You never know who you'll meet on a plane. Consider those you might have met if you'd gotten on the United flight 823 out of Washington on a Thursday afternoon 40 years ago this month, for example. It was a long-winged airliner, a four-engine English-made turboprop Vickers Viscount, with 39 people on board.
Most of the seats were taken. Flying still had a glamorous reputation in 1964. Several of the passengers sound like interesting people: a college professor, a filmmaker, an engineer at ORNL, an executive at Fulton Sylphon, a Navy officer on shore leave, four nationally known hematologists coming to Oak Ridge for a conference. There was also Freda Harper, a North Hills mother accompanying her critically ill four-year-old son, Ricky; he'd been undergoing treatment in a hospital in Philadelphia, where the flight originated.
On any flight in or out of Knoxville, you run the risk of seeing people you know. On the passenger list are two names that historians run across now and then.
One was Durant Da Ponte, the 46-year-old UT English professor who had recently been named assistant dean of the grad school. Originally from New Orleans, the handsome, young-looking Da Ponte was something of a romantic figure on UT's faculty, said to be descended from Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.
Dr. Da Ponte had moved to Knoxville to teach at UT about a decade earlier; in the summer of '64 he lived in Sequoyah Hills with his wife and two kids. You may know Dr. Da Ponte; his essays still pop up now and then when you're looking into literary subjects. His perspective was youthful and sometimes irreverent. He once wrote a paper accusing Lord Byron of plagiarism.
American literature was his concentration, though: Mark Twain, George Washington Harris, the Fugitive poets. He was especially known for his thoughtful analyses of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire; Da Ponte held that Williams was making specific critiques of American society through his unusual characters. Da Ponte was on his way home after giving a speech about Williams at his alma mater, the University of Maryland.
Another passenger was Sam Orleans, a busy filmmaker not about to retire at 65. Just lately, several folks have been interested in his story. For the last 15 years or so, there's been a lot of commercial filmmaking in Knoxville, which is sometimes described as the fourth biggest producer of cable-TV programming in America. Today we see film crews all the time, shooting commercials and cable documentaries and, every once in a while, a movie.
There was a time when Orleans was the only filmmaker in Knoxville. The rotund, bald-headed, affable "Mr. O," as he was known around town, had been messing around with movie cameras since the silent era. TVA had hired him in the early '30s to be the agency's official "cinematographer." He'd made a two-reeler about the agency that got some attention back in 1940, much praised for its artistry. (It's probably the film that journalist Jean-Paul Sartre saw at TVA headquarters in 1945.) He also did a well-known film of the Fontana Dam project. Excepting Clarence Brown, who went to Hollywood to do his work, Orleans was generally regarded as Knoxville's first resident filmmaker.
Orleans didn't have much use for middle-class conventions. The former merchant mariner was allegedly the first to own a houseboat on TVA's first lake, Norris, in the '30s when such a life was unusual. But when he was in town he was content to live in bohemian simplicity on Ford Place in South Knoxville: a shack cobbled together from parts of a toolshed and a chicken coop. He made improvements, incorporating mismatched windows and doors, castoffs from nearby Rose Lumber Co. No two windows were alike. There he lived contentedly with his wife Jane, an enthusiastic hiker and naturalist, for more than 25 years. They raised a daughter there.
Orleans had quit TVA during the war, though, and went into business for himself, opening Sam Orleans Film Productions on Cumberland Avenue, near State. He made some 16mm educational films and did a good deal of government work; in the late '50s he made a notable newsreel about the construction of a nuclear warship.
Orleans probably knew the topography below better than anyone but the pilots. He was known for his artful use of aerial photography in his films about the Tennessee Valley.
They were all there together on United Flight 823 from Washington to Knoxville that Thursday afternoon: Mrs. Harper and son Ricky; George Leupold, the Fulton Sylphon executive; Navy Lt. Frank O'Brien; ORNL engineer Larry Schaffer; Dr. Da Ponte and Mr. O.
Four passengers had tickets all the way to Huntsville, with two pilots and two stewardesses, but most, 31 in all, were set to get off at McGhee Tyson.
It was a clear, typically hot July day in East Tennessee; there was no reason to think Flight 823 would arrive later than 6:29, in time for supper.
According to some observers on the ground in Cocke County, at right about 6:15, United flight 823 wobbled a few times and then blew up in the air. Before it fell from approximately 7,000 feet, one passenger was observed jumping from the plane. Most of the plane came down eight miles northeast of Newport, in a place called Trentham's Hollow.
All 39 passengers and crew members died. It was, and remains, the worst airplane crash in East Tennessee history. It also remains a mystery. The word terrorism didn't come up automatically in 1964, but some investigators hinted darkly at the possibility of sabotage. There was a lengthy study of the remains; there was evidence that a fire had started in the luggage compartment and engulfed the cockpit; the pilots may have suffocated from automatic fire-extinguishing C02 before the plane crashed. The official NTSB ruling of the cause is "MISCELLANEOUS—UNDETERMINED." There's a further notation about the unnamed passenger who "abandoned the aircraft through the No. 4 emergency escape window prior to impact."
After a while, people stopped talking about it; there were other crashes, other mysteries. Veteran pilots say they're not familiar with the story.
Today there's a modest doctoral fellowship at UT which bears Da Ponte's name.
Sam Orleans' unusual home was torn down in the early '80s when they built the South Knoxville Bridge, but some of his films are still available. A few researchers I know have just lately been trying to track down what information they can find about him and his unusual career.
We don't know whether they ever had a chance to meet each other, or any of those who shared their fate.