With my luck, if an actor named after two mayors of New York City played me in a movie, his name would be something like LaGuardia Beame. Uli Derickson deserved and got better; she was immortalized in film by Lindsay Wagner. And now she has shuffled off this mortal coil and departed for sempervirent pastures. She always had a nice word for people: she should receive no less from us.
They say that the secular side of civilization proceeded from Athens to Rome, but on the flight from Athens to Rome on June 14, 1985, Mrs. Derickson demonstrated how Biblical values are put into practice. She was a flight attendant on TWA #847, and when she came to work that day, no doubt she expected nothing worse than the occasional rowdy trying to drown big problems in little bottles.
Two terrorists had other ideas. They came from Lebanon, rather a Biblical locale, but the Temple that Hiram, King of Tyre (today a Lebanese city), helped Solomon build had vanished from their historical memory. They knew only the new angry secularism that fueled the terrorist movement, the Soviet training that honed the resentments of political disenfranchisement to a murderous edge. They did not seek “a house of prayer for all the nations,” instead a slaughterhouse for dismembering the world order.
Mrs. Derickson knew such men; she was born Ulrike Patzelt in August 1944, in the Germanic region of Czechoslovakia whose role in Hitler’s early confrontation with the Allies is notorious. She was part of a generation that had roundly rejected that past, that sought to rebuild with kindness a world that had been sundered by rage. She flew through the air, serving an anonymous and multifarious humanity with a smile. She had married a nice American pilot from San Diego, she had a son: a life of peace.
They made demands, the terrorists. They must be obeyed. They must be heeded. No more can the world ignore them; now the world has been shrunk into one compact chamber, population 152, and these men are sovereign. They are the kings and the ministers and the soldiers, they are the legislators and the enforcers, they are the judges and the juries and the executioners. Their fingers quiver with roiling hatred on a trigger that has become the wispy hair separating life and death. In that moment, for a person whose horizons are bounded by time and space, these men are the only gods they know.
Not Uli. She saw beyond them into the vast heavens that were her purlieu; to her, these men looked very small indeed. While others cringed and cowered — we don’t fault them — she winged and flowered. She was everywhere, it seemed, comforting the hostages with soothing hope. When the brutes tried to assault people, she was there to interpose herself in defense. The men knew no English but one of them could converse with her in German.
She took the language that had been used to badger and oppress humanity forty years earlier, and she made of it a hymn of love, a psalm of redemption. She sang ballads to the hijackers, working to coax and cajole the humanity that lay dormant in their bitter hearts. “Everyone looked to her for courage and guidance,” said Tom Cullins, a surviving hostage in Burlington, Vermont. “She was clearly in control. She even made demands of the hijackers.”
When the plane ran out of fuel in Algeria, the ground crew refused to refuel it without payment, so Uli gave them her Shell credit card, and they charged her $5,500 (presumably reimbursed afterward) for six thousand gallons. Her scariest moment, she said later, was when one of the hijackers proposed marriage.
People like this are rare treasures and, like diamonds, are seen only after massive pressure is exerted by Fate. We look to them as guides for those turbulent moments when the veneer of ordinary life is wearing thin under the crush of responsibility and obligation and loss and stress and tension and fatigue and… and… we are ready to lash out and repay the world hurt for hurt. Then we remember that we can be more, there is always more, we can take all that pain and grip it tightly in our aching palms until it forms a new gem of love.
Mark Twain said that he preferred the company in Hell, and Billy Joel says that he’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints because the sinners are much more fun. No longer. Now if we are fortunate enough to be transported to Heaven, we will look to that lovely woman for guidance; she smiles so lovingly as she reminds us to fasten our seat belts.
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