Whispersfrommyheart's Blog

The Legacy of 102 Candles

Posted on: September 24, 2012

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It was June 15th, 1904. The Klontz’s, part of the 1,358 members of Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), a very tight knit German immigrant community that had surrounded Tompkins Square on the Lower East Side, boarded the General Slocum around nine a.m. at a pier on Third Street and the East River. The family was excited about the annual picnic that was being held at Locust Point in bucolic Huntington on Long Island’s North Shore. Every deck was filled to capacity on the Slocum and a band played merrily as the steamer started out. Most of the passengers were women and children.

Not long into their excursion, cries of “fire” were heard. Panic began to set in. The speed of the Slocum caused the fire to spread quickly; too quickly! The life boats had burned before the crew could get them into the water. The Klontz’s found themselves with nowhere to go.

The decks soon began to collapse upon the passengers. People were jumping into the water, some women threw their children overboard in hopes they would somehow survive.

Miraculously, a little boy–**John Wesley Klontz–had been thrown overboard. He was one a the few who was pulled from the waters, and could only watch as the Slocum continued to burn at Hunts Point in the Bronx.

Verna Johnson was born in October of 1896 in the small, rural community of Laurel County, Kentucky, to George Washington Johnson and Mary Alpha Carter Johnson. Tragedy struck the Johnson household in double measure before Verna was born. Preceding her birth were twin brothers; Hubert was still-born, and Delbert died at 6 weeks of age. In the early 1900’s, when Verna was around 6 years old, the Johnson’s loaded up their covered wagon, and made the trek to Cincinnati, Ohio.

The rail road had built a station within a mile of her Cincinnati home, and Verna would climb up the old Oak tree near the track and watch the train pulling in, and out of the station. As the train passed, there would be a young man on the caboose, who waved to her. Verna became fond of their ritual, and each time the train came in, Verna found her heart beating wildly at the chance of seeing his handsome face.

One hot July afternoon in 1911, Verna climbed the Oak tree to watch the train. The train pulled in as usual, but this time, she noticed the tall young man stepping off of the train. Her heart began to pound as she watched the young man walk toward her tree. She quickly jumped down, and waited, as he strode toward her.

John Wesley Klontz removed his hat and held it over his heart.

“Afternoon, Ma’am.” John blushed, with a distinct accent.

Verna smiled and curtsied. “Welcome to Cincinnati.” She responded.

They became fast friends, and within a month, John asked Verna to be his bride.

“Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Verna, happy birthday to you!” Verna smiled as she closed her eyes and made her wish. She drew in a deep breath, enough to blow out all 15 candles at once.

As they sat around the table that October afternoon in 1911, Verna looked at the faces of her family, and smiled. She had reached a milestone, and this was the reason they celebrated. She was 15; a woman by modern day standards, and on this day she would become Mrs. John Wesley Klontz; the wife of the German Immigrant. A few months afterward, John and Verna left Ohio, and moved to Ottumwa, Iowa.

Grandma Verna raised Margie, after Margie’s mother passed away during an epileptic seizure, when she was 9 months old. At 18, Margie entered the Navy, met Carol Eugene Mason, married and began a family. After 6 children, time and money had not allowed the trek to Iowa all too often, and in 1998, it had been over 8 years since Margie had seen Grandma Verna.

By this time, Grandma Verna had reached another milestone in her life. In October of 1998, she had celebrated her 102nd birthday. Margie had not been able to attend, so when November rolled around, close to her own daughter’s birthday, they decided to celebrate by making the trip to Iowa. Margie and her girls spent the weekend of November 14th with Grandma Verna and their great Aunts and Uncles, re-living the past adventures of Grandma Verna, sitting in the tiny living room of the 1-bedroom home Verna still lived in.

Upon arriving back home, Cheryl noticed the Mother-in-laws tongue plant that Verna had given Margie 30 some odd years ago, had bloomed. Even though the plant had bloomed once since Margie received the plant, it should not have bloomed until another 50 years had passed. Cheryl sensed in her spirit that Grandma Verna would soon be going home and, in December of 1998, three weeks after their visit to Grandma Verna, she passed from this life, into life forever, leaving the legacy of 102 candles behind.

*Based on the life and times of my great-grandmother, Verna Klontz. Although the events of the Slocum are true, it is pure speculation that John Klontz was the little boy who survived. It was used to enhance the story of my grandmother’s meeting of her husband, John.

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