When I was 5 years old one of my favorite pastimes was listening to my Dad's tales of the Old West. Occasionally, my parents took us to a "moving picture," which sometimes showed a Western short, often of my hero Tom Mix, who with his horse, Tony, was the hero of many an exciting Indian battle or train robbery. Afterwards my sister and I played cowboys and Indians for days on end. We even were able to attend a real Indian powwow when we visited our grandparents in Kansas. My sister Margaret was so impressed that she actually thought she was part Indian, which she believed until she disappointedly learned otherwise in high school.
Sis and I played well together, but it soon became evident that our imaginative natures demanded something more challenging than Cowboys and Indians or even playing circus with all the neighborhood animals.
One day Dad took us to an auto show room in which was displayed the first airplane we had ever seen up close. It was a brilliant red machine, made of wood and fabric, with many wires between the wings. As I learned much later, it was typical of the biplanes of that 1927 era. It had been designed and built by a young man who had been an Army pilot in "The World War" (the war to end all wars). I will never forget his name: Frank Sheehan. He was the first aviator I had ever met and the only one for several years. He had just been married and was on his honeymoon. He told us that he was going to fly the "Kentucky Cardinal" the next day – Valentines' Day. Sis and I were so excited that we could scarcely get to sleep that night. Great expectations filled our brains.
Just after breakfast, Dad and I were sitting on the front porch of the manse, waiting for the airplane to arise from the "airfield" a mile or so away. Soon I was thrilled to hear the sound of the engine and see the beautiful machine, so low that I could see the pilot wave at us. Suddenly, something dropped off. At first I thought it was a candy drop, an advertising stunt that sent candy bars down in little paper parachutes. But no! It was a wing followed by the plane twirling wildly to the ground. To our horror, the plane crashed in the street behind us and exploded.
Dad and I ran to the crash site, but it was too late to be of any help. The pilot was dead. To this day, I smell the burning paint from the fragments that fell in our yard.
Sis and I were terrified, and for the rest of the day we wouldn't get more than six inches away from our parents. But it wasn't long before we were building and "flying" our own airplanes, composed of ironing boards, lawn mowers and electric fans. Little did our parents or we even consider the possibility that just 15 years later, Sis and I would both be flying, Sis (Margaret Mooney) for TWA and I for the U.S. Army Air Forces.
More than 80 years after the crash, I was visiting my brother in Owensboro, Ky., the site of the story. I went to the local library where the friendly librarian, who remembered the event, found the local newspaper from Feb. 14, 1927. The paper's account of the crash of the ill-fated Kentucky Cardinal was so nearly in accord with my memory that I could have written it myself.