Pros: Nikki Nichols skillfully relates the long overdue story of tragedy striking the U.S. skating program
Cons: Doesn't quite find the full human dimension of the loss
Forty-six years ago today, on the morning of February 15th, 1961, something extraordinarily tragic occurred. Frozen in Time, by Nikki Nichols, tells the story of that event. On that date, Sabena Flight 548 crashed near Brussels, Belgium, killing all seventy-two passengers who were aboard and one hapless worker in a cabbage patch on the ground. Among the passengers was the entire 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Team, on its way to Prague, Czechoslovakia for the World Championships. In just a few short seconds, the hopes and aspirations of the American figure skating community were obliterated. The human toll was much, much more.
Nikki Nichols, herself an adult figure skater and freelance journalist, provides the first in-depth published account of an event that devastated families and the entire world of figure skating. Nikki brings unique qualifications to the endeavor, having won an adult figure skating title in her home state of Indiana and competing as a finalist in the 2005 U.S. Adult National Championships. With her skating partner and fiance, she is currently working toward the goal of competing in the pairs competition at the 2007 Adult Nationals, despite having been diagnosed in 2005 with the incurable chronic autoimmune inflammatory disorder called Ankylosing Spondylitis. Nichols successfully positions the tragic events of 1961 in the context of the history of U.S. Figure Skating. Ms. Nichols is an accomplished writer as well, many times finding the perfect turn of phrase to express all of the poignancy inherent in this story.
Those killed in the crash included 18 champions, newly crowned at the U.S. Nationals in Colorado Springs on January 25th, 1961, which took place shortly after the inauguration of America's glamorous young President, John F. Kennedy. Many of these athletes had also won medals at the North American Championships held in Philadelphia on February 11 and 12th. The darling of the team, Laurence (Laurie) Owen, age 16, had taken gold medals in the women's singles at both events, earning an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, two days before the crash. With her cool confidence, performance flair, high cheek bones, a closely cropped flock of hair, and a blazing smile, she had captivated the hearts of America. My heart, however, had been captivated much earlier.
Laurence was part of a figure skating family dynasty. Her mother and coach, Maribel Vinson Owen, had won nine U.S. singles championships and six pairs championships (as well as three silver medals) in the late-twenties and thirties, a record of accomplishment that remains unsurpassed to the present day. Even so, Maribel had been overshadowed on the international level by the irrepressible Norwegian skater, Sonja Henie. Maribel's goal of an Olympic gold medal had thus been transferred to her daughters. After retiring from competition, Maribel, a Radcliffe graduate, had authored three books about figure skating technique and sometimes worked as a journalist covering the sport. Mainly, she trained her children to follow in her blade marks.
Laurie's father, Guy Rochon Owen, had been a Canadian figure skating champion in the fours event and was performing professionally in ice revues when he proposed to Maribel in 1938. They named their first daughter Maribel after her mother. She was known either as "Mara" or "Little Maribel," to distinguish her from "Big Maribel." Like Laurence, Mara had been raised for skating competition from the beginning, but her talent had proved only sufficient for the less glamorous pairs competition. With her partner, Dudley Richards, she had completed the family sweep at the Nationals by winning a gold medal. She and Dudley had also taken the silver at the North American championships two weeks later, finishing behind the Canadian brother and sister champions, Maria and Otto Jelinek.
Laurie had been born four years after her sister, in 1944, in California. Her parents split up sometime during the late forties, with Guy moving back to Ottawa where his parents still resided. Guy died suddenly in 1952, when Laurie was just eight. Big Maribel's father died in the same year, so the Owen family moved in with Laurie's grandmother, Gertrude Vinson, in the near-mansion at 195 High Street, in Winchester, Massachusetts. The household was thus composed of two widows, Gertrude and Maribel, and the two young girls.
It is gratifying that Nikki Nichols has taken up the story of the 1961 U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team, rendering it with both feeling and panache. I highly recommend this book to all readers with a desire to learn about this tragic episode and to understand the devastation suffered by the sport of ice skating as a result. I am giving this book only four stars, however, because the heart and soul of the story has still not been told. I know this from personal experience. Although it was Laurence's wonderful skills as a skater that made her a national figure and an ice-queen, and rightly so, she was much, much more than that. She was also an uncommonly perceptive teenager in her last years of life, talented, expressive, intelligent, and determined, yet modest and friendly to all. I can't speak for the others who died on Flight 548, but when Laurence Owen's life was snuffed out, the world lost much more than just a beautiful, young athlete. This is what I know of Laurence Owen.
Back in 1956, from my seat in Mr. Provinsano's 7th grade science class, I enjoyed an unobstructed view of the school yard outside the main entrance to Winchester Junior High School. It was sixth period, already, and Mr. Provinsano knew a good deal less about science than several of his students, so my mind was typically fixed on what my activities would be when the school bell finally signaled dismissal. Outside, at the curb by the walkway, a strange black car pulled up and parked each day, about a half-hour before the end of the day. The car, dating from the early forties, had tiny windows and a rumple seat. Through the windshield, a tiny old woman was barely visible, the top of her head just rising above the top of the steering wheel. After a few minutes, like clockwork, a small girl would come running out from the school, hop in the car, and ride off. Naturally, my curiosity was piqued. Why was this classmate released early every day? Why was she whisked away in this bizarre vehicle by what appeared to be some kind of fairy godmother to some mysterious other world? Gradually I learned that the shy little girl in question was Laurence Owen and she was on her way to the Boston Skating Club with her grandmother, where she practiced intensively twice daily in the early morning before school and in the afternoon after school. I later also learned that Laurie was especially close to her grandmother, Gertrude Vinson.
It wasn't until four years later that I would again become aware of this particular classmate. This was during my junior year in high school, in the autumn of 1959. Laurie and I were in one or another class together and were paired up on one particular occasion for an in-class activity. I was duly impressed, by her intelligence and charm, and asked her if she'd like to come to the Bridge Club that weekend. I was the co-founder of the Bridge Club and taught a beginner's class for newcomers, which took place before the duplicate tournaments that we ran each week. Laurie came to the club a couple of times and I taught her the rudiments of the game. Later, in senior year, Laurie gave me one of her class pictures, with the following inscribed on the back: "To my bridge teacher, and a real whiz in math! (How I envy you that!) I'll always remember some of the wild times we had with Jimmy & co. - especially that late night at bridge club - Always, Laurence."
In reality, Laurence had no reason to envy me in the slightest. She was far more accomplished, mature, and personable than I could have hoped to be. Among her many special skills, Laurence had a flair for writing just like her mother. Here is one example of her talent written when she was just fifteen years of age:
Across our world the sunset shadows fell.
The day was gone, the light was ere to die,
And from this twilight gloom a girl arose,
Shed of her robe of life, and clad alone
In ghostly gown she trod these shadows quick.
Softly, o softly, she led those shadows
Across the sky and down a darkened valley.
Wings of night far outspread her hurrying feet
Encompassing the dying light. At last
She stopped, and sank exhausted from her plight.
Death she laid around her, and doom was near,
And all seemed o'er, yet all was just begun.
For like a falling star whose million lights
Reflect a velvet sky, whose wreathed tips
Cast haunting glow so shone eternity
Through the night, a challenge to her spirit.
Hope, redeeming saviour, rose within her
The clarion voice of heaven. It swelled
Until it broke the vision of eternal night.
And peace came, and with it unknown beauty.
For now, at last, she knew dawn's light . . .
After the experiences with Laurie in the Bridge Club, I screwed up my courage to ask her out on a date. Why? Certainly the main reason was that she was friendly and pretty and intelligent. I think, also, that, in the back of my mind, I wanted to make sure that Laurie experienced something ordinary of High School life because I imagined, rightly or wrongly, that the demands of her training had deprived her too much of a childhood.
Quite honestly, I was amazed when she accepted my offer. Perhaps it was because I had planned the idea pretty well. First, I had suggested a "double-date," with my best friend, Jim and his "girlfriend" Carlene, so that Laurie would feel secure. Secondly, I had suggested a trip to the Totem Pole at Norumbega Part in Auburndale, which was a premiere destination for teenage dates during that time. The park itself featured canoeing, picnic areas, a penny arcade, a zoo, a carousel, and an electric fountain. Brown mallards floated peacefully down the park's murky river. The Totem Pole was a ballroom, with wine-colored velvety loveseats, gold brocade, live music and colorful, circling lights. It was pricey for teens, so Laurie might have been tempted by the opportunity to see something special. My hopes, though, were resting mainly with the Park's cozy nooks and lush gardens where young lovers might flirt or cuddle.
One reason I was surprised that Laurie agreed to the date was that I had assumed her mother would not allow her to date, given her intense training schedule. The other reason was that, in high school, I was roughly equal parts geek and wise guy. My pal Jim was the smartest kid in the class, however, and perhaps it was the double-date arrangement that had satisfied Laurie's Mom. I had a beat-up, blue 1952 Ford and, when the night finally came, I picked up each of the parties in turn, one by one, Jim first.
Now let me say, up-front, that it was a far simpler time, in 1959, at least for a couple of dudes like Jim and me. My idea of a "successful" date was getting a "goodnight" kiss at the end of the evening when I returned my date safely home. Anything more than that was pretty much not a consideration. Alcohol on a date was also not an issue and "drugs" just didn't exist in our lives.
Like a lot of adolescents, I had gone through the braces gig, and was, at that point, into the "retainer" phase. I had this plastic mouthpiece that I would wear against the top of my mouth and over the upper teeth. It would come out when I was eating or drinking, at which times I would slip it into my breast pocket. So, I was a geek with a retainer to boot.
Anyway, Laurie lived on High Street, in Winchester, a beautiful part of town. Winchester was a beautiful community in general. High Street was an old street in a part of town that otherwise consisted mainly of new developments. The houses on High Street were classy thirties vintage houses, some mansions and near-mansions, situated among beautiful semi-wooded surroundings. I had never previously known which house was Laurie's, until that evening, although I had driven along High Street many times. So, Jim and I carefully watched the numbers on the houses until we found the one that Laurie had specified.
Now, frankly, I was already a bit nervous, not being much of an old hand at dating. It didn't help matters that Laurie's house was set up on a distinct rise, above a rock wall. I was already a bit intimidated by the memory of the old antique car that I previously described, driven by Laurie's grandmother. Now here was this fortress like house up on the embankment. And, of course, it was dimly lit to boot. Images of vampires and werewolves coursed through my clouded mind.
Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth, retainer and all, and marched up to the door, like the cowardly lion's march on the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. It had also occurred to me that I might very well be in for the third-degree from Laurie's Mom. I rang the bell, and Laurie, herself, soon appeared. The front door had one of those double door arrangements and Laurie was closing the inner door at the same time as she opened the outer one. She, apparently, had her own agenda with respect to her Mom, or whoever else was there, making sure they did not come out to grill me. Lucky me! So far so good!
I don't remember a whole lot about the evening at the Totem Pole, except that I do distinctly remember holding Laurie during the dances, not too close, but close enough for the experience to be permanently etched into my memory. She, of course, was grace itself while, I, sadly, was incredibly awkward. We laughed, talked, visited with Jim and his date, sat at a table, danced some more, as the evening hurried along. We strolled a bit through the park, holding hands. I remember being impressed with how friendly Laurie was, not only with me but with Jim and his date.
Jim and I, at that stage in our lives, were into showing off how "smart" we were. One of our games consisted of one of us whistling an excerpt from a famous piece of classical music and the other naming the piece. It might be Schubert's Ninth, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, D'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Air, Tchaikovsky's Symphony Pathetique or Eugene Onegin (by which we meant the Grand Polonaise), Schubert's Trout theme, or, perhaps a theme from Harold in Italy. Laurie quickly picked up on the idea and began whistling fragments of music herself. Jim and I were stumped by one of the melodies and were flabbergasted when Laurie coolly informed us that it was from Berlioz's Damnation of Faust. That was a piece we only knew by name, but had not yet listened to at that time. Laurie had bested us at our own game, but without revealing even a hint of one-upmanship, or "one-upwomanship," as it were. Later, I learned that Laurie had an intense interest in music and poetry. She was a talented pianist and wrote and harmonized her own songs. She played Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy beautifully and arranged the score of Damnation of Faust for her skating routine. Nikki Nichols observed in her book "Laurence was not a skater to simply jump and spin to music. The music took hold of her soul and she interpreted it with an unabashed joy."
All in all, the evening was proceeding swimmingly, but there was still that matter of the goodnight kiss. Could I be so lucky? When the evening grew late, we headed home along Route 128. Jim's date got dropped off first, then, it was back to High Street. A kiss on the porch of an ordinary house would be amazing enough, but in front of the "fortress" -- was it even possible? I picked a place to park along the stone wall where Jim's view of the proceedings would be duly obstructed, and circled around the old blue Ford to open the door for my ice queen. I think that I was able to disguise the wobble in my knees as we walked up the steps and along the walk to the front door. We reached the door, Laurie stopped, turned, tilted her head just a bit, and we kissed. No, it was not prolonged, open-lipped, or wet. But it was a kiss, a magnificent kiss! I acted calm and pleasantly thanked her for a wonderful evening, and we said our goodbyes as she passed into her castle.
I stood for a few seconds, turned and began down the walk. After a few steps, I found myself veering off onto the front lawn. I felt this surge of joy and spontaneously somersaulted several times down the embankment to the rock wall. Then, I jumped off the wall to the sidewalk, just where the car had been parked.
I couldn't really hide my inspiration from Jim as we headed across town to where he lived, which was not far from my own house. I dropped Jim off and headed home and up to my room. Then, suddenly, a horrible thought sprung into my mind!! My retainer!! It had been in my shirt pocket and now it was gone. Where could it be? I was so consistent in my routine for dealing with it, what could have happened? Oh my God! The somersaults!!
By now, it must have been about 1:00 or 1:30 in the morning. Maybe even 2:00. What was I to do? I could go over to Laurie's in the morning, make a complete fool out of myself, and spoil a beautiful memory. I could write it off as a loss and stick my Dad with the cost of a new retainer. Or, I could return quietly, now, in the middle of the night (or so it seemed in those days) with a flashlight! All things considered, the last choice seemed like the right one.
I headed back to the blue Ford and back over to the High Street fortress, with all sorts of terrible thoughts whirling around in my mind. What if they had a dog? Would I awaken the entire household? What if the mother or grandmother woke up and thought I was a prowler? Or would they think that I was some kind of date who had become obsessed and had turned into a stalker? What if the police drove by with me prancing around their front yard with a flashlight?
Well, luckily, none of those tragic scenarios transpired. I parked just out of sight of the Owen's house, scaled the wall, pictured the path of my earlier inspired acrobatics, and duly found the retainer around the location of the first inversion. Then, I quietly slipped away into the night.
In the summer of 1960, Laurie and I shared another experience. The two of us were selected to attend Harvard Summer School between our junior and senior years in high school. She took a special experimental, accelerated French course. I took a college chemistry course. We sat together during the orientation session, but that was the last I saw of her all summer. Frankly, I was dreaming that we would see more of each other, but Laurie was a comet quickly rising into the stratosphere, way beyond my reach.
After her triumphs at the beginning of 1961, the press dubbed Laurie the "Winchester Pixie." She was then developing her own persona, shaking loose from the shadow of her powerful mother, for whom she was essentially an alter-ego. The process was often punctuated by tempestuous spats between the two. In 1961, the amazing Laurie was on the verge of taking the world by storm, when tragedy struck. For me personally, she will forever be the fourteen and fifteen year old girl-woman whose mind was just then blossoming into something profoundly beautiful.
Written by: Laurence R. Owen
I have asked the question, How can I accurately portray my sister? But even more difficult to answer is the question, How can I accurately portray myself? Perhaps the safest answer is that I cant do it. However, as I dont like to admit complete defeat, I will try.
During the last several years, I have had one main ambition: to stop losing my temper. No one would guess this ambition because I keep right on losing it. When I resolve to remain calm at all times I am in an objective mood, and am able to detach myself from my surroundings. Then, when I am actually involved in the daily routine of life, I lose this objective view, grow irritated, and lose my temper at the slightest provocation. Again, however, I refuse to admit complete defeat.
Certainly I have a difficult background to overcome. My grandfather was inclined to use language that would do justice to a salty old New England sea captain, while my mother informs me that she started to swear at the tender age of fourteen. Everyone in the family is very outspoken, I being no exception to the rule! Although this tendency definitely hinders me from maintaining an even temper, I am not sorry that it is a characteristic of mine. The one personality trait I despise above all others is hypocrisy. I believe that one should take a definite stand towards a situation or person either pro or con and then remain loyal to that stand. Often this belief has led me into trouble. Once, after violently criticizing a certain shoe polish, I was told that the father of the girl with whom I was talking had invented it. I think that I have learned it is best to say nothing . . . . . .in certain situations at least. The odds are against me, but Youve got to have heart. Ill get that temper under control yet!
Perhaps it would be wise to fill you in on some of the details of my early life. I was born on May 9, 1944, in Berkeley, California, and at the age of nine months, came East to live. Three years later I moved back to Berkeley, where I stayed until I was ten.
It was during my first stay in the East that two major forces entered my life: my grandmother and figure skating. Grammy took an immediate liking to me. Apparently, at our first acquaintance, I gave her an approving glance and instantly fell asleep in her arms. Also, whereas five-year-old Maribel was full of irritating questions, I was blessedly still. At any rate, I have always been her little lovey, a position which has often made life difficult for both Mara and me.
Grammy has always picked up after me, done my mending and washing, taken on responsibilities such as feeding the animals, and has been my general factotum. Although I never asked for such help, I soon began to expect it as a matter of course, and consequently grew rather slipshod. This infuriated my mother who wanted me to be neat, organized, and on time . . . . all the things I wasnt. It has taken years to even partly fulfill her hopes, and I am still struggling to subdue the monster known as disorganization. In recent years, though Grammy has done less for me, a good thing, as it compels me to be neater.
Another one of Grammys foibles was indulging all my like and dislikes of food. By so doing, she brought out my stubborn streak. At the age of five or six, I developed a passionate hatred for eggs (they were slimy). Mother was determined that I would eat them, like it or not. I was just as determined that I wouldnt eat them, and certainly never like them. May I add that she won this battle, but not without much defensive action on my part. I can often remember sitting at the breakfast table for one to two hours, a cold egg before me, mother behind me with an equally cold glint of determination in her eye. Once in desperation, I slid my fried egg under the rug. All was well until the maid found it three days later. Then I tried throwing them out the window until our Japanese gardener reported a strange new crop. I ate two eggs a day for the week following that escapade. Ugh!
As mum has often said, my determination is fine just so long as I use it in the right direction, but use it in the wrong way . . . . This stubbornness is curiously mixed. Although I enjoy being independent and often resist control, I went through a stage of longing for protection from the worlds realities. I resented and enjoyed responsibility at the same time. As I see it now, this resentment was a childish dream, merely a longing for that which I didnt have. However, I feel that it is good to have a bit of the romantic thrown in with the realistic. Otherwise my outlook might too easily become cynical and any creative impulse be stifled.
As a corollary to this romanticism, I am very inclined to over-dramatize myself. I often build up a pleasant fantasy over my deplorable position when it is anything but that. I also attach too much importance to a relatively minor catastrophe, such as B on a composition for which I confidently expected an A. My instantaneous reaction is complete disappointment, sometimes even to the point of despair. Such a reaction is slightly ridiculous to many people. Certainly to me, also, in the clear perspective of later reasoning. Perhaps this poem states my feelings better:
Ah despair, what are you?
A sinking of the heart, of hope?
You are many things but mainly
Loss of clarity, of perception.
Nevertheless, I will probably go on being disappointed when I fail to do as well as I feel I should, or could, have done. This feeling is part of the influence which skating has had on me.
All my life I have Figure Skated, an exacting sport at the least. The older I have grown, the higher the standard of perfection in this pastime has become. Now, at the top level of international competition, I must constantly strive to keep my average of performance between 86% and 100%. Consequently, my standard of perfection has also risen in other fields. I can not be content with a mediocre piece of work, or with one that a few years ago might have seemed quite good. Im used to comparing my skating with the best in the world; thus I do the same everywhere. For instance, in comparison with Margot Fonteyn, I am not an exceptional ballet dancer, nor even a good one. Yet I feel that with work I could compare favorably to her standard. Often people mistake this self-confidence for conceit. Nothing could be farther from the truth, for usually conceit is a sign of insecurity. However, I must constantly guard against over-confidence. Realizing ones own potential is a great aid to success, but unless you support your talents with good solid work, such a realization does [a few illegible words]. This is a lesson which I feel I have learned well that there is no substitute for work, work, and still more work. Ability without effort is worthless. Before learning the true meaning of this moral, though, I wasted a great deal of time.
As a child of seven entering my first Figure Skating competition I had been a hard worker, taking pleasure and pride in the results of my efforts. Not being too concerned with the business of competing, I skated as well as I could and came sixth in the juvenile class . . . . she skated well and the audience loved it. The only thing she muffed at all was her camel spin which is usually a real highlight. Anyway, for seven she is terrific . . Apparently I thought so too because the next year I didnt work at all. When mother reprimanded me for my lack of concentration, I (still confident) blithely replied, Oh, dont worry about me, mother. When the time comes Ill be all right. After I had failed my third test three times and was thus unable to compete, I realized how foolish this attitude was. Still, even today, I must constantly remind myself to concentrate on the job at hand.
Above all, skating has taught me the power of the mind. How easily the mind can control nervousness or hesitancy. If only everyone realized the power of positive thinking. I firmly believe with Dr. Norman Peale that a positive mental approach can accomplish twice as much as might otherwise be expected. Certainly, this has been my experience. In 1958 before the Eastern Championships I decided that I was going to win them. I felt that I was capable of winning; thus why shouldnt I? Accordingly, I wrote first place in my engagement calendar, then won the championship.
Many times, however, this formula doesnt work. Hard work, positive thinking, and ability are not enough; at such moments I feel very depressed. Will I ever succeed? These thoughts are usually short-lived because my optimism is quick in returning. Although nothing succeeds like success, I have found (even in these few years) that one actually learns more from failure. Moreover, I feel that every failure must have some purpose, that God does help those who help themselves.
To me, God is a nebulous concept. Just what is He? So far my life has not given me a definite answer to this question. I do think that God, in relation to people, must be a symbol of the conscience. His purpose is to help each human being lead a better life. Thus I recognize failure as part of His purpose: to make us realize the true value of success. Consequently, I feel it is right to maintain an abiding sense of optimism.
This, then, is what I know of the magnificent Laurence Owen (1944-1961). I had no direct contact with her life as a skater. Frozen in Time by Nikki Nichols covers all that beautifully, for Laurie as well as the others who died in the 1961 disaster. I welcome Ms. Nichols's contribution to keeping alive the memory of Laurie and the others who left us far too soon. Laurie was a beautiful and special person long before she became America's ice-queen. I imagine that there are similar stories for each of the other victims of Sabena Flight 548.