Last week was a treat! Dad (or Grampa to some)invited me, Aimee and Gretchen to Florida to visit. It was a great long weekend, with lots of sun, time for sleeping late and taking naps, and a bonus trip to Dad’s friend Maxie’s house.
We had no formal plans for this trip, given that none of us was dying to go to an amusement park or anything. We just wanted to relax and have a good time. That left plenty of room for good books and contemplations on what’s happening on “Lost.” Dad got into the mix too and offered up some folders of pictures and memorabilia. Not only did we get stories of how Wynn’s Oil became a part of our lives, but we hit the jackpot: the oral story of Grandpa Troyer’s plane crash backed up with a newspaper clipping from 1953. In addition, Dad had the clipping from his (Grandpa was involved too) own plane crash in 1969.
I’ve spent the last 5 years studying History, and the value of oral history is significant. It has one problem though. It relies on the memory of the person telling the story and in more cases than not, that memory can be a little fuzzy. To obtain the oral recollection and have a primary source to back it up is remarkable.
In 1953, my grandfather was in the process of relocating his family back to New Jersey after a difficult year as a Wynn’s Friction Proof distributor in Huntington, West Virginia. He had managed to obtain a distributorship in Northern New Jersey, and purchase a house only a block away from the last house they had lived in before the brief move to West Virginia. The year in Huntington had not been particularly lucrative and my grandmother was miserable, most probably because she was separated from her large family and other familiarities. I wouldn’t say she was an adventurous person anyway.
No matter their economic status, my grandfather always managed to hang on to his airplane. He had been a pilot since barnstorming days and loved flying the way my Dad loved driving cars on race courses. At the time of the move back to New Jersey, the plane was actually useful, since many trips back and forth were necessary in order to finalize the transfer of the West Virginia distributorship to its new custodian. By August, Grandma, Aunt Trish and Dad were comfortable in the new house at 12 Western Ave., Chatham, and Grandpa was on one of his last trips back to Huntington. I can just imagine the conversation, “I’ll only be a few days…”
The weather on the return flight may have started out ok, but at some point, Grandpa needed to drop down below the clouds; most likely because he wasn’t really sure where he was. It was an overcast day and suddenly Grandpa realized that he was too close to the ground, a ridge was looming ahead and he needed to land immediately, regardless of the lack of an airport. I’m not sure whether he really knew it, but he was over rural Pennsylvania. The topography was less than ideal and the only spot available was a field in New Bloomfield, Pa. The area has rounded hills with flat spots where farmers have carved out farms. It was that field or hit the ridge.
In the process of setting the plane down, Grandpa smashed his face into the dash and instrument panel of the small plane. In addition he fractured 5 vertebras in his back. The newspaper did not mention any other broken bones, though family mythology had mentioned possible damage to arms, legs, ribs, or collarbones in the past. Either way, he was bloody and severely injured, and in a remote area. Apparently staying with the now damaged airplane was not a good idea, because Grandpa proceeded to extricate himself and TWO SUITCASES from the plane. (The suitcases will be a connecting theme later.)
Now I don’t know about you, but if the majority of my facial bones are broken and my back is in tatters, I’m not so sure I could find the oomph to move, let alone worry about my luggage. But it seems that those bags must have been very important, because Grandpa managed to crawl, or walk, or drag himself somehow to a farmhouse to ask for help. No one was home, so he tried to hotwire some sort of vehicle (I do not have the clipping in my possession right now for reference), but was unable to do so. After more laborious and I’m sure extremely painful effort, he found a farmhouse even further down the road where there were two women at home. They drove him to a doctor’s office – I suppose that there was no hospital near – and then the doctor managed to call an ambulance to transport him to a real medical facility. He was eventually transported back to Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey…a place he would see the inside of way too much. He eventually died in that hospital.
The result was that our Grandfather was never the same again. He never let the extent of his injuries slow him down while we were young, but later in life a number of surgeries were necessary and some didn’t go well at all. In the end he was felled by chronic pain and died when my son Alex was a baby. I think his spirit lives on and was transferred in some supernatural way to my husband (or maybe that’s why I love him so), because I catch myself often thinking that things Gary does are very “grandpa-like.”
Fast forward to 1969. Grandpa and Dad are in their plane, having just taken off from somewhere on some sort of business trip…(that part isn’t important right now). Dad is the pilot and Grandpa occupies the right hand seat. Dad realizes that the landing gear will not retract properly, which also means that it is likely stuck in some way and will also not go back down properly. He asks Grandpa whether they should radio in and try to land where they are. Here’s the very Grandpa answer: “no, head for home…we have full fuel tanks and if something’s going to go wrong, let’s have it go wrong at home.” So a few tense hours later they are on the approach to Morristown Memorial Airport and radio in their suspicions about the landing gear. The tower says to make a slow pass to see if the controller can see anything with field glasses. While this sounds a little primitive, it is effective. They confirm that the landing gear is indeed not properly in place and that the nose gear will probably not support the plane properly.
So what should they do? The tower instructs Dad and Grandpa to start circling the airport to burn off the remaining fuel. They will notify fire and rescue personnel on the ground. The fire trucks start arriving with lights and sirens, which attract lots of attention from people who are in the neighborhood of the airport. People start lining up on the access road to the airport to see what’s going on! Dad and Grandpa can see all of this from the air as they fly in circles. Dad asks the tower if they are selling tickets? Can he get a cut of that action? In the mean time, some one has decided that it would be a good time to call my mother and grandmother and have them come to the airport. Why? What if something really bad happens? Do they really want to see? I suppose the reason was so they could authorize emergency medical treatment??? It didn't matter though because all the traffic made it impossible for them to get there before the landing.
It’s finally time to land the plane, and things go exceptionally well. Yes, the gear does collapse, and there are some sparks and a few tiny flames that quickly go out on their own. However, the overzealous firefighters start spraying water everywhere. They soak the tail, inside the tail, the cockpit, and the very expensive instrument panel. There was no fire in the cockpit or anywhere near the instruments. There was no fire in the engine. There was $25,000 of damage in 1969 dollars. Dad was livid. He climbed out of the plane right away unhurt with a stack of wet Oreo cookies and TWO SUITCASES. He offered the cookies to the nearest fireman. Not a very good day. I can’t say whether this crash made Grandpa’s previous injuries worse, but I’m sure it didn’t help. No particular connection to any of his future decline was blamed solely on this incident.
Troyers never leave their luggage behind.
We now have Dad’s narrative (which all three of us will expand on), the two newspaper clippings, the possibility of finding additional news reports, a letter Grandpa wrote to an insurance company about service he received in claiming damages, and we know when and where it all happened.There is way more to tell – like the part about Morristown deciding they should invest in firefighting equipment specialized for aircraft emergencies after the 1969 incident, and I’ll tackle that after graduation in May, but we have been able to identify the likely location of the field where the 1953 crash happened and plan to visit the area in April…on my birthday. It’s an appropriate birthday activity for a historian, don’t you think?