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The Longest EngagementA Story of Determination, Courage, and Never-Ending Love
By William Karnes
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 William Karnes
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Explosion
There was a tremendous, thundering explosion as the house collapsed, leaving flames everywhere, but I am getting ahead of myself. The explosion happened on November 15, 1938, which was seven years to the month before I was born. The previous year, my Mom and Dad, Jim and Marie Karnes, had moved into his mother Nellie's house on Castle Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. Nellie had been widowed when my Dad was nineteen years old. Grampa Karnes was an engineer for the Erie Railroad and was killed in an accident at the Youngstown, Ohio rail yards.
Gramps was the man who drove the old coal-fired locomotives. The huge drive wheels and piston rods had to be oiled so they would not overheat or snap. Grampa Karnes was leaning in between two of the wheels and oiling them, when his partner in the train cab accidentally moved the throttle, which lurched the train forward, and decapitated Grampa.
Nellie, whom we called Nana, was getting up in years, so when Mom and Dad got married in July 1937, it was mutually beneficial for them to move in with her. Nana could use the company, and Mom and Dad needed a place to stay.
November 15, 1938 dawned overcast and cold. It was a typical November day in Cleveland - cold, damp, dreary. This was caused by the North winds sweeping out of Canada and across Lake Erie, which had been warmed by the summer sun. The North wind swooped up warm water particles, turning them into black, angry clouds, which deposited bone-chilling dampness on the city.
Mom had just come up from the basement after putting a load of baby clothes into the washing machine. My sister, Therese Marie, was born the previous April 16th, and was one day shy of seven months old. Mom checked on my sister who was amusing herself in the playpen in the sitting room. Mom and Dad had recently installed a venetian blind in the room to keep out the cold where the baby spent much of her day. As she went to the window to close the blind, she waved to the Troy Laundry man leaving the shed next door with a bundle of soiled shirts. He had just dropped off clean shirts for the neighbors, Dr. Kennerdale and his brother, who lived together. Since it was a weekday, the doc and his brother, both bachelors, were at work. Mom closed the blinds, turned away from the window and leaned over the playpen to pick up my sister. At that moment the window behind her shattered, spewing shards of glass against the window blind and into the room. The chandelier above the playpen was blown through the ceiling and into the second floor of the home. Mom grabbed my sister and ran out the front door along with Nana. Doc Kennerdale's house had exploded from a gas leak and completely collapsed upon itself. The remaining rubble was ablaze and so was Nana's house. The Doc's front door was propelled, intact, against the porch of the house across the street. The street itself was completely blocked with flaming debris and burning cars, so Mom and Nana had to climb over a fence next door to escape the flames.
St. Augustine's was their parish church and only a few blocks away. When Father Walsh heard the explosion, he immediately followed the fire trucks towards the smoke on Castle Avenue. He found my Mom with a bleeding leg as she wandered around clutching my sister. Father took them to his car and drove them to St. Vincent Charity Hospital. Nana had been in another part of the house and was not hurt. My sister was miraculously unscathed, but Mom needed many stitches in her leg, after the ER doctor removed pieces of imbedded, shattered glass. Mom recognized the ER nurse, Ruth McGuire, whom she had known for years, but Mom was too exhausted to say anything. Ruth began wiping all the black ash and soot off of Mom's face, and when she finished, she was startled.
"Marie! I didn't recognize you with all that soot on your face. I can't believe there is not so much as a scratch on your baby and that you escaped without more serious injuries."
Dad was working at Bond's, an upscale men's clothing store at 419 Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, when this all happened. As was his custom, Dad was spending his lunch hour at the Cleveland Public Library, when one of the salesmen came rushing to tell him what had happened. Dad didn't have a car, so he ran the several blocks to the hospital to be with Mom and my sister.
Mom said that Dad wasn't the same after the explosion, and that he had a "nervous breakdown", which today would be diagnosed as clinical depression. He wasn't able to work for a year. Mom and Dad moved in with Mom's parents while Nana went to live with Dad's sister.
My parents had paid cash for all new furniture, which they were paying monthly storage charges on until they could get a place of their own. They were tired of paying the charges, and had their furniture delivered to Nana's house six weeks before the explosion. Mom lamented that if they had left the furniture in storage, they would not have lost it in the fire. As it was, all they had left were the clothes on their backs. This loss, together with the death of Grampa several years before, was just too much for my father to handle. Mom had to go to work at May Company department store to bring in money while Dad was unable to work.
If my Mom had died that day, as so many other people had, I would not have been born. Was that coincidence, fate or Divine plan?
Delightful Autumn Day
Frank Zigman went to work the morning of Friday, October 20, 1944, just as he had done countless times before. It was another beautiful autumn day in Cleveland, Ohio, that his wife, Mary, and daughter, Patty, would be enjoying along with his mother, Hattie, who lived nearby and visited often. A neighbor was already out in the cool morning air burning leaves by the curbside, and the incense-like fragrance of the leaves filled Frank's nostrils, energizing him with a joyful feeling of being alive. Young Patty had recently turned three, and that day she filled the house with her cheerful exuberance. Earlier she had stood in the window and waved goodbye to her eight-year-old sister, Mary Ann, as she left for class at St. Vitus School. It was a great day to be alive.
There was a feeling of hope among family and friends that World War II would be over by this time next year. Industry could revert from tanks and planes to making cars and building homes. They longed for the end of rationing of food, coffee, flour, and sugar. Plentiful gasoline was every man's dream, while the women prayed for nylon stockings and makeup. News reports had the Germans being driven back towards the Fatherland, and the Japanese losing ground in the Pacific. The month before a young naval flyer was shot down near the island of Chichi Jima which was to the north of Iwo Jima. He was rescued by the crew of the submarine Finback, at the time a seemingly unremarkable event to anyone but the family and friends of the aviator, George H. W. Bush. Coincidence? Fate? Divine plan?
Frank worked as a time study man at Lamson and Sessions, a manufacturer of metal fasteners. He boarded the streetcar for the ride to the factory. The rhythmic humming, clacking and swaying of the ride always comforted him. Alighting from the streetcar, he had to navigate his way through the parking lot to the factory entrance, which was towards the rear of the plant. The lot was small, since most of the workers could not afford a car. However, the vehicles of the executives were quite impressive. The vice president drove a 1941 Packard 110 station wagon sporting its wooden sides and dark brown finish. The president's son heralded his presence with his 1941, red, Willy's hotrod with its shark-like hood and silver grill, but the showpiece was his father, the president's, 1940 black Cadillac convertible with its powerful, squared roof lines, oval rear window, and rolled up front fenders in the shape of half tires.
Frank entered the building, walked the stairs to his second floor office, and hung up his coat, fully exposing his white shirt, bow tie and suspenders which were the businessman's attire of the era. While sitting at his desk that afternoon, Frank heard his name called several times in rapid succession. He looked over at his assistant bent over her desk a few feet away and asked "Yes, what do you want?" She looked up at him puzzled and replied "I didn't say anything." Afterwards, Frank surmised he had heard the voice of his dying Mary calling to him.
Just then Frank heard the faint peeling of bells from St. Vitus Church off in the distance. Glancing up at the bold black hands and numbers on the white face of the large wall clock, he observed it was two forty. He thought it strange that the bells were ringing at such an odd time. The cacophony of tones rang quickly and out of order as if excitedly shouting each to the other. Father must be repairing the bells, he mused. Who would have thought the vibrant sounds were announcing the departure of one hundred thirty souls?
The Great Disaster
Explosions ripped the air, and the house shuddered repeatedly like a shivering giant.
"Quick, Mary, we have to get out of the house" yelled Hattie, "the Germans are attacking."
"No, Frank said if the Germans attacked we were to go to the basement."
"But the house is rumbling like it's about to collapse and there are fires outside," pleaded Hattie.
"Frank is a civil defense volunteer, Hattie, and he told me to take Patty and run to the basement and that is what I am going to do."
Mary swooped up little Patty in her arms and rushed down into the basement. Hattie ran outside into a blazing inferno as the whole neighborhood was exploding into fireballs and collapsing buildings. She jumped a fence and ran to the nearby pond to escape the blistering heat and raining firestorm. As she looked back, the home she had just rushed out of exploded and collapsed upon itself and roared with the flames and intensity of a steel mill blast furnace.
At 2:40 P.M. on that peaceful autumn day, the great East Ohio Gas Company explosions and fires devastated city blocks and hundreds of homes. The East Ohio Gas Company had constructed four huge holding tanks at their plant in the neighborhood. The tanks held liquified natural gas which greatly increased East Ohio's storage capacity. On that beautiful autumn day, a seam had split on tank number four, which allowed the dangerous vapors to pour out, enter the sewer system and come up through the drains in the neighborhood houses. When tank number four finally ignited, the flames raced through the surrounding area and incinerated the homes it entered. It wasn't long before tank number three exploded and continued the devastation and carnage.
Hattie stared vacantly at the house she had fled from moments before. She was frozen with shock while all around her flames engulfed cars, homes, people. The explosions continued for forty minutes and the fires smoldered for days. Where moments before the perfume of burning leaves had filled the air, there now was only the acrid smell of charred wood, shingles and burned flesh.
Oh my God, what do I tell Frank?
Fifty years later, Frank would relate how he had run all the way to the end of East 61st Street. His shirt was soaked as if he had been caught in a rainstorm, and the sweat poured off his hands and face keeping time with the rise and fall of his heaving chest struggling to fill his lungs with oxygen. The blast furnace red of his face mirrored the heat and devastation of his hours before tranquil street. The enormity of the tragedy began to well up in him.
Adrenalin surged through his body as he darted behind the policeman standing sentinel to prevent people from entering the warlike zone. He frantically dodged smoldering rubble and cascading homes succumbing to the fires that relentlessly continued to burn. A charred fire truck lay ten feet below the street in a cavern ripped open by the exploding natural gas which had rushed through the surrounding sewers.
As he reached the lot where his home had stood so peacefully that very morning, fear welled up inside him. Although surrounded by intense heat, he suddenly felt cold as his legs shakily led him to the edge of his basement. This was all that was left, that, and the seared and smoldering dress acting as a shroud over a lifeless and decimated form. He jumped the several feet down into the basement rather than walk around to the surviving steps. As he clawed his way to the lifeless form, he was oblivious to the rubble as it tore flesh from his hands. He reverently turned over his wife and discovered that his once vibrant and lovely Mary was no longer recognizable.
The only identifying markings were the remnants of the once crisp, now charred, cotton print dress and the miraculous medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary branded into her sternum.
As Frank scanned the basement, there was no trace of Patty. Perhaps Hattie had escaped with her. Hattie! Patty! Where are they? As Frank turned to climb from the once dark basement which now lay exposed to the bright sun of day, his eyes fell upon the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Disbelief yielded to awe. This statue had been on Mary's dresser in their bedroom. It was a replica of Our Lady of Lourdes, sheltered by the grotto, with Bernadette kneeling before her. This icon had inexplicably fallen from upstairs into the basement, landed upright, was singed, but otherwise unscathed. Bernadette was missing, like his dear Patty.
Fortunately, his daughter, Mary Ann, had been at school or she may have perished also.
Mary Ann! Is she still at school? My God! What am I going to tell her?
If Mary had not died that day, then Norene would not have been born. Was that coincidence, fate or Divine plan?
I like to imagine that on October 20, 1945 God called to Gabriel to bring Him a golden chest which contained very special souls. I picture Him looking through the souls intently, with His all knowing eyes, until a special glimmer catches His attention.
I imagine Him saying, "This is the one. It is sweet, soft, gentle, compassionate and yet has inner strength and determination. Take this to Frank and his new wife, Rose."
I envision Gabriel placing the precious soul in their midst as the miracle of a new life is created.
After the devastation of the East Ohio Gas fires, Frank was left with the ashes of all his worldly possessions and his eight year old daughter Mary Ann who had fortunately been at school that day. He needed a home and a mother for his child. Taking the insurance money he received from the tragedy, he bought another home in Lakewood where he, Hattie, and Mary Ann tried to start over again. Hattie was nice enough, but she just could not be a mother to Mary Ann, a gramma yes, but not a mother.
Cyril was one of Frank's buddies at work and was keenly aware of Frank's plight. "Cy" had a younger, unmarried sister whom he felt would be ideal for Frank. Cy knew Frank played in a band, and decided take his sister, Rose, to a Valentine's Day dance where Frank's band was playing. It wasn't long after, I fantasized, that Gabriel placed the soul into Norene who was born in the summer of 1946 to Frank and Rose. They had two more children after Norene, Tom and Karen.
Excerpted from The Longest Engagement by William Karnes Copyright © 2010 by William Karnes. Excerpted by permission.
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