It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (really, it was)

We often fail to realize how lives interact. Many times, the intersections by strangers, lead to life changing events. The impact of these occurrences are often not recognized until years later when we start to comprehend how each of us is connected in some way. Part of growing up is looking back and learning how to connect the dots of experience. The marks on my timeline connected recently when I considered an incident which changed the way I would view the world, changed the town and touched the life of every citizen capable of logging it as a memory.

This is not going to be a fun trip backwards. There are occurrences which place in the role of witness. Because of this role, we are required to relate the story so that it is never lost. Sometimes we are the main character in the story, other times but we are simply called to give witness and honor those involved. Hopefully, when finished, the details by this witness will spark a significant memory in your life; a crossing of lives which changed who you are today.

August 6, 1966 I was eleven, soon to be twelve in November. It was a Saturday. It had all the makings of a typical Nebraska August day. The sky was the color of watered down milk. Cicada’s droned as they do when they are sending a warning of more heat to follow. There was a breeze, but only enough to move the hard leaves of the elm trees on the front terrace. When they moved, it sounded like onions frying in a pan of grease.

Everyone and everything was moist like a used bath towel.

Neighborhood dogs could still roam freely but each gave up their freedom of travel in favor of curling up under shaded porches or next to their water dishes.

Flowers arched over waiting for their evening watering.

Dad was working in the basement getting an early start on his Saturday chores. Our cousin, Bob Morrison was visiting with Tom so we had an extra member in the house for the weekend. Being eleven, I was still free from any real adult responsibility. There was no grass to cut which was my only real job.  By this time in the summer, lawns looked like burlap bags spread out in random order across terraces and backyards.  I was most likely sitting on the back porch doodling in a sketch book or re-reading comic books.

Dad’s project for the morning was draining an air compressor in the basement. Tom needed the compressor to pump air to the top floor to help with his daily treatments for Cystic Fibrosis. When the compressor kicked on, our house sounded like the local tire shop when they needed air pressure. We had to make sure we warned any visitors of its sporadic cycle.

To accomplish the draining, dad needed to lean the blue bellied tank towards him. When he tipped it on this morning, the compressor slipped and fell towards him. A piece of the compressor caught him  above his right eye. He came to the top of the basement stairs bloody and mad at the accident. Dad rarely showed anger, unless it was directed toward some inanimate object. I never heard a foul word come out of his mouth, rather his disgust was displayed in a look or an occasional “for crying out loud.” On this morning, we saw and heard both.

My memory is foggy how Dad went to the hospital to be stitched but I know Mom stayed home with Teresa and me. Dad’s little accident was probably the most exciting incident the emergency staff dealt with at this point; before the day was over, this record would be different.

The day moved on like many other August days.

By noon, Dad was back home and spent much of the afternoon holding a cold compress on his cut and being disgusted that his day was interrupted.

The sky continued to deepen in color and soon resembled an old gray suit draped over the city and a musty smell like wet dog, was working its way in to the day.  By evening, the usual weather alerts were being posted on the TV.

It wouldn’t surprise me if supper that night was sloppy joes. That was a favorite and easy dish for Mom to prepare on the rare occasion we had someone other than a true blood Casey in the house. Often when I brought guys home from the seminary it was, sloppy joes with a side of tater tots. I never want to give the impression that Mom was not a good cook. She just felt she never needed to put on a show to impress any one. We always ate well and I don’t remember anyone refusing seconds and you could always count on a piece of homemade pie or cookies for dessert. If you were special company like my friend Joe Traynor or Teresa’s husband Tim, you were allowed two pieces of pie, one of each selection.

After supper, the evening most likely included porch sitting.

Nebraska evenings with looming storms provide entertainment free of charge. You could sit on the porch and look to the open southwest sky broken only by the stucco house on the corner and watch a light display no laser show today could duplicate. Thunder trolled in the distance like a hollow barrel rolling slowly over a far off cobblestone street.

Four words were spoken by Dad, “Going to storm tonight.” Someone would answer as a response, “yep.”

There were times when we were all masters of the obvious.

Since Bob was staying with us, I lost my bed in the room Tom and I shared. I slept down stairs on a cot in what we always referred to as the “playroom.” It was a room that had windows on both the south and west sides of the house. A perfect storm watching room. The storm predicted earlier came over Falls City with the fury of rabid dog. Lighting flashed almost continuous like a dying light bulb and thunder barked back and finished off with a teeth baring throaty growl. Rain beat against the windows with the force of a shower head.

Jim Rider’s pickup truck (Read, “A World Down Under” blog 12/3/14) broke the storm drama like a misplaced relative at a family reunion. His truck had a distinctive sound which was known in the neighborhood. I looked out the south window without getting out of my cot and watched him pass the house and then followed him up 18th in the west window until he was lost on Harlan Street. As he passed the side of the house his volunteer fireman’s red light, mounted on the bumper mixed with the flashes of blue white lighting and rain soaked street creating a moving watercolor painting. The front wheels pushed the river of water away like the bow of a warship on a mission. He racked through the gears of the old truck hitting fourth by the time he passed the intersection.  A muffled fire siren sounded on Harlan Street indicating a truck pulling out of the station. I laid back down, the excitement was over and the storm was beginning to back into its dog house.

The next morning we followed the usual Sunday morning routine. We all gathered on the back porch while Dad pulled the Dodge Dart up to the side walk on the terrace. We had to step around the brave earthworms stretched out on the sidewalk tempting every available robin in the neighborhood. Dad never made Mom or any of us walk down to the garage and meet him. I think he believed it demonstrated more class to bring the car to this family.

We found our usual Casey pew. As good Catholics we never budged from that spot. Years later, when the church was demolished due to structure problems, Mass was moved to the school gym and even then, we sat in the same row of chairs on the gym floor.

Fr. Bill Kalin started the Mass with no indication anything was different. When the time arrived for his homily, he started with, “I just gave last rights to forty-two souls.” There was a collective gasp which spread through the church.

I could see the fatigue in Father’s face as he explained what occurred through the night. Even at eleven, I can remember seeing the ache in the man’s face and the slump of his shoulders as he told us that a jet liner crashed during last night’s storm. The plane came down just north of town in a soybean field owned by Tony Schawang. I don’t believe any of the congregation focused on the Mass after this announcement.

The days that followed, unified conversations were held around kitchen tables, gas stations and counter stools of the One Stop Café or Chat-N-Nibble on Stone Street. TV crews and newspaper people were all over town looking for anyone who might be a witness. The Stephenson Hotel filled fast with relatives and others concerned about the fate of Braniff Flight 250.

Pictures of the mud caked wreckage appeared on TV stations out of Omaha and Kansas City. The local newspaper, The Falls City Journal, ran pictures from the crash scene. Mom and Dad would not let Teresa and I look at the pictures. But as any resourceful eleven year old would, I found a way.

Rumors of a bomb on board began to spread. Every person had their own theory as to what happened. Stories of what was found at the crash scene also became exaggerated in a way that worked their way into local “factual lies.” You heard more than once from people with no knowledge about what happened, “I know for a fact,” and then they would knock out a string of half facts doused with a generous portion of speculation.

I can only imagine what Jim Rider and the other volunteers experienced walking into the mire of a soybean field, slopping through sticky mud that held them back like a scared wives, not wanting their husbands stepping into danger. Or picturing Father Kalin, unaware what he was facing when he walked into a field that hours before was a symbol of profit and growth, was now a stage of dim flashlights, bouncing seemingly in midair disconnected from their handlers. Or, the Schawang family witnessing smoke thicker than morning fog, mixed with steam, jet fuel and more human conversation than the field had ever experienced.

When Captain Donald Pauly and First Officer James L. Hilliker, the crew and passensgers lifted off from Kansas City heading to Omaha, none of them knew Jim Rider, Fr. Kalin, Falls City, or Tony Schawang, but now they all met in the most unlikely meeting place available.

In Omaha, anxious relatives ask what happened. When word spreads of the flight’s fate, more questions.

Where is Falls City? How did this happen? Any survivors?

Volunteers carefully combed the field for the souls who rested splashed by

warm Nebraska rain.

The Prichard Auditorium, the city auditorium the place of so much fun where Falls City High School as well as Sacred Heart played all home basketball games, was soon turned into a morgue. Dentists were brought into town to help identify the victims. The Stephenson Hotel took on a somber air as more relatives arrived in town.

The Prichard Auditorium

The Prichard Auditorium

It was a Horse Play Days in town, the annual 4-H celebration and carnival that proceeded the County Fair held in Humbolt. Normally a lively parade marched down Stone Street, the main street of town. The parade route ran directly in front of the hotel. Organizers of the parade, out of respect to the families, changed the course of the parade. I can remember standing alongside the library on the corner of 18th and Harlan watching the parade with Mom, Dad and Teresa. Our regular spot was under the awning of the hotel. There was none of the normal festive attitude that went with the celebration.

Stephenson Hotel

Stephenson Hotel

Several days later, I was leaving the library, a favorite summer hangout because of the air conditioning, when a convoy of trucks passed heading south on Harlan street. Loaded on one of the flat beds was the tail section of the plane. Caked on red Nebraska mud and strings of soybeans still clung to it. The truck driver handled his rig as if he was the hearse in a funeral procession slowly inching his way south on Harlan taking the remains to Kansas City.  I knew at that moment, I witnessed something that not every citizen had a chance to see unless they were at the crash site. A sense of deep remorse which I did not feel again until September 11, 2001 came over me. A life changing moment with strangers.

Library on the corner of 18th and  Harlan. Four blocks to the right is our house.

Library on the corner of 18th and Harlan. Four blocks to the right is our house.

As the investigation continued it was discovered that one of the two “black boxes” were burned beyond use. The surviving box provided proof and understanding of the catastrophic event that brought down Flight 250. It was the first time in aviation history, when the flight recorder was used to determine the true cause of an accident.

The violent storm which crawled over southeast Nebraska that night was later investigated by Dr. Fujita in his study of micro burst and down drafts. The research, eventually led to the creation of the Fujita scale based partly on the research from the Flight 250.

People still talk about the crash. Many who observed the crash scene are gone. Soon, it will be a only a story to look up in the local archives, but for one night and many days after, the world shrunk in size to a soybean field seven miles outside of Falls City, Nebraska.

Life and death, sadly, it is, all part of growing up.

All pictures courtesy of Google Earth

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3 thoughts on “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (really, it was)

  1. Thank you, Brian. I was a witness to the plane crash and the influx of people to our community that followed. I was 18 and held a job with H. J. Prichard & Son, car dealer, on the corner of 17th & Chase. Located between the Hotel and the Auditorium the foot traffic was non stop in the days that followed. Brought back many memories, both good and bad. Once again thanks, very well written. Sincerely, Cheryl Brecht Smith, Kansas City, Mo.

    Like

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