Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Parachutes and Lawn Chairs: Echoes from the grave


In life sometimes, we make special connections with others.  Sometimes in death, these friendships are echoed.  The father of a friend of mine had a special relationship with the guy who lived across the street, and though they almost never crossed the street to talk they were great friends.  For years and years they enjoyed yelling back and forth to one another from their lawn chairs and driveways.

It was an interesting and fitting twist of fate, then, when the two men ended up being buried only yards away in the same cemetery-separated only by a strip of the cemetery road.  I can imagine their continued conversations, yelling across the road to one another, in the years to come.  

The next story seems like something out of the Bucket List, or a 1970's Walter Mathau movie, but on Valentines Day this year, the ashes of two old friends from unlikely origins parachuted together into popular natural attraction 'Center of The World' in Yuma, near Felicity, California, where they were buried. 

The ashes of two unlikely friends dropped from the sky Saturday to be buried at the Center of the World.  One man belonged to the Hitler Youth as a child. The other survived a concentration camp.  However unlikely, Wolfgang Lieschke and Herbert Loebel did become friends as adults living in America. In accordance with their families' wishes, the West Point Parachute Team delivered the men's ashes to their novel and final resting place Saturday.
The ashes were dropped by parachute and buried at the Center of the World. The popular tourist attraction is located west of Yuma, along Interstate 8, in Felicity, Calif.
"Both were eminent men in their era who became close friends and who will rest together in consecrated ground," said Jacques-Andre Istel, the mayor of Felicity and friend of both men. "Both had close links to parachuting and both served humanity."
Other than the fact they were all friends, Istel did not elaborate on why the families of Lieschke and Loebel decided to bring the men's ashes to the Center of the World or from where they were brought.
Often called "the father of American skydiving," Istel trained the Army's first free-fall parachute team, which led to the creation of the Golden Knights.
Istel organized a sizable celebration Saturday, full of ceremony and military pageantry. The U.S. Marine Corps Drum and Bugle Corps played taps, and the Golden Knights Army Parachute Team performed an air-to-ground salute. The U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard also made an appearance.
In addition to the burial, the ceremony marked two men's induction into the Hall of Fame of Parachuting. Inducted were Lt. Col. Henmar "Gabe" Gabriel, founder of the West Point Parachute Team; and Ted Strong, a designer and manufacturer of parachutes.
Dignitaries at Saturday's event included local military leaders; Christian Stocks, the Los Angeles-based consul general for Germany; and Ed Scott, director of the United States Parachute Association.
Loebel's widow, age 93, also attended.
Istel shared a little about the colorful and remarkable lives of the two men buried Saturday.
Lieschke grew up in Germany and belonged to the Hitler Youth as a child. As a young man, he moved to the U.S. and served in the 82nd Airborne Division. He later worked as art director for Boeing Aircraft Co. and as an executive vice president for J. Walter Thompson, which was the world's largest advertising agency at the time.
Lieschke met Istel when they trained the Army's free-fall parachute team. "He was a very modest man," Istel said, adding that Lieschke was also best man at his wedding.
Lieschke designed many of the symbols at Center of the World, including the blue window found in the Church on the Hill.
Loebel was a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
"He survived in a very ingenious manner," Istel said. "When the Nazis asked his profession, he would answer that he was an electrician. He knew that if he had given his real profession - electrical engineer - he would have gone straight to the gas chambers. They didn't want any smart Jews alive."  According a Web site run by Loebel's family, after his time at Auschwitz, Loebel was "briefly conscripted by the Red Army."
In America, Loebel became a well-known photographer. He started out in fashion photography, but then branched out into special effects. According to his family's Web site Loebel had a hand in the old Canon AE1 commercial involving a plane jump and, more famously, the iconic Energizer Bunny.
"After surviving Auschwitz, he died at age 89," Istel said. "He was crossing the street and hit by a driver."  Lieschke died in 1999 and Loebel followed in 2006.
"They were lifelong friends," Istel remarked.
An engraving at the burial site, just south of the Chocolate Mountains, features a portion of Psalm 121. It reads in part:
"I raise my eyes toward the mountains. From where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth."
from the Yuma Sun, written by Darin Fenger.  For the full article with photos, visit


pr said...

This is really fascinating Patrick.

Unknown said...

Patrick. Thanks for this. Herbie Loebel was my great uncle. His wife Alice was my grandma's sister. I knew about his parachuting, but did not know this story! Tim Curtis

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