America met Stephen L. Baltz on Dec. 16, 1960, held him in a collective embrace for a day and then, grieving, let him go. It was as if some celestial central casting agency had carefully assigned the role of courageous survivor to an 11-year-old boy whose life — had it been spared — would have lent to the senseless wreckage one single note of grace.
Stephen was, for a day, the only survivor of the air disaster over New York City, the 50th anniversary of which is on Thursday. He had been a sixth grader at Central School in Wilmette, Ill., a Chicago suburb. He had served devotedly as a Boy Scout. He had played Little League. He had sung in the First Methodist Church choir. He had been plucky enough to be traveling All by Himself.
He was supposed to have flown with his sister, Randee, and his mother, Phyllis, a couple of days earlier — they were visiting Mrs. Baltz’s folks in Yonkers — but a sore throat grounded him. Instead, his father put him aboard United Flight 826 in Chicago on Friday. His mother was to meet him in New York.
Even in the ordeal that unfolded, Stephen seemed to be guided by the Scout Oath. Still conscious after the midair collision, having been thrown from the fallen plane’s tail in Park Slope, Brooklyn, he told his rescuers he worried that his mother would be waiting without knowing what had happened. Later, when his father arrived, he tried to smile, but he was too badly burned to do so.
That was the Stephen L. Baltz whom America enshrined.
I wanted to meet the other one.
I wanted to meet the Steve Baltz of Dec. 15. The boy with greasy kid stuff in his hair. Hamsters underfoot. And cool model airplanes overhead. Equestrian, fisherman and aspiring F.B.I. agent who could take deadly aim with a ketchup dispenser. The entrepreneur who bought comics with the change he pocketed for parking the cars of Northwestern football fans on their way to Dyche Stadium nearby. The mischief maker and tease who could turn stouthearted defender. The Beaver.
“He had the most infectious laugh — I can still hear it,” said his cousin Margot Quillen, who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. It was an incongruously angelic giggle, she said, since Steve’s speaking voice was otherwise husky.
The merriment had started early. His mother recorded an episode when Steve was 2:
I had strawberries with cream for Steve’s lunch. After his second helping, I told him if he ate any more he would turn into a strawberry. Half-hour later, I found him by the refrigerator. He was rubbing whipped cream into his head and said, ‘Mommy, I’m a strawberry.’
When he was 6, she took him to task over a repeated offense. “Steve, I can’t understand why you did it,” Mrs. Baltz said.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” the boy answered. “The devil got at me early today!”
There was a bit of deviltry in Stephen, which allowed his cousin William M. Baltz of St. Petersburg, who was known in the family as Billy, to distinguish him from Steve’s brother, William A. Baltz (Willy), and Steve’s father, William S. Baltz (Stan). “Generally,” Billy Baltz said, “it didn’t come out unless I was around.”
Randee often bore the brunt, since she was just old enough to want to tag along when Billy and Steve went off to the woods to build forts. Yes, they would let her get lost. Yes, tears were a distinct possibility.
But Randee Kadziel, who now lives in Park City, Utah, recalled Steve as much more than her tormentor.
“He was almost my twin brother,” she wrote in a seventh-grade essay in January 1963, two years after Steve’s death. “Everybody said we looked exactly alike. (Even though we were about two years different.) You see, my brother will always be in my heart, wherever I go.”
Steve included her in his projects, she said, as long as his friends weren’t around. And he was so protective. “There was a bully in our neighborhood who always said mean things to me,” she recalled. “Steve confronted him — and that took care of that.”
Ms. Quillen, who was raised Catholic, remembered him springing into action on another occasion. “There were boys in the yard making detrimental remarks about Catholics,” she said, “and he beat them up, because his cousins were Catholic. My mother was delighted.”
Of course, even Superman needed his Fortress of Solitude.
“Steve’s room was a wondrous place for me, though I was forbidden to go into it on my own,” his brother William recalled in an essay written for City Room, “A Little Brother Remembers.” Penalties for unauthorized entry included being chased around the house, Ms. Kadziel remembered. But once inside that sanctum: oh, the wonders.
Suspended by wires from a sky-blue ceiling were a dozen or so warplane models that Steve had made and painted. A large work bench accommodated his many interests: hamsters, handicrafts and scientific experimentation. Or at least as much experimentation as the housekeeper, Pearl Belue, would tolerate. “It would sometimes stink up the house,” his cousin William said.
Comic books are what Ms. Quillen remembered, since she and Steve devoured them by flashlight — giggling under the covers — on a visit in October 1960.
As any youngsters would, she and her brother tried to steal one last glance at their cousin’s bedroom after his funeral. “Steve’s room was a magnet for the two of us,” Mr. Baltz said. “I walked into the room. And that was the one time I thought Stan was going to whack me. Nobody was allowed to go in there.”
Untouched and off limits, Steve’s bedroom embodied an indelible sense of loss. Steve’s father, who never truly recovered, died in 1996. “It was my mom who comforted me and talked to me,” Ms. Kadziel said. “My mom would, gradually through the years, be my guardian angel.” Mrs. Baltz died in 2000.
Steve’s brother once asked his mother if she and her husband had ever fought about what happened that day.
“Just once,” Mrs. Baltz told him. “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.”
Who would want even to think about it again? Or field inquiries every year from reporters, descendants of those who had mobbed the family at Steve’s funeral and camped out around the Baltz house for days.
His relatives were not eager to hear from The New York Times. But when I said I hoped to convey something of Steve’s life before the crash, they responded generously, with a hope of their own: that this anniversary will be the last they have to share him with the public.
Steve told his fellow fifth graders in May 1960 that he planned to be an F.B.I. man, a corporate lawyer or an engineer on the “Canadian Continental Railway.” He would then retire in his late 60s or early 70s.
His siblings and cousins haven’t reached that age yet, but the time is approaching. And with that comes one last aspiration, expressed by Ms. Quillen as she relived the night with the comic books and the flashlights.
“I’m looking forward to seeing Steve some day and having another giggle with him.”