The tragedy occurred in November 1958, when I was ten years old, my sister Carla was seven, and my brother Peter was four. I know these things precisely because I found the court documents in an envelope tucked into a box of family photographs after my parents’ passing. Their lawsuit against the United States Government failed, perhaps because they lied a little about the circumstances of the tragedy.
My father was employed by Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas as a graduate student/research assistant in electrical engineering and later in organic chemistry. My mother worked as a typist or as a waitress or perhaps as both, then as a secretary for the American Angus Association. They were both working hard as they moved up their career paths toward their eventual employments as a Senior Research Chemist and an Assistant Auditor for the State of Ohio, respectively.
It happened that my mother had told me to take my little sister outside to play with our wagon while she napped before making dinner. I did not want to do this because I knew that I was too young to be responsible for my sister. My sister was was unruly, and she did not mind what I said. But my mother insisted, so out we went. We took our wagon to a vacant lot which was overgrown with sweet grasses and we made a nest there of blankets to play in. When it was time to go home, my sister added a small, greasy cylinder to the blankets in the wagon. I said no, to leave it there, as it was not ours, and I did not like the smell or look of it. I threw it back into the grasses, and my sister retrieved it, insisting that she wanted it. I did not argue further with her (Oh, but I wish I had.) as my mother usually sided with my sister and I felt that I had no authority to make my sister not take the cylinder. We got home just in time to sit down for dinner, but I was still worried about the cylinder so I told my parents that there was something in the wagon that they should look at because I did not know what it was. My parents told me to be quiet, “Shut up.”, and eat my dinner. My brother, who also had a habit of going against whatever I said, immediately jumped up from the table and ran into the bedroom to see what I was talking about. Within a minute a loud explosion occurred. We ran to him and found blood everywhere from his hand which had been split apart. My father screamed at me, “What have you done?” I tried to say I did not know what had happened, but he was infuriated with me. My mother kept trying to get my father to help her find my brother’s fingertips to put them on ice so they could be reattached, but my father was enraged with me. My mother bound up my brother’s hand, she found the fingertips, she put them on ice, and she took me to a neighbor’s home. Before they left for the hospital with my brother and sister, my father came to the neighbor’s home to rage at me again. My mother had to drag him away to go to the hospital. I had no answers for him. I still have no answers for why he would blame me, except that it was his habit to drink before dinner so he was probably drunk and shocked out of his mind. Initially, I told my parents that my sister had put the cylinder in the wagon, but I saw the deep fear my sister had of being held accountable, and she was so little, so I did not say that anymore. I just said that I did not know what the cylinder was, which was true.
How my parents could think I would know what an explosive device was at age ten is beyond me. My parents had no weapons of any sort, so I had never seen anything like it before. Nevertheless, for the rest of my life, my parents treated me as if I had been an adult and intentionally blown up my little brother’s hand.
My parents were highly intelligent, they knew that my little sister made an innocent mistake by taking what did not belong to her, yet my mother took this “mug shot” photograph of my sister a week after the tragedy. She was filled with grief. After that my mother was even more cold and distant with me, and my father withdrew even further into his alcohol, both of which made me fearful. I was not allowed to grieve, I was pushed away by everyone when I tried to express comfort to my brother. My sister was old enough to know that if I were not blamed then she would be, and she did everything she could to make sure that did not happen. My brother was also old enough to remember that I had warned my parents that there was something I was concerned about in the wagon, and he knew that he had gone where I had warned against, yet he too acted as if I had intentionally wounded him. He hated me for the rest of my life.
My enraged parents sent me to live with my paternal grandmother in Minnesota, but she soon sent me back to them. The story of how she treated me is a story for another day.
I did not realize how pivotal this tragic event was to my relationships within my family, until a wise, old counselor helped me understand. I wish it were not so.
Caption: “Mug Shot” of little Carla
taken by my mother, one week after the tragedy in 1958
Caption: Peter pulling Carla in our wagon
taken in 1957, the year before the tragedy
There are no pictures of me from this time period, I think that my mother tore them up.
Most pictures that I have of myself as a child came to me from my paternal grandmother.
Caption: US District Court of Kansas Civil Action on behalf of little Peter, pages 1, 17, & 21.
Most of the pages of this finding of law were missing from the envelope
where my parents had kept it for half a century.
My guess is that they did not like what the pages said.