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The "Sandbox Explosion" (1914)

On the top left: Kenny, Willard, Bob, Everett. Bottom row from the left: Ronald and my Grandfather

My father had five brothers and one sister that have all passed on now. I’ve always wondered what their lives were like living during times that included the First World War, the Spanish flu, and later in the Great Depression. Many of my father’s own stories died with him in an air show accident when I was three. I’ve always wondered if my father was considered the odd duck or the black sheep, since he preferred “flying” to the safer trades. Many of his brothers took up trades that revolved around repairing, upholstering and selling furniture. Their Whiting ancestors were skilled woodworkers and their talents seemed to rub off on my grandfather and his sons. The first child my grandparents had was a daughter named Winifred who died tragically at the age of three. The second child was also a daughter. They named her Joy, and she lived a long life just two years shy of 100. . Ronald was the first son. He would pretend to pull quarters from behind my ears when I was a child. Then two twin sons named Orland and Ormond died at birth. The second son to survive was my father, Leonard. Then two years later my favorite uncle Kenny was born. A boy they named Howard was born next but he died before his first birthday. Then grandma birthed Robert (Bob) followed by Willard, the two uncles I had the least interaction with. The youngest son was Evart “Everett” who was eleven years younger than my father Leonard.

Piecing together the few stories I have gives me a small window into their lives as children. Kenny’s youngest daughter, Pat Chadwick, is a wonderful story teller. I have borrowed liberally from her writings. Her father Kenny was especially kind and generous to our family after the plane accident that claimed our father.

Peggy Feagins, a cousin, has also enlightened me about my Uncle Bob. I always thought he was a little distant and cold. How wrong our childhood impressions can be! Looking at the adult pictures of my Uncles, they’re all quite different; I think physically my father resembled Bob the most.

The first story I’ll call the “Sandbox Explosion.” It came from a testimony written by my cousin Patricia (Pat).

Ronald, my father Leonard, and Kenny were playing in a sandbox that Grandpa Sherman had built for them. Their sister Joy must have been inside the house, or in the small playhouse- sized cabin that Grandpa had built for her beside the house. Kenny was three, Leonard was four, and Ronald was seven. The other brothers were not yet born.

There was a tremendous explosion that rocked the house and literally blew the sandbox apart. Bleeding profusely with deep head and hand wounds, Ronald and Leonard ran screaming into the house. When relating the incident to Pat, my grandmother Maud said “It was a bloody day; and at the end when it was over, I actually took my dress off and wrung the blood out of it into the bathtub”.

Neighbors who had heard the explosion found Kenny unconscious in the bushes some distance from where the sandbox had been. When Kenny was carried into the house Grandma was horrified to see there were metal fragments embedded in his left eye. The injury left him legally blind in that eye.

A doctor who had been treating a patient at a nearby home was called to the scene and used the dining table as an emergency surgical table to treat the wounds. Grandpa had been called at his job with the Wyandotte Furniture Company in downtown Kansas City. He normally rode the trolley to and from work, but he hitch hiked a ride home faster with a kindly stranger who drove him all the way to the house. The doctor was still there treating the wounds. The doctor concluded that all the boys would be okay and that the only permanent injury was to Kenny’s eye.

When the accident was pieced together it was found that a local teenage troublemaker had picked up a railroad warning torpedo and had handed it to the boys, explaining that if they hit it with a hammer they would see pretty colors. Ronald must have raced off to get a hammer from grandpa’s workshop and returned to the sandbox to test the teenager’s truthfulness. The teenager had fled the scene. Railroad warning torpedoes were actually small dynamite charges wrapped in paper (usually red) with lead straps to hold them firmly in place on a rail. When a locomotive’s wheel ran over them the weight of the engine would set it off. One railroad official commented that the charge created a bang so loud that it could only be ignored if a nuclear bomb were going off next to it. They were used as a warning or stop signal in case of dense fog or of a train stopped on the line. You can imagine how loud they must have been to be able to warn an engineer in another train up the line.

The next blog will be about another boy who may have been nearby when the sandbox exploded. He became a lifelong friend of my father, and best man at his wedding. We always called him “Uncle Larry.” He shared many stories I wish I had written down. One of them I’ll call the “Rooster Incident” happened near the time of the “Sandbox Explosion.” It may, in fact, have involved the same ornery teenager who gave the boys the railroad torpedo. The reason the teenager did it may have been revenge for the “Rooster Incident.”

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