"The Sins of Fathers"

by 'John Marr'

When seven year old Jessica Dubroff's quest to be the youngest pilot to fly coast-to-coast ended in a pile of smoking wreckage in suburban Wyoming, the media quickly split into two camps. One side, muttering about permissive parenting and a rumored movie deal, accused Jessica's father, Lloyd Dubroff, of exploitation, lunacy, if not outright child abuse. What kind of nut puts a seven year old at the controls of a plane? The Dubroff's defenders, on the other hand, pointed out that Jessica probably hadn't been at the controls at the time of the crash; the stunt was just an over-publicized father/daughter jaunt with a tragic ending.

But lost in the welter of charges, counter charges, and bad mythological metaphors is the fact that these stupid parent tricks are nothing new. Even before Uncle Andy promised everyone 15 minutes of fame, parents have felt the urge to bask in the glory of their children's accomplishments. In many ways, Jessica's story is but a milder version of the Kathy Tongay case, one of the most notorious child abuse cases of the '50s—a decade when parents supposedly knew better.

Much like Lloyd Dubroff, Russell Tongay had a dream for his children: a dream of fame, fortune, and a world record. Under his careful tutelage, Bubba, 5, and Kathy, 4, whom he billed as "The Aquatots", became extraordinary swimmers. Bubba could jump from a 33-foot tower and swim a lap underwater—with his hands and feet tied. Kathy made 20 foot dives blindfolded. Both racked up five miles a day in training and could swim incredible distances. In 1949, Bubba had set a record of sorts by swimming 22 miles down the Mississippi River. And all with mother's approval: eerily presaging the babblings of Jessica's mother, Mrs Tongay later told authorities, "I wanted the children to swim just like Russ did".

Tongay was grooming his Aquatots, Bubba in particular, to be the youngest children to swim the English Channel. In 1951, they set out from their Miami home bound for England. They planned to spend the summer staging a series of exhibitions before attempting the Channel. The publicity machine began to hum.

To their credit, the thought of preschoolers paddling from Dover to Calais horrified both British and French officials. They stopped the Tongays at Heathrow, ready to put them on the next plane back to the States. However, after some hurried negotiations, the Tongays were allowed to stay for a month—as tourists. The Aquatots were banned from staging any public exhibitions. They could only look at, not touch, the Channel.

Back home in Miami, the Aquatots returned to their usual routine of training and performing until a tragedy in 1953 exposed the dark underside of parental ambition. Kathy, now five, was practicing dives from the 33-foot tower under her father's supervision. A particularly difficult one ended in a brutal bellyflop and Papa Tongay decided that was enough diving for the day. Besides, it was time for swimming practice. He took Kathy to another pool to swim some laps. Even after she vomited her lunch, he forced his badly-bruised, tearful daughter to swim a short workout. It would be her last. She died the next day from a ruptured intestine and internal bleeding.

Police suspected Tongay of beating Kathy to death. His heavy-handed coaching was a local legend. Aquatots training sessions had been banned at several hotel pools after guests complained about a little girl crying, "Please, Daddy, don't make me swim anymore." But after grisly testimony about the dangers of platform diving, Tongay got off with 10 years for manslaughter. He was later declared insane and committed to the state mental hospital.

Maybe Kathy really loved swimming; maybe Jessica hated flying. Both their fathers shared a lust for publicity. Tongay may have gone to greater lengths, but both he and Dubroff wound up with daughters sacrificed on the altars of their ambition. </end>


Title illustration by Wellington

'JOHN MARR' is the editor of Murder Can Be Fun. He lives in San Francisco.