Balloon Boy Thought Balloons: Part 2, The Kathy Fiscus Story
“Be very careful,” William Deverell tells me, politely but firmly. Deverell is a father of two, a professor of history at the University of Southern California and the director of the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West. I’ve just asked him if it makes sense to draw some kind of line between the Kathy Fiscus story of 1949—one of the first live televised events ever, in which a rescue effort was launched in San Marino, California, to save a 3-year-old who fell down a well—and the Balloon Boy story of 2009.
“I would do so only in the most general way,” he cautions. “There were both mass audiences, tremendously concerned about the plight of a child. And the children’s fates were wrapped into fairly exotic settings—a tiny girl in a well and a small boy floating away in helium balloon.”
Other than that, yes, be very careful. For as we both painfully knew, the stories absolutely diverge. I must be stark here: in the hoax, the boy lived, in the true story, the girl died.
If you’re over 65, the Balloon Boy story on October 15th might have reminded you of the Kathy Fiscus story. Pre-hoax, that is (and here’s my earlier post on the history of child hoaxes). If you’re over 35, you may have recalled Baby Jessica, the 18-month-old who tumbled down a well in Texas on October 14, 1987. (She survived her rescue, but surgeons had to amputate part of one foot because of loss of circulation while in the well. She has had 15 surgeries over the years and is now married and a mother herself.)
Or you may just think it’s grotesque to even utter Balloon Boy and Kathy Fiscus in the same sentence. Not that I blame you. It’s the difference between sick farce and tragedy, isn’t it? Though not everyone feels wrathful about the scamming, egotistical dad and enabling mom. In fact, the likes of Frank Rich and Norman Lear have defended Richard Heene, in part on the grounds that, in this economy, hustling for a tv show is understandable, forgivable. In the Depression, you endured brutalizing dance marathons to get by, now you try and make a name for yourself as a Psyience Detective. “If you want to learn the mysteries of how things work,” goes Heene’s theme song for his tv show pitch. “See it explain everything on earth.” Uh. Okay.
I say Heene’s theme song, although a collaborator of his—a “cult performer” named, I kid you not, Count Smokula—claims he penned the lyrics and melody. And even Count Smokula sort of defends Heene. As radaronline.com reports: “While Smokula wants credit for the songs, he pities his former colleague: ‘I feel a little sorry for Richard because the whole world seems to want to stick it to the guy when he just wanted to make money and feed his family.’”
My own Balloon Boy trigger (and this is the last I’ll mention of the tiresome Heene family) was that heartbreaking scene in Woody Allen’s Radio Days. (I’ve tried to link to it online but had no luck; if you find it, let me know). The movie family—Michael Tucker, Julie Kavner, and a very young Seth Green—gathers around the radio, and soon the whole nation gathers round, to listen to the real-time story of the attempted rescue of a little girl who fell down a well. Hope, suspense, and fear of the worst tighten the faces of the reporters, the workers, the family, the radio audience, everyone. Finally, after many hours, the girl’s lifeless body is recovered—and families across the country hug their own children tighter than tight. There but for the grace.
The Radio Days scene is in fact a loose recreation of the Kathy Fiscus story. Funny, how even the mundane aspects of talking to Professor Deverell—we had to pick a phone date that wouldn’t interfere with when we each had to pick up our kids from school—seemed loaded somehow. How often do we trudge through the daily mishigoss of life with children, the driving to soccer, the tying of shoes, the propping the baby in the stroller, when we should be getting down on our knees in thanks that we have the privilege of a child, a beautiful, beautiful child for whom we do these things?
I think the Kathy Fiscus story does that to people. You step back. You savor your kids, even if you’ve been annoyed since stepping on their Bakugans this morning or they changed their mind about a Halloween costume umpteen times. You grieve, grieve for another parent. Indeed, Prof. Deverell and I couldn’t help but talk about the terrible reality that every parent’s life is full of near misses, day in and day out, with their kids. The running in a parking lot, the falling from a tree limb, the slipping off the dock. “Kathy’s story grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let me go,” says Deverell. “I’d always kind of known about it for decades, but my real interest—scholarly and emotionally, too—began to accelerate precisely when my daughter was the same age as Kathy.”
Professor Deverell gave a lecture on the Kathy Fiscus story last year; please, go listen to his podcast or read his article. They are illuminating, devastating. What follows here are mostly some highlights from the podcast lecture; I’m grateful for the fine, thorough work he’s done.
So there are many ways to come at this story; it is prismatic with themes and insights into what this country was like then, postwar, pre-rock-and-roll. You could go with the history of California terrain and politics and note that the area’s wells were dug by railroad magnate Henry Huntington or George Patton Sr., the father of the WWII general. Or you could plumb the early history of television news (see KTLA’s Stan Chambers go into this topic here, scoot up to about 10:50-14 minutes into it). Or you could investigate the history of labor; many of the men who tried to rescue Kathy were former Seabees or underwater demolition experts in the war—one, Bill Yancey, had rescued a little girl from a cave at Okinawa. These men were now miners, well diggers, sewer workers, or cesspool workers. You could talk about the tangible impact of the story; one month after the event, Governor Earl Warren signed a bill to tighten safety requirements for abandoned wells. And more than $43,000 poured in from strangers to pay the 132 volunteers who led the rescue effort. Many of the men pooled their shares for a Kathy Fiscus scholarship at Pomona College.
But let’s just start, simply, with a mother making dinner. It is around 5 pm on April 8, 1949, Good Friday. Kathy and her 9-year-old sister, Barbara, and their cousins Stanley and Gus are playing out in the field behind the Fiscus’s house. There’s an old well there. It’s small—only 14 inches around—and it had been capped, but somehow the cap had become dislodged, perhaps by a disking machine cutting down the meadow grass. Kathy’s father, David Fiscus, is district superintendent of the California Water & Telephone Co., which had drilled the well in 1903. Stranger than fiction; that self same day, he was testifying before the state legislature in Sacramento for a measure that called for old wells to be sealed up with cement.
From the kitchen window, Alice can see the kids running around in the grass. At one point, she looks up, and she can’t spy Kathy. She leaves the house and hustles out to ask the other children where Kathy is. They don’t know. She piles them in the car and drives toward the school nearby, thinking her younger daughter has wandered off. They can’t find her and they all return to the field. And that’s when Gus hears Kathy’s cries. She’s in the well. Alice and her sister and brother-in-law, who happen to be visiting that day, drop down a length of telephone cord. It becomes evident that the well is very deep. They phone the San Marino fire department and police, and they call down to the little girl to see if she can hear them, dropping a rope with a slipknot to try and haul her up.
Here’s Time Magazine on what happens next:
“Trying to pierce the darkness of the well, Kathy’s mother called: “Are you all right, honey?” Faintly, from the dark hole, Kathy’s voice quavered: “Yes.”
The Rope Went Slack. Down the dark opening, her mother heard Kathy crying, tried to find out her position. “Kathy, Kathy, is your head up?” she called. “Yes, it is,” Kathy sobbed. “Is your head down?” her mother asked. “Yes, it is,” came Kathy’s voice, thin and frightened. Then there was only the dismayed crying of a child beginning to realize that her mother was not going to make everything all right.”
Her cries cease after an hour and everyone hopes she’s fallen asleep. As word gets out, people start volunteering to go down the well to lift her to the surface. It is 90 feet down, and as I mentioned, only 14 inches in circumference. You needed someone skinny and small. Efforts are made to round up jockeys from the Santa Anita race track, or Johnny Roventini, the diminutive Philip Morris bellboy from the ads, or the thin man from Clyde Beatty’s circus. Kathy’s father, David Fiscus, is reluctant to let another person go down the well, not wanting to endanger a second life. And they can’t get anyone to fit anyway.
So different rescue possibilities are considered. Someone suggests you could use a giant vacuum to suction her out. Someone else wonders if could pour water into the well and float her up. Finally, it’s decided to dig a parallel well, the idea being to get down to where she is and cut across horizontally from the bottom of the new hole to the bottom of the old one. Derricks and bulldozers are brought in. Within hours, a mile of parked cars line the road, as people surge forward to watch the rescue get underway. Crowd estimates will eventually vary from 5,000 to 10,000. Vendors show up selling “liquor and carnival snacks,” to quote Deverell. Twentieth Century Fox loans floodlights for the night work.
And soon California TV newsmen are there doing live broadcasts—a rarity for the time—their equipment powered by generators. The progress, the stops and starts, the difficulties of the workers’ attempts, are given blow-by-blow coverage. Television set sales spike over the 27 hours the spectacle lasts. Some hours in, it becomes clear this is television history.
Indeed, at the end of 1949, the New York Times will pronounce this the most photographed scene of the year. Californians watched on TV (the signal couldn’t go nationwide at that point) and the rest of the country tuned in by radio or shortly thereafter saw the footage in newsreels. As Stan Chambers, the esteemed on-air newsman at KTLA who covered the event, reminisces, “People didn’t have sets. They watched in furniture store windows or a neighborhood bar or at their neighbors. And it went on and on… You were carried away by the whole emotion of the thing.” Something we take for granted now, as one tragedy/scandal/story pins our attention, each of us able to follow it through images on a screen. But this kind of mass connection, forged partly though rolling pictures seen at the same time? This was new.
Outside the well, David Fiscus walks in circles, chain-smoking. Back in the house, Alice’s sister and minister try to comfort her.
Five of the workers—the ones lowered down the new well hole by jury-rigged elevators to dig the sideways shaft—will become semi-famous for their work, their bravery. There are partial cave-ins, sand falls on them, nearly buries them. The cross-tunnel has to be re-dug and more timbers laid to shore up the walls. It is painstaking, frustrating work. At some points, they have to dig by hand, in two-hour shifts, until they don’t have any strength left. The men’s wartime service is part of their mystique. “They are working class heroes,” says Deverell. “They were patriots abroad and now patriots at home.”
Finally, on Easter Sunday morning, they reach Kathy. Bill Yancey, 90 feet down, wraps her in a blanket; it takes the workers an hour to lift up both of them. The official cause of death will be suffocation. She probably died before the rescue efforts began.
The news of her passing is kept from the crowd for two hours but her parents are told immediately. Later, David and Alice Fiscus will make a statement, expressing their appreciation for everyone’s telegrams and notes, and they ask for donations to be sent to the children’s hospital in Los Angeles:
“Flowers last such a short time. If an equivalent amount of money were sent to the children’s hospital … we feel that our little Kathy’s untimely death might be the cause of saving other children to live a useful life.”
Kathy Fiscus is buried in her white Easter dress holding her favorite doll. Her grave can be found at Glen Abbey Memorial Park in Bonita, California. The inscription reads, “One Little Girl Who United the World for a Moment.”
Pause. Think. Remember. Pray. Whatever works for you.
Now: what does it mean to unite the world for a moment? I suppose the glass-half-empty part of me zeroes in on the brevity. Certainly, we crave the dramatic feeling of sorrowing en masse. But this concentrated grief dissipates, of course, interests turn elsewhere. It’s no one’s fault. It’s how we’re made. And Deverell says notes and letters arrived at the Fiscus’s house long after the story ended, so the concern lasted in some ways. There is obvious Christian imagery in the event, framed chronologically as it was between Good Friday and Easter morning, though there is no redemption in the death of a child. And it had its American angle; a country tied together with shared worry for an innocent child, the newspapers running a drawing of Uncle Sam, broken-hearted, offering Kathy’s body up to heaven. Oh, and of course there were spinoffs: country singer Jimmie Osborne recorded a song called “The Death of Little Kathy Fiscus,” which sold a million copies.
But I just want to sweep away all of this, really, and bring it round to parents and children. Alice Fiscus didn’t speak publicly much about Kathy over the years, but what she said is very moving. Deverell relates that Mrs. Fiscus says that the only way she could wrestle with the event was by way of this: her faith that her daughter’s death had saved many a child’s life as a result of the “Kathy Fiscus Safety Laws” passed later. “It always astounds me when I think of all the wonderful things everyone did, giving of their time and hearts,” she said. “I always hope in telling this story again, it might help other children.”
David Fiscus died in 1975. Alice Fiscus died not too long ago, May 23, 2008. (Their daughter Barbara is still living.) In her obituary, it said “she was active in hospital auxiliaries and served as president of three, including the Pomerado Hospital Auxiliary, where she set up the office when it first opened.” So she spent her life as a mother to her daughter Barbara, a wife, and a help to the sick and dying. The family suggested donations be sent to a local hospice.
There are some scratchy-sounding cassettes taped a few decades ago, in which Mrs. Fiscus was interviewed about the event. At one point, she recalled that she’d had surgery six months before that Easter weekend, and doctor’s orders forbade her to pick Kathy up, though presumably holding her on her lap was fine. The morning of April 8, she’d taken Kathy with her to the train station to pick up her sister and brother-in-law. The sound of the train had scared Kathy and she’d leapt into her mother’s arms. Mrs. Fiscus held her close, forget doctor’s orders, and calmed her little girl’s fears.
This train station memory from that morning, Mrs. Fiscus said, has been important to her.
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