Budd Davisson . Air Progress. 1985

Sprout Kratzer

I want to talk about Sprout Kratzer. I don't have the slightest idea why but right now it seems important. when I was a kid, Sprout lived in one of those solid old 1930s' houses at the end of Hillcrest where it cut across the worn bricks of 7th Street. The bricks made the corner seem somehow exotic, since only the streets which led to the houses of the rich were bricked in early 20th century Seward, Nebraska.

But Sprout wasn't rich. His small furtive appearing father worked as a typesetter at the local printer and struggled to support the half a house they rented. Sprout was a year older than me, which would have made him about 14 at the time and it never occurred to me to ask why he had no mother. I only knew his father worked hard and I was lucky to have a complete family of my own.

I don't think I ever knew his real first name, but Sprout is important to me in a number of long past ways. In the first place, he was the first, and only kid/person in my hometown that shared my addiction for things that fly. Until only a few minutes ago, that fact had gone completely unnoticed for over 30 years. None of my friends cared one whit about airplanes except for Sprout and our friendship lasted probably no more than slightly over a year. It is interesting to quess why a kid should become so strongly enamored of flight when there was no local airport, no peer group interest and only a veteran or two to talk to about airplanes. It must have been that BT-13 my dad parked next to the store, but I've mentioned that before. That is on reason Sprout was so important. He was a kindred soul in an absolutely barren aeronautical desert.

Because Sprout was a year or so ahead, he knew facts that were important and totally unavailable to me. Or so it seemed. He, for instance, knew how to get a model airplane engine to start almost every time. And he had one of the first Fox .19s-the original type with the split case and porcelain venturi. It was that engine that made me work so hard to get my own Fox .35 and, in so doing graduate out of the 1/2As to the "real" motors of U-control stunt flying.

The basement of the old house in which Sprout lived was that of every house of its type in the world. The ceiling was low and unfinished and the dark walls were pointed brick that betrayed a craftsmanship unavailable today. A warm glow always permeated the darkness because of the massive furnace in the corner. The builders of these old houses had a strange predilection for French doors, since Sprout's basement was one of many that had a portion separated from the rest by multi-paned French doors. And, like most of the town's older basements, the reason for the fancy doors had been long since forgotten as the area was filled with rakes, empty bushel baskets, wooden packing crates and clothes bundles of questionable origin.

The lady who owned the house had taken a liking to Sprout and let him convert part of the area behind the doors into a little workshop. To me, it was the cradle of local aviation since he had control line models hanging from the ceiling and scattered around the bench. None were fancy and may were hand-me-downs, but they were there and he was willing the share his space and his knowledge.

Sprout was a younger incarnation of this father. Skinny, with red, short-cropped hair and freckles, his skin had so little color, it looked as if he had spent his entire life in the mushroom cellar workshop we shared. His appearance is worth mentioning only in retrospect since, at the time, we all looked about the same and we saw each other as only kids see each other. He had the "knowledge" and that was all that mattered.

He gave me bit and pieces of a number of airplanes he had attempted to stuff into gopher hoes at 80 mph and I struggled to make them into flying machines again. I always failed. In fact, that period of my model-making career was primarily one of imagined progress. I got very good at building but wasn't worth a damn at flying, which is probably why I was so good at building. I had plenty of practice.

Sprout could actually fly until the airplane ran out of gas, just like the magazines said it was supposed to happen. I doubt if that ever happened to me. Somewhere in the first dozen or so circles I would find myself frantically trying to catch us with an airplane that was moving much faster than the maximum speed of my 13-year-old brain. I knew much more about the various failure modes of balsa structures than I did about wingovers or horizontal eights. Sustained level flight was still well beyond my grasp. but not Sprout. He knew what he was doing. To me, it was nothing short of wonderment to watch him turning in circles with his arm in a relaxed quick draw position seemingly able to make the airplane at the end of the wires do anything he wanted. Today, I know he was a minimal pilot. But when I was a non-existent driver of airplanes, he was Chuck Yeager.

I said Sprout was important to me for several reasons. The airplane camaraderie is first. The second is he was the first person I knew who died.

He and some other kids had been out on the gravel extension of Hillcrest, out past the Fenster place, and rumor had it they were playing "Strip Chicken." That was a probably fictional game in which the driver took his hands off the wheel and everyone saw how many clothes they could get off before the driver was forced to grab the wheel again. That's what the rumors said. And it was a small town, so rumors counted.

They were barreling up the hill and hit some new gravel which cased the '36 Ford to flip end for end. Sprout went out through the fabric roof and the car rolled over him. He was 15-years-old. Maybe 16.

They let school out, since a death in a school that has maybe 300 students is an earth-shaking event. It was the first time I was ever in the new Episcopalian Church and I was eaten up with guilt. I hadn't talked to Sprout for what seemed like a long time. But, far worse than that, I still had his prized Fox .19 in my own workshop. I know now that modeling was no longer central in his life, having discovered girls and all, but, standing in that church with tears streaming down my face, I wanted to go running up to the casket and drop the engine in with him. I wanted to do something to make his father understand I hadn't kept the engine intentionally.

I felt so bad for his father. I still do. He appeared almost Chaplinesque in his loneliness and despair. He had been that way when Sprout was alive, but the death had taken what little heart was left out of him. Somehow, even at 13-years-old, I sensed that fact and I wanted to make it better, but didn't know how. And I still had that engine and didn't know how to atone for what then felt like a theft.

Probably another part of my guilt stemmed from the fact that I was from a family that could only be judged as fortunate. I wanted for nothing and had tasted my share of success on several fronts, modeling not being one of them. Sprout, it seemed to me, had always been on the fringes of society. He was a hero in that basement but, in the hard light of day, didn't quite cut it in the cruel social strata that high school kids construct. He was a nice kid. A really nice one, but not a winner. And then he was dead. It didn't seem fair.

In the three decades since I stood in the back of that church I've thought about Sprout often. and I've wondered if others have done the same, although part of my mind knows that isn't the case. With the distortions introduced by a 13-year-old's point of view and the passage of 30 years. I've almost developed a feeling that, except for me and maybe one or two others who were close to him at his death, he might as well have never existed. It feels as if I must remember him so he isn't forgotten, since that is the ultimate human cruelty.

So, to Sprout, wherever your young souls is, I remember. And I still have that engine. And the Puddle Jumper you lost the wing on that day in the park? I still have that too.

To Mr. Kratzer, I'm sorry I didn't speak to you at the funeral. I couldn't. My mouth wouldn't work because my heart was jammed in my throat. Just remember I was a kid and having trouble dealing with my first death of a friend. Given the chance to do it again at this age, I doubt if I could handle it any better. I'm just not very good at that sort of thing. I'm sorry.

To the world in general, just remember you heard the name Sprout Kratzer. That way, he'll be remembered by at least a few. And, when my time comes, that's all I ask for myself.