Park Slope Plane Crash | A Little Brother Remembers

William Allen Baltz was 4 years old when his brother, Stephen, died following the Park Slope plane crash, having struggled for a day to survive at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn.


My memories of my brother Steve are distant and vague, but reside in a special and sacred place in my heart.

Stephen Lambert Baltz was born Jan. 9, 1949, to William Stanley Baltz and Phyllis Snyder Baltz. Our sister, Randee Elizabeth Baltz, was born Dec. 22, 1950. I came along on March 21, 1956. With the addition of me, it was time to move to a larger house, with four bedrooms and a two-car garage. Our new home in Wilmette, Ill., was white stucco with black steps up to a large porch that was screened in summer.

Giant elm, maple and oak trees lined the streets, providing plenty of ammunition for acorn fights in the fall. The house was a short walk to Dyche Stadium, where Northwestern University played, and a business district called Fourth and Linden, where you could catch the el to Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs; buy candy, comics, squirt guns, caps, cap grenades, gliders, pea shooters, models, glue and paint — all the essentials; get a fresh doughnut at the doughnut shop or have your hair cut by John the barber, who had a stack of comics.

Steve and Randee were very close. They loved being together, laughing and goofing around. Steve made it clear to me that, as the new addition to a tight-knit and established family, there was a pecking order and I would do best to follow it. You can see this attitude in some of his expressions in photos. I’m the baby, gleefully hamming it up in front of the camera, while Steve looks on with a trace of disapproval, as if to say, “Just wait till I get a hold of you.”

He took me under his wing, of course. I revered him and still do. Dad was Dad, but my big brother was really big and opened the door to a world of cool and fascinating things for me. Perhaps it was how to tie knots or how a plane flew or how to pick up a grounder with a mitt. I once watched him comb his hair with a stick of waxy-looking stuff in a red tube. I got hold of the stick and rubbed the goop all over my head to be like him. My hair was stiff as a board and Mom had to wash it out.

Steve’s room was a wondrous place for me, though I was forbidden to go into it on my own. I had to be accompanied by Steve, who would agree to conduct tours when I asked (more like pleaded) or when he had something to show me, such as an experiment he performed with his chemistry set, a new building he constructed with his Kenner bridge and girder kits or a new model he was adding to his collection.

The first thing I did when I entered his room was look up. I would stand there, mouth agape. He had painted the ceiling sky blue. From it hung a dozen or so World War I and World War II model planes he had built and painted: a twin-tailed P-38 Lightning, a P-40 Tiger Shark, a Spitfire, a Sopwith Camel and a Spad. They were suspended with wire in a way that made them look like they were really flying, making a banked curve or engaged in a dogfight. On a shelf were more models like the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane, and a World War II ship, as my dad had been in the Navy. My favorite plane — and I think Steve’s, too — was a Gotha Bomber, a huge German aircraft. It had a gigantic wingspan. Its armaments included a row of bombs under the lower wing. Steve had tipped each bomb with yellow paint.

Putting together planes like these, as I later found out, demanded patience, skill and the ability to follow instructions. The World War I planes were especially challenging because the top wings fit over thin struts, and you had to line up the struts and wings just right. Steve was meticulous — no glue splotches — and he did a great job painting. He worked on a large wooden table in his room. I would often watch him build the models and couldn’t wait to build my own. I still have several of his planes, including the Red Baron’s triplane and the Gotha.

Steve and his friend Tom Arden formed a partnership called the Baltz & Arden Hamster Company. The idea was to raise hamsters and sell them to neighborhood kids. The partnership was slightly one sided, because Steve had to do all the feeding and cage cleaning. Their venture was wildly successful in terms of breeding, but not so much financially, as they wound up giving hamsters away. I believe my dad stepped in and shut down the operation, leaving Steve with two hamsters. One was a big white number, Snowball, which Steve let me hold.

Or he might let me peer into his Gilbert microscope, which turned ordinary salt or a human hair into something extraordinary. Steve had a Lionel army train. The steam locomotive and coal car carried the words “U.S. Army.” The flat car had a missile on it. Even the caboose was painted olive drab. I found the note he wrote to Santa asking for the train set.

On the wood-paneled walls of his room were pinned pennants from all the Big 10 schools. Mom said Steve’s favorite was Purdue. Also on the wall was a large poster of the solar system. I remember studying it and wondering what it would be like to live on Pluto.

Another shelf held items Steve had made in Boy Scouts, like a yellow and brown ceramic tray with “BSA” inscribed on it and an Indian head that he had carved and painted. I still have them both. I also have a drawing he made of the cavalry marching into a fort as horses pull wagons and cannons behind them.

Steve believed wholeheartedly in the Boy Scout oath. There is a beautiful photo of him in his Scout uniform standing in the sunroom next to my mother, who is wearing a sharply tailored suit. Mom is beaming, but Steve looks a bit more serious, taking to heart his responsibilities and duties as a scout. He was a member of Troop 3, which met at the Methodist church and conducted a court of honor for him after his death, honoring his courage and bravery, and the fact that he always did his best until the end.

In July 1960, Steve went to a Boy Scout camp called Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan in Pearson, Wis. I found his first two letters home. The second one said:

Dear mom and dad,

I forgot to mail my first letter but I am mailing it now. The address of camp is Camp Ma-ka-ja-wan, B.S.A., Pearson, Wisconsin.

I forgot to tell you that I am in Sioux village. I am having a nice time, except for the mosquitoes. I have around 50 bites. Please write to me sometime. I have bought one pair of shoes for me up here. They are very nice.

I have caught one large mouth Bass, but he got away when I took him back. I caught 7 frogs, 2 toads, and one snake so far.

Love Steve.

“We were very pleased to receive your letter, and to know you are having a fine time at camp,” my father responded. “I hope you are working on Second Class, and that you will also catch some fish. Today we bought our camping trailer — it is now in the garage. Next Saturday all of us will go on a camping trip so you will have another opportunity to try out your fishing rod.

“Last week I was in Washington, D.C. I thought of you, as I do every day, and would have sent you a post card except at that time I didn’t know how to spell Makajawau (still don’t!).”

The family vacation that summer was to the Missouri Ozarks. It was a gorgeous place, my first real experience camping and sleeping in a tent. Steve caught a trout with his black Zebco fishing rod and reel. I remember how excited we all were when he landed the fish. It was good sized, and Mom cooked it up. I wanted to catch a trout just as Steve had. I sat patiently on the banks of the river with my bamboo rod, watching the bobber with a worm on the line, hoping a trout would take the bait. It didn’t. So I knew that Steve had pulled off an amazing feat.

Other summers, we would go to Grand Haven, Mich., where my dad and uncle had grown up and where my grandparents had a house. But there was a lot to do closer to home. We would go to the Riverview amusement park in Chicago. My mom remembered how she and Randee laughed until they cried watching from the sidelines as Dad and Steve rode a roller coaster called the “Mouse.” My dad held on to the bars for dear life while Steve waved wildly and screamed with glee.

The Fourth of July was doubly fun because it was my mother’s birthday. We would place Old Glory in its holder off the front porch, as all the neighbors did, and decorate our bikes by weaving red, white and blue streamer paper in and out of the spokes. Steve would march in the local parade, first as a Cub Scout and later as a Boy Scout. After a barbecue of hamburgers served on red, white and blue paper plates, we would join a throng of neighbors at Dyche Stadium, to watch a marvelous show of bands, circus-type acts, speeches and fireworks. One of the fireworks scenes was always a birthday cake with white lights that lit up and said, “Happy Birthday.” We would all cry out and point to it and say that it was for our mom. After the show, we would head back to the house to have cake and ice cream, give mom her presents and cards, and have fun with sparklers.

As an executive with Admiral, which made televisions, radios and appliances, my dad would often get the newest models. But kids were too busy building tree forts, racing go karts, flying kites and skipping rope to watch a lot of TV. From the balcony off Steve’s room, you could look out and see who was playing in the alley and the neighbors’ yards.

Summers in those days meant being outside from dawn until bedtime. We played kick the can and capture the flag, Wiffle ball and kickball. We fought with squirt guns, ran through sprinklers and jumped on a neighbor’s trampoline. Steve would shoot baskets into the hoop attached to our garage roof.

My uncle Russ hung a rope swing from the oak tree that towered over our back yard. That, along with a tetherball that mom installed, made our place a magnet. World War II was still fresh in people’s minds. Kids would play army, using dirt clods as hand grenades, and build forts — with plastic soldiers and tanks — in the sandbox in the back yard. Steve had a gas-engine propelled plane, made by a Chicago company called Comet, that looked like a Starfighter jet.

Steve was in Little League. When he and my dad played catch, they would throw me some easy grounders. I would follow Steve to a nearby park — most likely with mom or Randee — where he would play baseball with his friends. I wanted to play, too, but was told I was too young. Dejected, I would sit and watch. Later, Steve would play ball just with me. Easy throws, but I sure was happy.

I was envious of Steve’s bike. I had a tricycle, but would watch and cry out with glee as Steve zoomed by on his black Schwinn, with silver fenders and a light in the middle of the handlebars powered by a generator that worked off the back wheel. On the fenders were National League decals. I remember the Pittsburgh pirate emblem, with eye patch, thinking that those guys must be really bad.

Steve was a Cubs fan, as our whole family was through many exhilarating and trying years. We used to go Wrigley on weekends and then come home and have dinner on the front porch. Or dad would fire up the backyard grill and we would eat on a picnic table that also doubled as the launching pad for our rope swing.

We would dine on the screened porch in summer and invite friends to sleep over on cots. We told ghost stories and always planned to get up in the middle of the night to raid the icebox, only to fall asleep and rise with the morning sun.

In the fall, we would pick apples at a place northwest of us called Bell’s Orchards. Steve would scramble up the trees. I wanted to do just as he did, but couldn’t even reach the first branch.

We would all carve pumpkins together, spreading out newspapers on the card table and taking out the seeds for mom to bake. For Halloween 1956, Steve was a knight and Randee a fairy princess. For his last Halloween, in 1960, Steve was a hobo. (And I was a cowboy.)

On Saturdays when Northwestern played football at home, dad would park our two cars on the street in front of the house to make room in the garage for people going to the game. Steve and Randee would hold out signs on the corner advertising garage parking for 50 cents and make an honest dollar.

Touch football games sprung up on front lawns along the block. Mom kept cider and doughnuts on hand for the parade of Steve’s pals that would come bounding into the house for refreshments. Husky and solid, Steve enjoyed playing football. In a 1959 Christmas photo, he is wearing shoulder pads and other gear that he received as a present. On Thanksgivings, he wore a jacket and tie. He was comfortable in dress clothes and I think he enjoyed wearing them.

At Christmas, mom went all out decorating. The house was warm and festive. She made bowls of popcorn for eating and bowls of popcorn for stringing the tree. One year, she bought molded clay figurines to create a manger scene. I remember sitting at the card table while Steve and Randee painted Joseph, Mary, the three wise men, shepherds and the baby Jesus. I painted black spots on a cow. The tableau was on our mantle every Christmas for many years. I still have the figurines. Steve did such a meticulous and imaginative job painting them.

On another year, Steve, Randee and I each took a big, colored ornament, spelled out our name on it in script with Elmer’s glue and then applied silver glitter to the glue. (Mom helped with mine, but Steve and Randee were on their own.) From then on, those ornaments would adorn our tree. In the years after Steve’s death, taking his ornament from the box, placing it on the tree and standing back for a moment to look at it — his name sparkling — always brought a hush. And we continued to observe the tradition that mom established of keeping the tree up until Jan. 9, Steve’s birthday.

What were Steve’s thoughts on the future? I found a three-page school paper he wrote on May 13, 1960: “My Autobiography.” He recounted that he was supposed to have been born on Jan. 10, but came out early. He listed all of our birth dates. He enumerated his models (nine World War I planes, five World War II planes and one World War II ship). He described his life as a Boy Scout, his love of baseball, his hamsters and our family trips. He was looking far ahead:

When I get out of college, I am going to try to be one of these things. One, work for the Government by being an F.B.I. man. Two, be a lawyer for some company and three be an engineer for the Canadian Continental Railway. I am going to retire at or around the age of my late 60’s or early 70’s.

I came across a calendar called “Days and Dates” for 1960. It was filled with all sorts of family and adult activities — golf, bridge, get-togethers, birthdays, Ravinia concerts, bowling, apple picking, Steve’s Boy Scout camp (July 21 to August 2). Hands trembling, I turned to the month of December.

On the 14th, mom wrote, “Steve: off to NY.” But he didn’t fly until the 16th.

I once asked mom whether she and dad had ever had a fight about the tragedy.

“Just once,” she answered. “Your dad blew up and said to me if only I had not insisted on Steve seeing my parents in New York. And I answered, if only you hadn’t changed the flight. That was it. We never fought about it again.”


William A. Baltz is the founder and president of Focus Strategic Marketing, based in Chicago, which provides marketing and public relations support to professional and financial services firms. He is also the author of “The Last Hunt.” “A Little Brother Remembers” was his response to questions submitted by David W. Dunlap of The Times.

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