On February 12, 1963, I was six years old. My parents had gone away on a business trip to Miami, Florida, for my dad’s firm, the Thermo-King Corporation. It was the first time they’d ever traveled together on an airplane-the first time, in fact, that my mother had flown anywhere. It was somewhat last minute. My dad, having no desire to attend yet another annual convention, had canceled the trip but his boss called him and told him he wanted him there: oh, and bring “the wife” so she could act as hostess for other wives in Miami. So, my mother scrambled to find childcare for her six children. She also ran to a local store to get the forms necessary to make out a will and guardianship papers. Many years later, she recalled how “traumatic” it was to do so just days before “departing on that trip.”
I was sent to a neighbor’s home while they were gone and wasn’t happy about it: I was a homebody who just wanted to be with mom. I remember a distraught weekend but then, that Tuesday afternoon, hurrying home from school, happy and eager to see my folks who I knew would be back that day. I remember rounding that last corner at 47th and Woodlawn, eagerly scooting up the remaining quarter block to our house–and then suddenly slowing down. Numerous strange cars were parked in front of our home. Something was up. I remembered climbing the sets of steps to our back door which opened into a kitchen full of people. I barely made it in before an elderly neighbor reached out, grabbed my wrist, and poured a spoonful of something bitter in my mouth saying, “Here! Take this! It will calm you down!” Given that Mrs. Kennedy scared me even on a good day, I bolted away from her in confusion. I just wanted to find my mom.
I finally located her in the next room. She was quiet. Her eyes were red from crying. And she said to me words I will never forget, “Your Dad’s plane is missing.” She was supposed to have been on that plane with him but, at the last minute, had taken an earlier flight out of Miami to visit her brother in Pittsburgh whom she hadn’t seen in years. The rest of the memories from that day are fleeting. I remember my older sister hauling me up to the convent of St. Benedict’s Church to ask the nuns for prayers. I remember stopping at a neighbor’s house on the way home to see a friend. While we were there the radio come on with a news bulletin that the plane was missing and we fled in tears. And late that night, after going to sleep in my mom’s bed, I heard the phone ring. She answered it, and soon started crying: it was the Associated Press asking for information about of my dad. That’s how she found out the wreckage had been of Flight 705 had been found. And that there were no survivors.
The impact of 705’s crash profoundly affected members of my family in ways both visible and hidden. It left scars that marked each of us differently; it influenced what I became. Shortly after I was born, my folks had moved out West from South Dakota, leaving all relatives behind. Our ties with my dad’s side of the family had never, for the most part, been strong and after he passed that connection became ever more tenuous. As I entered adulthood I was driven to learn more about him, about the people and places that shaped his life. I became a historian, motivated in large part by how little I knew about my dad.
For decades my profession, my daily work, has documented and preserved stories of people and place. One of the stories I have wanted to gather for over thirty years is that of the people that boarded 705 that February morning in 1963. I wanted to created a place for these stories to land, a place for others, who went through the tragedy my family did, to connect. Tonight on the forty-eighth anniversary of that sad event I voiced that desire aloud to my eldest daughter, Sarah. And she, Jack Heil’s third grandchild, gave me a way to begin. She helped me harness something that would have been inconceivable in 1963: the power of the Internet to construct a blog.
So, in tribute to all who boarded Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 705 on February 12, 1963, the thoughts and memories of the family and friends they left behind are welcome.