Do you ever wonder whether you've unwittingly crossed paths with, say, a fourth cousin when you are traveling? What are the chances that a descendant of your thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents stood in line next to you at the airport? Or rode the same bus that day, or sat at a table across from you at a restaurant? Will anyone from your spouse's tree, for example, ever cross paths with descendants of your own ancestors?
As I build out the family trees of the various people in my extended family—being careful for DNA purposes to research all the collateral lines as well—I've assembled details on literally tens of thousands of people, many of whom are still alive and living in the same country as I do. Surely the possibility of chance encounters escalates with these increasing numbers.
Despite having that thought constantly in mind, I was surprised this week when I did actually stumble upon one instance when—but for one tragic detail—the life trajectory of a member from one family tree almost did align with that of someone from another part of my family.
Last week I shared the story of the brother-in-law of the woman whose photo collection I had retrieved from a local antique store. This brother-in-law, Sam Bean, had an unusual occupation: in the early 1950s, he was the trainer for the poodles used in an act featured in the Shipstads and Johnson's Ice Follies. As the touring company traveled from city to city across America, Sam's job as a trainer was to make sure his charges were in tip-top shape to perform each night.
During this past week, I also spent time filling in the blanks on my mother-in-law's family tree—the line which settled in central Ohio and, for the most part, remained there for generations. Running down one line of descent from her Snider ancestors, I worked on one family by the name of Longstreth. By the 1900s, this family had moved to Akron, Ohio, most likely on account of the job opportunities available in that larger city.
Step by step, as I do for completing the descendancy records for each ancestral line, I began adding the children of this Longstreth family's generation in the early 1900s. In one line—the family of Richard Longstreth and Clara Stalter—I noticed that their oldest son James had died at a young age. While his headstone indicated his service during World War II, James Longstreth's death in 1951 seemed a bit too late to indicate a war casualty. However, I entered the data into my tree and moved on.
When I found the obituary for James' father—which didn't mentioned the passing of his son, but ominously only listed his son's wife among the survivors—I gleaned the updated information on the rest of the Longstreth children. The oldest daughter, Helen, was listed with her married name, but I eventually discovered that there were other records indicating she had once gone by a previous married name.
Delving into that detail, I noticed Helen's first husband had also died young. In 1951. You might have thought that would be enough of a clue to prompt me to dig further into this seeming coincidence—car wreck, perhaps?—but if it weren't for someone sharing a story on Ancestry.com, which in turn was gleaned from a blog post on a skating site, I probably would have missed the story behind those two untimely deaths.
Helen's first husband, Ernest Howard White, was a twenty four year old employee at Goodyear who was also taking flying lessons at the local airport. His part-time flying instructor, who also worked as a detective for the Akron police department, had been approached by a young woman who needed someone to fly her to Milwaukee. She was on a tight schedule but needed to get to her destination quickly.
The flight instructor rented a four seater from the company where he worked. Along with his student Ernest White—who invited his brother-in-law James Longstreth, home visiting family during a college break, to join them—the three men were ready to transport figure skater Helen Fishbeck to her new job in Milwaukee.
A rising star in the figure skating world, Helen Fishbeck had recently auditioned to become part of the show at the Ice Follies touring company. The company was now stopped in Milwaukee, about to begin rehearsals for their opening night on March 29, 1951. Helen Fishbeck had just completed her most recent contract obligation—as a skating coach in Akron—on the morning of March 25, before boarding the private plane that afternoon, anticipated being in Milwaukee in enough time to make her first rehearsal with the Ice Follies the next day.
But for the weather that afternoon, the plan would have worked perfectly. A few minutes after takeoff, heading for clear skies only a few miles beyond, the plane encountered problems in a cloud bank. Witnesses later said the plane dropped from the clouds, tried in vain to level off, ended up shearing through roadside trees for another half-mile along its ill-fated path before a wing and propeller broke loose, landing its occupants at a distance in a twisted mass of metal.
Helen Lois Fishbeck never made it to her first appearance on stage with the traveling Ice Follies in Milwaukee, nor did her three traveling companions return to their respective families waiting back in Akron. While I did learn the explanation for the strange coincidence of the same year of death for the two young brothers-in-law, the discovery was one of those moments which takes one's breath away, even this many years afterwards. I had to stop, in a silent moment of respect, for the losses those families sustained all in a flash so many years ago.
While the thought that, had this not happened, a relative connected to my family tree might have been a fellow employee along with a relative in my mother-in-law's tree would have been a novel discovery, the realization of what actually happened was of such magnitude that it so far eclipsed such a research finding. It certainly transported me, through space and time, ridding me of the role of name and date collector to one of near-witness by proxy to a family's devastating loss.