Thursday, January 31, 2008

In a Field Near Bazaar; The Knute Rockne Memorial

March 31st, 1931, a young Easter Heathman heard what he thought was the sound of automobiles on the crude country roads of Chase County Kansas. Instead he was a witness to a tragic event that came to change his life until his death this week at 90.

The local telephone operator soon called and reported that a plane apparently had crashed near their farm. Easter Heathman, his dad and brothers went out to look for the site. 3 miles southwest of the small town of Bazaar they saw the wreckage of a plane, most of it buried in the soft ground.

They found the bodies, 8 in total, and helped load them into a hearse. One of them was a legend in his own time, Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.

The Fokker F-10 Super Universal was one of the most advanced planes of its time. But its flaw was wooden construction. The laminated wood was subject to water damage and indeed water loosened the glue that held the wing spar together. The wing fluttered, causing the plane to go into an uncontrolled spin. Not only did the crash claim Rockne and set off a tide of mourning, it changed the way aircraft were constructed forever.

Heathman became the caretaker of the site and guided many Notre Dame alum, Rockne fan, biographer and the curious over the years. The site is not public, it is on private property and arrangements had to be made in advance.

One fine summer afternoon probably 1992-1993 I was in Chase County on business, working for a company that had operations there. I wanted to see the place just for the heck of it. The manager of the property there was a long time Chase Countian, knew everyone in the county (easy as there were less than 3,000 total) and soon arranged a tour for me the next day.

Heathman was in late 70's or so, but still agile and friendly. The site is in a remote pasture, flat as all can see, stark and windy. A large stone monument stands with the names of the victims. He recounted the crash for me, much as I wrote it above. It was clear that 60 years later the event still haunted him. He told me then he still could find tiny pieces of glass and wood from the place from time to time. Treating the place with care and reverence, he allowed me to gaze and listen to him recount the fateful day.

I am sure the monument will stand, someone else will ensure that visitors can make the trek to the somewhat remote site. Most will be content with the new sign that is at the Kansas Turnpike Bazaar rest stop. But without Heathman, a connection has been lost, it can't be the same now.

Glad I played "hooky" from work for a couple of hours that day to hear first hand the day Notre Dame football, and aviation changed forever in a tall grass field.

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