This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Oct. 1, 1995.
Eleven years ago, Vern Kiesau finally looked at a place he had never wanted to see. A place he feared would incapacitate him with emotion. A place he thought of as hell.
He was fooled.
“It was deathly quiet at that altitude. We were right about at timberline and you could still see the trees, how they were shorn off by the plane coming right through there. Flowers were blooming. My wife said, ‘What a beautiful place to die.’ It just seemed like we were so close to heaven there.”
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Vern Kiesau had seen the place where his son, Randy, died on Oct. 2, 1970. It was more heaven than hell.
Randy Kiesau, then 20 and a junior at Wichita State, was among the 31 people killed in the crash of a 40-passenger Martin 404 carrying WSU football players, athletic department officials and boosters to Logan, Utah, the day before a game against Utah State.
Nine survived the accident. A second WSU plane did not take the route up Clear Creek Canyon in the heart of the Rockies, just west of Silver Plume, and landed safely in Logan.
Even a quarter of a century later, the crash seems to Vern and his wife, Zinita, as if it happened only yesterday. Their memories of Randy, one of their two sons, are even fresher.
Vern, 70, has been in the mortuary business since 1943 and is involved with death every day of his life. But that didn’t prepare him for dealing with the loss of his own son and best friend.
“We had a tremendous relationship,” he said. “We called each other by our first names. We had similar personalities. He was a happy-go-lucky kid with an outgoing personality and he loved to kid people. So did I. And we kidded each other a lot. I’ll never forget him as long as I live.”
As a football player, Randy was only a marginal player. He had moved in and out of WSU’s starting defensive backfield.
Even as a high school player in Clinton, Okla., Randy wasn’t a superstar. He was a good player on some very good teams.
He stood out in other ways, though. His good looks and his outgoing personality made him one of the most popular boys in school. He made good grades. He wasn’t a straight arrow, but he didn’t get into the type of trouble that made anybody nervous.
“He was a fun-loving guy, always the center of attention,” said Dwade Langley, Randy’s best friend when they were growing up in Clinton. “You just can’t help but wonder what Randy would have become.”
As lighthearted as Randy was, he did have dark thoughts.
He talked to his friends and his parents about his tragically accurate premonition that he would die at an early age.
He never dwelt on the foreboding, his parents said, but he casually mentioned it at different times.
“I remember he came into the casket room at the funeral home one day,” Vern said. “He saw one of our solid bronze caskets that is pretty much the ultimate in funeral selection and he said, ‘Vern, if something happens to me, would you use that casket for me?’ I told him sure, I would.
“Then he said, ‘You ought to see the planes we have to ride in at Wichita State. One of these days one of them is going to go down.’ He said they were junk. He said it was no wonder they couldn’t win a game there; all of the players were scared to death to fly on the road trips. And when they were playing the game, they were already thinking about the trip home.”
The WSU crash, though, had nothing to do with the airplane. The National Transportation Safety Board said the accident happened because the pilots flew the plane into a box canyon at an altitude that would not allow it to clear the mountains at the other end. The report also said the plane was in an area too narrow to safely turn around.
Langley, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation, remembers a night he spent with Randy in September 1970, just a week or two before the crash. Langley was preparing to attend drill sergeant school in Louisiana, but the two of them were making plans for their next get-together.
“I was going to drive straight from Fort Polk and meet him in Wichita after one of their games,” Langley said.
But there is a haunting memory from that encounter.
“The night before I went to Louisiana, we were driving around Clinton and we went out to the cemetery. We drove by the family plot, and Randy said, ‘That’s where I’ll be one of these days.’ I said, ‘That’s interesting, Randy. Now can we go?’”
When they returned home that night, Langley made a quick mention of the plans they had made.
’’I said, ‘Randy, I’ll see you in Wichita’ on whatever the date was,” Langley said. “He said yeah, he’d see me, ‘If the plane don’t crash.’ I’ve thought about that a thousand times since.”
Randy’s premonition appeared earlier in life, when he occasionally mentioned his thoughts to his older brother.
“He was never depressed about it,” Tom Kiesau, 47, said. “He just didn’t figure he was going to be around for long, for whatever reason. He never got specific about why he thought that.”
WSU players were required to wear a sport coat and tie on road trips. But Randy, his parents said, was dressed in his Sunday-best suit for the trip to Utah State.
’’I don’t know why he decided to put on the best he had for that flight,” Tom said. “The premonition deal has always been kind of interesting. Whether he had a premonition of that particular flight . . . well you wonder sometimes if that was just something that was supposed to be.”
Randy Kiesau started his trip to Logan on that sunny, brisk day in October aboard the plane that carried mostly non-starters, the plane that landed safely. He had been a starter for much of the season, and he wasn’t happy to be apart from his friends on the other plane.
So when both planes landed in Denver to refuel, Kiesau talked the coaches into letting him switch.
“Somebody had told me that Randy felt like he was being discriminated against by having to ride in the second plane,” Vern said.
Randy’s switch caused confusion after the crash.
His name wasn’t on the list of players who were aboard the plane that crashed, but neither did he show up safely in Utah.
’’We didn’t know, officially, what had happened for a couple of days,” Vern said. “This happened on Friday, and it was toward the end of Saturday before we learned for sure that Randy was on there. You re-live that; it was quite an experience.”
PLANS TO LEAVE
Randy was growing tired of Wichita State, his parents said. The football team was bad, his status on the team was unsure and he wasn’t having much fun. And he worried about the safety of the chartered airplanes WSU used for football road games.
He had planned to leave WSU and transfer to a mortuary school or get into Vern’s business back in Clinton.
“He was going to play one more game, I think,” Vern said. “Cincinnati was coming up after Utah State, and he told me he wanted to play in that game and then he was going to quit.”
Vern and Zinita weren’t against Randy’s decision. They told him they would pay for his college, that he didn’t need to depend on a football scholarship.
A FAMILY’S TURMOIL
Vern and Zinita will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. They are from tiny towns in western Oklahoma near Clinton: Vern from Corn and Zinita from Butler.
Zinita has worked at the funeral home with Vern for many years. They have always had a strong relationship, and both sons were successful and popular while growing up.
But Randy’s death tested the family’s cohesiveness.
“My parents, they had a closer relationship with Randy than they did with me,” said Tom, who eventually returned to Clinton and has worked at the funeral home for the past 20 years. “Randy is a guy who never met a stranger. He was always laughing and having a good time and I’m not that way. I’m quieter, more introverted.
“My parents and I have never really gotten along because they never could control me. Randy, on the other hand, always controlled them. And they liked it.”
Vern and Zinita deny they had stronger feelings for Randy than for Tom, but they know they can’t change Tom’s mind.
“Randy is still real central to their lives,” Tom said, “and I can understand that. They’ve had some real serious problems with it and they have never been able to quite close the door.”
Tom, meanwhile, has tried.
He stayed at the cemetery in Clinton for several hours after Randy’s service in 1970. Coping.
“The funeral was a catalyst for me to get all of my emotions out,” Tom said. “I just couldn’t believe that that was all there was. I still don’t. You can call it faith in the hereafter or religion or whatever you want to call it, but when we buried him out there, that was it. I don’t go to his grave.”
That doesn’t mean Tom doesn’t have sad times.
“Things happen and Randy’s death all comes crushing back to me,” he said. “There have been times when I have resented that he wasn’t there to be an uncle to my two boys because he would have been incredible. He was my best friend and it left an emptiness that has never been filled, and never will be.”
Vern was working at the old funeral home downtown on Oct. 2, 1970, when the phone rang. A friend was calling.
“He said, ‘Vern, don’t you have a son who’s a student at Wichita State, playing ball there?’” Vern said.
“I told him I did.”
He said he didn’t want to alarm Vern, but that the television had just come on with a bulletin that the Wichita State football team plane had gone down in the Rockies, west of Denver.
Vern rushed to the television set in his office and flipped the dial.
“There were some helicopters out of Denver already circling the site,” he said. “I felt it right here.”
He was pounding at his stomach.
“I said, ‘My God, my son is dead.’ It was just like a giant claw tearing your guts out.”
Zinita was getting her hair done at a beauty shop close to the funeral home when Vern bolted in.
“He said he had something to tell me, and then he just sat there for a minute,” she said. “Then he finally said that the Wichita State plane had crashed.”
Vern had always been a cut-up, rarely serious. So Zinita’s reaction was more a reflex.
“I came within this much of saying, ‘Now tell me another funny story,’” she said. “But I could tell that he was serious this time. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I remember telling him that there were two planes, and that Randy was probably on the other plane.”
That didn’t console Vern, who got up and left the beauty shop.
“I told her I knew he was dead, I could feel it,” he said.
Zinita wouldn’t believe it. She stayed in her chair at the parlor, and the girl went back to fixing her hair.
“She asked if she should quit, but I said that if Randy was on that plane and he was hurt, we would have to go to Denver. I sat there and let her roll my hair and then put me under the dryer.
“That’s the difference in me and Vern. I was always that way when the kids got hurt. I was very calm until after it all got over, and then I felt like a dishrag.”
Hundreds of people filled the church for Randy’s funeral, and there were 175 flower arrangements. Randy was in the bronze casket he had picked out.
“It was the best I had on the floor,” Vern said.
A family friend, Bob Hammons, performed the service.
“He didn’t really preach a sermon,” Vern said, “but he had a message. He said, ‘Now, for the next few minutes we’re going to examine this question: Is the young man safe?’ He repeated that three or four times, and then he started to talk about Randy.
“Randy had dated his daughter and been in his home, so he knew him. This went on for about 20 minutes and he closed by saying, ‘We have now examined the evidence. We can now rest assured that the young man is safe.’
“That has really been a comfort to me through the years. A real comfort.” Randy was buried in the family plot, just as he predicted. A picture of him lies in the center of his headstone.
But Vern and Zinita would never be the same.
“I don’t know what it did to me, really,” Zinita said. “But I have watched Vern. I think he lost a lot of his teasing, humorous nature. People would remark to me about that.”
“I’ll tell you what happened to us: I think our close friends thought we were the experts on death because of the business we were in,” he said. “People probably figured they didn’t need to waste their time on old Vern because he’s a funeral director. He knows how to deal with it. But we’re just human beings. I needed that help. We all did.”
It wasn’t the first tragedy of Vern’s life. His parents died when he was young. He went to live with cousins when he was 9, and shortly afterward lightning killed his foster father. He lost a sister to cancer later in life. But nothing hit like the loss of Randy.
“I don’t know it undermined my faith in religion and the church,” Vern said. “Being in the business I’m in, that’s probably what saved me. I had to keep trying to minister to others and if I had let myself go . . . ”
He almost did. For awhile, life became meaningless. His marriage tottered. Instead of laughing at himself, Vern lashed out at others. And he started drinking.
“I was hitting it pretty good,” he said. “But I caught myself in time and no one knew it. I’m a Christian, but when something like this happens you get to thinking that if the Lord does this to you, what do I need the Lord for? The guy down the street, he lives terrible and yet he’s blessed continuously. And look at what you’re doing to me.”
It was a rough-and-tumble ride, but Vern was able to hang on through the toughest part.
’’The pain is still there, but I don’t feel it as much,” he said. “I live in the memories. I don’t really have the hurt that I used to.”
A MOTHER COPES
When Zinita has a bad day, she talks it out with Randy in the room he stayed in during breaks from WSU, in the house Vern and she built during Randy’s freshman year in college.
“His room is my junk room,” Zinita said. “I iron in there, I sew. I’ve been cleaning out closets.”
There are boxes full of Randy’s stuff yearbooks, photographs, letters. His old letter jackets from Clinton High and WSU are in mint condition and hang, protected by plastic, in the closet. Pictures of him line the walls.
“Somebody wondered whether having all of that stuff of Randy’s depresses me,” Zinita said. “I told them that Randy had never done anything to depress me. I may come in from helping Vern out with a funeral and start ironing and look over at Randy’s pictures and say, ‘Randy, you can’t believe the damn stuff I took today.’ It’s my way of talking things out.”
But some of Zinita’s friends don’t understand why she keeps the reminders. They tell her to get rid of them.
“That would be like he didn’t even exist,” Zinita said. “Two years ago, when I quit going to work every day, I decided I had to clean stuff out of Randy’s closet. Vern said, ‘Didn’t that depress you?’ I said, ‘Vern, I’ve had a ball. I’ve been re-living Randy’s life.’
“Sure, I would see something and tear up and cry. But then I’d see something else, something silly, and start laughing.
“I think about Randy all the time. There’s never a day that goes by that some food, or something we see, reminds us of Randy.”
Randy’s jersey, No. 22, was retired at Clinton High shortly after the crash. At the annual football banquet an award is given in his name.
“It may not go to the kid who scored the most touchdowns or had the most tackles,” Vern said. “He may have other attributes, maybe a motivational ability.”
Nowadays, most of the award recipients have never heard of Randy Kiesau. But Vern is there, as he has been every year for the past 24, to hand it out. Zinita is with him.
They’re at every Clinton High home football game, too.
“The first thing Randy always asked us when he went to WSU was whether we went to the last Clinton game,” Zinita said. “He was scared to death that the only reason we went was because he was playing.”
So, in his honor, they still bundle up and go on Friday nights, even though Randy was the reason they went to games before.
They go to the games and think about Randy, about what he might have become.
Vern thinks he would have joined him at the funeral home, maybe even been running the business by now.
Everybody agrees that Randy would have come back to Clinton. For good. Probably married the prettiest girl in town and had a couple of darling, blue-eyed kids.
“He had decided in his mind that he was going to live the American dream,” Tom Kiesau said. “He would have been incredible in the funeral business because of the way he was with people. You shook hands with him and it was like you had known him all your life. He probably would have been the mayor.”
VISITING THE SITE
Soon after the crash, Zinita decided that she wanted to see the place where Randy died. Vern wouldn’t budge.
“That’s the mistake I made, not going up there earlier,” Vern said.
But he didn’t know what he would see, and he expected none of it would help him feel better.
He was wrong.
That day in 1984 was one of the best days of Vern’s life.
“It was a pretty long climb,” he said. “The guy who took my wife and me up there, I think his name was Buckley, asked me how old I was. I told him I was 60 and he said he couldn’t believe I was doing as well as I was.”
In the canyon where the plane crashed, there were still many remnants: part of the fuselage of the plane; some nuggets that had been people’s rings before they melted in the intense heat after the explosion; the landing gear. The cockpit lay on its side without its instruments, which had been taken away for investigation.
Vern looked at the mountains draped against the blue sky and gasped at the beauty. His recovery was beginning, 14 years after the crash.
“We looked down that path that the plane had followed,” he said. “We looked at the beautiful scenery that went into the eyes of those boys before they died.”
After a while, Vern and Zinita went down the mountain. It was much easier than the climb.