What “The Crown” Teaches about “Horrible What-Ifs”

Aberfam,Wales, after a massive pool of coal waste sped down from the mountain directly above the town to cover the junior high, killing 116 children and 28 adults on October 21, 1966. The tragedy, while unexpected in the rest of Britain, was no surprise to the townsfolk who’d been pleading with the National Coal Board to remove it for three years. Dover Forum. UN.com files.

Is there something more important than politics?

A Dover police officer carries a survivor from the ruins of the Aberfam tragedy. For her part, the queen initially sent multiple members of the Royal family, saying she “didn’t ‘do tragedy,’ ” before going herself on the ninth day.

I learned early while attempting to communicate with the public about transportation safety that the work you do before an actual “crisis” is more critical than the barrage of words and images that comes after. But life isn’t usually lived proactively. Before it’s addressed, the “squeaky wheel” falls off, goes flat, bankrupts the company, crashes the 737, or derails the train.

So we have crises at work, in or personal lives, and in our government because we’re flawed human beings and we whirl around attending to whatever we deem most important on the surface. Instead of addressing these issues while they’re manageable, before people die or carry painful physical and/or emotional scars, we scurry around taking care of the simple immediate problems and leave the rest for the door marked, “The Future.” We think those problems will rest on simmer until we get back. They don’t. They grow into monsters behind that door, as a Louisiana transportation safety manager friend once called them: “The Horrible What Ifs.”

In the third season of The Crown on Netflix there’s an incredible example of crisis named for the event that occurred in Aberfam, Wales, on October 21, 1966. The squeaky wheel was a vast deposit of coal waste called a “tip” collected outside the mine directly above the town. For three years Aberfam residents wrote letters to Britain’s National Coal Board (NCB), pleading for the tip’s removal, which sat directly above the town’s Pantglas Junior High School.

That fall downpours mixed with the coal waste to form a thick coal slurry 50-foot wide that rushed down the hill at 30 to 40 miles per hour. Adding to the misery, the lack of a working phone line at the top of the mine prevented any advance warning for the town or the school below. In the end, the lifeless bodies of 116 children and 28 adults were dug from the hardening slurry that flooded the junior high and 20 Aberfam homes.

A British government inquiry and subsequent survivor’s fund, the first of many to come with future tragedies like 911, blamed the NCB for failure to address the town’s concerns with the coal waste. They pointed to natural springs and the city’s repeated attempts to have the coal waste removed long before the event, which overruled the NCB’s excuse that the rains triggered the event.

The remaining coal tips were eventually removed but only after a payment of 150,000-pounds Sterling was extracted from funds collected internationally for the relief of the townspeople, not in a payment from the NCB. Initially the price put on the head of each child was 500-pounds Sterling. Nearly all remaining Aberfam residents suffered from their own form of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder after the loss and received psychological counseling. Eventually the families received 5,000 pounds for their loss, but it was not offered immediately. Overtime, oil replaced coal to heat British homes and the community branched into lines of work other than mining.

Does the “Stiff Upper Lip” still work?

I think I heard some of you mumble something about “the stiff upper lip” when I mentioned the Crown’s response to the incident. For eight days the Queen back in Buckingham Palace threw everything she had at the crisis, including her husband, but not herself. Prince Phillip reported back about his amazement at the grieving town’s response at the funeral in their anger and rage. “You’d think they’d rebel,” he told her on The Crown segment issued in November 2019. “Did they?” she queried. “No, it was the most amazing thing—they sang—all of them.” (The song: “The Song of Farewell” by Earnest Sands: “May the choirs of angels enfold you and come to meet you. May they speed you to eternal life.”)

On the ninth day, the Queen went to lay a wreath at the newly dug cemetery and speak with survivors. Her fear, that she would not be able to summon the tears required by the Welsh to meet the depth of Aberfam’s suffering.  Later in the program she told Prime Minister Wilson of her shame that she applied a white handkerchief to a dry eye for the camera as she exited a bereaved family’s home.

The Queen explained when she was young during World War II, she toured the sites of death and destruction with her parents and struggled to remain stoic for her brave countrymen. Then Wilson, who had visited Aberfan days earlier, told her privately that the British people did not want a hysterical monarch. “It is our job to calm more crises than we create,” he said. After he left, according to The Crown recreation, she played a recording of “The Song of Farewell” and silently wept.

Modern Crisis: Emote or Not?

My dilemma when faced with the death of many, many fewer children in the 1995 Fox River Grove school bus-train crash was to keep that stiff upper lip while managing media calls. When it comes to the death of children, one is one too many. Seven children from a small community outside Chicago died in the crash. One was the same age as my daughter at the time, fourteen.

I kept my decorum when a USA Today reporter called repeatedly throughout the day to ask, “How do you feel about this?” seeking an emotional response. I might respond differently today, as hundreds of tragedies in subsequent years have pushed the need for true emotion to the forefront. But in that moment I played the Queen. Then I could not open myself to human emotion because crossing the line for a single moment, might have opened the floodgates, and it could have gotten me fired. As a single parent that was not an option. So I answered every time she called, “It’s my job to try to help prevent these incidents.” Each time I stopped there, saying nothing more.

It really wasn’t my job to prevent incidents,  and even then I knew it, but I responded with unquotable words—her story would have to come from another source. I could have repeated something about safety, but I knew that would not cut it right then. I stopped, saying nothing more to that reporter.

I don’t remember the twenty-minute drive home to Arlington, Virginia, from the office that night. My vision clouded by the tears I could not summon earlier. I enjoyed what was left of a mundane evening with my daughter, saying nothing to her about the incident, but squeezed her a little tighter at bedtime. I watched her sleep a moment longer the next morning to gain composure before I awakened her, knowing there were other parents who could no longer awaken their own.  

Kymbaya or not, how do we come together?

Obviously the nation’s crises demands more than sitting and singing. I can’t carry a tune and would be just as happy not to. But if we can’t sit together listening, patiently, and reasonably begin to discuss the things in life that just might be more important than politics, where does that leave us?

There are things in life above politics. Time may be long past for Americans to have their own Kumbaya (Come By Here) moment. The African folk song’s original intent was an appeal to God to come and help those in need. Politicians on both sides of the American divide, including Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who in 2012 voiced dissatisfaction with “sitting around a campfire toasting marshmallows, singing Kumbaya and giving the nod to one of their competitors,” and Barack Obama, as President, who said the substantive disagreements in the Israelis and Palestinians mcould not be reduced to “a matter of let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya.”

America’s Kumbaya moments may be long over, but if we can’t find a way to sit down and patiently begin to address the things that are more important than politics, what future do we have? What happened to that bright future our forefathers imagined more than two decade ago?