A Remembrance of Mark Bingham
By Mark Wilhelm
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001 at 7:10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, United Airlines flight 93, carrying my friend Mark Kendall Bingham and 43 others ploughed into a field in rural Pennsylvania. They joined the thousands who became innocent victims over an almost incomprehensible week of horror, intensely emotional moments and unbelievable tragedy and loss.
Grief is a somewhat personal thing; everyone deals with it in different ways and to different degrees. While I also lost two co-workers who met their fates aboard the plane that slammed into the first World Trade Center tower, I was not nearly as close to them as I was to Mark and I have come to terms better with losing them. I am still working on saying goodbye to my friend.
It’s only been a month since I first saw Mark’s picture on TV the evening after the initial tragedy so I’m still having the “memory flashes” I usually have after losing someone I’ve felt close to at one time or another in my life. As scatterbrained and forgetful as I can be I certainly seem to have a number of them of Mark. I wish I could have one of his wonderfully strong lift-you-off-the-floor hugs right about now.
I first met Mark in February of 1990, while struggling through a very deep and dark year of my own life. In an attempt to get out of myself and do some good for someone else (something I’ve always found to be beneficial when I’m depressed) I’d placed a personals ad in the Gay section of the San Jose Metro Classifieds, using my old pen name “Frank,” seeking new friends and people to talk to. Not liking how the paper charged to reply to ads by voicemail I’d opted out of that and listed my PO Box 2425 address.
This was several years before email was common, and I was surprised when over 100 people sat down and hand-wrote multi-page responses to that 20-word ad. I answered every letter, spoke on the phone with many of the people, met a few dozen in person for coffee or a meal and still count a half-dozen or so as friends to this day. One - my former partner Ron - shared life with me for over 6 years and this, thankfully, is only the second I’ve needed to eulogize.
Almost all of the letters had a story to tell, and Mark’s was one of the more effecting stories. At 19, he was on a track that would surely lead him to future success. Attending West Valley College in Saratoga, he was planning to go to UC Berkeley in the fall. He was living near me with a group of guys in an apartment on Rebecca Way and working at Anderson’s TV here in San Jose.
Full of the enthusiasm and passion that youth blesses us with, he was always such a pleasure to be with. He was a very handsome young man, with a quick laugh and a smile that would light up a room and make you smile with him. He was 6’4" tall, 195 pounds and in the kind of condition few of us ever see past 19, but if you complimented him on it he’d say "Hey, I am by NO means a buff god!" At 19, in his letter he wrote "I’ve got no idea what I want to do with my life, but I know I’ll be a success at something."
Why had Mark written, and what was his story? Some of it is private and was shared in confidence, but overall it’s a very familiar one to many I read in those letters and one I unfortunately still hear today. Mark had known he was gay since he was 12, but had never really acted on his impulses (that I should share here) and lived in true fear that someone would find out. In several conversations we had he would say in all solemnity “if my family or friends ever found out, I’d have to kill myself,” and I believed that at the time he meant it.
We spent many hours talking about that and I did my best to encourage him and assure him that he was the same wonderful person that he’d been before he realized he was different than some people. Mark feared at the time – as so many gays and lesbians do -- that if he told his family or friends about this secret they wouldn’t love him any more. I am so very thankful that he – again, as so many of us are – was wrong about that. I saw proof positive of that the Sunday evening after he died at his private memorial. What a comfort his friends and family must have been to him when he took those first tentative steps out of his closet and began to truly live.
Despite his secret back then, Mark considered himself to be a fairly well-rounded guy. Athletic, outgoing and full of life, he was liked and respected by his wide circle of divers friends. He faced the same issues that most post-adolescents do, and sometimes – as most of us still do occasionally – wished he could go back and be a kid again. "For years I couldn’t wait to be older," he said once "and now that it’s happened, I want to go back!"
Although he wasn’t out, he maintained a fairly healthy view of his sexuality and wasn’t ashamed or guilt-ridden by it even then. I am so very thankful that I was able to help him along and encourage him to share his secret with people little by little until he felt ready to really tell the ones he feared telling the most. I was so glad to hear that he finally did, at the end of his college days – actually, the night of his graduation party, about 2:30 in the morning. Overall, his friends reacted to his revelation with "So?" I can only imagine the help he must have been to others he met past that, sharing what I had shared with him. I have heard so much about what a positive and supportive man he was.
Not that there was much doubt about it, but Mark did go on to success in life. Three years after we met, he’d graduated from UC Berkeley, having been three-time National Rugby Champion with his teammates there. His success with his public relations firm The Bingham Group in San Francisco and New York still impresses me. He traveled the world, both as tourist and as rugby player, making friends and leaving a good impression with almost those all he encountered. How strange that it was while coming home after business and a friend’s birthday party in New York that he unknowingly made the choice to board a plane scheduled by a handful of madmen to be a suicide mission. I’d guess most he’s left behind would have been less surprised to have had him lost to the bulls in Pamplona this summer, or doing something more wild than simply boarding an airliner.
At his private memorial I tried clumsily to console the man who urged him to skip the Monday flight and stay an extra day to recuperate from a birthday party – and probably overall fatigue, the way Mark raced around - and who gave him a hurried, last minute ride to the airport on Tuesday morning, watching him sprint into the airport and be the last person to board the plane, taking his seat in row 4. That evening Matt was still wrestling with a case of the "What Ifs."