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A Life in the Air
Leo Cullum '63

Leo Cullum ’63 has had two very different careers. His main job these days is to make people laugh at life, but as a flyer in Vietnam and as a commercial pilot operating in an era of terrorism, he witnessed the darker side of human existence.

Like many young men his age, he found Vietnam a sobering experience. “There was always the stress there, knowing you could be captured the next day,” he says. “In a way, we were better off than the ground troops because we never saw the effects of injuries on people. If something happened to one of our comrades, they just disappeared. We didn’t have to deal with a friend being terribly wounded.

“The country was beautiful from the air. I was glad to leave, but I look back at it as an intense and interesting time. Some of my best friends are those I met in the Marine Corps or went to Vietnam with.”

*

TWA Flight 800 was on its way from New York to Paris on July 17, 1996, when the plane exploded off Long Island and plunged into the sea, killing all 230 people on board. At the time, Cullum was dining with his wife at Michael’s Restaurant in Santa Monica; Michael McCarty, the restaurateur and an old friend of the Cullums, came from the kitchen ashen-faced and told them Flight 800 had blown up.

“Michael rode, and I flew that flight regularly,” Cullum says. “It was a shock.
I had flown with most of the cockpit crew; I knew some of the fellows in the back heading on to vacation with their wives, and I knew the cabin crew. I was shaken.”

About three days later, Cullum flew from New York to Athens, a flight that used the same departure route. He and his crew were painfully aware when they reached the location and the altitude at which Flight 800 had exploded.

“At that point, 13 minutes into the flight, everyone was very quiet,” he says. “It wasn’t a good feeling.”
The official explanation for the disaster, that an electrical spark ignited the fuel in the plane’s center tank, Cullum doesn’t accept.

“They never resolved it to my satisfaction,” he says. “I still think it was a foreign missile—or possibly a U.S. missile—which has been denied vehemently. I don’t believe it was an internal explosion.”

*

Along with most of the country, Cullum watched in disbelieving horror as the World Trade Center towers burned and collapsed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, killing almost 3,000 people. Two days before, he had flown from New York to Los Angeles on exactly the kind of flight that attracted the 9/11 terrorists.
“It was the scenario they were looking for,” he says, “airplanes fully loaded with fuel going to the coast, for maximum impact.”

A few days later Cullum flew into New York. “Going into Kennedy you couldn’t take your eyes off the sight of the World Trade Center,” he says.

 “I only had about four months left before I turned 60,” he says. “It was not a fun way to end a career.”

The New Yorker that week featured the famous black cover designed by Art Spiegelman. There were no cartoons.

“The next issue was an ice breaker, a trying to get back,” Cullum says. “Mine was the first cartoon. It addressed the issue of ‘Will we ever be normal again? Will we ever be able to laugh again?’”

The cartoon showed a man in a loud plaid jacket sitting at a bar next to a young woman. “I thought I'd never laugh again,” she says to him over her drink. “Then I saw your jacket.”

And so, in this little gag, this mix of humor and seriousness, the two careers of Leo Cullum finally and strangely came together.

J.D.

Read more:
The Cartoon World of Leo Cullum ’63

 

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