Bitter Ending and New Beginnings
At 4:45 on the afternoon of July 6, 1946 my father stalled the engine of his plane and started a spin move above a crowd of thousands at Fairfax airport in Kansas City, Missouri. His was the next to last performance of the finale of a three day air show. He had successfully made a number of dangerous aerial dives, loops, and spins very close to the ground. Seconds later, after failing to pull the plane out of the spin, he crashed into the middle of the field.
My brother, two older sisters, and mother were watching from a good vantage point with thousands of other horrified spectators. My mother immediately sprinted across the field to the crash site. When she got close enough to see the extent of the damage she screamed and fainted.
Someone grabbed a microphone and tried to settle the crowd by announcing that the flyer was not seriously injured. Visual evidence proved otherwise. The show went on with a final parachute jump and one lucky spectator in the crowd won a brand new Studebaker. The crowd however was focused on the emergency vehicles surrounding the wrecked plane.
Someone intercepted my stunned siblings and prevented them from going onto the field. My mother recovered from the shock and watched the fire rescue team working rapidly, worried that the plane might burst into flames. My dad was completely enmeshed in the crumpled tubular framework of the plane. Both legs were broken and he had internal injuries. My mother said every bone was broken. After he was extricated she climbed into the back of the ambulance, probably against the wishes of the medics. My siblings followed the ambulance to the General Hospital in Kansas City in another vehicle. When they arrived at the hospital my brother Dale shouted “this is the morgue!”
Evidently the ambulance didn’t pull up to the emergency entrance. The ambulance crew took my father to the back door of the hospital. Maybe, due to the extensive injuries, they didn’t expect him to live. My mother said he died several hours later.
My older siblings were in shock. Judy lost her memory for most of what followed. My brother might have been the most impacted for a reason so painful it wasn’t voiced until 1980. He was 47 years old. He and my father had argued prior to the accident, possibly about Dale’s job of mowing between the runways at the “Heart of America Airport.” Somehow, in his 13 year old mind, Dale thought the argument might have contributed to the accident. He kept this pain inside for all those years.
When my mother heard about it she writes a letter to Dale that begins. “Just recently I’ve become aware of a burden you have carried for many years – I’m so sorry you didn’t tell me. I’m sure I could have relieved you of it.”
The first part of the letter also shines light on where mother stood in regards to the “stunt flying.”
“Your daddy Leonard went into flying against my wishes – when I saw he wanted to so much I made him promise to follow the rules – well for various reasons he got involved in stunt flying.”
Later in the letter she says “He used to have nightmares, and when I would wake him and ask what was wrong he would say he was chasing something he was afraid of, and it would turn around and get him. So the Lord tried to warn him. He also prepared me in different ways.”
Someone has torn the bottom part of the letter off.
It was Dale, who two years before the accident, was clipping out articles of plane accidents and sending them to his dad in Manhattan, asking him to be careful. With Dale’s fear of heights he might have been even more apprehensive than my mother about the risks our father was taking.
Judy and Sherry, my two older sisters, have fond memories of being in a plane with their dad when he was doing barrel rolls and figure eights
Dale was less trustful of air travel in a cotton covered airplane. During his last weeks, before cancer took him, Dale said he accompanied our dad in a plane that had been repaired by the one armed mechanic at the “Heart of America Airport.” They were delivering it to its owner in Springfield, Missouri. Dale said “the old plane sounded as if it was going to fly apart.”
I was just days short of three years old so all of my memories are suspect and some of them entirely false. I had a false memory that Ruth and I were at the airport that day. I thought we were being kidnapped. We were hurriedly shoved in the back seat of a car beside an airport hangar. I can still smell the new car smell of the leather seats. The lady kidnapper in the passenger seat was turned towards us and was trying to calm me. I was trying to pull the door handle to escape.
However real that memory is, Ruth and I were not at the airport that day. We were at a neighbor’s house being watched by a teenage girl named Lilah Linhares. The kidnapping fright was when a distant cousin and his wife picked us up from our babysitter after the accident. I didn’t know them, thus the panic.
I do have a valid memory of being in a plane banking above the airport and seeing a jeep below and asking for one. My dad actually bought me one, albeit a pedal car jeep.
My mother writes about how destructive I am pedaling it pell mell through the house.
In a little binder that turned up with my mother’s memories she writes that she didn’t know how to tell me about what happened to my father.
“One night Danny started crying and I asked him what was wrong. “ He said, my daddy don’t love me, he don’t come home.” I told him as best I could that his daddy couldn’t come home because he had been hurt real bad and he had gone to heaven.
The next day he started thru the house in a very business like way – I asked him where he was going – He answered, I’m going to get a ladder and go to heaven and get my daddy.”
Then I had to try and explain about heaven and that we probably wouldn’t see his daddy until Zion was built. His answer was – “Let’s build Zion.”
Over the years I have had conflicting and evolving thoughts about my father. When I was younger I was captivated by the image of him as a dashing and daring stunt pilot. Somewhere that image evolved into a simmering anger toward him for leaving my mother with a total of twelve dollars and no real means of support with five young children.
Now, after reading all their letters I’ve come to realize that the love between my parents was a classic love story. It didn’t end with the tragedy. My mother didn’t dwell in self pity. She resolved to carry on and raise her children as if my father was still a partner.
In the eleven years before she remarried my mother was the sole supporter of five children. She scrimped and sacrificed, and somehow managed to provide us with all the necessities of life, plus scouting uniforms and musical instruments, etc, etc. etc.
Yes, he went into stunt flying against her wishes, but she was all in as a partner in his dream of building a flying service, and eventually buying a farm with the profits. I think every personal sacrifice she made for her children after the accident was made with him in mind. Maybe love is blind but it carried her through the rough times and was never extinguished.
P.S. Stay tuned! My great niece Megan Kunze is on the hunt. There will be recisions and revisions of earlier blogs of mine due to her incredible research. I won't spill the beans but she has found a newspaper article on Albert Alberti in ole Saint Looie that is a dandy!