It was 1984, an ominous sounding year to those of us raised on Orwell and Orwellian prophecies. I was a relatively junior attorney based in Memphis, Tennessee, trying to build a practice and support my wife and three daughters. I can't say I was a "young lawyer", even though I'd been invited to join the local Young Lawyers Association, because I didn't start law school until I left active duty in 1977. Serving as a tanker and helicopter pilot during Vietnam didn't drive me out of the service, but the "hollow force" military of the Jerry Ford years did. Anyway, as I say, it was 1984, early on a May morning, when I got a call from an old Army buddy who had left service before I did and was working in the claims department at TWA. "Jim," he said, "we've got kind of an odd claim from a couple living near Mountain View, Arkansas, and I need you to get out there as fast as you can and try to head this off from becoming a lawsuit." Music to my ears.
Fax machines were pretty new then, and not every law firm had one. Mine didn't. Federal Express was based in Memphis, but it had just started up, and wasn't the first outfit one thought of when communication was needed quickly. And you can forget about e-mail, cell phones, PDAs, and the rest of the paraphernalia that has become so much a part of our lives in recent years. What I had for speedy written communication was a cable terminal, sometimes called a "Teletype" machine, with an idiosyncratic keyboard and a "memory" which consisted of perforated paper tape. You could run the paper tape through the printer part of the terminal to get a typed text in all capital letters. This was a machine you pretty much had to have if you worked cases for Lloyd's or other London-based insurers. My cable address was "Airlaw". I thought I was pretty slick.
After I got the call, I went around to the utility room of the office where the noisy cable terminal was kept, and, sure enough, it was clattering and wheezing as it punched out a strip of perforated paper ribbon. Some people learned to read the perforations on the tape, sort of like Braille, but I never mastered that skill. Instead, I engaged the printer and got the following message: "AIRLAW: DEBRIS FROM TWA 472 ON 7 MAY 1984 STRUCK HOME OF M/M H. FELCHER, RR 27, MTN VW, ARK. SEE CLAIMANTS AND SETTLE CLAIM FOR UP TO USD$10000." This wasn't much information, but it was the minimum necessary. I grabbed a legal pad and a couple of form releases and stuffed them into my attaché case, told our receptionist where I was going, and headed out the door. Mountain View, Arkansas was about a three hour drive if I pushed it and didn't get stopped by the local gendarmes along the way.
My route took me across the Mississippi River, swollen out of its banks at that season so that the bridge approaches crossed a mile or so of flooded farmland on the Arkansas side, then north up Interstate 55 to Jonesboro and from there on Depression-era two lane roads halfway across the state to Mountain View. It's not well known outside the region – mostly because there's no decent place to stay within an hour's drive – but on Friday nights in Mountain View through most of the year, weather permitting, there's some pretty impressive Ozark picking and plucking – musical instruments, that is – on the benches surrounding the courthouse. Unfortunately for me, this wasn't a Friday night. I stopped at the courthouse anyway, though, and got directions to the Felchers' place. "H. Felcher", it turned out, was a "Harvey", and the Felchers were a rarity, a couple who had moved to that area from Chicago a few years before. This would become much more common a few years later. They weren't exactly well-integrated with the locals yet. Nice enough, but they seemed nervous all the time. It's amazing what gossip one can pick up in a county clerk's office.
I telephoned the Felchers and confirmed that they were at home and would see me, but was told to hurry, as they were packing in preparation to move. This didn't sound good. I drove out Rural Route 27 until I spotted their mailbox and turned in, winding up a graveled two-rut drive through a dense thicket until I saw their house, an expensive looking log structure that backed up into a hillside, more like a bunker than a villa. The roof displayed a rough temporary patch. As I slowed to a halt, a Cairn terrier burst out of the house yapping furiously and looking about as appropriate to the bucolic setting as a lace doily in a biker bar. Once I emerged from my car, though, the dog hid under a bush. Some guard dog!
I knocked and a harried and surprisingly citified man answered the door. I identified myself and he responded, "Yes, I'm Harvey Felcher. I'll talk to you if you don't mind if I keep packing while we talk." After I shrugged acquiescence, he rattled on, while wrapping glassware and sticking it in a box, "I know it doesn't look like much of a hole, but I'm not going to settle cheap. We're so rattled that we're selling out and moving. I'm not sure where, yet."
"Mr. Felcher, I confess that I don't know much about what happened. I tore out here after a call and a two line teletype this morning, so I don't even know what caused the hole in your roof or why you think you have a claim against TWA, much less why you're moving. Do you think you could clue me in? It might help us arrive at a settlement," I said.
"Oh! Well, I guess so. We were having lunch just last Friday, four days ago, when we heard a tremendous crash and saw something smash through our kitchen ceiling and land on our stove. It was an irregular object almost a foot across, cold and a sort of dirty blue. At first, we thought it was a meteorite and called NASA, but after we described it to them they suggested we call the FAA instead. The FAA was pretty helpful. They even identified TWA Flight 472 as the only airplane in the area at the time this happened."