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Son's search for his father's plane wreck strengthens family bonds

Early on the morning of Oct. 2, 1957, an Army propeller plane took off from Governor's Island in New York City, headed to Burlington, Vt. On board were three officers and pilot Eual Arthur Cathey, 33, who had at home in Brooklyn four young sons and a wife pregnant with twin girls. Somewhere south of its destination, the plane encountered a ragged band of unexpected weather, and disappeared.

In 1958, Eual Cathey's family moved to Tampa, starting over.

The kids grew up in Palma Ceia. They knew their father had died in a plane crash. They knew those were his golf clubs in the corner of the garage. Their mother told them she had loved him very much and that he had loved them very much. They didn't ask too many questions because they saw how it hurt her. And what difference do details make when one thing mattered more than any other: They grew up with no father.

They all graduated from Plant High School, the six Cathey kids, and they all graduated from college. They got jobs. They had kids. Their mother remarried. Their mother passed away. The family's central story remained mostly a mystery.

Jeff Cathey, who was 3 when his father was killed, flew fighter jets for 25 years. He finished his career in the Navy in an office in the Pentagon. It was 2005. With age came greater reflection, and time, and so he gave himself a new mission. He wanted to know more about his father. He wanted to know how he had died. He wanted to touch the only thing he could still touch. He wanted to find his father's plane.

• • •

Jeff Cathey is 57 and tall and fit. He's a military man, in training and temperament, all proud posture, protocol and check-listed completion of tasks. On the top of the bar near the rear of his South Tampa house is a thick blue log book of his approximately 4,000 flights. In the book is the time over the Mediterranean west of Beirut in 1984 when he had to eject from his plane, elbows in, thighs flat, spine straight. In the book are the four near midair collisions in 1992, over Georgia, over Dubai, over Kuwait, over the Persian Gulf. Not in the book are his screams in the cockpit. So close.

His post at the Pentagon put him not far from his oldest brother. Joe Cathey lives in Maryland. Back in 1957, in Brooklyn, a man from the Army took Joe to his room and said, "Okay, you're the man of the house." He was 10.

In Tampa, he signed up his brothers for youth football, and he took them to see the Beach Boys. He helped his mother raise them. Up until 15 years ago or so, he says, he had dreams about his father, and in his dreams his father would just walk through the door, and Joe would get angry. "Where have you been? Why would you do that?" Now, for the first time in their lives, Jeff and Joe got to know each other as brothers, and talking as brothers let them talk about their father.

They shared memories. Jeff didn't remember much. He remembered arguments at the table about not eating all his dinner. He remembered shagging golf balls. He had a vague recollection of going on a Navy ship. Joe remembered more. He remembered having to "police the yard," which meant straightening up and picking up trash, and he remembered how their father would whistle from the sidewalk when he came home from work and how the boys would gather around and clamor for hugs. He remembered a strict man who still showed love.

The Army Safety Center, the investigative agency, was across the street from Jeff's office at the Pentagon. He got an unredacted report of his father's crash.

Capt. Eual Arthur Cathey, he learned, started his service in the Navy. He did two combat tours in the Atlantic in World War II. He was stationed in Germany and Washington state. In the Army, he did his flight training in Texas, Alabama and California. He was, the report said, "of superior physique." Passengers of his who were interviewed by investigators after the crash lauded his safety and skill. He was not, they said, "cocksure or overconfident."

"His family life," the investigators wrote, "was about as ideal as one could hope for."

The Army L-20 Beaver's big radial engine made a loud throaty sound. Its single-prop cruising speed was 120 miles an hour. It left Governor's Island at 7:09 that morning for a roughly three-hour flight. It's crew talked to the airport in Burlington at 9:37, and again at 9:41 — 50 miles south, and then 40. There was no suggestion of distress. After that there was silence.

The skies were supposed to be clear. Instead, it rained, and visibility was spotty. The weather got worse after that. The men on the recovery team didn't get to the wreckage in Vermont's remote woods until 10 days after the crash.

The plane, the investigators concluded, hit a tree and lost its tail, hit another tree and lost a wing and then flipped and crashed upside down 16 miles east of its planned course, near the Long Trail in the Green Mountain National Forest, not far from a mountain called Bloodroot. The impact was violent enough to "compress the engine, cockpit cabin and all structures therein into tangled debris."

"Captain Cathey's charred remains were found face up beneath the wreckage and burned engine …" A wristwatch found a foot in front of the engine had stopped at 10:58.

Jeff Cathey needed to see what was left to see.

He put an ad in the Burlington Free Press looking for locals who might be able to help. He got a call from a man named Bill Powers. Powers told him he had been on the mountain the day the plane was found, a 12-year-old kid tagging along with his father, the area's medical examiner.

But the man Jeff really needed to talk to, Powers said, was Brian Lindner. Lindner is an insurance salesman who is also a part-time state trooper and an amateur historian. His passion is locating old Vermont plane crashes. Jeff called Lindner and told him who he was, the story of his father, Aircraft 56-4398. Lindner knew the plane.

"I've been looking for this," he told Jeff, "for a long time."

• • •

The Catheys' first trip to Vermont was in August 2005. On the trip were Jeff and Joe; their sister, Lisa; their brother, Dan; their brother, Ben; Ben's son, Ian; and also Jeff's son, Tyler, middle name Tyler, first name Eual.

Tyler was 25 at the time and in law school at the University of Florida. He won a wrestling state championship in high school and wrestled and played football in college in Pennsylvania. He is now an attorney in Tampa and a father of three. He knows his father is proud of him. He knows that because his mother has told him.

Growing up, Tyler says, he knew the significance of his first name, but he didn't talk about it much with his father. He respected his father, and minded him, without question. He considered him a leader of men. His father coached him in Little League baseball, took him on vacations to ski and on camping trips with his friends, but his deployments all over the world — six months here, nine months there — kept him away more than he was at home. It limited their time together. It cut back on shared experience.

This, in Vermont, was a shared experience.

The Catheys met with a man, by then in his 80s, who had been in the Civil Aeronautics Board and had hiked to the wreckage. He couldn't remember where he had been.

They met with Powers, who remembered seeing three burnt bodies pinned under the plane, and then a fourth, down a hill, on his back. But where? He couldn't remember.

They met with a mechanic who in the summer of 1959 went to the site to salvage pieces of the propeller and aluminum scrap. But where had he been? No. Sorry.

Reports in the local newspapers and even from the Army investigators put the plane in different spots or at a location too vague in woods so vast. It was in the Green Mountain National Forest. It was somewhere off the Long Trail. But where? It was 5 miles east of Brandon. It was 2 miles south of the Brandon Gap. It was a half a mile through undergrowth. It was in a crevice not far from a peak.

The Catheys hiked in. Jeff wore an Army camo cap with CATHEY written on the front. They hiked over roots like stair steps and snow-melt brooks. They walked on matted-down maple leaves and past shoots of bright green grass and saw peeling pieces of papery birch bark. They spent four days and three nights looking for the plane.

Finally, on their last afternoon in the forest, they stopped. Joe had brought a glass jar. Jeff put in a set of his wings from the Navy. Lisa put in a pair of her mother's turquoise earrings. Tyler put in his UF student ID card. Eual Cathey. They stood in a circle, and Joe said a prayer.

"Thank you for this day," Joe said, and he started to cry, "and for this good man, who sent us in all directions …"

They buried the jar and walked out of the woods.

• • •

The locals kept looking. Brian Lindner and Bill Powers and people they knew looked for it in August 2005. They looked for it again in September, October, November. They looked for it in April 2006, in May, in July, in August, in October. They wanted to find it in time for the 50th anniversary of the crash, in 2007, so they looked for it that May, and June, and October.

They looked more in 2008.

Nothing.

Was it possible people had taken every last piece? Had it, through 50 years of snow in the winter, mud in the spring and leaves in the fall, become a part of the mountain?

In 2009, Powers started going to a monthly dowsing class in Rutland. Dowsing is an old-time method of finding underground water, buried metal or hidden objects, usually using L- or Y-shaped sticks or rods. The stick or rod, dowsers say, move in certain ways to point to the location of what's lost. Some dowsers use pendulums, too, to pinpoint spots on maps.

Powers brought to the class the map of the area where the Cathey plane was thought to be. He asked if anybody would like to try to dowse it. A man named Clarence Decker said he would.

Decker is a retired electrician and construction worker. He has been dowsing since he was a kid. Dowsing is derided by many as witchcraft or ouija-board nonsense. There is no scientific evidence that it works. Decker doesn't call it science. He calls it a gift. He has found water. He has found burial grounds. He has found for historical societies foundations of old buildings. He doesn't know how it works. All he knows, he says, is that sometimes it does.

Powers put the map on the table. Decker dangled the pendulum down toward the map. He started to ask the pendulum questions. Is it here? Is it there? If the pendulum moved slightly up and down, it meant yes; if it moved side to side, it meant no. Decker eliminated certain areas. He focused on others. Powers watched him do this for 15 minutes. And then Decker stopped.

He drew a small circle on an unnamed peak on the ridgeline north of Bloodroot Mountain. He drew an X inside the circle.

"That," Decker told Powers, "is where the aircraft will be."

A few weeks later, down in Tampa, Jeff Cathey walked into his house and heard Brian Lindner's voice on the answering machine. "We found it …"

• • •

The Catheys' second trip to Vermont was in June 2009. This time, it was only Jeff and Joe, their wives, and Tyler. They knew where they were going, because Lindner had given them instructions, and so on a Sunday morning they parked near the Brandon Gap and started walking on the Long Trail into the Green Mountain National Forest. Jeff carried a heavy-duty parachute bag. There was great anticipation, and all of them could feel it, but it also didn't feel like a celebration. None of them said much.

Lindner had left lime-green engineer's tape on the trees on the side of the trail, about a mile-and-a-half in, where they were to turn right and start walking 15 to 20 minutes up a steep hill, through thick undergrowth and over mossy logs of fallen trees.

Tyler saw it first. He turned to watch the others. They stopped and stood still and were silent for a while. Here was a piece of the engine a bit down the hill from the rest of the wreckage. Here were the pedals of the cockpit. Here were the struts where the wheels had been. Here, down in the dirt, were faded silver flecks of molten metal. And there, above, through the tops of the spruce and the birch, was the sky. So close.

Joe left the group. He walked up the rest of the hill, to the top of the ridge, and got behind a tree, overwhelmed. He talked to his father, and told him how angry he was that he had left him, and how badly he had missed him.

Down by the wreckage, Jeff put into the parachute bag some cables, burnt instruments and pieces of the engine. Tyler saw his father looking at one of the struts partially buried in the ground. Tyler put on a pair of leather work gloves and started to dig.

"How are you going to carry that out?" Jeff asked his son.

"I got it," Tyler told his father.

He got the strut out of the ground and hoisted it up on his shoulders, 125 pounds of rusted metal, holding it as if he was preparing to do squats at the gym. Jeff picked up his parachute bag filled with plane parts. The five of them started walking back down the side of the mountain, through the undergrowth and over the logs. The other three went ahead. Jeff was ahead of Tyler. Tyler was alone. The Long Trail got quiet.

Tyler tried not to think about how heavy the strut was starting to feel on his shoulders. The trip down was taking longer than the trip up. By the last half a mile, he carried the strut 50 yards, stopped to put it down and catch his breath, carried it another 50 yards, stopped to put it down and catch his breath, carried it another 50 yards. Close to the end, he stopped and put the strut on a rock, and he sat down. He stayed there for what felt like five minutes, long enough for his father to come back to check if he was okay.

"I got it," Tyler said.

Tyler got up. He put the strut back up on his shoulders. They walked the rest of the way together, saying nothing, the only sounds their heavy breathing and their foot falls.

• • •

Jeff Cathey had the strut refurbished at a shop in Port Tampa. It's painted a dark Army green. On the side, jutting out, are two small steps.

"The last two steps he took alive," says the son of Capt. Eual Arthur Cathey.

His family says he talks more now about his father. He likes telling people the story of the plane. He sits in the evenings now at the bar in the back of his house. He can look across the yard and see a calamondin citrus tree. Under the tree, in a spot he can always see, sits the strut of his father's plane that his son carried down a mountain.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751 or on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

Son's search for his father's plane wreck strengthens family bonds 06/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 8:39pm]

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