Death on a Sunny Morning
It was the bluest sky and the whitest snow I had ever seen, the very reason so many come to Big Bear when the storm has passed and the mountains are in their glory.
For me, it was the last weekend of a brief vacation, a final attempt to unwind before hitting the streets of L.A. again and picking up the pace of a city muscling its way down alleys of calamity.
We had gathered the clan, grown children and small grandchildren, and caravaned to the high country for three days in what Jeffrey, the 2-year-old among us, calls the ‘no.
If there had ever been better weather in the San Bernardino Mountains, no one I talked with could recall it. Even the natives were impressed.
The sun was fire in the sky and its light turned every color it touched into blazing affirmations of their intended hues.
There could be no better place to reach for a moment of serenity than on this day at this time, surrounded by family and breathing deeply of air as crisp and dry as vintage champagne.
But the search for peace is an uneasy quest that strains the luck of those who seek it the hardest, and on this weekend at Big Bear peace collided with reality in a terrible way.
We saw a small plane drop from the sky like a wounded bird and carry two people to their deaths.
Dennis and Roslyn Lutz were also seeking a moment of peace. It was Saturday, and they were flying to their vacation home on the Colorado River in Parker, Ariz. It was where they intended to retire in six months.
Roslyn, 52, a tough, independent lady, had opened a feed store at Big Bear 20 years ago following a divorce and was ready to give it up. A hip broken while horseback riding was driving her to a warmer clime.
She had married Dennis, 48, a retired deputy sheriff, in 1981. They were, everyone said, meant for each other. Both of her children considered him not a stepfather, but a father.
Dennis had just received a pilot’s license. He and Roslyn owned a little Piper Cherokee that was to be their link between the river and the mountains.
Last Saturday, they took off into that bright blue morning at Big Bear for a quick, overnight trip to the place of their future. The weather was perfect. The wind was still.
The small plane climbed effortlessly over the shimmery peaks and into the dazzling sky, nosing eastward toward the morning sun. Then something went wrong.
Instead of veering left as it should have, the tiny plane--a speck in the vast expanse of blue--seemed to veer to the right, as though Dennis, a strong and quick-witted man, was trying to make it back to Big Bear Airport.
I heard the roar of the little Cherokee’s engine as the plane made a last, desperate arc toward safety. We all heard it. The roar was a harsh intrusion into the happy noises of the children.
Travis paused at the top of a slope where he’d been sledding. Nicole and Shana looked up from the snowman they’d been building. Jeffrey seemed to sense something was different.
Then the plane disappeared over a ridgeline, and the children went back to their play. The adults exchanged puzzled glances.
We didn’t know until later that what we had witnessed on the loveliest of all mornings was a contrast frequently observed in life, a dichotomy of gloom and beauty that are essential elements of human existence.
But the vision of that plane falling was haunting, and I couldn’t just let it go as a piece of random philosophy. A life is worth more than a footnote. I learned the name of the plane’s occupants, and telephoned the family home.
I heard from a son and daughter, Dan and Marjorie, that their parents were the kinds of people whose lives were never empty. They played as hard as they worked, whether riding horses or Jet Skiing, and cared deeply about others.
Dennis was a volunteer member of the Sheriff’s Department search-and-rescue team, and would have been one of those rushing to any other crash. But on this day, less than two miles from the airport, the wreckage was his own. He and Roslyn were an integral part of the mountains they loved, and it was the mountains, glistening with snow under that deep blue sky, that ultimately claimed them.
We thought about that as we drove down the back road out of Big Bear, as the snow disappeared and the sky seemed somehow less blue, and as our brief quest for peace slowly ended.
We thought about Dennis and Roslyn Lutz, people we never knew, and about a bird that fell from the sun on a day as bright as heaven.