This Day in History
1958 — Plane crash. Memorial Day weekend and the start of summer. I was fourteen, school was done for the year and I had three months of freedom ahead of me. There’d be work, lawns to mow and chores on the family farm that was transitioning from being my Grandma’s to my uncle’s. There’d also be fun, mostly in the form of baseball. We had graduated from pew wee baseball, 10 to 12 year olds, to a 13 to 15 year old league. Last year most of our team had been 13 years old and we took our lumps playing against older kids. We were now a year older and had high hopes. Hopes that wouldn’t materialize. Fact was, we just weren’t very good. But hey, if you’re going to dream, there’s no grander place to do it than on a baseball diamond in small town America.
Usually a sound sleeper, I woke up that morning unsettled, feeling like something was wrong. I got dressed and went downstairs to where the rest of the family was sitting at the kitchen table. That was unusual also, breakfast was not a family gathering, instead more of a fend for yourself event. My dad sat with his back to me, Mom faced him with my baby sister, Jan, on her lap. Jan was happily pounding her chubby fists on the table, and my other sister Mary was drinking a cup of coffee. Despite being five years younger than I, she insisted on drinking coffee. As I walked to the refrigerator Mom said, “Hear the excitement last night?”
That was it, now it came back to me. There had been a thunderstorm, and then the town’s whistle had sounded in the middle of the night. The town whistle went off every day at noon and 6pm and served as an alert to summon the volunteer fire department. Dad was a volunteer fireman. “Where was the fire?” I asked him. He looked tired, and maybe still a little flushed with excitement. “Wasn’t a fire,” Dad answered, “plane crashed into a farmhouse.”
He had my full attention as I sat at the table with a glass of orange juice. “Four, five miles from town, toward Winsted, at the Elmer Karels’ farm.” I sat stunned as Dad continued his story. I had a classmate, Dale Karels, and I wondered if it was his house. “Two guys in a Piper Cub got lost in the storm.” Anyway, maybe they were trying to land. They came down between some trees and crashed into the first floor of the house.”
I stuttered, “Was. . .was anybody hurt?”
“The two guys in the plane were killed. The family’s okay, they were sleeping on the second floor. The house is pretty much beyond repair.”
Later, when Mom and my sisters weren’t there, I got Dad to describe the crash site. Smoke and fog gave the scene an eerie feel and there was the smell of gas in the air. Worried about an explosion they hosed down the area. The body of one man was partially covered by a door. A fireman grabbed his feet to pull him out and just the legs came. The fireman got sick. Stunned, the family huddled together in their nightclothes. They were taken to a neighboring farm to spend the rest of the night.
“Was there a boy there, my age?”
My dad nodded. “He’s okay.”
“Dale, Dale’s in my class.”
My home area was slow to embrace the 20th century. When I started school at Lester Prairie we still had two grades in one room. 1st and 2nd together, 3rd and 4th together, etc. A lot of farm kids still went to one room country school through the 8th grade. Dale was one of those kids. I’d only known him one year, our freshman year that we had just completed. We weren’t friends, yet, by the end of high school we’d be good friends, partly because of the plane crash. It sometimes took country school kids a while to find their footing, coming into a metropolis like Lester with its 900 people. Dale was quiet his first year, he was also a little overweight and not an athlete. I didn’t see or talk to Dale that whole summer.
When school began that fall I immediately approached him. He was more than willing to talk about the accident, and its aftermath. His older brother had just been discharged from the Army a week before the crash and had been acclimating himself to civilian life by partying at night. When he’d come home he’d stumble to the couch in the living room and sleep there. That night he went upstairs to his bedroom instead. The plane’s engine was found on the couch. Dale joked about his brother’s new found sobriety. His family was facing a difficult situation but Dale told the story with humor. No place to live, they cleaned out the chicken barn and moved what household items they could salvage there. Their home insurance should have paid for a new house, but before that happened, lawyers got involved. There was insurance on the house, a liability policy for the plane whenever it was rented, and the airport where it was based also had insurance. All three insurance companies thought someone else should pay.
The case was battled out in court and Dale would report on the seemingly never-ending saga. He missed some school to attend the court sessions and once was called on to testify. Dale had a great sense of humor and in his telling of the proceedings he’d mimic the lawyers and the absurdities of their presentation. At one point it was suggested the settlement should be lowered because the Karels’ were partially at fault. Because if they hadn’t built the house were they did, the plane wouldn’t have struck it when it came down. Dale had fun with that one, puffing himself up like a way too important lawyer. The family had to endure a cold winter in the chicken barn but the case was finally settled. Dale lived his last years of high school in a new, modern house.
After high school we took different paths, me the military and college for Dale. Despite a couple of attempts we never reconnected. Dale became a high school teacher, married and had a family. My class had a fifty year reunion and I was looking forward to seeing him again, but he didn’t attend. Several months later I received word he had died, having been sick at the time of our reunion. In writing this piece I looked up his. obituary. It was noted that he was known as a great storyteller. For sure, anybody that can find humor in their house being hit by a plane. As Dale put, “Never build a house where an airplane wants to crash.” Storytelling and laughing were the basis for our friendship.