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Tucson Weekly An American Tale

Long Before Jessica Dubroff's Cessna Crashed In Cheyenne, Americans Had To Consider The Abernathy Boys.

By Randall Holdridge

MARCH 22, 1999: 

Bud & Me: The True Adventures of the Abernathy Boys, by Alta Abernathy, as related to her by Temple Abernathy (Dove Creek Press). Cloth, $18.95.

IN APRIL 1996, the nation's attention fixated briefly on the death of Jessica Dubroff, age 7. A Cessna 177B, which theoretically she was piloting, crashed on takeoff in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in heavy rain, sleet and gusty winds. Although seasoned commercial pilots would not dare the conditions that day, Jessica was flying on a tight schedule and under intense media scrutiny. For her, leaving Cheyenne was the start of the second leg of a ballyhooed coast-to-coast journey from her home in Half Moon Bay, California, to Falmouth, Massachusetts. Had she made the distance, she would have been the youngest pilot to fly across the continent.

Although 7-year old Daniel Shanklin had already accomplished the feat in 1991, Jessica would have edged him by a few months, and with her toothy smile, whipping ponytail, and eager manner before the TV news cameras, Jessica was a natural. Her record would be unofficial, since The Guiness Book of World Records had dropped its "youngest flyer" category to avoid encouraging pure recklessness.

Pure recklessness is what second-guessers charged after the crash. Reporters, who'd winked and smiled as they closed their 30 minutes of evening news with an adoring clip of "the spunky California girl pilot," now nodded darkly and hinted abuse. Critics claimed that Jessica's parents, overly ambitious and eager for publicity, had pushed their daughter beyond her capacities and into a crumpled fuselage. To be sure, her father Lloyd had been energetically promoting the trip by his 4-foot-2, 55-pound wunderkind, but he died in the crash with her, along with Jessica's flight instructor, Joe Reid, 52. Critics pointed out that Jessica was too tiny to see the instrument panel or to reach the control pedals of the small plane, which had to be modified to compensate. Mention was made of the fact that Jessica had logged only 32 hours of flight time before starting the cross-country flight, and witnesses suggested that the Cessna appeared overloaded, especially for takeoff in Cheyenne's thin air.

When an FAA investigation determined that Reid, not Jessica, was at the controls when the fatal crash occurred, criticism turned to a harsh examination of the attitudes which had inspired the stunt. Jessica's divorced mother, Lisa Blair Hathaway, was visibly stunned when the klieg lights were turned on her. She had been home-schooling Jessica and her siblings, stressing independence and learning by experience. Tearful, but fierce and unrepentant, Hathaway asserted that Jessica "died in a state of joy" pursuing her own dreams. This played badly on video and in the weekly news magazines. And then, in the way of these things, the public forgot Jessica Dubroff entirely.

Also forgotten, even unnoticed--perhaps because Dubroff was a girl--is the fact that her adventure was as American as, well...Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

The youthful cross-country travels of Louis "Bud" Abernathy and his younger brother, Temple, are a happy and uncannily similar case in point: When Bud was 9 and Temple only 5, the two boys set out with their father's blessing to ride horseback from Frederick, Oklahoma, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and back again...alone. They went not out of necessity, nor on some desperate errand; they went for the fun of the adventure. It was 1909. In the next four years, they would undertake even more prodigious travels through America, becoming minor celebrities, securing corporate endorsements and meeting President Taft in the White House. This tale from what one might like to think of as a simpler, more innocent America is told by Temple Abernathy and written up by his wife of 64 years, Alta Abernathy, in Bud & Me: The True Life Adventures of the Abernathy Boys. This is a folksy book from a small, regional publisher, but considered at the century's other end for its similarities and differences with the Jessica Dubroff story, it gives rise to serious reflection.

The Abernathy boys were sons of Jack "Catch-'em Alive" Abernathy, an Oklahoma Strip land rusher who was renowned for a stunt which involved riding down prairie wolves on horseback, leaping onto their backs at a full gallop, bulldog style, and then wrestling them to earth barehanded. This dangerous feat--and Jack Abernathy's colorful character--so impressed President Theodore Roosevelt when he rode along to watch during a 1904 Western campaign swing, that he named the progressive Republican cowboy to serve as United States Marshal for Oklahoma.

A widower, Jack Abernathy was raising Bud and Temp with the help of their four sisters and various aunts, and the female atmosphere of his household may have worried him during his frequent trips away from home chasing outlaws. Possibly that accounts for the fact that he put up little resistance when his two pre-pubescent sons decided on their own to try the ride across the Caprock country and the Llano Estacado to Santa Fe, despite the fact that Temp was so small he had to mount his half-Shetland pony from a porch and slide down its left foreleg to dismount. Anyway, he gave each of them credit for $100 and let them go. Bud had a good sense of direction, apparently, and they made the long journey with little difficulty. In Santa Fe, they were guests of the territorial governor, an honor which they took as much in stride as the generous hospitality of meals and shelter received at scattered ranch houses along the way.

On the return, they fell briefly into company with what struck them as a slightly odd band of cowboys. In the way of guileless little boys they jabbered out their story and accepted a gruff welcome, only to notice that they were followed at a distance for the next two days by mysterious men on horseback. When they were safely home, their father received a crude note from a band of rustlers he had been after for months: "I don't like one hair on your head, but I do like the stuff that is in these kids. We shadowed them through the worst part of New Mexico to see that they were not harmed by sheepherders, mean men, or animals."

The next year, the Abernathy boys set out to ride from Oklahoma to New York City, and although Temp seems to have remained rather naive about this through his whole life, one can guess that by now both their dad and Teddy Roosevelt had begun to see the publicity value of the daring tykes. Now out of office, Roosevelt was thinking of challenging his hand-picked successor, Taft, for the Republican nomination. The boys' trip was planned to coincide with TR's return from an African safari, and a triumphal European speaking tour. Their father would join them in New York, and they would be part of the media circus which greeted Teddy's return. Now known as the "Rough Riding Abernathy Boys," their stops were carefully planned. They stayed overnight with Quanah Parker, last of the Comanche war chiefs, and were feted by town officials and citizens in places like St. Louis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Baltimore. At every stop they charmed local reporters, who wrote up their progress and quoted their childish awe at novelties they encountered such as automobiles, paved roads, teletype machines, movie houses and straw hats.

They met Wilbur Wright in Dayton, and posed for pictures in the cockpit of one of the first-production aircraft. Bands sometimes greeted their arrival, and in Washington they had a private audience at the White House. At church in New York, they sat in the Rockefeller family pew. Significantly, the photos taken at their stops show boys surprisingly well-dressed and camera savvy for juvenile saddle tramps, and well-aware of the symbolic importance of their Stetsons. Their father arranged that their horses be at the dock when Roosevelt arrived, and they rode horseback in new cowboy suits on board the U.S. Revenue cutter Dolphin to add to the excitement of their hero's return.

While their horses returned to Oklahoma by train, the Abernathy boys set out to drive back in a two-seat Brush automobile, seemingly with the Detroit company's underwriting and a Touring Club of America banner across the hood. They spent one afternoon practicing their newfound driving skills on New York streets, then headed west. Everywhere they went, they praised the car they'd named "The Wildcat" (the company later made it official), and assured any adult who asked that if little boys could drive a car, so could anybody else. They set a cross-country record--2,512 miles in 23 days--even though Temp was so small he had to perch on the edge of the seat and lean against the steering wheel to reach the pedals.

"Catch-'em Alive" Abernathy now produced a few short movies highlighting his sons. National celebrities, the Abernathy boys came under the management of two New York impresarios who'd started the development of Coney Island. The boys undertook an election-year stunt that involved racing an elephant and a donkey from New York to Baltimore, but it fizzled in the face of Humane Society opposition.

Yet their biggest ride was still ahead of them: Their managers challenged them for $10,000 to ride cross-country (from Coney Island to Golden Gate Park) in 60 days, sleeping and eating out the entire way. They lost the bet, even though they did cover the entire distance and beat the previous record by 120 days. The trip killed Sam Bass, the favorite horse their father had used to chase wolves, and it nearly killed the Abernathy boys, too. Temp was undaunted, remembering what Teddy Roosevelt had said to them on their departure: "I want to see you game, boys. I want to see you brave and manly, and I also want to see you gentle and tender...Alike for the nation and the individual, the one indispensable requisite is character."

On their journeys, the Abernathy boys survived terrible cold, thirst, encounters with wild bulls, rattlers and misanthropes; near drowning, hail, rain, outlaw camps, lost horses, theft and accidents aplenty. Still, they stuck together as adoring brothers, looked for boyish delights, and had on balance a whale of a good time. Taken in this light, Lisa Blair Hathaway's claim that her daughter "died in a state of joy" is not quite so fantastic or unsympathetic.

Although the Abernathy boys rode an Indian motorcycle from Oklahoma to New York in 1913, their glory days were over. If at 13 and 9, they were too old to astound, of course America was now also inured to marvels of speed, and the day of the horseman had passed. Bud and Temp grew up, got jobs, got married and had families of their own. Everybody forgot their story except them, but they and their families have treasured it.

Bud and Me is then itself a shared treasure, and it is a reminder of things American. This happy little book deserves an audience of both children and adults, not least because it suggests that things we have changed and continue to change in our physical and social context are making it increasingly difficult--even impossible--to have, much less enjoy: lives rich in the independence, daring, candor and ease with ourselves and others that are fundamental to "character."


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