This is the eighth year in a row I've run this series in April. Why a story idea each day for the month? Several reasons which I'll work my through during this series of posts. Here's another one:
Around 1990, writer Stephen Brill came up with this idea: "A self-centered lawyer is sentenced to community service coaching a rag tag youth hockey team." That eventually became the movie The Mighty Ducks. That seemingly innocuous family comedy grossed $ 51M, not bad for a movie with a reported $ 10M budget.
The Anaheim Ducks [formerly the Anaheim Mighty Ducks]. An NHL franchise. A professional franchise worth an estimated $ 188M.
All based on the fact that one day, a writer was walking around and came up with a story idea about a youth hockey team named the Mighty Ducks.
As I said… in Hollywood, story ideas are worth gold.
Today's story idea: The Man Who Cleans Up After Plane Crashes.
Robert Jensen has spent his career restoring order after mass fatalities: identifying remains, caring for families, and recovering personal effects. Here's how he became the best at the worst job in the world.
A team stumbled and hacked its way through the jungle. The group had a vague idea of where they were headed and what they would find there. Days before, search planes flying high above the Andean foothills had spotted the debris of a crashed helicopter dotting a steep, rocky slope. Reaching the tangled mess would be impossible from the air, so the team had set off on foot.
Leading the group as it trudged through the undergrowth was Robert Jensen, a tall, mighty man in a white helmet with "BOB" scrawled in marker on the forehead. It had taken two days of bushwhacking to reach the site. Six days later, Jensen would be the last man to leave. It was Jensen whom the Rio Tinto mining group, which had chartered the helicopter to carry employees from a Peruvian copper mine to the city of Chiclayo, had reached out to first. It was Jensen who had worked out a strategy for reaching the crash site after it became clear that the ten people aboard had been killed, the debris blasted across the wanton ridges of a tropical Yosemite. Jensen assembled the team: two Peruvian policemen, two investigators, several forensic anthropologists, and a group of park rangers accustomed to climbing for search-and-rescue missions. They all knew this wasn't going to be a rescue mission.
Jensen is the man companies call when the worst happens. The "worst" encompasses all the events that are so frightening and chaotic that most people don't like to think about them — plane crashes, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters among them. Jensen has no special gift for collecting bodies, identifying personal effects, or talking to victims' families. What he does have is experience. Over a career spanning decades, Jensen has earned a reputation as the best in a very rarefied business. As the owner of Kenyon International Emergency Services, Jensen responds to anywhere from six to 20 events a year around the world (nine in 2016, not including ongoing efforts from 2015). His work has put him in harrowing proximity to some of the darkest headlines in recent history. He handled mortuary affairs after the Oklahoma City bombing, he flew straight to the Pentagon after 9/11, and he was involved in body recovery after Hurricane Katrina.
As remains and personal effects are being brought in from the crash site, Kenyons are collecting dental and medical records and conducting long interviews with families, seeking any details that might help identify victims. Each family must agree on one person who will receive the remains and recovered belongings. There are arguments, some of which end up in court. Kenyons explain the personal-effects process and ask families all the necessary questions: Would they like the recovered belongings cleaned? Would they like them mailed or hand-delivered? Jensen leaves every part of the process up to families. They have so little control over their circumstances, and the personal-effects process restores a sense of agency.
Families can even choose not to participate. To some, personal belongings are unimportant. For others, remains are unimportant. But almost everyone opts in. Hailey Shanks had just turned 4 when her mother, a flight attendant, was killed in the crash of Alaska 261 in 2000. Her grandmother received her mother's recovered things — the pin from her mother's uniform, and her belly-button ring — and it never would have occurred to her not to. "I think just to throw away any memory of it happening, it wouldn't have crossed her mind," Shanks says. Shanks's grandmother keeps them in a little box in her bedroom. Shanks will hold them sometimes, but the trauma they carry with them spooks her. Still, she's glad her grandmother has them. "I think it bothers her so much that she couldn't be there — not that she'd want to be there — but that her daughter was in that position. I think to have any memory of her, and to remember what h appened, is just important. Any piece of her."
My first inclination was an action take: The group makes their way deep into a jungle to a crash site to recover what they can of the victims' remains and belongings. They find the plane. But no bodies. No belongings. No signs of humans anywhere. What the hell happened?
That's when the members of the group start disappearing… one… by… one… taken by someone… or something in the jungle.
But then there was this at the end of the article:
Once, Jensen was tasked with returning the personal effects of a young man killed in a plane crash. Early on the day of the crash, the man had called his mother to tell her he was boarding. When she turned on the TV later and saw that his plane had plunged into the ocean, she knew.
But then, Jensen remembers, she wasn't sure. Couldn't her son have swum to an island nearby? Could the Coast Guard check? They checked. Days after the crash, almost all the passengers had been positively identified through DNA samples, but none of the recovered tissues were her son's.
As passengers' belongings washed up on the beach, fishermen and sheriffs brought them in. They recovered a few of her son's belongings, including two waterlogged passports — he carried a visa in one — and a suitcase that appeared to belong to him. The company called his mother to ask if she'd like them delivered or sent. She asked that someone bring them to her, and Jensen volunteered.
Jensen remembers arriving at the woman's house, and seeing her son's truck still in the driveway. His room hadn't been touched since he'd left for his trip. The woman had quit her job and was living in suspended animation. "She wasn't coping," Jensen recalls. "There was no proof. No body." Jensen and a member of his staff cleared a table and laid out a white cloth. They asked the mother to leave the room, and began placing her son's belongings on the sheet. They covered them, so she wouldn't walk in and be overwhelmed by the sight of her son's things all at once. He asked her to come in.
They showed the mother the two passports. She put her head in her hands and rocked back and forth. The next item had puzzled Jensen. In the recovered suitcase they'd found a pack of orange curlers, like the kind Jensen's mother used to wear in the '70s. The young man had short hair — it didn't make sense. Jensen assumed the fishermen had found the suitcase half-opened and had put other passengers' things inside. "Please don't take offense," Jensen told the woman as he presented the curlers.
The woman looked at the curlers. They were her son's, she said. He'd borrowed her mother's suitcase, where she stored her rollers. He knew how important they are to his grandmother, the woman told Jensen. He wouldn't have done anything with them but kept them where they belonged. Jensen remembers her looking to him next. "So what you're telling me, Robert, is that my son is not coming home."
And I thought of an ending. Let's say our Protagonist is a character along the lines of Jensen. He's the head of the recovery team. He's married, a relationship established in Act One. What if as he's preparing to depart on the recovery mission, they argue. She doesn't want him doing this type of dangerous work any more. As he leaves, he says, "I promise… I'll come back."
Whatever transpires at the crash site where the shit hits the fan, the Protagonist does something selfless, essentially sacrificing his own life to save some members of his team.
Those survivors drive to the wife's home. Up the stairs. She opens the door. And she knows. They present a few of her husband's items, maybe even just one as his body was lost in the Final Struggle, never to be found.
The wife holds this object, some mundane thing like a pair of glasses. It's the first tangible proof she has her husband is dead. She shifts her gaze to her husband's co-workers and says:
"He came back."
Distinctive jobs like this and the subculture of the people who work in them can be fascinating contexts for stories. This one struck me as being particularly interesting.
There you go: My sixth story idea for the month. And it's yours. Free!
Now it's your turn. What would you do with this story setup?
Each day this month, I invite you to click on RESPONSES and join me to do some further brainstorming. Take each day's story idea and see what it can become when you play around with it. These are all valuable skills for a writer to develop.
See you in comments. And come back tomorrow for another Story Idea Each Day For A Month.
For other posts in my A Story Idea Each Day for a Month (2017) series, go here.