When I was a little kid, my grandfather Fred (my mother’s father) once sat me down and showed me an old piece of what looked like jagged sharkskin. He stared down at it and said, “This is a little piece of history.”
“Really?” I asked. Loving all things to do with history, I was hooked. Pop proceeded to tell me the story about this frayed fabric, which turned out to be from the infamous airship, the Hindenburg.
On May 6, 1937, Pop and his brother Charlie made the trip from New York City to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to see what they thought was going to an historic moment – the arrival of the airship Hindenburg at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Pop was a New York City firefighter and Charlie was a stage actor. Being of German descent, they wanted to see the great airship from the old country that they had heard so much about.
“The Hindenburg was like the Titanic in the sky,” Pop had said. “We could never afford a ticket (about $400 during the Depression was totally out of his ballpark), but we wanted to see it just to get a glimpse, and maybe get a little souvenir for Margaret (my grandmother).”
Of course, due to bad weather, Pop would never have had to leave Manhattan. Because of encountering turbulence and rain, the airship made a detour and did fly over the city, giving office workers and pedestrians ample time to get a glimpse of its enormous length and breadth. It was indeed like a Titanic in the sky.
The difference was that the Hindenburg was not on a maiden voyage. It had logged in over 200,000 miles of successful voyages back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. Wealthy and famous Americans had traveled aboard it in very luxurious conditions, and most people (including Pop) had an idea that this type of travel would one day eclipse ocean liners as the most popular (and much faster) way to cross the ocean.
So Pop and Uncle Charlie stood on that field waiting in the rain to see the legendary airship from the old country. Pop was a World War I veteran, serving on a submarine chaser in the Navy. He and his brother had been invited by Pop’s old friend Andy who was still in the service. The men lit cigars and talked over old times, remembering their dangerous but exciting days of dropping depth-charges on “the heads of the Krauts.”
Despite Pop’s service, he still was proud of being German and of his family history. Since his relatives had come to the United States in the 1860s, Pop had no contact with anyone in Germany, but he lived in a neighborhood in Queens (Glendale) where storefronts had signs in German and English, the conversation on the street was usually held in German, and he would come home from work to meals of sauerbraten, knockwurst, or wiener schnitzel served by my grandmother.
Pop described watching the great ship come in and at first being totally in awe of something “bigger than Ebbetts Field in the sky.” He said that all at once he saw it “buckle” and heard it making a horrendous noise, as if “an engine were being dragged over cobblestones.” Suddenly the whole thing was on fire, listing upward and down, and the cigars dropped from the men’s mouths as they looked at one another in disbelief. Instinctively Pop wanted to run forward, but Andy pointed to all the sailors running toward the burning wreckage and said, “Let us handle it, Fred.”
Pop and his brother watched Andy run into the crowd of other sailors heading toward the burning skeleton. Amazingly, 62 of the 97 people on board survived, in large part due to the courage of those sailors who were first responders in every sense of the word. Later on Pop and Charlie walked closer to the smoldering remains, and Pop noticed pieces of the singed outer skin of the airship all over the ground. He leaned down, picked one up, and slipped it into his pocket. This would be the only souvenir he could show my grandmother, instead of a postcard or some other memorabilia he thought he would bring home.
All these years later I think about seeing that piece of fabric, its jagged gray surface slightly burnt, with a few threads dangling from the sides. Pop kept it in a clear plastic bag in a drawer in his bedroom, and he said that every once and a while he would take it out and just look at it. The grandeur of its fame, the awesome scope of its size, and the lore of the flying airship all came back to him, but also the horror of a fire that seemed worse than anything he had seen in New York buildings in his 25 years as a firefighter.
I do not know what happened to that little piece of history. I grew up and went to college, and when Pop died I did not think of it until many years later, and by that time all his things were gone, and only pictures and memories remained. Pop and his brother had gone down to Lakehurst, New Jersey, for what they thought would be an historic moment, but they got much more than they ever expected – a spectacle that 75 years later we still remember as one of the great disasters of the 20th century.
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