Brothers retrace father's final trip
June 2, 2023
Their dad's plane went down in Cloquet 50 years ago, killing him and an uncle
David sat right down in the bramble, overcome with thoughts of what happened in this spot exactly 50 years ago. He is admittedly an emotional person. His body heaved. He was uttering guttural sounds. He was swatting away mosquitoes here on the old Haro homestead off Reservation Road in Cloquet. A hand intermittently went to his mouth in that universal, human sign of shock, grief, overwhelming thoughts.
His more-reticent older brother, Rob, stood some yards away. He was stock-still, staring intently. He eventually approached his younger brother, put a hand on his shoulder.
Mary Haro Soyring was witness, standing in her childhood yard outside of the swale of last season's brown, stubby vegetation and greening new grass and raspberry stems.
She was 13 on May 26, 1973. Her dad, Don, was at work. Her older brother Steve was at a track meet in town.
It was a cool, foggy Saturday that Memorial Day weekend, just after 2 p.m.
Mary heard the engine noise getting louder. Her mother was on a couch napping. A sister was at the kitchen sink. Another sister and a cousin were playing a board game upstairs.
And then came what Norma Haro would describe as a "sonic boom." She awoke to hear a clatter from the girls.
Mary rushed to a back window of the home, a window gone now through remodeling.
A small plane had crashed just yards from the house.
Inside were 48-year-old Bob Wile, the pilot, and his younger brother James, known as "Joe" in the family. They had been on a fishing trip, flying to Minnesota from Ohio.
David and Rob are Bob's sons. They made a sojourn to Minnesota last week to retrace the last hours of their father and uncle five decades ago.
David said he'd always known he would make the trip. Both brothers had been through waves of flashbacks in the past few months. It was time, they agreed.
They had support from siblings, cousins, spouses and their children. They vowed to take it all in, "to be open and quiet, allow it to come," Rob said. "We've done a lot of supporting each other. This has reopened that deep connection."
Mary didn't know what to think of the message she received online in April. David had reached out, and was sheepish last week about how she may have taken his cryptic query. "You witnessed a plane crash 50 years ago. My father and my uncle were on that plane. I apologize if this reminds you of a bad experience. (We) will be visiting Minnesota in May for the first time ever. I just have some questions."
"People don't know this story," Mary said last week, a day before she was to meet the two brothers for lunch in Cloquet. Strangers but for a twist of fate.
"It had to be real," she said.
So began a back-and-forth with David. They wanted to meet her, they wanted to hear her story.
Mary had been mentioned in newspaper accounts of the crash. She keeps her childhood name on her social media sites. David got lucky in finding her, finding someone still in Cloquet, the apex of this trip.
Mary asked her far-flung siblings what they recalled. She found family photograph slides of the crumpled Piper Apache twin-engine plane half-buried in the yard. She visited the Carlton County Historical Society to view the story in the old Pine Knot. She called the current owner of her childhood home, a woman who was gracious, Mary said, telling her that they could all come over and stay as long as they needed on Friday.
And Mary brought white roses, handing them to Rob, David, and her husband, Bob, that afternoon as they slowly approached the place of impact.
"It's a horrifying feeling knowing two people died in our yard," Mary had said hours earlier.
It's an indelible mark on her own history. The sound, the smell of fuel, the incredulously ruined plane, the gurneys. The family stayed away from the wreck, wary of a possible explosion, as emergency crews arrived. Any fire had been quickly snuffed out in the earth.
"I remember wanting to run to the plane," Mary said. "It's a natural reaction. To get the people."
Today, when Mary hears a small plane overhead, she can't help but think of her 13-year-old self, staring at the inscrutable scene in her yard.
Her interaction with David was "surreal and weird," Mary said. In a good way. She was surprised "how much it resurrected everything for me."
She remains grateful they reached out. "If I were in their shoes, I know how much it would mean to me," she said.
This is the spot, Mary quietly indicated when the foursome walked cautiously through the back yard.
"I'll know exactly where it is," she had said the night before.
They drove the rose stems into the ground.
A few hours earlier, it was lunch at Carmen's. Mary was in the middle at a table, flanked by the two brothers. They talked a long time before going out to the site, a string of talk about grief, memory and kismet.
They formed a semicircle later at the edge of the yard. "Do you know the words to 'Amazing Grace?'" Mary said to break the silence.
And there, as they looked at the white roses and the area around them, they sang.
Throughout the Wile brothers' journey to Minnesota, they had both experienced body blows of emotion. Not always in sync, but always with the feeling that their dad and uncle were in their presence.
"I had made my peace a long time ago," Rob said of the intervening decades since the crash.
Or so he thought.
Six weeks ago he found himself near the county airport where he dropped his father, uncle and two others for the trip to Minnesota. Bob was in a private flying club there and was using one of its planes. Rob still lives in his hometown of Hamilton, just north of Cincinnati.
"I just broke down," Rob said.
His wife asked him what his reaction might be telling him.
"It's telling me to go to Minnesota," he recalled saying.
Rob is a structured guy. He is retired but maintains routines. He admits he "got comfortable in the not knowing" when it came to the death of his father in a faraway place.
Bob died two weeks before Rob's graduation from high school. He went to his senior prom with the weight of the loss. He kept a "stiff upper lip."
"You go from thinking you have it all figured out," he said, and then this "new normal."
David called from his home in Indianapolis with an idea for a trip. Considering his reaction at the airport, Rob eschewed all caution.
"Wonderfully unpredictable" is how he described the trek with his brother.
Rob recalled a flight with his father the day after Christmas in 1970, picking up his older brother Steve at school in Indiana and then flying to Baltimore to see the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Colts in an NFL playoff game. Robert Wile had season tickets to the Bengals games and both the Bengals and the Cincinnati Reds pro baseball team hold a special place in family memory.
The Bengals were shut out 17-0 by the Colts, who eventually won the Super Bowl that season. "It almost didn't matter," Rob said. It was the time with his dad that counted.
On his birthdays, David was usually treated to a Reds game. He laughs, remembering foul balls his brothers snatched over the years, feeling like the birthday boy was more deserving.
David is boisterously garrulous in bursts, then his gravelly voice goes soft in contemplation.
His father died the day after his 14th birthday.
"All my life I wanted to come up here," he said Friday at lunch.
With Rob on board, plane tickets were purchased, with some lamenting that the oldest brother, Steve, wasn't able to make the trip. He lives in Thailand, but was fully in support of his brothers' mission. Sister Karen is in Alaska.
David paused a long time at Carmen's when asked how the trip had been so far.
His body tightened, then languidly loosened. The words came.
"I knew he and my uncle were there," he said of a fishing trip on Leech Lake Thursday. "It was cold, but I didn't care."
Survivors of the 1973 trip, who left the group on a commercial flight likely because they couldn't wait for the weather to clear for the journey home in the small plane, had details of the trip that David scantly remembers through the swell of grief at the time of the funerals.
His dad had caught a northern, David said, and when he pulled it in it bit him. Uncle Joe laughed so hard that he fell back and landed on a tackle box, sticking himself with barbs.
All David wanted to do on Thursday, his birthday, was to catch a northern in Minnesota. Just like his dad. He did.
David talked with his father the night before the fatal crash, accepting apologies for the delay in getting home for his birthday. There would be another Reds game.
"This morning it hit me like a ton of bricks," he said on Friday.
There wasn't another anything with his dad but the memories.
Dinner was at 5:30 at the Wile house, and Dad was always there. Both sons called him a "best friend."
Rob recalled one of those dinners, when he lazily pushed a bowl of green beans toward his father. The bowl fell off the table and into Bob's lap. One would expect a fierce reaction, but not from their dad. "He just said, 'I didn't want that much,'" Rob said.
Bob Wile was a "kind," "calm" and model dad, the sons said. He was "compassionate," David said, something customers at his insurance agency remarked about.
He was a "present" dad, Rob said, something not every family had in that generation. He was home on weekends, took the family on trips to Florida. He even took care of the four kids by himself for a week while their mom, Ida, took some education courses. That memory brought wry smiles to both brothers.
"They were a team," Rob said of his parents.
"A good model for parenting," David said.
This is also a story about mothers, Rob said. Ida and their aunt, Mary, were strong women who did not go quietly into widowhood.
Mary was pregnant at the time of Joe's death at age 42. Each woman would have four children to raise and get through college.
"It's a blessing," Rob said. "They married two wonderful women."
Ida Wile quit teaching and took over Bob's insurance agency. "The tougher it got, the tougher they got," David said.
Ida died in 2015. Mary is still alive.
Bob was a World War II veteran. Joe served in the Korean War and worked at an Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio.
The fog blew in off Lake Superior. But the plane apparently had been so low, golfers at the Cloquet Country Club saw it and knew the pilot must have been in distress.
Official reports said Bob got lost in the fog and wasn't rated to fly by instruments. The family disputes that he was lost, saying Robert Wile was a meticulous pilot who always knew where he was and looked for ways to get the plane down in case of emergency.
David thinks there might have been a sudden mechanical failure or medical emergency. The plane dropped straight down, nose down.
The brothers weren't in Minnesota to just solve mysteries. But they said little pieces here and there, like hearing what Mary heard and saw, have helped them in thinking about their dad's last moments.
Records show that on that fateful trip, the men had been in the Ely area, using the airport in Hibbing, where they were warned about the fog and told to stay far inland from Lake Superior. The visibility ceiling in Cloquet at the time of the crash was reportedly at 100 feet.
It isn't clear where they had fished on that last trip. Perhaps Lake Vermilion. The brothers went to Leech Lake on past trips, the brothers knew, so they chose to go there last week.
Mary's mother, Norma, is alive. Her father Don died in 2021. As she sat at lunch, listening to the stories about the Wile family, she wore a wan smile. A comfort seemed to envelop her.
She told the brothers that she was thinking about her own dad.
"I'll see him again in heaven," she said.
It was solace she was offering to two men who lost their father far too soon.
"Me too," David said.
"Absolutely," Rob said.
Before she met the pair, Mary felt that any way she could help them was "the least I could do. If they find any peace."
She called the preliminary messages with David "extremely polite." She could sense his need to be in Cloquet. "He was very tender about it."
Later at the crash site, David collected himself and walked out of the thicket and straight to Mary. He will be back, with more family members, maybe every year, he said.
"I'm so glad you're here," he told Mary. "You're a sister now."