87 years ago today, Nelson wrote to his mother

 

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Nelson Kerns attended Brush College School. Taken at the end of the school year in 1929.

Below, I’ve transcribed a letter from my grandmother’s brother, Nelson Kerns, 15, who was killed in an airplane accident with his brother Warren, 17, on July 24, 1930. You can read about the accident here. He wrote this letter to his mother, Caroline (called Callie) who was visiting her parents in California at the time. Some of the handwriting is indecipherable. I just transcribed the letters as best I could, leaving out editing marks to avoid distraction. For example, I’m sure that “hoes” isn’t the correct word in the second line, but I can’t figure out what word it should be.I never knew these two uncles, obviously, since they died so young. My grandmother never talked about them either probably because their tragic lives would have been too painful to recall. She would have been newly married and no longer living at home, which would explain why Nelson doesn’t mention her in the letter. Her husband, Charlie, is mentioned, however. Nelson’s letter to his mother (and others I have) included details about farming,  school and church activities, local scandals, and a dog that really sucked.

June 24, 1930

Dear Mama,

I have been so busy that I haven’t had time to write. I have had all of the corn plowing to do while Papa works around home and hoes the truck. How are you getting along out there? How is Grandma? Warren hasn’t worked home a day since school was out. Our corn sure is fine, almost ready to lay by. We are laying by the corn by the potato patch. Our truck and garden is fine, more vegetables than we can eat. It has been awfully hot and still hot. We had a rain yesterday evening. It is noon now and Papa is up at Mr. Wallace’s getting a team to plow with and pay him back by plowing. The chickens sure are fine. Some almost ready to sell. I didn’t play the harp at the commencement exercise. We had it with Metz. I was second. Charlie has botten Warren a new suit. Papa has bought a complete new outfit of Sunday clothes. Old Spot got so bad sucking eggs that we carried him off. We took him up to Trout’s old house, up by Maler’s. We took him three weeks ago Saturday nite, and he came back Saturday morning. It took him three weeks to come home. He sucked six eggs one day. And found a nest of 12 and sucked all of them. Maybe you heard about the Leuty boys, Frank, Jim and Edgar. All three got in jail over stealing. Serving two years. Edgar and Jim broke in Horton’s store and got a shotgun and a lot of ammunition. And Frank helped steal meat from John Corribon.

Well, I must close:

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I have more Warren and Nelson Kerns ephemera (report cards, Sunday School records, drawings, etc.) that I will be posting soon. Here is Nelson’s handwritten letter:

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87 years ago today, Warren wrote to his mother

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Warren Kerns (right) with his brother, Nelson
Below, I’ve transcribed a letter from my grandmother’s brother, Warren Kerns, 17, who was killed in an airplane accident with his brother Nelson, 15, on July 24, 1930. You can read about the accident here. He wrote this letter to his mother, Caroline (called Callie) who was visiting her parents in California at the time. Some of the handwriting is indecipherable. I just transcribed the letters as best I could, leaving out editing marks to avoid distraction. For example, I’m not sure that the first word in the last sentence is “Play.”

It’s eye-opening to read how life was so vastly different back then in southwest Missouri. My ancestors worked hard. Their days were consumed with difficult, laborious, time-consuming, hot, sweaty work. This will be even more evident in other letters I have and will eventually post. True, we work hard today, but with much less exertion. My ancestors also enjoyed relief from their work-filled days in the simple joys of ice cream and socializing.

June 10, 1930

Dear Mama: 

How are you getting along. We are all getting along fine. Charlie and I have been plowing corn most of the time since school was out. I sure was glad when the last day of school came. It rained today and is rather cool now. I s’pose it is nice and warm where you are. We went to two children’s day exercises Sunday. We went down home Sunday and had all the ice cream we could eat. You don’t know what your missing. I have to wear an overcoat to plow corn in. Where are going to spend the forth of July. It is not very far away. I don’t know where we will go.  Most any place rather than in the corn field. Things sure are cheap here. Eggs are $.16 and cream $.25 in Hume. I am going to a community sale tomorrow, which they are starting in Hume. It is now nine o’clock about my bedtime (sometimes). Well, this is all I can think of to tell you. Answer my letter soon and send me a good measure of California summer. Play like you are receiving kisses through this letter also. 

With Love, Warren

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I want to write something we can learn from.

The valentines in this picture will probably lead you the wrong way. They make this picture look colorful, nostalgic, and cheerful. If you study the other documents in the picture,  you will see a tragedy emerge. And it’s one that is very difficult for me to think or write about.

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Here it is: when my grandmother (who passed in 1998) was 21, her two younger brothers, ages 17 and 15, took an airplane ride at a 50-year celebration of the founding of Hume, Missouri. Apparently, the pilot underestimated the length of the field when it came time to land and to avoid a fence, he ascended, planning to give it another go. On the ascend, the plane stalled, nosedived, and crashed. All three on board eventually died. One boy died on the way to the hospital 25 miles away, the other died later that night, and the pilot died three days later. The crash occurred on July 24, 1930.

My grandmother never spoke of this. I only learned about it and of her brothers, Warren and Nelson Kerns, when I happened to discover a photo.

The boys’ mother, at the time of the accident, was visiting her parents in Santee, California. She returned by train, alone, to her husband and daughter (my grandmother) to bury her sons.

The tragedy shocked and devastated the tiny community of Hume. One newspaper reported that approximately 1,000 people attended the funeral service.

My mother assembled a large envelope of documents for me about the boys and their untimely deaths: newspaper clippings, photos, school grade cards, handwritten letters, valentines. One brittle envelope contains locks of hair I presume were gathered from the boys before burial.

Warren and Nelson were fascinated with aviation, which may have seemed like a fantastical vocation to two boys who worked hard, long hours on the family farm.  I also found in that envelope some airplane diagrams drawn in pencil. They obviously possessed a propensity for mechanical thinking and creativity.

I have thought about my grandmother’s brothers many times over the past several years. I feel compelled to somehow honor, or at least recognize, their lives and deaths and the unspeakable pain that my grandmother, great-grandparents, and other family members endured. I don’t know what I will write or create.

The story will be difficult to tell properly because I know I have a tendency to dwell on sentiment and sentiment can be boring, predictable, manipulative. I want, instead, to write something that will honor the coping, the perseverance, and pragmatism of these people from whom I have descended. I want to write something we can learn from.

This was written in a letter that the boys’ mother received from her own mother two months after the deaths: “I have been so worried over it all I have not been fit to think right or do anything. One must try hard to turn our thoughts on other things. There is plenty to do and we must surely go forward and do our part. The dear boys are safe and happy and free from all the trials of this world and soon we too may be over there with them. Life is short — at the longest — and there is much to do and we can be happy in doing if we will.”

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