We didn’t go to the crash site. The empty field a memorial to an event that happened nearly a century ago still resonating in monuments and historic markers and objects filling the trailer we were just emerging from, our eyes readjusting to the light of the day. Instead we went and had ice cream at a place recommended in guide books, overdosing on sugar delivered in an airy (not dense) frozen mound doused in fudge sauce and piled high with whipped cream. I caught a glimpse of the field later from the freeway, driving east on a stretch where a mountain lion had been encountered roaming amidst the traffic after escaping from a farm whose owner had set his collection of exotic animals free before killing himself. A spite to neighbors, some said.
In 1925 the USS Shenandoah drifted into the airspace of eastern Ohio while on a tour of Midwest state fairs. There, as songwriter Arthur Fields penned, “the furies of a raging angry sky came down upon the giant airship and took her by surprise.” Winds buffeted the zeppelin, tearing it apart and sending the stern to the ground while the control car continued to drift another twelve miles before falling from the air.
men becoming wind, becoming lighter than air, becoming gas cells lined with the stomachs of oxen, becoming tree becoming ground becoming frame, becoming mangled becoming the heaviness of loss becoming cloud becoming air
The crash site is that of the stern, no longer there, its debris carried away or scavenged by residents who found pieces of the dirigible in their fields and in the forest for many years after. Some of these are in the museum, a nondescript trailer, white with horizontal blue lines running across the side, just off the road a bit behind the historical marker. We passed it at first, driving into the town itself where the crash left its trace in a monument to a lighter than air ship no longer here, the town still and quiet, empty of people this afternoon.
“Right there.” It appeared in front of us, came into legibility as the place we were looking for, had been traveling toward. Then the marker with its proclamation “lighter than air” registered, along with the block letters on the trailer’s outside skin: U.S.S. SHENANDOAH.
“Hi,” I can be heard saying through the static of a recording made with my phone, the Appalachian twang of a man’s voice becoming audible.
The interior has been nearly gutted, only the kitchen table with its benches remaining from the trailer’s intended use.
Display cases with glass doors line the walls: black and white photos of the crash, memorabilia of the crash, of the Shenandoah, of zeppelins in general. Mangled dull grey metal pieces we are allowed to touch, hold, turn in our hands, cool to the touch. Framed text tells the visitor the frame of the Shenandoah was made of a material called “duraluminum.” An alloy with the “strength of steel” but only “1/3 the weight.” In bold we are told to “Note the many different shapes of framework.”
“You can try to bend it as much as you want to but it don’t bend. It’s real solid stuff. Yet it’s lightweight.”
Over the years he amassed a collection of objects related to the U.S.S. Shenandoah.
“We just kind of wanted to have a museum to it.”
A soda (or “pop”) bottle marked “Zep up” – a riff on 7 Up, but commemorating the zeppelin
Rings, pens, coins, cards
The outside covering of the zeppelin, cotton cloth painted black on the inside to keep the ultraviolet rays out. Expertise about the material that made the interior habitable and the ship able to float.
The inside of the gas cells were coated with the stomach lining of “three quarter of a million oxens.” The “most non-porous material they could come up with to keep the helium in and not be losing it. Because helium was real scarce at the time.”
“I figure the servicemen ate a lot of oxen meat [laughs, breathily] for awhile.”
He holds the cloth to show us, his fingernails rimmed with black, his work settling into his skin. He owns a garage.
When she arrives she asks: “Do you have an interest in lighter than air, in general?”
The crash site, where we didn’t go, is empty; that is, a field devoid of buildings or other use (it seems), a swath of grass covered ground, its emptiness a memorial to the crash of a flying machine given lift by helium, an element lighter than air. The field (if I imagine taking that turn and going to look that day) where an image of a fallen airship must be conjured in the imagination.
I’ve often imagined going and looking at the field, what it would be like to look at this site of seeming emptiness. It seems important to do this – to stand before it, this space of absence. A seeming emptiness effected by the event of the crash, its monumentality remaining in a void – that elsewhere would appear simply as a field. An emptiness that rubs up against the imperceptibility of helium. The possibility of seeing this field lures me back to Ava, Ohio.
Except I don’t know if there is a field, or if what I saw from the freeway was the crash site. The man directed us to a monument, built in 1937, with the names of those who died. After the hour in the trailer we didn’t feel it necessary to go.