the last major military campaign.
In Paris, André Obrecht guillotines two men. André has just learned he has Parkinson’s disease and is understandably concerned for his health and his legacy. One of the two men had actually been found not guilty of the murder but was guillotined anyway as an accomplice. André knows that his nephew is ready to take over his job and he hopes he will do the family proud. These are the last two men to be guillotined in Paris.
In the last month of the year another last is happening. Apollo 17 sets off for the moon with a crew of three men and five mice. They find orange soil from an old volcano. They drive four miles away from their landing ship. They take the blue marble photograph of Earth and arrive back on Earth in a splashdown on December 19. Donny Osmond’s Long Haired Lover from Liverpool is topping the charts. Gene Hackman is in cinemas again as a cynical angry priest trying to rescue passengers aboard a capsized cruise ship. He shouts “How many more must die?” to a God he now fears is either absent, malevolent or a fool.
Vesna can walk. She has a limp, but she can walk. She’s back at work. The year has been long. Longer than any year in modern history. Aside from being a leap year, two leap seconds have been added to fix the clock of Coordinated Universal Time. One second was added when I was one day old on June 30th. Another is added at midnight of December 31st. 1972 is 366 days and two seconds long.
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