Saturday, June 7, 2008

The last flight of Edwin Gorbet

Once in a very great while, a long-forgotten event from the distant past resurfaces and takes on new life.

This is just such a story.

It's about a tragic death that occured in Panama City over half a century ago, and how a remarkable new development is just now bringing the story full-circle.

Our tale begins in September 1953 in Panama City, then an isolated, slow-paced panhandle town of 25,000 residents.

You could buy a 3-bedroom home in the magnolia-canopied Cove for $7,500. Telephone numbers contained but 5 digits. You could ride the Bay Line train to Atlanta for $10.30--round trip. Angelo's Restaurant was serving a sizzling Kansas City steak, fries, and salad for $1.25. Or, if you were in the mood for seafood and were flush with cash, you could drop into the Seven Seas for a whole broiled Florida lobster and a chef salad for $1.75--and that included a complimentary glass of wine.

At the Panama City Garden Club members were deciding on a design for a planned war memorial that would soon be built on Garden Club grounds--a granite monument to be inscribed with the names of Bay County servicemen who had lost their lives in service to their country.

That third week of September 1953 the big news in town was Panama City's brush with Hurricane Florence, which days before had struck the Panhandle, the beach in particular, with 100mph gusts. But the brunt of the storm veered south, sparing the panhandle. The beach escaped with minor damage. In truth there wasn't a whole lot out there to damage.

Two days later--Monday, Sept. 28--skies had cleared and life in Panama City returned to normal. At Tyndall AFB that morning, a pilot reported for for duty in preparation for a mid-day test-flight of his F86-D Sabre jet.

The pilot was 22-year-old 2nd Lt. Edwin Gorbet, son of a Long Beach, California firefighter. As a youth, Gorbet had been a stand-out high school athlete and a member of his church choir. He had been in the Air Force two years and was on temporary duty at Tyndall AFB to complete flight training.

Even so, while here Edwin became engaged to a local girl he'd met at the Cove Baptist Church, and sang gospel songs on a local radio station.
At 12:07pm on that day, Gorbet climbed alone aboard his F86, pushed back the throttle, kicked in the afterburners, and pointed his jet skyward.

Within seconds he was airborne...but minutes later lights on the control panel began to flash. The air compressor had caught fire and fuel was leaking from the tank
Gorbet knew what this meant. To save his life he had to eject. Below, Gorbet could see the campus of Jinks Junior High School and the hundreds of students outside on school grounds, milling about on their lunch break.

Edwin Gorbet's last conscious decision was to not eject at that moment, but to stay with his doomed craft and attempt to steer it south over St. Andrews Bay.

An instant later, when the jet's air-fuel mixture reached critical mass, the F86 exploded in mid-air and a huge fireball rained debris over hundreds of acres and rattled windows for miles.

The F86 missed the campus of Jinks Junior High, just as the young pilot must have prayed it would. Instead, the jet and the last remains of Edwin Gorbet came down on the grounds of the Panama City Garden Club, just paces from the spot of the club's planned memorial.

The grainy photos you see here show the debris field and the gathering crowd in the moments immediately following the crash as hundreds jammed the streets and parents frantically raced to Jinks to search for their children.

The Panama City News Herald, in stories over the next several days, hailed Gorbet's heroism, and a Garden Club member was quoted as saying that the name Edwin Gorbet would most certainly be added to the club's memorial.

And for over half a century, that's where the story ended.

While I was researching this story for Yesterday in Florida magazine, I made a couple of interesting discoveries.

My first discovery occured while visiting the Panama City Garden Club to get a sense of the crash site and to view the memorial, an impressive 10' X 5' granite block engraved along the top with the words:


Below that are inscribed the names of Bay County's war dead, 65 names from WWII, 11 killed during the Korean War, 58 from Viet Nam, three from the Gulf and Iraq Wars, and three listed "killed while serving their country."

My first discovery was this: among the 140 names, the name Edwin Gorbet was nowhere to be found. However noble the Garden Club's intentions at the time, the last flight of Edwin Gorbet had apparently been forgotten.

I made another interesting discovery: Edwin left behind a twin sister, Edith.

After half a century, I wondered, might she still be alive--and could I locate her? I scoured the internet for Gorbets, jotting down perhaps a dozen phone numbers, and began calling. Dead ends--until finally I reached a Gorbet in California, a relative who said yes, he knew Edith, but no, he wouldn't give out her number to a complete stranger. But, he promised, he would take down my number and ask her if she was interested in calling me.

Within days my phone rang. It was Edith, now 73-years-old, retired from a career in nursing and living in Idaho. I told her I was writing an article for a history magazine about her brother. Naturally she was touched to hear that her brother and his heroic final act had not been forgotten.

Following my conversation with Edith, on one of my weekly trips to the Bay County library's local history room, I mentioned the Gorbet story to librarian Rebecca Saunders, who happens also to be President of the Bay County Historical Society. I told her of my visit to the Garden Club and the missing name on granite memorial.

Sometimes in life we toss a pebble into a pond, figuratively speaking, never knowing where or how far the ripples will travel.

I suppose you could say that my article and the conversations with Rebecca Saunders were my pebble in a pond. The result has been not just a ripple, but a new wave of attention to the Edwin Gorbet story.

This September (2005), 52 years after the accident, the Bay County Historical Society and the Panama City Garden Club will be honoring Gorbet. And not by simply adding his name to the existing monument. Ed will be getting a marker all his own, inscribed thusly:

"In appreciation and dedication to Lt. Edwin Gorbet who sacrificed his life in a plane crash September 28, 1953 saving lives of students at Jinks Junior High School and area residents. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

And so on a Monday in September 2005 a ceremony will be held at the Panama City Garden Club. The Jinks Middle School Band and Choir will perform patriotic songs. The principal at Jinks plans to bring the entire school--800 students plus faculty--to the Garden Club ceremony.
Tyndall AFB will be sending an honor guard; the Historical Society is holding out for a flyover. That may happen yet.

But the person we want most of all at that ceremony in September is Edith. The last time I spoke with her, in May 2005, she told me she wasn't healthy enough to make the trip.

I did receive a letter from her recently in which she sent me an article from a newspaper in Idaho that had picked up the story--another ripple in the pond. Edith closed her letter to me with her thanks, and these words: "Your first phone call," she wrote,"really gave this story life."

In journalism, a story that has the power to sustain itself, to endure over time, is said to have "legs."

As it turned out, the last flight of Edwin Gorbet was a story with wings.

--Ken Brooks,
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 18

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Case of the Purloined Poster

Over three decades ago--in February 1974--newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her San Francisco apartment, sparking the largest manhunt in United States history.

The comely 19-year-old college student had been abducted by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a band of radicals that included William Harris and wife Emily. As ransom, the group demanded the Hearst family distribute millions of dollars of food to the needy.

Patty, meanwhile, was being brainwashed--or so she later claimed. Two months after her abduction she declared allegiance to the radicals and actually participated in SLA bank-jobs and shootouts. It wasn't long before those infamous FBI "Wanted" posters featuring Hearst and the Harrises hung on the walls of post offices nationwide.

That fall I graduated college and found a job back home in the Florida panhandle town of Panama City. My work required a daily trip to the downtown post office, and each day I passed that FBI poster, fascinated by its ominously stark black-and-white photos and a warning to consider these folks "armed and dangerous."

Months dragged by; Hearst and the Harrises went underground. Meanwhile, the media grabbed the story and wouldn't let go. For over a year the Hearst Case--like the O.J. trial and the search for Bin Laden--would occupy center stage in America's consciousness. Around the country, Patty was being sighted more often than Elvis--and he wasn't even dead yet.

Throughout the spring of '75, as the story gained momentum, the poster's allure became stronger.

On one of my trips to the post office I pointed out the poster to a friend. "Now that," I said, "would be a cool keepsake." After all, I said, the FBI must have printed hundreds of these.

My friend cut me off. "Don't even think about it," he said, then added: "...and if you do, I don't want to know about it."

In any case, Hearst and the Harrises were finally arrested in September of '75. Patty served two years of a ten-year sentence before being released at the behest of President Jimmy Carter. She was officially pardoned in 2000, in one of Bill Clinton's final acts as president.

And that way-cool FBI "Wanted" poster? It's been in my possession over a quarter-century now. I saw one offered on Ebay recently; they were asking $200 for it, but I wouldn't part with mine for any price.

I wish I could remember how I obtained it, but...well, you know how it is. Memory turns hazy after so many years.

If the FBI is curious, let's just say I'm fairly certain...I... um, asked a post office employee for it...and we'll leave it at that!

--Ken Brooks, Yesterday in Florida, Issue 11

Odds 'n' ends from a reporter's notebook...

The following are all actual stories from contemporary newspaper accounts:

ITEM: August 17, 1959...
James Neal, a 26-year-old Ft. Rucker officer, vanishes while skin-diving off St. Andrews State Park. Neal's body is never found, but divers report, "his gear and clothing bore heavy teeth marks and were badly ripped." A fellow diver told the Panama City News, "I ran into a 12-foot Blue shark and a 12-foot Mako and the two passed within inches. They veered off and I made my getaway."

Neal was Bay County's first recorded shark fatality. Today, as tourists crowd state beaches in record numbers, shark encounters appear to be rising: the decade 1990-2000 witnessed 217 shark attacks in Florida, compared to fewer than 40 from 1970-80. In June 2005 the Florida Panhandle was the site of two attacks in three days, one of them fatal.

ITEM: January 4, 1951...
Aunt Jemima--on a promotional tour for Quaker Oats pancakes--makes a weekend appearance at Panama City's downtown Piggly Wiggly grocery store. The event is heavily promoted in the newspaper: "A large crowd turned out to sample her famous pancakes and syrup, served up by Jemima herself."

Of course this was not the real Aunt Jemima, just someone who resembled the face in the familiar logo. In fact the product--America's first commercial pancake mix--dates to 1889. In 1951 the logo depicted an obese Jemima dressed as a cook. She's been updated many times over the years to reflect society's changing attitudes. Next time you're at the market, check her out. You'll not see the "domestic" Jemima of 1951, but rather a younger, slimmer, dressed-for-success Jemima.

ITEM: June 7, 1938...
The Panama City News reports that "W.M. Berry, Panama City...took unto himself a bride yesterday 75 years his junior. Berry gave his age as 107. His bride was Rosa Lee Brown, who gave her age as 32. Berry, born in Jamaica in 1830, walks rather spryly with a cane, but declared he would discard that now that he had a wife to take care of him."

INSERT YOUR OWN PUNCHLINE HERE:___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
(Sorry, I can't do all the work!)

--Ken Brooks, Panama City News Herald, Sept. 11, 2000

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Meet the Beatles? Been there, done that, got the signatures to prove it!

You are a Baby Boomer, yes?

Then try this: Close your eyes and flip through your memory bank, back, back, back to a night in Feb. 1964 when you and your parents and siblings huddled around the family's 24" black-and-white Magnavox and listened as Ed Sullivan announced to the nation: "Ladies and geh-ullmen...the Bee-ulls!"

And then try to recall the startling image of those four bowl-cut lads from Liverpool--or was it Mars?--and their songs that made the hair on your neck stand up that night and within years had changed popular music forever.

If the memory of the Beatles first appearance on America telly pushes your nostalgia button, think how Panama City Beach resident Bernie Molina must feel.

From 1960 to 1964, Molina, 59, was a stewardesss for a British airline.
"I flew with the Beatles quite often from London to Hamburg," she recalls. "At the time, England and Germany were quite mad for them, but no one in America knew who they were."

Molina recalls how the boys--John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best (not yet replaced by Ringo Starr)--always sat in rear of the plane.

On one trip, McCartney took out his acoustic guitar. "He called me over and strummed some chords. 'How do you like it?' her asked. It was a song he was working on, which he eventually finished and entitled Yesterday. Perhaps you're familiar with it?

"After Ringo joined I got to know him quite well. I attended several of the group's concerts in Hamburg, and Ringo would invite me back stage."

Molina even visited the boys at the Cavern, the legendary pub in Liverpool that served as the Beatles' home base. She got an early taste of what would become known as Beatlemania. "The club was dark and damp, but everywhere you looked there were hysterical, screaming girls," Molina remembers.

Molina made her final trip with the Beatles in January 1964, just before the group came to America. "I wished the lads luck. Ringo asked me, 'Did you ever get our autographs?' He was sort of joking--I mean he had no idea how big they'd soon become."

"So I gave him my notebook and the boys signed it. It's quite a rare thing --all four signatures on one page, you know." Rare? In fact it's an Ebay-worthy historical artifact, a rock-holy scripture that captures a defining moment in our planet's cultural history.

To many of us, it doesn't seem possible that the Beatles' emergence into America's shared consciousness is now four decades distant.

For Bernie Molina, owner of the baby-boomer's Rosetta Stone, it all must seem like Yesterday.

--Ken Brooks, Panama City News Herald,

The family that lived in an elevator shaft

On a Friday afternoon in June 2000 a green metal door swung open and Malcom Murphy, 68, walked into the now abandoned Chavers Furniture Store on Harrison Avenue in the heart of downtown Panama City. It was a trip back in time. Fifty-seven years ago, Malcom's family lived in the elevator shaft on the roof of this three-story building.

"Times were tough in '43, "recalled Gerald Chavers, 78, whose father Earl owned the building (later the site of Holland's Dress Shop). "Folks were working for a dollar a day.

Malcom's father, Royal--desperate for housing and employment--was hired by Earl Chavers to lay tile. On the store's roof was a 10-by-12 feet brick cubicle that housed the elevator pulley. "My Dad," Gerald remembered, "offered to let the Murphys live there for free." So Royal, his wife Grace, and children Levada, 16, Erline, 15, Malcomb, 12, and Royal, Jr., 4, moved into the tiny space where they would live for nearly two years.

On this Friday afternoon, Malcom--along with current building owner Jim Gilbert and this reporter--returned for a look. It was Malcom's first visit since 1943.

Malcom opened the cubicle and 57 years melted away. "This brings it all back," he said softly. "We had a Coleman stove over here. Mom and Dad had a mattress in this corner. We kids had a bunk bed--boys on top, girls on the bottom. But most nights we slept on the roof, in the open air."

When the store closed at 5pm the family was locked in for the night. They used customer rest rooms and a shower on the first floor. "Dad was doing what he could to survive," Malcom said. "He literally worked himself to death." Within three years Royal would be dead of a heart attack at the age of 45.

But the family stuck together. Today, Malcom is Bay County's school transportation supervisor. Royal, Jr., 61, owns Key Electric Company. Lavada and Erline are retired and living in South Florida.

The rickety freight elevator hummed and clicked as Jim, Malcom, and I descended to the ground floor. Outside on the street we watched and listened as the green metal door clanged shut behind us. We stood quietly for a moment, re-aclimating ourselves to the present. Malcom bobbed his head slowly.

"We learned valuable lessons up there," he said finally. "Help people when you can. Work hard. Better yourself. Appreciate what you have. And always be proud of who you are and where you're from."

--Ken Brooks, Panama City News Herald, June 6, 2000

T. Thomas Fortune: America's forgotten civil rights pioneer

At the peak of his career, he was the most influential black voice of late-19th Century America, the conscience of a nation, really--journalist, poet, and confidant of civil rights icons Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey.

Today, sadly, T. Thomas Fortune is barely remembered.

He was born Timothy Thomas Fortune in Marianna, in Northwest Florida's rural Jackson County, to a family of slaves on Oct. 3, 1856, the son of carpenter Emanuel Fortune.

The young boy's formal education was brief. After Emanuel moved the family to Jacksonville, Thomas attended a school run by the Freedman's Bureau, a reconstruction organization created by Congress to provide services for the South's four million newly-freed slaves.

It was Emanuel who planted the roots of Thomas' activism. Following the Civil War, Emanuel served a term in Florida's House of Representatives, and even managed to get young Thomas hired as a page.

In 1876, Thomas entered Atlanta's Howard University. A year later he married Carrie Smiley of Jacksonville and the two moved to New York, where Fortune took a job as a printer for the New York Sun, one of the city's top dailies. There Fortune caught the eye of editor Charles Dana who promoted him to the editorial staff.

It was the first break in Fortune's rise.

The second was his burgeoning friendship with Booker T. Washington. With Washington's financial backing, Fortune founded the New York Globe, a daily newspaper for African-Americans. Within its pages, Fortune crusaded against segregation, discrimination, and mob violence.

In fact, it was Thomas Fortune himself who coined the term African-American, explaining: "We are African in origin, American by birth."

Fortune later sold the Globe and joined the staff of New York Age, another African-American daily. Fortune's influence was at its peak. From his home in Red Bank, New Jersey, Fortune authored several books, among them Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South, a condemnation of the post-Civil War South's exploitation of black labor.

In 1890, Fortune organized the Afro-American League, a forerunner of today's NAACP. The tools used by the League to affect social change--legal action, legislation, education--created the blueprint for America's modern civil rights movement.

By the end of the first decade of the 20th Century, however, an irreparable rift tore Fortune and Booker Washington apart. Fortune favored a more pro-active, militant approach to social change and thus grew restless with Booker's perceived passive acceptance. In 1923 he joined the staff of Negro World, published by militant activist and black-separatist Marcus Garvey.

Toward the end of his career, Fortune seemed resigned to his lack of recognition. "Along the way I have shaken trees," Fortune wrote, "and others have gathered the fruit."

In the study of his Red Bank home Fortune found solace composing poetry. In verse published not long before he died in 1928, Fortune wrote:

When the hills of the north are shrouded in snow,
When the winds of winter their fiercest blow,
Then take me again to the clime of my birth:
Dear Florida--dearest to me on the earth.

Today, the grand two-story home near the Jersey shore, officially designated an historic landmark in 1976, stands as a memorial to Timothy Thomas Fortune, self-made son of Marianna's piney woods and America's most influential, least-remembered civil rights pioneer.

--Ken Brooks, Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 16

Deadly mystery: the Youngstown train disaster of 1978

It should have been a ho-hum trip, one of hundreds engineer Ray Shores had made between Panama City and Dothan, Alabama, for Bay Line Railways. It was 2 am Sunday, Feb. 26, 1978, and Shores' 142-car, five-locomotive train was headed back to Panama City at a steady 40 mph.

As the train appoached Youngstown, Florida--a tiny, tight-knit community in northern Bay County--a blanket of fog lay low, obscuring the tracks as if the train were chugging towards eternity itself. Shores eased up on the throttle.

Suddenly: the unthinkable.

In Shores' ear shrieked the unmistakable, grinding, metal-on-metal sound of locomotive wheels flying off the rails. "The train took a sudden drop--about two feet," Shores recalled later, "and the next thing I knew the locomotive was in the sand." The train's cars careened wildly off the tracks, piling upon one another like a child's pick-up sticks.

What happened next seemed like a scene from a horror movie. One of the derailed tank cars overturned and ruptured. From the aperture hissed a sickly yellow-green smoke--a highly poisonous brew of deadly chlorine gas--and a cloud of it began enveloping the area like acid snow.

Driving south along Highway 231, which parallels the Bay Line tracks, a Ford Cougar carrying four teenagers drove up to the smouldering wreckage, apparently seeking a first-hand look. It was a fatal error. First the chlorine deprived the Cougar's engine of oxygen required for combustion. Then the car stalled and the teens, stranded at the scene, choked to death. Four passengers in a passing Buick suffered a similar fate.

By the time sheriff's deputies arrived, the gaseous deathcloud was spreading. Nearly 3,000 area residents over a 40-square mile area were hurridly evacuated.

A few brave residents remained to help. Fred Hyatt, who lived in a trailer behind his grocery store located a mile from the wreck, was awakened by police within minutes of the derailment. After ferrying his four kids to safety, Hyatt and his wife returned to aid rescue workers. "We brewed coffee and made our phone available," Hyatt, 76, remembers today. "We stayed as long as we could, but eventually we had to leave as the cloud was creeping closer."

At the scene, emergency medical technicians scrambled to save residents and passing motorists who were gagging on fumes. One man, stuck in a stalled car, had the presence of mind to grab his scuba gear from the back seat; the precious oxygen saved his life. A heliocopter from nearby Tyndall Air Force Base lowered a sling and plucked members of the train crew, including Shores, to safety.

All told, the derailment resulted in eight fatalities and nearly 100 injuries, many to the rescue workers themselves.

Within days, a massive clean-up effort was underway. Work crews in gas masks neutralized the punctured tank car with chemical foam, then pulled it into a crater with a bulldozer, where it lay like a brontosaurus in a tar pit.

Members of the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board soon converged on the tiny community. Their investigation lasted nine months. The NTSB conclusion: the derailment was the result of sabotage, the deliberate removal of bolts from the rails. The FBI, however, disageed, claiming they could find no such evidence.

Fred Hyatt has his own ideas. "This was more than just an accident," Hyatt says. "Trains came and went every day with no problems. Something was placed on those tracks. Whoever did it, though, probably had no idea the train was carrying chlorine gas."

No arrests were ever made. Today, after more than a quarter century, the tragic Youngstown train derailment of 1978 remains as much a mystery as ever.

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 18