The valentines in this picture will probably lead you the wrong way. They make this picture look colorful, nostalgic, and cheerful. If you study the other documents in the picture, you will see a tragedy emerge. And it’s one that is very difficult for me to think or write about.
Here it is: when my grandmother (who passed in 1998) was 21, her two younger brothers, ages 17 and 15, took an airplane ride at a 50-year celebration of the founding of Hume, Missouri. Apparently, the pilot underestimated the length of the field when it came time to land and to avoid a fence, he ascended, planning to give it another go. On the ascend, the plane stalled, nosedived, and crashed. All three on board eventually died. One boy died on the way to the hospital 25 miles away, the other died later that night, and the pilot died three days later. The crash occurred on July 24, 1930.
My grandmother never spoke of this. I only learned about it and of her brothers, Warren and Nelson Kerns, when I happened to discover a photo.
The boys’ mother, at the time of the accident, was visiting her parents in Santee, California. She returned by train, alone, to her husband and daughter (my grandmother) to bury her sons.
The tragedy shocked and devastated the tiny community of Hume. One newspaper reported that approximately 1,000 people attended the funeral service.
My mother assembled a large envelope of documents for me about the boys and their untimely deaths: newspaper clippings, photos, school grade cards, handwritten letters, valentines. One brittle envelope contains locks of hair I presume were gathered from the boys before burial.
Warren and Nelson were fascinated with aviation, which may have seemed like a fantastical vocation to two boys who worked hard, long hours on the family farm. I also found in that envelope some airplane diagrams drawn in pencil. They obviously possessed a propensity for mechanical thinking and creativity.
I have thought about my grandmother’s brothers many times over the past several years. I feel compelled to somehow honor, or at least recognize, their lives and deaths and the unspeakable pain that my grandmother, great-grandparents, and other family members endured. I don’t know what I will write or create.
The story will be difficult to tell properly because I know I have a tendency to dwell on sentiment and sentiment can be boring, predictable, manipulative. I want, instead, to write something that will honor the coping, the perseverance, and pragmatism of these people from whom I have descended. I want to write something we can learn from.
This was written in a letter that the boys’ mother received from her own mother two months after the deaths: “I have been so worried over it all I have not been fit to think right or do anything. One must try hard to turn our thoughts on other things. There is plenty to do and we must surely go forward and do our part. The dear boys are safe and happy and free from all the trials of this world and soon we too may be over there with them. Life is short — at the longest — and there is much to do and we can be happy in doing if we will.”