Fleshing out a memory

Editor’s note: “Almanac” writer Clark Fair and Redoubt Reporter publisher Jenny Neyman are often asked where the ideas come from for this section and how the information is gathered to form a narrative. Since Clark had some minor personal involvement in this story, this seemed like a good time to provide an example to answer those questions.

By Clark Fair

Redoubt Reporter

One of my most visceral memories from my early days as a homestead kid involves two related images: a bloody human face and a broken airplane.

The bloody face belonged to Dr. Elmer Gaede, who was a partner of Dr. Paul Isaak (our usual family physician) and who practiced medicine on the second floor of the Soldotna Medical Clinic, while my dad practiced dentistry on the first floor.

The broken airplane also belonged to Dr. Gaede. It was broken when it crashed into the woods just a few dozen yards off Forest Lane, and about three-quarters of a mile down the road from our home.

I saw the bloody face when Gaede was carried on a stretcher from the woods and placed into the back of an ambulance parked on the gravel. I saw the broken plane later when I walked into the woods — noting a broken spruce tree and flattened brush, and spotting the landing gear (especially one of the wheels) broken and scattered away from the rest of the aircraft.

Nine years old at the time (Aug. 2, 1967), I held on to those images, never recalling that there had been other individuals in the plane, never knowing the cause of the crash, never bothering to learn about the injuries or recoveries involved. The images simply stuck with me, and life went on — until one day last October, when I was researching the funeral of George Dudley.

As the staff at the Soldotna public library will attest, I have made numerous requests over the past three years to be allowed to look through the bound copies of The Cheechako News that they keep housed in a locked back room, and I have spent dozens and dozens of hours hunched over tables there, inhaling the mustiness of old newsprint as I looked for interesting information. In October, while poring over a volume from 1967, I came across this headline from the Aug. 4 edition: “Forced Landing Injures Soldotna Doctor, Druggist.”

A few paragraphs into the story, I knew that I had unearthed the foundation behind my memories. On a yellow legal pad, I excitedly scribbled all of the pertinent facts — dates, times, names — planning to show the data to my mother and see what she remembered. Beyond that, I figured that I’d file away the yellow sheet of paper and maybe revisit it someday.

That day turned out to be earlier this month. I was trying to decide what to write for “Almanac” when I came across my notes. I looked again at the names there: Most of the individuals in the story were deceased, but two names stood out among the living — my neighbor, Jack Foster, and longtime family friend, Lee Bowman. A teenager at the time, Foster had seen the plane go down and had rushed to help. A Soldotna pharmacist at the time, Bowman had been a passenger in the plane.

I picked up the phone and called Bowman. He answered, and he readily agreed to be interviewed. We talked for more than an hour, and he agreed to hand me some old Polaroids of the crash site when we both attended a ski meet two days later. Shortly after we said our goodbyes, I punched in the numbers for Foster. He was also at home, and we spoke for about 20 minutes.

In my brain, the haziness of the past was resolving itself. Around those disparate images, a story was taking shape. But I wanted more information, I wanted to be sure about some of the details, and I wanted to know if more photographs were available.

I sent an e-mail to Gaede’s eldest daughter, Naomi Gaede-Penner, an author of several books, including “Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor,” about her father. I also sent an e-mail to my friend Henry Knackstedt (a pilot and a member of the Civil Air Patrol), asking for information on planes — especially engine failures and stalls.

Penner, who had scanned hundreds of her father’s old slides, responded quickly with a quote from her father (from her book), and she was generous with her images. She also e-mailed her brother, Mark, about the accident, and he responded with more information about the type of plane his father had been flying that day.

Knackstedt also helped tremendously, as he has many times in the past. He hooked me up with a pilot who has had a long affiliation with the Federal Aviation Administration, and who was able to find and send me a copy of the National Transportation Safety Board official accident report.

With all this information at hand, the actual writing was a pleasure.

And as a bonus, I was finally able to clarify and put into perspective that bloody face and that broken plane from so long ago.

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