Residents relect on loss of JFK Jr. | RecordCourier.com
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Residents relect on loss of JFK Jr.

by Linda Hiller

Though Martha’s Vineyard is thousands of miles from the Carson Valley, many area residents and visitors have been touched by the disappearance of John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister, Lauren Bessette.

All three are missing and presumed dead following the failure of their Piper Saratoga 32 to reach Martha’s Vineyard Friday evening.

For many Carson Valley baby boom-age residents, John F. Kennedy Jr.’s disappearance immediately brought to mind the events of Nov. 22, 1963, when his father, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. John Jr. was only a toddler at the time.

Democrat leader reflects. Kelly Chase, 47, the vice chairman for the Democratic Party Central Committee, and a Valley attorney for eight years, said he, like other Americans, awoke Saturday to the news of John Kennedy Jr.’s missing airplane.

“I was saddened,” Chase said. “He was not just for the Democratic party, he was – for the nation – America’s favorite son.”

Chase said he had been watching the coverage of the plane’s disappearance over the weekend and was struck by an irony in the timing of the tragedy.

“I have always been a great follower of the space program, ever since I was a young boy growing up in Tonopah, and I found it ironic that John Jr. disappeared at this same time that we are celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the moon landing, which was probably his father’s greatest achievement as president.”

Chase vividly remembers watching the moon landing on July 20, 1969 from a convenience store in Tonopah.

“I remember watching Neil Armstrong step onto the moon and afterwards, I was so excited I just went outside and drove up and down the street,” he said. “When you think about it, landing on the moon is the pinnacle of human achievement for this century and it was John F. Kennedy’s greatest legacy, because he made it happen.”

Chase said the weekend’s events also brought back to him a clear memory of the day in November 1963 when John F. Kennedy Jr.’s father, the President of the United States, died at the age of 46.

“I remember being in 6th grade at Tonopah Elementary School, and we’d just gotten in trouble for throwing snowballs,” Chase recalled. “The vice principal came down and said ‘I hate to have to punish you kids on the day the president died.’ We were devastated. Of course, school was dismissed for the rest of the day. It was awful. This has brought all the memories back, and the timing seems so ironic. It just makes you wonder why good people have to die.”

Airport site of some gloom. Jim Braswell, 52, Minden Tahoe Airport manager and operational services director, said the gloom set in motion by John Kennedy Jr.’s disappearance also sparked him back to Nov. 22, 1963, when he was a sophomore at Norview High School in Virginia Beach, Va.

“I was a teen-ager when JFK was shot,” Braswell said. “I remember it was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and it was a gloomy Friday. It is a shame to see this happen again to the Kennedy family, because they have represented this country in so many important times. And, the fact that John Jr. is the only male heir to JFK feels especially significant.”

The recent death of three glider pilots who flew out of Minden-Tahoe Airport also adds to the mood in private aviation circles around the small airport, Braswell said.

“In many ways, it’s a gloomy time for people,” he said. “Yes, people are nervous, but I don’t think they’ll stop flying because of it.”

A Piper Saratoga 32 plane registered to an Incline Village company sits on the tarmac at the Minden-Tahoe Airport. It is considered a high performance aircraft, selling for six figures.

Pilots sad, concerned. A fly-in convention of Grumman American private airplanes and their owners convened Monday at the Minden-Tahoe Airport, and will continue through Thursday.

Their gathering, which involves more than 100 members of the American Yankee Association, will not be marred by JFK Jr.’s private plane crash, according to the editor of the organization’s newsletter, Steve Williams.

“This is a tragic accident, which happens all the time with trains, cars and motorcycles, as well as planes,” he said. “It’s unfair that this wonderfully talented person had to have this happen. His magazine was fascinating – who else would have started something like that? – but, we don’t want it to reflect on general aviation.”

Williams said AYA lost a member to a small plane accident in a North Dakota lake this year, but there weren’t rescuers combing the lake bottom, with news cameras lined up on the shore.

“With this much attention paid to JFK Jr.’s accident, we fear the new regulations which could come up as a result,” he said. “What we love most about flying is the freedom of it.”

Williams, who resides in Mountain View, Calif., and has flown cross country without the optional formal flight plan, said risk is hard to judge when flying a private plane.

“We know that there are some main problems that cause crashes – bad weather, running out of gas, fuel starvation or accessing the wrong tank, and doing goofy things at low altitude,” he said. “Even flying here, for many of us, involves consideration of the different conditions – the altitude challenge and air density, dehydration and fatigue – we have to consider all that when we fly out of here.”

Williams said he has flown a rented airplane out of the Essex County Airport, the same one John Kennedy Jr. left Friday evening for Martha’s Vineyard.

“Really, it is an easy airport to fly out of,” he said. “you have to watch the weather, though.”

Fellow AYA conventioneer, longtime private pilot and Grumman American owner Ron Rogers, 59, who is a 42-year veteran pilot out of Virginia, said he is saddened by the weekend’s events, but feels some resentment at the attention being paid to one airplane crash.

“In reality, we could have lost 100 of these planes and their pilots here today, but we only would have gotten 30 seconds of news coverage,” he said. “But take this high profile person, with only 100 hours of experience and he does something stupid like flying out into the night in VFR (visual flight rules) conditions and it’s tailor-made for disaster. We’re all sympathetic for the families, but we need to be honest about what happened in this one incident.”

Nevada senators saddened. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, released a statement Monday regarding the downed aircraft and its passengers.

“I am deeply saddened by the tragic loss of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, Jr. and her sister, Lauren Bessette.

“For three generations, the Kennedy family has contributed so much to the political and cultural life of our nation. Members of the family have served our nation as leaders in government and business. History will reveal that the Kennedy family is the most remarkable family in our nation’s history. They have endured tragedy after tragedy. But despite adversity, they have persevered and found the will and strength to make our nation a better place.

“John F. Kennedy, Jr. had large shoes to fill as the son of a great president and a beautiful, elegant and noble mother. As a gifted publisher and devoted husband, John F. Kennedy, Jr. was born into the fame and glory of his family, but he handled it better than anyone I know. His dignity was unsurpassed. As the nation mourns the loss of Mr. Kennedy, his wife and his sister-in-law, my sympathy goes out to both the Kennedy and the Bessette families.”

One of Reid’s Washington, D.C. assistants, David Cherry, said talk on Capitol Hill this week involved questions about whether John F. Kennedy Jr. would be eligible to be buried with his parents at Arlington Cemetery.

Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nevada, said Tuesday that he had met John Jr. when he was promoting his new magazine, ‘George.’

“He was charming and handsome,” Bryan said. “My sense was that he was a very together young man who faced just enormous pressure in terms of public expectations. He was trying to carve out his own own niche, and I respected him for that.”

Bryan said the reaction in Washington has been shock for this family that has endured so much tragedy.

“How much can one family be expected to bear? The Kennedys are the closest thing we in America have to a royal family,” Bryan said. “People feel they know them because since John Kennedy Jr. was as infant, he has been the focus of intense media scrutiny. Those of my generation recall him meeting his father as he was getting off the airplane. The Kennedy era was the first time since Teddy Roosevelt (that there were) small children in the White House.”

Bryan pointed out that the Kennedys were the first presidential family in the enhanced media environment where the media focused on the family.

“Television was coming of age,” Bryan said. “Everybody has him (John Jr.) riveted in their memory. As the heir, he does conjure up a different era, a more innocent time.”

– Sheila Gardner contributed to this article.