In families there are always stories. Some become legend, told and retold until every cousin knows them by heart. Others become myth so intertwined with hyperbole they only shadow the truth. And many become lost altogether, victims of time.
But some are held close, private, only whispered until poised to disappear. Their details seem so outlandish they hint of fiction, unlikely tales spun under the veil of the past. But they’re not.
Louise Royall died on a Monday. It was the first of June. She was 89, a mother and grandmother. She had lived in East Boothbay for five-and-a-half decades, died in the house where she raised two sons, the house where countless friends and relatives convened for birthdays, holidays and celebratory dinners. She volunteered her time and donated to charities, hosted card games and observed weddings, births and graduations. She was the matriarch of a sprawling family, the last monarch on a street literally named for her clan: Royall Road.
But that is one story, and there is always another.
In July 1956 Louise Royall was none of these things—mother, matriarch, monarch. She wasn’t even Louise Royall: her name was Mrs. Louise Townsend Booth. From Long Island, N.Y., she lived in Paoli, Penn., with her husband Samuel Babcock Booth Jr., an engineer. The couple was newly married, wed the November before. Louise was 31, and she was eight-months pregnant.
It’s a story told in news clippings, yellowed and torn, stored in a photo album from her youth.
Her children and relatives knew snippets, but nothing complete. There was no full account of what happened on July 7, 1956.
But the clippings’ headlines are stark:
“Man dies, wife hurt in Long Island plane crash.”
“Son is born to plane widow.”
“Gives birth to son, learns Dad’s dead.”
And the newspaper accounts themselves are grim: “The baby was born just a day after Samuel Booth, 28, plunged to his death in his light cabin plane in the water off Sea Cliff, Long Island. Knocked unconscious in the crash, Booth drowned while rescuers pulled Mrs. Booth from the plane.”
“Heroic action by a quick-thinking young lifeguard who picked up a shovel, swam to the wreckage, and beat a hole through the roof of the cabin saved the life of the woman,” another news story says. “The 22-year-old lifeguard, with the help of others who had arrived, dragged the woman from the submerged cabin by her hair.”
But even stories told in black and white can be part myth.
“I’m not a lifeguard,” said Donald Mortimer, 81, the man who 59 years ago pulled then-Louise Booth from the cockpit. “That’s why I grabbed a boat.”
Mortimer lives in Mattituck, N.Y., just 65 miles from Sea Cliff, where Samuel Booth crashed. He, like Louise, has lived a lifetime since that day. “I tried to run it through my own mind,” he said. “I had a few blank spots.” But the story is still there.
“I heard the airplane overhead, and it was sputtering,” he said. Mortimer’s father ran a beachfront swimming pool in Sea Crest. The single-engine Piper Cub Booth had rented for the day from a local radio announcer was running out of gas. The Booths, on Long Island visiting Louise’s mother in nearby Plandome Manor, were onboard.
Mortimer watched the plane fall. It buzzed the beach then went out to sea, where it nosedived, “maybe 1,000 feet from shore,” Mortimer said. “I said, ‘Call the Sea Cliff Fire Department!’ I ran down to the beach, and for some reason I grabbed a shovel. I have no idea why.”
The news reports say Mortimer swam to the plane, but he wasn’t that strong a swimmer. He grabbed a nearby lifeguard boat, threw in the shovel, and rowed. When he got to the plane he climbed aboard and started bashing at the metal topwing with the shovel. “We broke the roof, and a little dog jumped out,” he said.
The terrier is mentioned in several of the news accounts. Mortimer said the dog swam ashore as they worked to get Louise and Sam out.
The newspapers said Samuel Booth drowned as Mortimer worked to extricate Louise. Mortimer said others came to help, and once the hole was open it didn’t take long to get both of them out and to shore. Rescuers looked at Louise in her pregnant state, he said, and assumed she’d swallowed water. So they gave her abdominal thrusts. His guess was that’s what pushed her into labor.
27 hours later in Glen Cove Community Hospital, Samuel Babcock Booth III was born. He weighed 6-pounds 11-ounces, and he had suffered irreparable brain damage. He would survive to his teenage years, but Sam Booth III would not reach adulthood.
The newspaper reports say Louise was not told Sam Booth Jr. was dead until after she had given birth. She “cradled her newborn son in her arms today as she wept for her husband,” one story reported.
Louise had saved them all. She didn’t talk about the accident, didn’t share much of her story, but she had lived it. The faded clippings were her reminders, a story she kept for herself.
And Mortimer too was her reminder: every year for the next 59 years he would get a Christmas card. He would look to the mail each December, he said, and in return he would send a card to her.
Among the news clippings are several about Mortimer: stories about commendations he received for his actions, reports calling him a hero. But he is put off by such talk.
“It was all instinctive,” Mortimer said. No one told him to go out and be a hero. It’s like if you see someone stumble and fall on the street, he said: you go out and help them back up.
“As far as I was concerned it was nothing,” he said, “It’s a thing you do.”
But to Louise’s sprawling family, to those who mourned her passing on June 1, the story of Louise seemly begins with the crash: it was in the wake of the Booth’s death that Louise moved to Maine. She came to start over, to let go of the tears and find something new, and in a sense Mortimer’s shovel lit the way: without it Louise would have drowned too. She would never have met her second husband, Robert Royall, the man who would father her two children, the man who introduced her into the clan that would eventually swarm around her. She would not have moved to Royall Road, where she lived and held court in her kitchen for more than 50 years. She would not have become all that she was—mother, grandmother, matriarch, friend and host. That vision of the future clung to the lifeboat as Mortimer paddled. It stood in silence as he breached the metal hull.
Or at least that’s one way to tell the story.