Christmas tragedy at Prestwick (Part 4)

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Other readers of the original web page responded with poignant anecdotes related the BOAC Stratocruiser crash at Prestwick.

Among the victims: Ken Davidson, badminton pro

Margaret Miller of Los Angeles sent an email about the death of her father, Kenneth R. Davidson, in the Prestwick crash:

Kenneth R. Davidson ~Image courtesy of Mary Miller Manuck

My father, Kenneth R. Davidson, was on that plane. He was a loving father, grandfather and husband as well as being a Yorkshire cricketer, badminton champion, and coach. He was on his way back home to New York after coaching the USA women’s team for the championship in India.

Margaret explained that her father’s plans for a European tour were cancelled because of the outbreak of the Second World War. Instead, he went to the U.S. from England for a sports firm and to continue his badminton act, which he had performed at the London Palladium in a command performance for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In the U.S., he performed at Radio City in New York and in Ken Murray’s Hollywood “Blackouts” variety shows at the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood’s Vine Street. The Blackouts played to “standing-room only” audiences for almost nine years. Margaret said that her father also continued to teach and coach badminton during that time.

“It was a busy day.”

Telegram sent to Constance Davidson by BOAC, notifying her of her husband’s death at Prestwick. See a larger image ~ Image courtesy of Margaret Davidson Miller & Mary Miller Manuck

At the time of the crash, Margaret and her husband were living in Los Angeles with their daughters, Mary Lynne, 6, and Donna, 3. Margaret learned about her father’s death at Prestwick from her mother, Constance Davidson, who lived in Bronxville, a suburb of New York City.

Margaret and her family went ahead with their plans for Christmas, which included Christmas dinner with five guests. Late that night she flew out of Los Angeles for New York, where her mother and the British Consul General met her. “It was a busy day,” she said in an email.

Margaret and her mother then flew on to London and travelled on to Leeds, West Yorkshire to attend her father’s memorial service, Margaret experienced “overwhelming mixed feelings” during the service, attended by family members and many badminton players and cricketers who were family friends that in some cases she hadn’t seen in years.

Badminton pro Kenneth Davidson exhibits his skill in a multiple-exposure photograph. ~ Photo courtesy of Margaret Davidson Miller & Mary Miller Manuck

The story of Ken Davidson’s life illustrates how, even in death, a person’s contributions live on. In 1955, his family established the USA Badminton Kenneth R. Davidson Memorial Award, presented annually to a male or female adult player who best represents the sportsmanship, integrity and competitive spirit that Ken fostered in badminton players around the world.

Margaret noted in another email that Ken wrote a book, Winning Badminton, that was used in schools in the USA, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Africa. “It was the ‘how to’ book,” she wrote, “and I know it was still in use in the 70’s.” Although Winning Badminton is now out of print, used paperbacks and hardbacks are readily available today.

Mary remembers

Editor’s Note: Mary Miller Manuck was just six years old when she learned, on Christmas Eve, 1954, that her beloved grandfather, Kenneth R. Davidson, had been killed in the crash of a BOAC Stratocruiser at Prestwick, Scotland, when he was returning home to New York City after a trip abroad to promote badminton. In the following memoir, Mary explains how he continued to live in her memory and in gifts — one gift especially — that he sent home during his travels abroad:

In 1954, when my grandmother, Constance Davidson — I called her Grams — was about 50, my grandfather was returning home from an extended trip to Thailand, India, Europe and the British Isles. He traveled a lot. Sometimes she would go with him, and sometimes not. They lived in New York City, after escaping the bombings in England during World War II. He was a world champion badminton player; before moving to the U.S. he had been a well-known cricket player. He traveled around the world promoting badminton and playing matches and exhibitions.

It was Christmas Eve, and also my grandfather’s birthday. My grandmother had learned to drive in his absence and was planning to pick him up at La Guardia airport and surprise him with her new-found talent. His flight, originating at Heathrow in London, was ultimately bound for New York. It crashed on landing in Prestwick, Scotland, and only one passenger survived. I wish it could have been my grandfather.

During the night, I had heard the phone ring and then I could hear my mother, Margaret Miller, crying. It was almost like a dream of some sort, and I remained in bed, falling back asleep. Upon awakening, we celebrated Christmas and my mother did her best to make sure that we had a “normal” holiday.

Mary Miller Manuck with her grandparents, Constance and Ken Davidson, in 1952. <~ Photo courtesy of Margaret Davidson Miller & Mary Miller Manuck

Many years later, my grandmother told me that it took a whole year before she really knew he was gone. Of course she knew on one level, but since he traveled so much, she was used to him being away. She would find herself thinking that he would walk through the door, or, when he got home, they would do this or that — and then catch herself.

My grandfather's death was all the more difficult for Grams because, whenever he traveled, he would buy little gifts in different countries and ship them back home, not only to her, but to my mom, my dad and my sister, Donna, and me. Of course, in those days, these gifts took weeks and even months to arrive. There were always these little notes inside.

Final letters and gifts from my grandfather

In the weeks following my grandfather’s death, my grandmother received a few letters and postcards from him, from the places he had visited on his last trip; my parents and my sister, Donna, and I also received mail from him following the tragedy.

I still remember the last gifts that my grandfather sent to Donna and me. Two months after he died, we each received an Egyptian "camel" stool, small leather and wood replicas of the seats used to ride on a real camels. One was red and one was green, and were just the perfect size for little girls to sit on.

I was six years old at the time, so I did not understand the real impact my Grandmother and my parents felt upon receiving letters and gifts after my Grandfather's death. Years later I would come to understand, with the help of a Danish plate.

One last gift for Grams

Ken Davidson’s last gift to his wife, Mary Miller Manuck’s grandmother. ~Image courtesy of Mary Miller Manuck

When Grams received my grandfather's belongings (in a suitcase recovered from the plane), she found inside a small blue and white plate from Denmark. She had started to collect Danish plates, so he bought one for her and was bringing it home with him. It was the last gift he bought for her. Amazingly, the plate was in perfect shape. I remember seeing it displayed in Gram’s home, though I did not know the story behind it until I was in my 20's. I guess it was hard for her to talk about. I was so surprised when she told me the story of the plate surviving the plane crash:

One day many years later, the plate fell to the floor and was shattered. Grams was about 85 years old at the time. She was in tears when she called me to tell me about what had happened. I told her to put everything together in a bag and I would come over and fix it. She said that she thought it could not be fixed. I got there with my super glue. We worked on it together — she would hold pieces so I could glue them. We put it back together as best we could, though there were tiny pieces that were just missing. At that point, my grandmother's vision was not very good. When I held it up, she was just beaming. With tears in her eyes, she told me it looked perfect. She could not really see the little missing pieces so well. The plate was a picture of a ship on the ocean and the sky. The little pieces missing were in the sky — I told her they looked like stars shining through when I held it up to the light. She could barely see that, but it brought a smile to her face.

Grams continued to keep the plate in a prominent place in her home. When she passed away in February, 2000, I took the plate home with me. I also keep it in a place where I can see it every day. Even though it is damaged, to me it is just perfect.

Another incident in Mary’s life brought home to her the lasting influence of her grandfather’s legacy. She wrote, “When I was in college, I decided to take a badminton class since I loved to play. Imagine my surprise when the teacher told us that required reading for the class was the book my grandfather wrote, Winning Badminton. She said it was the best book written on the subject and would be very helpful in learning the game of badminton.”

Next, in Part 5: More friends and relatives of victims come forward to tell of their memories. The crash of Stratocruiser G-ALSA scattered a consignment of diamonds across the Prestwick airfield; most but not all were recovered.

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