Mark Johnson passed along this story, from March 6, 1988. Take a look.
By TAD BARTIMUS, Associated Press Writer
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers …”
— William Shakespeare, Henry V
There is so little left.
A red cardboard valentine with torn paper lace, which proclaims, “I love you Mom.” A carefully penned Thanksgiving essay in which the writer says he’s grateful for his family “to have someone to love me.” A child’s “Life Story” book with extra pages left blank for future adventures.
Chad Eugene Gragg, 12, Aaron Wayne Gragg, 11, and Stephen Douglas Gragg, 8, died together at dusk on the cold afternoon of Feb. 4.
It was Aaron’s 11th birthday. Despite admonishments from a teacher and a chum who rode home with him on the bus, he chose to celebrate it by sliding on the frozen surface of a farmer’s pond.
The ice broke. Aaron fell into the frigid water. His big brother Chad, doing what his parents had always taught him to do, attempted to save him. He, too, fell in. Stevie, strong for his age, also tried to be his brothers’ keeper. His body plunged through the thin crust.
A horrified neighbor boy ran for help. Frantic firemen pulled the brothers from the pond within 30 minutes. They weren’t breathing and had no pulse. Two helicopters and an ambulance rushed them to three separate hospitals.
Thus began the agonizing pilgrimage of Charles and Mary Gragg, two ordinary people who now stagger in the footsteps of Job.
Meanwhile, word of the tragedy spread like woodsmoke over this western Missouri town of 2,800. The event would change forever Buckner’s image of itself.
As doctors at St. Mary’s Hospital in nearby Blue Springs told the parents their son Chad was dead, teachers and friends arrived to surround the stunned couple in a protective cocoon.
Hoping against hope, the Graggs next went to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, only to be told Aaron, too, was gone.
By the time they reached Children’s Mercy Hospital the Graggs were at the heart of a caravan of grief. They found Stephen on a life support system. At 10 p.m., he passed away.
In the space and time it took for the sun to set and the moon to rise, three healthy, happy, handsome little boys vanished from the lives of all who knew them.
They left behind bits of homework and smiling celluloid images, a puppy named Scooter who looks for them everywhere, empty school desks, classmates who struggle to remember their last words, teachers who wish they’d known them better.
They left behind the townspeople of Buckner, who were galvanized by the loss to dig deep within their hearts and pockets to bury the children with dignity, and continue to mourn them with honest tears.
They left behind their mother and their father, but Mary and Charles Gragg, both 41, are no longer parents. The sounds of laughter, of life, are gone from their empty house. The only noise comes from the television set. The door to the boys’ bedroom is closed.
The unbearable must now be borne.
“In our age, children aren’t eligible to die because our expectations
have been set up that children can survive anything,” said Kathryn Howard, a grief counselor with Comprehensive Mental Health Services in nearby Independence, Mo.
“All the time we read about children who fall into freezing water and
survive. Why not Aaron, or Chad, or at least Stevie? They couldn’t be
saved because the water wasn’t deep enough nor cold enough. But because of modern medical miracles, we are conditioned to believe it is outrageous that they died.”
Ms. Howard, whose nonprofit agency has contracts with both the local
school district and fire department, has headed grief and death counseling in Buckner since the drownings. She also helped the Graggs plan their children’s funeral.
“The human spirit is resilient beyond belief, and that is the hope here,” said Ms. Howard. “At a time like this you can get swamped by the grinding pain of it. But out of that pain comes some of the most substantial character and human elegance to be found on Earth. You learn how people can rise up and care for one another.
“This is now a community that speaks with one voice. That phenomena is rare _ too often we are too big and fragmented a society for this to happen. But if you listen to Buckner today, what you hear is, ‘We care. This matters to us. They were our children, too.”‘
The Graggs had no close relatives living nearby. Acting out of instinct and compassion, Buckner Elementary School Principal Richard Thompson stepped into the abyss.
“The school in a sense became their family,” said Thompson. “Working with me, Kathryn Howard, and Jerry Brown, the funeral director, Charlie and Mary decided to have the funeral in the junior high gymnasium. The parents wanted the teachers to speak, and to be pallbearers.
“This became a chance for the community to fulfill what a community is all about. Before the accident happened you could have counted on one hand the number of people who knew Charlie and Mary Gragg. Now everyone knows them and wants to help them.”
The Parent-Teacher Association mobilized to take food to the Gragg home for the next two weeks. Secretly thanking God it wasn’t their own kids, mothers reached into closets and brought forth suits and ties for the boys to wear to their graves.
Funds were established to accept donations to offset medical and funeral expenses. The local bank, the savings and loan and a florist donated flower sprays for the coffins.
“It is so hard to take it in,” said James B. Jones, president of the First State Bank of Missouri, where nearly $20,000 was sent in the first two weeks after the accident.
Pondering the event’s anguishing mathematics, Jones wondered, “if people had only one child and lost it, isn’t that just as terrible as having three and losing them all? I don’t know, I simply don’t know, it’s just so hard to make yourself think about it.”
Mortician Brown tried not to think about his own boys, aged 7 and 8, as he plotted the funeral like a general planning a battle.
“We went into this with no idea there’d be any money to pay for it. I was estimating a minimum of $2,500 each. I went to my vault manufacturer and coffin supplier and explained the situation. They were willing to share the burden, no matter what happened,” said Brown, whose family has served as Buckner’s only morticians for three
Brown decided on three identical coffins, three identical hearses. He reserved three side-by-side plots on a gently sloping hillside in the town cemetery.
From the graves you can look out over the walnut and oak trees, past dormant farm pastures, and down toward the creek where an angry crawdad once bit Aaron’s big toe, where Chad caught a two-pound lunker of a catfish, where Stevie loved to hunt for frogs.
Those are the same hills and hollars Brown scampered over as a child. He, too, remembers sliding across frozen ponds with his buddies.
Brown steeled himself not to think about any of those memories, or the event that brought him into the Graggs’ circle, “because it is so overwhelming, so awesome, that it stops you in your tracks.” He’d think later. First, he had a big job to do.
When he’d finished embalming and dressing the dead children in their new clothes, he tucked each boy’s favorite toy into the silk-lined caskets.
As Brown ministered to the dead, Thompson and Ms. Howard, along with every clergyman in town, local teachers, and reinforcements from other schools, consoled the living.
“The day after it happened we conducted emotional triage in the halls, the library, the cafeteria, and the classrooms,” said Ms. Howard. “We had kids crying with counselors in corners everywhere you looked. Part of being young is learning how to deal with your pain. The kids were shown they could support one another and that they wouldn’t be alone.”
Teachers read “The Taste of Blackberries” to all fourth and fifth graders. The book relates the tale of a boy who loses his best friend. Younger children heard “The 10th Good Thing About Barney,” a story of a little boy whose cat dies.
Thompson sent letters home with every student, detailing the day’s upheaval and warning parents their children “might have tears or depression but that is expected and is normal in the grief process …” Attached were four pages of guidelines for dealing with the situation.
“That day we just put a Band-Aid on it, we flew by the seat of our pants,” recalled Thompson. “We decided to leave the Gragg boys’ desks empty to stress the finality of death, to show some physical remains.
We talked about the details. We tried to cope with the onslaught of the media but refused to let reporters talk to teachers or students. And we braced for the funeral.”
Thompson is described by faculty, city fathers, and the Graggs as the glue that held everything together through that long weekend.
Besides organizing the school’s response to the tragedy, Thompson set up the junior high gymnasium for the funeral, helped teachers prepare their farewell remarks, acceded to any family wishes, and comforted students who attended the open coffin visitation and closed casket funeral.
“It was tough trying to make an appropriate setting for a funeral out of a basketball court, but we did it,” said Thompson.
He had a carpenter build a wooden schoolhouse which was then covered with flowers and presented by the students of Buckner. Thompson also gave the parents a brass school bell engraved with the boys’ names. The gift usually is reserved for retiring teachers.
“We consider that your boys have retired to a heavenly school,” Thompson told the Graggs.
More than 600 mourners heard fourth-grade teacher Jeanne Young describe the Gragg children as “three adventuresome, energetic little boys … each of us has a special place in our heart, locked and guarded _ it’s the place just for Chad and Stephen and Aaron.”
Symbols of each boy’s interests rested atop the blue-gray caskets: art materials for Aaron, a soccer ball for Stephen, a basketball for Chad.
Finally, the three brothers were laid to rest in winter’s hard ground.
Mortician Brown left town for a convention in Florida, allowing himself to cry most of the way.
Mental health counselor Kathryn Howard began planning a series of forums on death and dying for the Buckner community.
Principal Thompson fielded calls from People magazine and tried to get his school back to some semblance of normalcy.
“The tragedy will long be remembered in this community,” said Thompson, pausing to wipe tears from his eyes and catch his breath over the big lump in his throat. “They were rambunctious country boys who were one for all and all for one.
“Two of the boys willingly gave up their lives for the other. That is the only thing that makes it comprehensible.”
Mary and Charlie Gragg’s relatives have gone home and neighbors visit less now. Gragg has resumed the commute to his job at a metal treating company in Kansas City. His wife has returned to shift work for a janitorial contractor at the nearby Lake City Army Ammunition Plant.
The Graggs believe they’ll stay in the neighborhood where dogs run free and kids’ boundaries are defined by a stop sign on a country road.
They speak of their sons in the present tense.
Looking at a small pile of photographs, Mary Gragg remembers each of her sons as a sturdy blue-eyed, blonde-haired baby.
“They were so good. They slept through the night every night.
“Aaron is my artist, my loner, he loves his dinosaurs. Chad is his daddy made over, my helper, everybody’s helper, such a good student. He loves school, he never misses, and he loves riding his bicycle. Stevie’s a little slow, a shy kid. Stevie loves Alf …”
Charlie Gragg takes up the sentence.
“You’ll never see kids that alike, that close. If one goes out the front door the other two are right behind. … I wasn’t surprised they all died trying to pull each other out of that pond.
“I always told them, ‘No matter what happens, you help your brothers. I told them that more than once. I told Chad he was responsible. He was in charge. He went to help Aaron, and Stevie followed.”
Is there anything anyone can do for the Graggs? They say there is nothing. They are baffled that there might be an answer to such a question.
Soon it will be spring, time to go fishin’ again, and frog huntin’, and crawdad catchin’. That’s when the children of Buckner Elementary School will plant three new trees in memory of Aaron, Chad, and Stevie.
By then, the ice will be gone from the ponds.