The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.
The semester was drawing to a close. My final class of the term would meet for a final in an hour, and as I’d done all semester, I spent some time in the library. My schedule was such that I had a 6 hour break between classes, and when I wasn’t grading or socializing, I’d search the web for class material or, as was the case that night, purely out of curiosity.
Thoughts of Karen Lee Hunt and Pan Am 103 had long passed from my mind. Once, I’d made a promise to never forget Karen and her fellow passengers. I’d honored that promise, albeit in a subdued way, every December 21 at 2:03pm. I would periodically search for new information about the bombing, the trial, and the passengers for years. Each search seems to emphasize the often arbitrary and contradictory effects the internet has had on our perception of history. Google Earth might allow me to virtually navigate to the place where the majority of the Syracuse students died in Lockerbie, and NTSB and AAIB reports provided a wealth of technical information of the 747’s demise. Yet information about the individual victims was far harder to come by. It’s as if a great demarcation in the mid 1990s veiled the lives and events that predated the information age.
A website dedicated to Karen appeared in the early days of the internet, though it had been some time since I last visited the page. A red plastic box full of newspaper clippings from the late 1980s sat somewhere in the basement. I had a few sketches and a dozen entries in my journal from that time, and a couple of books about the bombing tucked away on a bookshelf. More poignant than any of these was an image in my mind, tinged with the sepia tones of memory, of a photo frozen for a moment on the screen of a long-vanished television on the longest night of the year.
It was more than most have. It was a legacy, of sorts, but it was hard to draw a complete picture of a life from such material. The only concrete images I had of Karen are yellowed halftone photos from the Democrat & Chronicle and the long defunct Times Union. The images mirrored the paucity of information. Were I inclined to look, I’d still see Karen through a pinhole, now further compressed and elongated with the passage of time.
None of these thoughts crossed my mind as I nonchalantly entered “Karen Lee Hunt” in the search engine. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d searched for her, nor did I expect to see anything new after years of sporadic searches failed to expand her biography. There was no way to know that less than 2 weeks before my search, someone had posted a slideshow chronicling Karen’s life.
Karen grew from an infant to a young woman before my eyes, her life captured in an 8 minute slideshow created by a loving sister over two decades after a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. No longer framed within the confines of a tightly cropped black and white photo, Karen’s story took on a new resonance.
That evening, I heard the mournful tune of Richard Newbegin’s “Song for Karen” for the first time. It was a bittersweet experience—I felt a palpable sense of excitement in seeing the photos, yet an old sadness began to creep back into my thoughts as well..
I last visited a grave in Webster in 1995. Months later, years of emotions finally seemed to dissipate on the eve of the 7th anniversary of Karen’s death. For 18 years, I’d believed that the Lockerbie bombing had faded into a poignant but distant memory. A stranger to those on board, I believed that I could escape the bonds of memory. I thought that I had gained closure, that I had finally moved on.
Susan Cohen once expressed her frustration with the pressure to “move on”: “I don’t like ‘move on.’ ‘Move on’ in America implies get over it, get rid of it, shed it.” As photos scrolled across the screen to a mournful soundtrack, emotions long awoke from a long dormancy and rose to the surface. A tear fell down my cheek, and I realized that I had been utterly blinded by an optimistic naïvety. I had encapsulated and buried the emotions and memories of 1988, tucking them away like volumes of a past life, but I had never “moved on.”
Twenty three years had passed since I last thought about, much less read, the poem I mailed to the Hunts on April 16, 1990. I remembered keeping a typewritten manuscript of the poem in a blue folder which resided in a box in the basement. Curious, I found the draft near a thin stack of poems in the folder.
I was reasonably happy with the work when I wrote it, but at 22, I was a novice in those days. The poem was an emotional reaction to a specific event and it suffered accordingly. It was an artifact of a different time and emotional state. The work reflected an anger appropriate for the years immediately following a horrific tragedy; its specificity doomed it to obsolescence. Appropriate for 1990, events quickly rendered it grotesque and insensitive.
My excitement at seeing more of Karen in minutes than I had in 25 years quickly turned to horror as I scanned the lines of the poem. The work suffered from a laundry list of faults and failings: overwrought language, an addiction to the thesaurus, and a graphic brutality that now seemed completely out of place.
The latter fault disturbed me most of all. I’d written the poem to convey the horrors of Lockerbie to my apolitical classmates, and I sent a copy of the same poem to a family who had experienced those horrors first hand.
Karen Hunt inspired me to poetry. At that moment, nearly a quarter of a century after her death, I confronted the very real possibility that my ham-fisted verse had inflamed unhealed wounds. It took me over a year to summon the wits to send a message of support to the Hunts, and this was the best I could do?
A sense of shame worked its way through me as I realized that my token effort of support could well have made things worse for the Hunts in 1990.
How precisely could one apologize for such a transgression decades after the fact? Should I even mention the poem? Should I write anything at all?
Karen’s memorial website had a comments section—an anonymous comment would give me the opportunity to show that Karen hadn’t been forgotten, and it might assuage some of my guilt.
The message was short, to the point, and unsigned:
Dear Bob, Peggy and Robyn,
Karen and I never crossed paths, and I feel that much poorer for it. I was a junior majoring in English at a small liberal-arts college in Rochester in December, 1988. Like Karen, I once had aspirations of pursuing journalism, although I eventually gravitated toward teaching and photography. A number of my friends and acquaintances were schoolmates of Karen. They often spoke of her intelligence and her kindness to everyone around her.
The night after she was taken, I awoke with a sudden sense of grief and disorientation. It was as if I had lost a close friend, and the feeling never passed. I have a skeptical nature, but I’ve never been able to explain the feeling in rational terms. I can see now that many others have had similar experiences, which serve as striking testimony to Karen’s character and ability to move others from afar.
I kept a small newspaper clipping of her photo on my desk for the remainder of my undergraduate years, and I still keep a place for her in my heart. I was moved to see Robyn’s celebration of Karen’s life, which added another dimension to this multifaceted young woman.
Neither the years, the memories, nor the kind words of strangers can replace Karen, but I hope that you have found solace in the lives touched and the legacy left behind by this extraordinary young woman.
I stared at the screen for some time before hesitantly sending the post.
The link returned an error; the message never went through.
Initially frustrated by the broken link, I began to consider another possibility. I’d resolved never to contact them again directly, especially in light of the debacle with “Crime of Apathy.” Nonetheless, I felt inspired by the slideshow and more than a little contrite for sending the poem in 1990. If Karen’s death had inspired me to take up poetry in the late 80s, perhaps the images of her life would compel me to create a more nuanced account of her effect on my life through a website. If I couldn’t bring myself to directly contact them a second time, I could reach out to them passively by telling them that even now, decades later, Karen continued to inspire strangers.
Later that week, Traci intently watched Robyn’s slideshow. The walls were down as I finally told her about Karen, the students, the other passengers, and the effect this had on me. It was an uncharacteristic moment of openness for me. I’d held this inside for so long that it felt unnatural for me to share it. She was sympathetic and encouraging even if she didn’t fully understand the story’s complexity. I didn’t comprehend it myself.
Shortly after posting Robyn Hunt’s slideshow, Archivists at Syracuse University created an encoded archival description for the Karen Lee Hunt family collection. Most poignant were the photos, which captured much of Karen’s life. The iconic high school portrait was here; for many of us in the Rochester area, this image became a familiar reminder of those lost on Pan Am 103. Also posted was Karen’s Pi Kappa Phi photo, taken shortly her death. A number of shots chronicled her adventures in London in the fall of 1988.
Her eyes seemed to reflect her gentle spirit and warmth. Some showed a hint of introversion. Contemporary accounts frequently described her as outgoing, while mutual acquaintances portrayed her as a quiet but friendly girl in high school. Both aspects seemed to come through in the portraits and candid shots. The images added that much more depth and focus to a young woman and her story.
Two files were particularly intriguing: both apparently contained digitized newspaper articles dating back to 1988. Traci bought a scrapbook for me to house my own modest collection of clippings, which date from 1988-1990. The Acrobat files promised a wealth of new information. I’d left the Rochester area in the fall of 1991, and though I’d returned to Honeoye fairly regularly until 1996, I’d missed years of articles in the local papers.
Much to my chagrin, neither article was accessible—every attempt to access the links returned an error.
Frustrated but undaunted, I sifted through the site’s index pages in hopes that the files were simply mislabeled. Unfortunately, I found nothing labelled Hunt.
Nonetheless, the directory was a fascinating repository of historical documents, the likes of which I thought I’d never see. Among the most intriguing were the VPAF files, which included the family members’ statement to the press from February 6, 1989 and Paul Hudson’s letter that helped to launch Victims of Pan Am 103 shortly after the NYC press conference. These were invaluable primary sources.
A series of newsletters chronicled the group’s trajectory from its formation. The early editions, written in an era when typewriters were more common than computers, reminded me of just how difficult it was to organize a network of activists using hardline phones and paper mail. Somehow, they did it, and they made it work.
Each newsletter shared details about the most recent meetings, which initially took place monthly. Cartoons, clippings, editorials, and poems graced a number of pages in each edition. The poems were often remarkable—many talented people died on Pan Am 103, leaving their equally talented relatives to express their grief in haunting ways.
The March, 1990 newsletter featured Georgia Nucci’s letter to the Syracuse Post Standard. It was Robert Hunt’s modified version of this letter, published in the April 15, 1990 edition of the Democrat & Chronicle, that finally motivated me to contact Karen’s family. The thought made me cringe a bit—I was still unhappy about sending a copy of “Crime of Apathy” to the Hunts, although I was intrigued by a striking coincidence: I’d written the poem within days of the original letter’s publication. It was virtually ready for the mail the day I saw the Hunt’s letter a month and a half later.
Each of the following newsletters added to the group’s story. Then I reached the June, 1990 issue, published and mailed 23 years ago. As with the others, I skimmed through the pages, noting the personal or political details that might flesh out the group’s story that much more fully. The opening pages summarized the Presidential Commission on Aviation and Terrorism’s report on Pan Am 103. The following pages contained analysis, calls for papers, a poem, a note about a change of wording at The Place of Remembrance at Syracuse University, and a number of notes and articles concerning plans for a memorial in Lockerbie on June 30, past and future meetings, and dealing with grief.
Something caught my attention as I parsed the newsletter, something familiar, yet strange and disorienting. The opening pages centered around the commission, so I began searching from the middle of the newsletter, reading each article, editorial, note, and letter more carefully.
Then I came to the poem. The words were familiar—strikingly and distressingly familiar, yet nothing seemed to register as I read a brief note from the editors appears at the top of page 10:
We cannot stress enough the importance that your letters to the editor of your local newspapers have in formulating public opinion and receiving public support for our agenda. On Easter Sunday, Bob Hunt’s letter taken from the newsletter issue of March (Demand Answers on Flight 103) appeared in his local paper. The response was overwhelming–from the media and private citizens. In response to his Op-Ed piece a local college student sent him this poem.
Everything came into focus when I read the poem’s dedication:
To the family of Karen Hunt
I’d just read “Crime of Apathy.”
There were a few typos and changed lines (the changes improve it), but it was clearly my poem.
I’d found the work repellent last month, yet the shock, sadness, and excitement of so much material come to light for the first time robbed me of the poem’s context. Angry and gruesome as the work was, it captured part of the sentiment of a time when the families waged a desperate fight to keep the struggle for justice at the forefront of public consciousness. If I found my effort unskilled, at least I could take comfort in the fact that the poem reached the Hunts, and they thought enough of it to share the work with VPAF103.
I’d mailed the poem to them in 1990; somehow, it felt like they had sent it back to me over 2 decades later.
The newspaper files appeared in the archives a week later. There was at most a week’s window for me to search the index where I found the newsletter that contained the poem. Somehow, everything fell into place. It was as if some unseen force was at work, shaping events and willing me on to the next project. If I rejected the notion of supernatural intervention, I could only marvel at the string of coincidences I’d encountered over the past 2 months.
My poem was a small gesture then, a token work about an individual who had since inspired at least 2 songs. It certainly wasn’t in the same class as “Only American’s” or “Song for Karen.” Truth be told, finding it in a VPAF newsletter probably meant more to me than the poem did to the Hunts in 1990. I’d never be happy with its quality, but it must have meant something to them if they chose to share it, and that meant the world to me.
I’d wrestled with the idea of creating a website since my brief note to the Hunts failed to reach them in May. The poem in the newsletter was a reminder that I was not only an observer in Karen’s story, but an active participant as well, even if my role had been a small one. I’d become enmeshed in something larger than myself, and perhaps the time had come to explore Karen’s role in my life once again, decades after her death.
The chief obstacle was the concern that I’d reopen old wounds, yet as I read Richard Newbegin’s story and saw the list of materials the Hunts had donated to the Archives at Syracuse, I suspected that they might support the project after all.
I envisioned a deeply personal site in which I would examine the roots of my reaction to the tragedy of Pan 103 through the lens of events preceding the bombing. From there, I would explore the short and long-term consequences of the bombing, the experience at Karen’s grave in 1989, and the circumstances the finally led to my finally contacting the Hunts in 1990. The latter chapters would include the story of how I was drawn back to Karen and Lockerbie in 2013, and I would conclude the project with a photo gallery recording a long overdue visit to Karen’s grave I’d planned for the middle of the month.
A page devoted to Karen’s biography would form the site’s core, although I found it difficult to find additional information on the young woman who was inspiring me for a second time.
The format I envisioned in the summer of 2013 would last but a few months, for as remarkable as the past 3 months had been, they would soon be eclipsed by what was to come.
“Letters to the Editor.” Newsletter: Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 June 1990: 10. Print.
Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives at Syracuse University (Links to photos offsite).