By David Wright
Angels Among Us
Undoubtedly one of Stratford’s most moving Christmas stories could be entitled “I Believe There Are Angels Among Us”, after Alabama’s hit country song of December 1993. Whether or not you believe there are angels among us, the Mackes family certainly did on Christmas Day, 1943.
Weather in Stratford for December of 1943 was unusual, with alternate warming and cooling episodes causing ice on ponds to form and recede continually throughout the month. Residents, particularly in the South End, were being warned to stay off lake and pond ice due to the ice’s instability. Frash Pond, with its constant incursion of sea water, formed an even less stable ice surface.
A particularly virulent influenza had invaded Stratford immediately following Thanksgiving. It seemed everyone in town had just recovered from the flu or was coming down with it. Governor Ray Baldwin was at home in Stratford with a bad case. The headline of the December 22, 1943 The Stratford News read, “Anyone Who Hasn’t Been Ill Of Grippe, Or Isn’t, Seems In A Very Exclusive Class.”
The Stratford Housing Authority had been formed by the Town Council in August of 1943, due to the town’s dissatisfaction with the way in which the town’s housing projects were being administered by Bridgeport and the Federal Government. Francis Brennan, a very successful fifty-nine-year-old businessman and community leader, was selected by the town from a pool of seven candidates to be the Executive Director.
When the Stratford Housing Authority was created, the Federal Government promised the Town there would be no out-of-pocket expenses for the Town. From the Housing Authority’s creation until mid-January of 1944, the Town received no money from the Federal Government to administer the Authority. Francis Brennan, consequently, had received no salary for his work.
Christmas break for Stratford students began at the end of the school day Thursday, December 23rd, and classes weren’t scheduled to resume until Monday, January 3rd. The children must have been delighted the afternoon of December 23rd to be free from school for several days. Additionally, Santa was coming in two days.
Frash Pond’s ice-covered surface would have looked inviting for an afternoon of play, now that school was out for the holidays. The outdoor temperature was reported at about sixteen degrees the afternoon of December 23rd.
Early in the afternoon of December 23rd, eight year old Eleanor Baclawski frantically ran into Francis Brennan’s Main Street office, which was located across the street from the Chance-Vaught plant (today’s Army Engine plant). Eleanor shouted that two boys had just fallen through the ice on Frash Pond.
Francis sprinted from his office, stripping off his coat and vest as he ran the 200 feet to where the boys had fallen through the ice. Seven-year-old Kenneth Mackes was under water, so Francis Brennan dove in to locate him. On finding Kenneth, Francis swam with him to the shore. Upon reaching the Frash Pond shore, Francis saw the ice that nine-year-old Robert Mackes was clinging to break apart. Robert submerged. Francis dove back into the icy water and pulled Robert to safety.
Once both boys were secured on the shore, Francis began to administer first aid to the boys. Francis continued his ministrations on Kenneth and Robert until an ambulance arrived and took the boys to Bridgeport Hospital.
Francis Brennan retrieved his coat and vest, and returned to his office to finish out his work day.
The Mackes family moved back to their former hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania shortly thereafter, but they never forget the angel of Stratford, Francis Brennan.