Editor's note: Letters appearing in the summer 2019 print issue are marked by a double ##.
The Rockne plane crash
##The headline “Mob Bombs Rockne Plane” was a jarring juxtaposition in a publication usually dedicated to providing thoughtful, well-reasoned explorations of major cultural, political and social issues — because the bomb fable is not, in any way, supported by evidence.
The dubious story that appeared in 1933 on the front page of the South Bend News-Times disappeared almost immediately, due to lack of facts. “That story never found legs or corroboration when first published — or since,” says Greg Cloyd ’78, a longtime Rockne scholar. “It was a sexy urban myth about a famous person and a widely publicized air disaster. That sells newspapers.” Indeed, the News-Times was in a heated circulation war with the South Bend Tribune, and “circulation wars of that time offered a persistent temptation for editors, reporters and publishers to be reckless with facts and flagrant with speculation,” says Samuel G. Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University.
So what’s the real story?
The rapid development of air travel in the 1920s had been fraught with danger and conflict. Aviation pioneers and stunt pilots straddled the line between testing the limits of the new technology and death. Already there was significant tension between the federal government’s dual roles of promoting air travel and ensuring its safety.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Anthony Fokker had become one of the best-known names in early aviation, rising to prominence as a builder of biplanes used by Germany in the Great War. But reluctance to invest in research and development led to his struggles with quality control throughout his career. Flaws in both design and workmanship were traced to Fokker’s apparent insistence on using the cheapest materials and methods.
Virtually all of Fokker’s wartime aircraft exhibited defects in either manufacture or material. At one time, the use of his aircraft for combat was banned and he came close to being prosecuted for both defrauding the German government and endangering the lives of German pilots. When Fokker set up shop in the United States, his F-10 tri-motor plane drew the attention of government officials; they were concerned about not being able to inspect the internal structure of the wings because it would involve removing the plywood covering and damaging the craft. The U.S. Navy tested the F-10A, found it unstable and rejected it.
On the morning of March 31, 1931, Rockne was scheduled to fly out of Kansas City Municipal Airport — on an F-10A — on Transcontinental & Western Airlines (TWA) Flight 5. The craft had been inspected a few days earlier by a TWA mechanic who noted, “The (plywood) wing panels were all loose . . . and it would take them days to fix it, and I said the airplane wasn’t fit to fly and I wouldn’t sign the log. Nobody was safe in that airplane.”
Off it went anyway.
The official investigation and all subsequent analyses by aviation experts have agreed: Challenging weather between Kansas City and Wichita that morning rendered the craft’s instruments useless. This led to some extreme flying measures as the plane was squeezed between the low cloud cover and the nearby Flint Hills of eastern Kansas — the stress from which exposed the compromised wooden core of the aircraft. One wing completely separated and the plane plummeted to the ground, killing all eight people aboard.
Communication between pilots and Wichita corroborates this scenario. To reach its first stop at Wichita, Flight 5 would have had to penetrate a sharp cold front — and thick clouds, fog, ice and low ceilings. An hour into the flight, the pilots radioed Wichita that “the weather here is getting tough. We’re going to turn around and go back to Kansas City.” But the Wichita station encouraged the flight to continue as planned.
The pilots responded: “It’s getting tighter. . . . It looks pretty bad.” Flying so close to the ground, with heavy clouds and a hilly terrain, just making a simple 180-degree turn would have been treacherous. By now, the flight had also drifted off course to the west, navigating via the railroad track below. The pilots were now “too busy” to talk; they were likely squinting through rain-slicked windshields, trying to follow the rail tracks just 300 feet or less below them.
Aviation experts described the scene. “A deadly situation was developing . . . the clouds were almost touching the hilltops. Once the crests disappeared, the Fokker would be trapped and the option of climbing to at least temporary safety forfeited, since to do so would involve a good probability of crashing into the hidden higher ground. They were being squeezed between the ground and the clouds.”
The failure of instruments due to icing compounded the danger. “Deprived of key references, the disoriented pilots would have been unable to keep the airliner from entering a spiral dive. The Fokker was now out of control, nose down and accelerating. When screaming engines and runaway tachometer readings alerted the pilots to their predicament, they would have pulled the throttles right back, producing the backfiring heard on the ground seconds before the airplane crashed.”
Crash investigators focused on deterioration of the wooden wing spar, finding evidence of delamination and failed joints. The crash of TWA Flight 5 changed everything about air travel. It spelled the end of wooden-winged aircraft like the Fokker F-10A, spawned the advent of all-metal construction and the start of a much more vigorous role for the federal government in airline regulation, aircraft safety and crash investigation and reporting.
No evidence of a bomb was ever found.
Knute Rockne Memorial Society
##“The Surprise-Packed Cosmic Funhouse” resonated with much of my spirit and perspective. I, too, “believe in the presence of things unseen,” and have frequently commented to my adult children that we humans rely almost exclusively on sight, smell, sound, touch and taste, despite the basic physics of undetected particles, radiations, waves and other phenomena. Staring at the night skies provides an easy remedy to our inherent limitations, realizing that we’re witnessing only a microscopic portion of an unfathomable universe, and not seeing or hearing or feeling zillions of undetectable events that go on continuously, not to mention looking at light that was transmitted thousands of light-years before we took a look.
The word “spiritual” comes to mind, reflecting a mental and emotional peacefulness born of wonder, and not far removed from “faith.”
Paul Zalesky ’68
East Greenwich, Rhode Island
##I found the theme of the spring issue extremely troubling — a Catholic university publishing (and being amused by and open to) stories relating to the supernatural, including a “cute” story (“The Raven House Rules”) about a practicing witch. Not only is this not encouraging of Catholic education and practice, but it also, essentially, encourages the lowering of the gates to dark dangers to the soul by presenting supernatural practices as merely “interesting.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks very clearly against involvement in and the need to reject such practices.
Mary Carol Decker ’80
##My family and I were shocked and distressed by “The Raven House Rules,” although I suppose it isn’t surprising in a culture where young people have grown up feasting on Harry Potter books, movies and the like. However, it does display a lack of knowledge or belief in the Holy Scriptures and the Catholic catechism that warns us not to dabble in any form of witchcraft or occult practices. Catholic tradition acknowledges spiritual gifts and supernatural phenomena, but the gifts are of the Holy Spirit and no other spirit. Being open to the dark arts opens us to the dangerous world that could lead to grave error, depression, oppression, even possession.
Kathleen Gae Walker
Regarding “Are We Alone?” That question was answered for me August 27, 1967, at 11:05 p.m. My buddy Wayne and I were leaving a teen dance at Wantagh High School that ended at 11. As we drove south on Wantagh Avenue, it looked like the moon was breaking through the clouds that had covered our skies all day. It had been a rainy day near the end of my first summer of lifeguarding at Jones Beach on the south shore of Long Island.
It wasn’t the moon. Realizing that, we pulled over to the shoulder to get a clearer view. If you hold the thumb and index finger of your left hand an inch apart at a 30-degree angle above the horizon as you face south, you have an idea of this object’s size. What was it? An oblong, unknown, extraterrestrial vehicle, yellowish-white in color, with a psychedelic mixing of colors rotating at a 45-degree angle around its central core.
It had come from the east, moving slowly without a sound. As Wayne and I rang doorbells and flagged down cars, this vehicle stopped and hovered in the air for approximately a minute and a half, and then began to return in the direction it had come from. Not a sound. Never turned around. Wayne and I jumped back into my car to follow the object for as long as possible, until we came to a dead end where construction had begun on what would be the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway. A large evergreen blocked our view as the vehicle disappeared instantaneously. A plane was descending out of the northeast as it approached JFK Airport, likely coming in from Europe. Was that the reason for the object’s rapid departure?
On getting home my dad separated us and had us draw what we saw. Then we called the police, who referred us to the control tower at Kennedy, who passed us on to a 24-hour hotline at the Federal Aviation Administration. Nobody knew or saw anything on their radar. Told to call the nearby Air Force base, we registered our story with the night watch officer, who assured us our report was recorded.
The following day, Newsday reported that the Nassau County executive was running for reelection and had had a campaign plane flying that night, trailing a neon message: “Nassau County’s a Better Place Do Not Long for Outer Space.” Ironic and amusing, that is not what we saw. I called the reporter and told him I’d prove it. The third person I spoke with at the campaign headquarters agreed to find the information I needed. He did: The plane never flew over Wantagh, had only white lights, and had landed at 10:15 p.m. I shared this information with the reporter, who later called back to say the Air Force claimed they never heard of me.
It matters not to me whether or not I am believed. I know what I saw, and it was great! As for the existence of God, she’s amusing herself with all creation everywhere.
Lance Corey ’71
Westhampton, New York
##I went to grad school at Northwestern and also receive its alumni magazine. Last quarter the Northwestern cover story featured groundbreaking research in early cancer detection. This quarter the Notre Dame cover story featured Bigfoot. Given Notre Dame’s branding and marketing strategy the past few years, I am not nearly as baffled by this contrast as I wish I were.
Katherine Khorey ’10
##Your article on the Columbus murals (“When the past presents problems”) was disappointing. While the piece gave prominent attention to a largely negative portrayal of the explorer in a book by Laurence Bergreen, it said nothing about a contrasting view published by Dr. Carol Delaney, a leading cultural anthropologist and professor emerita at Stanford. In her extensive study of Columbus’s Caribbean explorations, she argues that Columbus was sympathetic and considerate in his relations with natives, that he instructed his men against abuses, that he did not commit atrocities or allow perpetrators to go unpunished. Today the dominant public picture, framed by newly reconstructed ethical standards, holds Columbus responsible for everything that went wrong in the New World. Once celebrated as a heroic Christian pathfinder, the man is now cast as an invading monster who incited genocide.
The magazine’s duty was not to wash Columbus free of responsibility for everything — good and bad — that flowed from 1492, but neither should it have gone over the edge in the other direction, echoing Father Jenkins’s declarations and the thinly researched condemnations that characterize the present-day public square. An informed discussion would have acknowledged the ill consequences as thousands of Europeans followed Columbus across the Atlantic without pinning it all on Columbus. Whatever one thinks of the murals, they are rooted in 137 years of Notre Dame life, and a discussion of their undoing should have brought a fuller report.
Joseph Crawford ’68
Grand Rapids, Michigan
I am disappointed in the University’s decision to cover and, in effect, censor the Columbus paintings. The paintings are fine works of art from the 19th century and added interest and character to the Main Building. The burlap covers seem almost Orwellian.
The argument has been made that the paintings do not reflect the native Indians’ reality, and that is probably true. All works of art reflect the artist’s view of reality — as limited by the time and place where he or she lived. Are we now going to cover every work of art that some group claims does not reflect their reality?
The argument has also been made that the murals are “offensive” to people and make them feel “marginalized” or “demeaned.” And so, they argue, the paintings must be censored. But in the case of dubious works of art that may contain crass vulgarities or be sacrilegious and offensive to Christians, we are told “art is intended to be provocative and make us think about different perspectives.” And if we say “no” to the presentation on campus of contemporary obscenities, like “The Vagina Monologues,” we hear cries of “censorship” and warnings about “freedom of expression” being threatened.
Finally, the argument is made that Columbus’s discovery of America brought pain and suffering to the Indians, and there can be no doubt of that. We will never know whether that was his intention or an unintended consequence of his discovery, but the judgment of history has been that his remarkable achievement created one of the greatest nations on earth and a force for much good throughout the world. And that is worthy of celebration. Every figure in American history has had moral imperfections, but if we start banning works of art because the subject was morally imperfect, we will have to censor Washington and Jefferson, FDR, JFK and MLK.
Lou Stahl ’71J.D.
##How much of Western civilization must be torn down to “avoid unintentionally marginalizing others”? With Columbus’s discovery of a New World for Europeans, a whole continent, largely uninhabited, was opened to a growing population that suffered unending wars and authoritarian rule as Europeans struggled with the implications of an emerging humanism and outgrew the medieval era. As they settled the New World, they brought and perfected — in the founding of our nation — what are among the most important ideas in the history of humankind: equal rights under the law, representative self-government and protection of personal liberties. In course, our United States inspired the democratization of most of Europe and has saved the world from the ravages of war, disease, poverty and tyranny. Notre Dame is descended from this heritage.
The University and its founding principles are not the products of Native American culture, and it is no slight to the honor or integrity of Native Americans to recognize this. So covering the murals does not “honor the University’s heritage,” as Father Jenkins suggests. Rather, it drowns this heritage in a sea of multiculturalism in the misguided and impossible quest for equal representation of all cultures, ideas and experiences. Yet we know that not all cultures and histories are equal. Notre Dame has succumbed to those who use shame as a bullying tactic to promote multiculturalism and diversity as the highest values. I had hoped Notre Dame would stand as a line of defense against this sad erosion of Western heritage.
Jed A. Hartings ’95
##I was very pleased when I first read that the administration had decided to deal with the imperialist fantasy murals of Columbus under the Golden Dome. Then I was dismayed to read in your magazine Grant Strobl’s denunciation that we should not judge “previous generations by current standards,” Michael Knowles’s lament about “reality” being covered with a giant tarp and Alejandro Bermudez’s concern that “the real target is the Catholic faith itself.” All three views reveal ignorance about historical truth.
There is little real about the paintings. They are imagined assertions of idolized colonial domination of “civilized” over “savage.” And to judge Columbus for his sanction of exploitation, enslavement, mutilation and murder we should cite from his own generation Bartolomé de Las Casas. As a Dominican friar and probably the first priest ordained in the Americas, his voice condemned the atrocities committed by the European invaders. De Las Casas, far better than Columbus, embodies the moral virtues of the Roman Catholic faith.
Brian A. Pavlac ’86Ph.D.
If we want to hide Columbus, do we not also need to hide the legacy of Edward Sorin? Should not Sorin Hall be renamed and his statue shrouded? Did not Father Sorin, a Europen, arrive in America uninvited by the indigenous people? Did he not immediately proceed to “expropriate land” that had belonged to these people? Did he not teach some of these same indigenous people, not about their own cultural heritage or religious beliefs (which, as the article points out, “extended back thousands of years”), but rather about Western culture and, most importantly, Christianity? By doing so, did he engage in the repression of a vibrant culture? Are we on a slippery slope here?
Stalin air-brushed other Politburo members from old photos after he purged them, so there would be no historical record of them. Modern China attempts, through the state-controlled internet, to erase all references to the Tiananmen Square uprising. But such attempts to erase history are doomed to failure. Columbus existed, whether Notre Dame chooses to hide that fact or not. He was a man of his time, in which slavery, for example, was distressingly rampant (among European, as well as Native American, cultures). Columbus had admirable qualities as a sailor and navigator and he also had many flaws. All of these qualities and the era in which he lived (as well as the era in which the murals were painted) should be openly displayed, taught and spiritedly debated at Our Lady’s University, in the light of day, instead of hidden and shrouded in darkness. Isn’t that what a Catholic university is for?
William E. Vita ’80
Melville, New York
Crossing the border
##The trouble with providing assistance to immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border (“Lending a Hand”) is that it just exacerbates the tsunami of people flooding into the country. As soon as they hear of asylum, free medicine, free food, etc., they start marching north. And why not? Nothing to lose. They also face coyotes, smugglers, swindlers and drug mules who demand bribes en route. And who is ultimately paying for all these services? The trouble with Catholic Charities is that they ultimately send the bill to the taxpayer. Priests and nuns never have jobs, nor even raise families. What world do they live in? Milagros (miracles), rosaries, bibles. I often wonder, if all these immigrants were not Hispanic but Africans, Arabs, Asians, would they be so charitable? Europe, too, is suffering from the same problem: the great influx of illegal, illiterate, sick refugees from Africa and the Arab-Muslim world. The United States admits more than 1 million legal immigrants each year. I suggest we discontinue assisting these other migrants and direct them to channels for entering the U.S. legally.
Hal Wagner ’63
The Catholic Church
##I totally agree with everything David Gibson wrote in his excellent article, “What Is the Way Out of Here?” In order for the Church to move forward and gain back those who left, the Church needs to lighten up drastically. It needs to recognize that sexual preference is not a choice but a genetic predisposition, that divorced people have a right — as decent people — to receive the sacraments. Candidates for the priesthood need to be better vetted for homosexual/predatory traits. But most of all, we U.S. Catholics need to sever ties with the corrupt and complacent Vatican.
Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania
##It may be that the only way the Catholic Church can recover is to fundamentally reorganize itself, focused totally on a clear restatement of purpose. What is abundantly clear by their behavior is that the bishops understood their purpose was to “protect Holy Mother Church.” It wasn’t to protect children or make life better for parishioners, but to serve the organization’s hierarchy. When preservation of the organization becomes the fundamental purpose, influencing all actions, an organization is doomed. It may be impossible for the Church to get back in touch with the only legitimate purpose for its existence — service to others.
Joe Synan ’66
##David Gibson’s article is typical of the very reason the Church crisis will not end any time soon. The underlying attitude is that this problem is the product of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. This position couldn’t be further from the truth.
There was no mention of the homosexual subculture that has invaded the Church, extending from the seminaries to the Curia. We have rampant fiscal malfeasance, general disregard for vows of celibacy and a group of clerics working to produce a pope who could change the Church and dismantle what it is all about. The former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was exposed as a serial abuser over a period of decades and nobody knew anything? Give me a break. There has been far more cover-up by people in high places than anyone wants to admit. This is a systemic problem that has been in action far longer than most of us have been alive.
With all this going on, our bishops have spent billions of dollars in hush money, legally enforced payouts, legal fees and payments to PR firms to help improve their image. They give lip service to reporting and transparency while not addressing the root problem. The sex abuse situation is merely a byproduct of a wholly corrupt administration.
Eugene Hatke ’72
Few would dispute David Gibson’s assertion that the influence of Pope Francis among American Catholics has sunk, but is it really because of “his insistent appeals on behalf of migrants, the poor and economic justice”? From the onset of his papacy Francis has demonstrated a flair for celebrity and a compulsion to “think on his feet” — i.e., to babble. His disdain for America and its free-market success has been relentless and sharply in contrast with the schmoozy enthusiasm he demonstrated in Havana for Cuba’s repressive socialism.
Envy of America’s prosperity is widespread, and the Holy Father’s brand of it scarcely elevates him to the ranks of the “bad popes.” Perhaps it derives from his superficial grasp of economics and America’s role in the Falklands War. It diminishes his capacity for moral leadership and explains why so few Americans pay attention to what he says about anything.
Buffalo Grove, Illinois
David Gibson’s article is spot on in virtually all the points he made. With all the progress that’s been made to hold accountable everyone who is culpable, consider this:
If Pope Francis, with the stroke of a pen, can change a 2000-year-old scriptural prayer, namely the Our Father — “lead us not into temptation” has become “abandon us not when in temptation,” which certainly makes more sense — then why is it so difficult to change canon law or any other policy that keeps unindicted felons like cover-up bishops in place? Certainly hundreds of such felons remain in the hierarchy. The Vatican continues to fiddle while Rome burns, and Catholics are rushing to the fire exits.
Now Notre Dame Magazine can take the next step and demand that every bishop who knowingly covered for a perpetrator priest resign.
Deacon Tony Jannotta