The following yarn originally gained life in 1995, and has been resurrected on days proximate to St. Paddy’s Day several times, most recently in 2013. A friend asked last week, “So where was the St. Patrick’s Day column?” And begorrah, here’s our traditional blarney, wheels up, and away we go:
[<pictured, men help a pilot load bags of mail aboard a DH-4 at the U.S.Air Mail airport, now part of the Washoe County Golf Course]
William Blanchfield was a young aviator, an Irishman and World War I RAF pilot who flew the Reno-Elko run for the embryonic U.S. Air Mail Service. He perished when his biplane crashed into an unoccupied home in northwest Reno while trying to drop a wreath into the funeral service of Air Mail mechanic Samuel Gerrans, being conducted in the Knights of Pythias Cemetery a block west of the tiny University of Nevada campus
Just prior to St. Patrick’s Day in 1925, the first St. Patrick’s Day following the tragedy, a box arrived at the office of Silas Ross, the funeral director who had handled Blanchfield’s interment. The small box was posted from Ireland and contained a shamrock, with a request from Blanchfield’s mother to lay it at his grave. This, Ross did, as he did for almost a score of years to follow, when a box arrived from Ireland before each St. Patrick’s Day. Inevitably, one year the box failed to arrive before the holiday. Inquiries, made with some difficulty during the dark days of World War II, revealed that William Blanchfield’s mother had passed away. The tradition was resurrected the following year by his sister, who resided in County Cork on the Emerald Isle. But those annual shipments too, ceased in 1976.
One of my favorite readers for many years, who passed away several years ago, Barbara Rabenstine, whose association with Blanchfield we’ll learn more of soon, continued the tradition faithfully since 1982.
Getting somewhat caught up in the story, I visited Blanchfield’s grave in 1995. Looking south from the promontory at Mountain View Cemetery on that dour afternoon, I could visualize young Blanchfield lifting the big DeHavilland DH-4 off the runway, now part of the Washoe Golf Course. His thoughts might have been with the airman slated to fly with him for this ceremony, who now but for a change in plans would have been in the forward cockpit to handle the drop of the wreath. Protocol of such a solemn tribute would dictate Blanchfield circling the funeral service twice, surely flying with his right hand while fumbling with the wreath with his left. He’d roll the plane high on one wing, dropping the wreath from the open rear cockpit as he firewalled the engine and let the plane roll through to level flight.
But it didn’t happen that way. Pre-teens Chet and Link Piazzo, who lived at Tenth and Ralston Streets, were walking down Ralston Street to Humphries’ Meat Market. Link remembers a load roar from the west and the shadow of an airplane passing overhead followed by an impact, and later a fireman removing him from power lines that the plane had severed. (The wires were cold; Chet passed away a few years ago and Link is still with us. [2017: Link has passed away also] Curiously, planes frightened them as children, but both went on to fly combat in World War II. Don Small, a great guy then 10 years old, later a retired Sierra Pacific executive [Don passed away in 2012], recalls billowing smoke and another neighbor pulling the fire alarm box on University Terrace.
Now 96 years later when airmen gather to speak of the caprice of the skies, they speculate what might have happened – or not happened – had Blanchfield’s co-pilot and fellow Irishman Hugh Cobb been aboard to jettison the wreath, as he had planned to be. Many eyewitnesses thought a freak gust of wind had played a part; aviators attributed the crash to the difficulty of controlling the heavy biplane while getting the wreath ready to drop.
On that fateful day, had year-and-a-half-old Barbara McKinley Rabenstine’s mother’s bridge game not been canceled, Barbara and her infant sister Bettie might have been where they frequently spent summer afternoons, enjoying the sun in the south window of their home on the northwest corner of Ninth and Ralston Streets – the same window the DeHavilland impacted into, the resulting fire destroying the house within minutes. On another day, the accident may never have occurred, or another day yet, Silas Ross might have emplaced the headstones of not one, but four Irishmen, a couple of Italian future sporting goods merchants and a future power company exec, all inscribed with the date August 1, 1924.
But owing to the luck of the Irish and William Puchert of the Sons and Daughters of Erin, this St. Patrick’s Day shor’n a contingent of Irishmen again paid a mother’s respect last weekend to a Son of Erin who died, so long ago, so far from home.