Sand In My Shoes

Ben Krupinski’s Final Flight

With a clap of thunder, they were . . . gone.

Last Saturday I was at a high school graduation party for a good kid just getting started in life, when a news alert pinged from my smartphone. Four people had just perished in a small plane crash in a sudden thunderstorm a mile from the shore of Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett.

As the graduation party crowd ate, drank, hugged, and high-fived a young man’s future, police helicopters, Coast Guard cutters, and fishing boats raced to a debris field in the vast Atlantic to search for the bodies of Bernard (Ben) and Bonnie Krupinski, both 70, and their grandson, William Maerov, 22, all of East Hampton, and the pilot, Jon Dollard, 47, of Hampton Bays.

They would never attend another party.

I gazed from my phone as the graduate took a seat at a picnic table with his older brother and cousin and two other kids he’d be joining at an upstate college in the fall, ready to spread his wings and flap from the nest for the very first time.

They were all lost in a soaring moment in a teenager’s life when you are certain you will live forever.

Then I looked back at my phone, lost in a stream of breaking news updates that had nothing to do with Russian collusion, trade wars, job numbers, impeachment, or political scandal.

This was pure human drama, with a love story about a guy named Ben and a gal named Bonnie who graduated high school together over a half-century ago. They became sweethearts, and man and wife, and rich and famous, and beloved in their East End community.

Ben Krupinski was celebrated as the “contractor of the stars,” erecting mansions by the sea for Martha Stewart and Billy Joel and other boldface names until he had amassed a fortune of some $150 million. Ben and Bonnie were married for over 50 years, had one child, a former fashion model daughter, and two grandkids. On Saturday afternoon, they were flying in their old reliable Piper PA-31 Navajo to East Hampton Airport with plans for dinner and a movie.

Then, authorities suspect, the little plane got caught in the sudden updrafts and wicked winds of a thunderstorm and they never made their scheduled landing at East Hampton Airport. Somewhere between heaven and earth, thunder clapped and they just ran out of life, spiraling from the stormy afternoon sky and into the unforgiving sea.

I took a deep, sweet breath of life.

I looked up from my news feed as loud high school grads all around me prepared for a giant step into this wonderful thing called life. But I was drawn again into the unfolding real-time, real life, real death tragedy of these lost lives and the family members left to mourn and bury them.

I read that Ben Krupinski was a philanthropist, a generous fella who’d build Xanadu-like estates for the rich and then give back money, his time, skills, and elbow grease to community projects.

Krupinski owned restaurants, including The 1770 House and Cittanuova, and he was the kind of all-weather friend who instead of turning his back on her when she was down, picked up Martha Stewart in his private plane when she was released from prison.

I didn’t know the guy.

I’m sure he had his enemies, like all of us do, and people who didn’t like him.

But I knew all I needed to know about him as I read the heartbreak pouring in from people who’d worked with and for him. Listen, when workers shed tears for a boss, you know he had to be a pretty good guy.

But I also thought that when you step onto one of those little toy planes, you are tossing a pair of dice across the green felt of life.

I thought of a pilot named Ken Johansen, who perished in fair weather at 1:52 PM on May 30, when his Geico Skytyper WWII-era war plane used in air shows took off from Republic Airport in Farmingdale and crashed five miles away in the wooded area of North Cote Drive in Melville across the street from a row of homes.

I looked up at the grad party where girls now joined the young guys at the crowded picnic table, telling stories out of high school and cracking wise in a timeless dance to spring fever with the best days of all their lives still ahead of them.

Yeah, Oscar Wilde was right that youth is wasted on the young.

But that’s why wasted youth is so much damned fun.

Then I read about another kind of waste, another small plane, another single engine Piper PA that took off from Greenwood Lake Airport on May 3 at 2:30 PM and crashed a few miles away in parkland, killing the pilot and setting part of the Jungle Habitat theme park ablaze. I also thought of famous people killed in these little flying jalopies — John Kennedy Jr., John Denver, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Rocky Marciano, Otis Redding, and Jim Croce.

I flew in a tiny plane once, from Antigua to Montserrat, an amusement park ride without rails with a solo pilot. All I thought about was famed boxing trainer Cus D’Amato’s line about why he didn’t fly, “I don’t mind going when my number is up, but I don’t wanna go when some pilot’s number is up.”

Never again for me.

I took another sweet, deep breath as the graduation party bubbled like good champagne.

Then I read a 1992 New York Times profile of Ben Krupinski by Patricia Leigh Brown, who flew with the storied builder from LaGuardia to East Hampton in his eight-seat Navajo. Krupinski told her that the hardest part of being a contractor is walking away from a job upon completion and leaving behind one or two years of your life.

Brown asked Krupinski if flying is similar to being a contractor. “No similarities,” Krupinski said, except both require precision and thinking ahead. But in flying, “It’s a good job if you get to walk away from it.”

Last Saturday, Ben Krupinski didn’t get to walk away from his final flight.

On that note, I put away my phone and decided to join the party while it lasts.