Stop her when it sounds like a movie.
It’s 1937. Her father, Elliott White Springs, sits in his Fort Mill living room entertaining a German he fought as a flying ace in World War I. A young Anne Springs Close runs in from the nursery, having just heard news on the radio.
The Hindenburg exploded.
"I can remember running into the den to tell my mother and father this terrible news,” said Close, who is headed to the would-be landing spot in Lakehurst, N.J., for an 80th anniversary event Friday. “That's how they heard about it."
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Close wasn’t invited for her newsbreaking. Organizers reached out because she is one of the last living links to the infamous lighter-than-air craft.
“They invited me because there are maybe three people alive who crossed the ocean on the Hindenburg,” Close said. “Yes, it's very exclusive.”
Only about 1,000 people crossed the Atlantic Ocean safely on less than a dozen trips the summer of 1936. Close’s father flew over in July that year.
“He cabled my mother and said ‘it’s perfectly safe, send the children,’” Close recalls. “So much for that.”
The family punched tickets. Close, then 10, and her brother Sonny joined their mother Frances Ley Springs, their German nanny and the nanny’s brother. Close’s mother made news as passenger No. 1,000 to cross the ocean. The Sept. 18, 1936 New York Times noted the special duralumin tray she received to honor the milestone. And the record 132 people who boarded the Hindenburg’s eighth transatlantic trip.
“Ten years old, you remember pretty much,” Close said. “I remember it was pretty crowded and not much to do. Not much room to move around. You were down in the gondola. I remember the slanted windows.”
Those slanted windows, which brought in more sunlight than traditional ones, so impressed Close’s father that he mimicked the design with the Springs Industries building in Fort Mill that served as a major economic catalyst for the town during the 20th century. Natural light is a bit of a family tradition. Close provided plenty of it when she set aside 2,100 acres for the Fort Mill greenway bearing her name that opened 22 years ago.
Back in 1936, though, Close was just one of the two children on a zeppelin gondola largely filled with German businessmen. World War I was a recent memory. World War II, a coming crisis.
“Americans weren't traveling too much to Germany,” Close said.
Memories from her trip are reminiscent of the times. Apart from jigsaw puzzles there was little to do but watch ships on the sea below, growing bigger or smaller depending on the Hindenburg’s lifts and lulls with the weather.
“It's speed depended upon the air current,” Close said. “The height varied and the size of the ships varied depending on how high you were.”
Crew were “paranoid about fire, of course,” Close said. Cigarettes, pipes, cigars and anything to light them had to go to a special attendant for placement in a special box.
“If you wanted to smoke, you had to go to him,” Close said. “You had to go in what looked like a big metal telephone booth. I tell people that when we do a history event and the children don’t know what I’m talking about. I have to explain what a telephone booth was.”
Close has had plenty of time to prepare her accounts. She often tells of her connection to Hindenburg history, though she didn’t for several decades after her first and only passage.
“You didn't talk about Germany or having been there,” Close said of post-World War II America. “It was sort of taboo.”
Years later she remodeled the iconic Fort Mill home where she first broke the news to her father – the White Homestead appears on the National Register of Historic Places for having housed the last Confederate cabinet meeting – and a picture emerged linking the family to the Hindenburg.
Close can’t recall she “ever mentioned or ever thought about” her trip on the Hindenburg for several decades before people starting asking about the picture.
“I would tell them, and they were very interested,” she said.
Ann Evans, historian for the family estate, is one of many people to awe at the Hindenburg connection.
“When I came to work here in 1994, I saw the collage of their Hindenburg trip hanging on the game room wall and the 1,000th passenger plaque propped up in the bookcase,” Evans recalls. “Yes, I was amazed to be able to see and touch a real part of history.”
Evans processed and cataloged a collection, including telegrams between Close’s parents, brochures and booklets telling people what to expect and how to pack.
“The icing on the cake was hearing Mrs. Close talking to a school group back in 1998, and relating her memories of the voyage,” Evans said. “She is library of experiences and living history.”
Which is what the folks in New Jersey will learn soon enough. Close will take with her that ultra lightweight duralumin tray her mother received, made from the same material so much of the aircraft was to help keep it in the air. A piece of history nearly as rare as Close herself, a one-time Hindenburg passenger.
Carl Jablonski will be glad to see both.
“We're going to give Mrs. Close the red carpet treatment,” said the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society president. “We’re going to make her a feature attraction.”
Jablonski knows more about the Hindenburg than most anyone who didn’t set foot on it. He knows the lone living 1937 crash survivor lives in Colorado. The other person to have ridden the Hindenburg, who will attend with Close on Friday, was a boy whose father designed aeronautical equipment. That boy went on test flights in Germany.
The 804-foot length, the 15 stories high, 252-ton weight – Jablonski lists it all like second nature. The nanny on board for children, the mail and radio rooms for sending telegraphs and letters, the baby grand piano made of aluminum to cut weight. The fine German food and wine, even the $740 roundtrip fare price that would be “thousands and thousands today.”
“The Hindenburg is very vividly remembered, especially in this area since this is where it crashed,” said Jablonski, based in Lakehurst. “It was on every front page, it was in newsreels in the theaters. So many people came out to see what took place and where it took place.”
The event is remembered with an annual ceremony ending at 7:25 p.m., the time when, Jablonski said, “the ship was starting to burn and crash to the ground.”
Seldom a day goes by without someone or some group calling. Kindergarners to college students want facts on the 1937 crash. What was to be the first of 17 trips that year, after the 10 successful ones a year earlier. With each new hand-held device putting internet access in eager hands, more people flock to stories of the dramatic event.
“It's a part of history that keeps on growing,” Jablonski said. “We have a new generation of people.”
Though Close wasn’t on the fateful Hindenburg voyage, she was quite young and had been on one of its last successful ones. Close said traveling as she grew never was too concerning an event as a result of the Hindenburg disaster.
“There never was any more lighter-than-air (aircraft),” she said. “I don't think anybody in their right mind would go up now with something that would burn like that. And there wasn't transatlantic trips until after the war. I didn’t travel (abroad) for some time.”
That she’s traveling now is as much a treat for history buffs as for Close herself. Elected and military officials will join hundreds of guests at the event, with none more anticipated than the two people who lived something that still resonates 80 years later.
"We're honored to have these people there," Jablonski said.