Iowa Writes

MARK A. WERKEMA
Nile (Part 3)


        He came closer to the water in the plane's precipitous descent to the sea.  He had a growing sense of sadness.  Not dread, not fear, but just sadness.  For his mother and father back home on the farm in Adel, and how they might receive the news in the telegram.  For his true love, whom he would never see again, and the lost lifetime they would never have.  For everything he could imagine of dying, and what it would mean for those he once knew.
        He grew closer to that moment.
        He positioned the plane, heavy on the controls without power, to hit the water parallel to the waves.  He slid the canopy back to help his egress; cinched his shoulder harness down to a snug fit for impact; and secured his life vest for the impending crash.
        Oil still streamed over the top of the canopy, soaking him.  His helmet and goggles smeared by the darkened, sticky black mess.
        Two thousand feet.
        One thousand.
        A few hundred.
        Then 100, 50, 10 . . .
        Then, just a few feet above cresting whitecaps and the blue swells of the Caribbean it became silent, a slowed death, surreal and horrific.  He fought back the fears.  Just survive this.  Skimming the surface of the sea, he tensed, waiting to hit.
        In the last moment, it was the fear of a man about to drown that gripped his soul.
        A wingtip digs into the surf, a rising wave that couldn't have been avoided, so many swells enveloping the plane.  It careened the helpless craft sideways.  His head slams against the instrument panel, and all becomes black . . .
        Then silence.
        The crash happens within seconds.
        The creaking sound of the aluminum fuselage breaking apart was unheard by the pilot, who sat slumped forward, unconscious, and bleeding profusely from his forehead.
        The nose of the plane lurches full forward in the water, and as the foam of the sea comes to rest the weight of the engine carries the hull downward, descending into a sea which has become black, no longer aqua blue and pristine.  It is pulled downward to the depths, and soon, the tail slides lower after it has risen in the sinking motion, lower and lower until it disappears below the waterline into the blue depths, fathoms below, soon it is no more, eclipsed by the sea slipping to its grave.
        And then, within a moment, he was no more.

        He came closer to the water in the plane's precipitous descent to the sea.  He had a growing sense of sadness.  Not dread, not fear, but just sadness.  For his mother and father back home on the farm in Adel, and how they might receive the news in the telegram.  For his true love, whom he would never see again, and the lost lifetime they would never have.  For everything he could imagine of dying, and what it would mean for those he once knew.
        He grew closer to that moment.
        He positioned the plane, heavy on the controls without power, to hit the water parallel to the waves.  He slid the canopy back to help his egress; cinched his shoulder harness down to a snug fit for impact; and secured his life vest for the impending crash.
        Oil still streamed over the top of the canopy, soaking him.  His helmet and goggles smeared by the darkened, sticky black mess.
        Two thousand feet.
        One thousand.
        A few hundred.
        Then 100, 50, 10 . . .
        Then, just a few feet above cresting whitecaps and the blue swells of the Caribbean it became silent, a slowed death, surreal and horrific.  He fought back the fears.  Just survive this.  Skimming the surface of the sea, he tensed, waiting to hit.
        In the last moment, it was the fear of a man about to drown that gripped his soul.
        A wingtip digs into the surf, a rising wave that couldn't have been avoided, so many swells enveloping the plane.  It careened the helpless craft sideways.  His head slams against the instrument panel, and all becomes black . . .
        Then silence.
        The crash happens within seconds.
        The creaking sound of the aluminum fuselage breaking apart was unheard by the pilot, who sat slumped forward, unconscious, and bleeding profusely from his forehead.
        The nose of the plane lurches full forward in the water, and as the foam of the sea comes to rest the weight of the engine carries the hull downward, descending into a sea which has become black, no longer aqua blue and pristine.  It is pulled downward to the depths, and soon, the tail slides lower after it has risen in the sinking motion, lower and lower until it disappears below the waterline into the blue depths, fathoms below, soon it is no more, eclipsed by the sea slipping to its grave.
        And then, within a moment, he was no more.
        Within minutes after the impact into the sea, U.S. Navy rescue boats dispatched by the carrier arrived on the scene.  All that was left was a widening fuel and oil slick that began to spread ominously in the ink blue waters in the eerie path of tragedy that had befell an aviator only moments before.
        The body of Kinnick, and his airplane were never recovered.
        He was 24 years old.

        Nile Kinnick was a football player at the University of Iowa who played four years at quarterback, and in the 1939 season was a consensus All-America and won the Heisman Trophy Award.  Born on July 9, 1918 in Adel, Iowa amid the small rural hamlet where he grew up and the surrounding corn fields, this farm kid became an Iowa football legend.  In World War II he served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, and died one morning on a routine mission off the coast of Venezuela on June 2, 1943.  On that early summer day, fate and tragedy collided, making sport and aviation history.  As a former college sports star, now a patriotic World War II fighter pilot, his legend became one of fate, circumstance, and destiny.  The headlines of newspapers all over the country and the world buzzed with the news, and the wires flashed with the tragic news:

        HEISMAN TROPHY WINNER KINNICK DEAD
        IOWA'S KINNICK, 24, KILLED IN PLANE CRASH
        FOOTBALL STAR LOST AT SEA
        IOWA'S HEISMAN WINNER KINNICK DEAD IN NAVY CRASH

        The letter arrived from his Commander, LTCDR Paul Buie, Fighting Squadron 16, U.S. Navy and was dated 6 June 1943.  It told of the tragic news, expressing sincere condolences for their loss, and ended with poignant words describing what might have happened to the lost flyer that fateful summer morning.  "He was seen by one of his teammates to get clear of the plane . . ."  And later in the letter, he postulated what might have happened.  ". . . his safety belt broke on landing allowing Nile to lurch forward upon impact, probably striking his head on the structure of the airplane and injuring him to the extent that he could neither maintain himself afloat nor remember to inflate his life jacket."
        There was no cemetery with a gravesite plot for Kinnick in Iowa City or his hometown.  The memorial service for the young pilot and football star drew a huge crowd, full of sadness and tragic remembrance.  He is a memory, a hero, and a legend that inhabit this place, and that is all.

        I rise from the table at Starbucks, and walk over to the counter to get a refill on the coffee.  The young girl fills my cup and smiles.  I glance at my wristwatch.  As I turn back to walk over to my table I look, and he is no more.  No one was there, no white logo coffee cup or tan napkin, no newspaper, no old man.  The chair was neatly pushed in, the table clean.  I glance at the clock on the wall.  It is 9:50 a.m., and I need to start walking to my next seminar across the street at Shaeffer Hall.  I look around the Starbucks - no trace, just an unsettled memory of a conversation.

        On the 24th of April, 1943, Nile Kinnick wrote in hand-written cursive what would be his last letter back home to Iowa.  It was addressed to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. N.C. Kinnick.  His letter was more than the last piece of mail they ever received from their son, some weeks later.  It was a prophetic and heroic message which told of young men who became heroes through the throws of war; and those who fought so bravely had hometowns in small hamlets and towns across the nation.  It was yet another example of the ordinary boy becoming extraordinary in the fire of war, molded into the legacy that had become the memory of the young men of that War.  In it, were the haunting, but reassuring words of a lost aviator.
        Some words, some men, live forever.
        ". . . I have set the Lord always before me, because He is at my right hand.  I shall not be moved."

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


MARK A. WERKEMA

Mark A. Werkema is a writer and international airline pilot, and former military aviator from Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is at work on a novel of Amelia Earhart and a non-fiction historical narrative of two plane crashes.  His writing focuses on aviation and sports themes, and the human spirit and experience found in both.  He came up with the idea for this story while, on a morning run, he passed Kinnick Stadium.




Nile appeared on the Daily Palette in three parts.  If you missed Part 1 and Part 2, you can find them here and here.

This page was first displayed
on December 31, 2015

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