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On an ordinary day, a miracle takes place at a Puyallup elementary school

Who knew that there would be a miracle that brought people together at an elementary school assembly in Puyallup? (Photo: KOMO News)

PUYALLUP, Wash. (KOMO) - Buses pull up in the rain at Meeker Elementary School in Puyallup.

The sky is dull gray, the sign in front of the school is blue, and kids in wet sneakers get off the buses and tromp into the hallways with their backpacks and coats. There is non-stop chatter and the sound of shoes squeaking on the tile floor and teachers who are milling about usher their flocks into their classrooms. Another day at Meeker Elementary is underway.

On this ordinary day, there would be a miracle.

On this day there is a sign made of construction paper above the door into the gymnasium. It says in red letters, "Thank You, Veterans."

The stage has a big blue curtain, and in front of the stage there is a wooden podium set up in the middle. There are basketball hoops on either side, and an American flag, and a Washington state flag.

Today there would be a special guest at Meeker. Today would be the Veterans Day assembly.

By the time James Clinton arrived in the gymnasium the room was completely full of children, sitting cross-legged on the floor. There was a quiet buzz of anticipation as children whispered to one another with assorted squeals and giggles mixed in. The younger kids were in front, the older kids in back.

James Clinton is a trim, fit man of 89 years, with a steady gaze, a dry wit and dancing eyes that have seen a lot. He is soft spoken, not prone to hyperbole, and his conversation features an economy of words somehow coupled with an air of quiet authority.

He'd been invited to speak at the assembly because they couldn't find anyone else. His wife, Shirley, has worked at Meeker for years, and when she heard they needed a speaker, she volunteered him.

In spite of the fact that he'd never given a speech like this one, he didn't write anything down or even think much about what he would say. He decided to get up there and wing it.

Sitting in the audience was a woman named Kim Zeiger. She'd been called in as a substitute teacher that day. "Wear patriotic colors," she'd been told. And so she did. A red jacket over a white top.

Zeiger is pretty with brown hair and a face that betrays her every emotion. When she talks, you FEEL what she is saying, because she uses every part of herself to express: her eyes, her hands, her body language.

She was about 30 feet from Clinton, sitting in a chair near her students, when he began to speak.

"I just let flow with whatever came up," Clinton said later, "and I had to mention the close call, and that was THE close call in my life in the Air Force, so I mentioned Bermuda -- and the switch."

The switch.

It was a decision made a lifetime ago that completely altered the arcs of two entire families.

It was 1964, and Clinton was stationed in Bermuda. He was a flight navigator at Kindley Air Force Base. His wife and children were with him, and they lived the island life, surrounded by water and palm trees and pastels.

He had a friend on the base named Martin Nisker, a fellow navigator. Nisker's family was still living on the mainland, so sometimes the Clintons would invite him over for a home-cooked meal and a taste of family life.

There is an old black and white photo of Nisker at the Clinton home, and in it you can see Nisker entertaining a bunch of kids at a 16th birthday party. He's putting on some kind of show.

At the beginning of the summer of 1964, there were two missions coming up that would need navigators.

One was a flight to Atlanta.

The other was a training mission off the southern coast of Bermuda.

Nisker was scheduled to go on the Atlanta trip in mid-June, and Clinton was scheduled take the other one.

But there arose a complication. Nisker's wife and their three young children were finally moving to Bermuda, and they were scheduled to arrive on the same day that he was going to Atlanta. He very much wanted to make their arrival a memorable one, complete with a tour of the island.

So he asked Clinton for a trade. And Clinton agreed.

Looking back through the haze of 53 years, Clinton talks about their deal.

"I would take the flight that was going to Atlanta, and he would take the flight that was on the special drill."

The "special drill" was training to retrieve NASA astronauts who had landed in their capsules in the ocean.

So a deal was struck. To this day Clinton calls it simply, "the switch."

Nisker's family arrived, his wife Virginia and two little boys and a girl. And he showed them around Bermuda and got them moved into their new home, and they were happy.

And Clinton was the navigator for the flight to Atlanta.

Two weeks later, it was time for Nisker to honor his end of the deal.

And so on June 29 he climbed aboard a Douglas HC-54, and at 11:05 in the morning it roared into the sky above Kindley Air Force Base and the beautiful tropical paradise that surrounded it.

There were two planes involved in the mission. One was to train for retrieval of Gemini Mission astronauts. The other was to film the training.

After several passes, one plane suddenly banked to the right, and the two aircraft collided in mid-air and spiraled down, plunging into the ocean below.

A total of 17 Air Force personnel fell to their death.

Nisker was one of them.

Talking about the crash now, and thinking about the trade he made with his friend, Clinton looks straight ahead and says, "I'm familiar with death. And, um ... I'm not terribly impressed by it."

And so, a half-century later, as he stood in front of the assembled student body at Meeker Elementary School, James told the story about the switch, and how his friend died, and how military service is often punctuated with sacrifice and danger.

His speech, by all accounts was very good. And there, just a few feet away, listening to the whole thing, was Zeiger, the substitute teacher who had been called in to work that day.

The miracle

And when the speech was finished Zeiger's heart was pounding. She felt flush as she waited in the gymnasium for a chance to speak to Clinton. Her students stayed in the gym, too, and the school's principal Pat McGregor saw them lingering and thought to himself, "What is she doing? Why isn't Kim taking her kids back to class?"

Looking back, she says there was a dream-like quality to the moment. She approached Clinton as calmly as she could.

The first thing she said was, "Hello, Mr. Clinton. Nice job on your speech ..."

Then she asked a question. "Was the date of the collision where you changed jobs with the other man, was that June 29, 1964?"

Her voice begins to shake and her eyes get moist when she talks about what happened next. "He looked at me," she says, "like 'How did you know?' And he said, 'Yeah.'"

And when she tells the next part, it's apparent that the next words are some of the most important she's ever spoken in her life.

"And I said, 'Who was the man who's spot you took?'"

"And then he said, 'Martin Nisker.'"

And now her voice cracks and the tears flow and she can barely finish her story.

"And I said ... 'That's my Dad.'"

Little Kim Nisker was a Daddy's girl. She was eight years old when her family moved to Bermuda.

She remembers her dad saying to her that first week, "Kimy, I think we need to find you some dance lessons," and then taking her to a studio on base to sign up for classes.

She remembers that their house was next door to a hospital and that one day her brother was missing, and they found him in one of the ambulances at the hospital.

She talks about how Martin Nisker, who was stout and strong looking, and who loved children, used to put her and her brother in his duffel bag and swing them in it between his legs.

She says that every time he traveled he brought her back dolls from all over the world. She has them still, in a suitcase in the attic.

"He loved children," she says, "and he was a very likeable man. He was very, very kind. He called me his 'Princess', and we would do special things. We would go on dates."

There is a black and white picture that Zeiger keeps. There is a pond, and Zeiger is maybe three years old. She is walking ahead of her dad, with her back to the camera. His back is to the camera. too, and he is close enough to get to her if needed, but far enough back for the little girl to feel like she's on her own exploring the world. It's a beautiful photo. It could be any father and daughter. But it wasn't. It was Martin Nisker and his little Princess Kim, a long, long time ago.

Zeiger's older brother, Gary, was taking a swimming lesson on the beach on June 29, 1964. He heard something, and looked up to see two planes falling. The lessons were canceled, and he was sent home.

Zeiger's youngest brother was taking a nap. Zeiger was playing with dolls on the floor.

Her mother came into the room and said, "Something has happened."

She turned on the radio.

To hear Kim Nisker tell the story now is like hearing a heartbreak all over again.

"She started crying, and she heard about the collision, and I said, 'No, that's not Dad. That can't be Dad's plane!' And she said, 'I think it is.' And then I said, 'No, Mom, let's pray about it.'"

She remembers a car pulling up and a man and a woman walking up to the house.

"They said my Dad had been killed. And then pretty soon my brother came home."

There was a memorial service for all of the people killed in the crash.

Clinton was there. But he didn't meet the Nisker family, didn't tell them that he had been Martin Nisker's friend. Didn't tell them that there had been a switch. That it very well might have been him in the crash instead of Martin Nisker. And then the day had passed, and very soon after the Nisker family moved away from Bermuda and the tragedy it now represented.

A note for Daddy

And as they were about to leave, Zeiger said to her mother Virginia, "Can you leave an address so Dad will know where we're at?"

Her mother said softly, "But he's died ..."

And Kim persisted, "Well, let's leave and address. So he'll know. If he comes back for us, he'll know where we are ..."

Zeiger had substitute taught at Meeker Elementary School for some 20 years before the day she went to the Veterans Day Assembly in the gym.

And she'd passed a volunteer at the school named Shirley probably hundreds of times.

How could she have known that Shirley Clinton was married to a man named James Clinton the whole time? And that one day she would volunteer her husband to speak at an assembly because they couldn't find anyone else.

That day after the assembly they stood there for a long time, astounded.

James Clinton says, "I was shocked. I couldn't speak, I experienced guilt... I said, 'Yeah I'm here because your father traded places with me'... what could I say?"

Zeiger's family hadn't known there was a switch. They didn't know there was another man who was alive because their father, husband and champion had died.

"It brings up all my feelings for my dad," Zeiger says, trying to make sense of it all. "I still have such a deep love for him. And I miss him."

She stops for a moment, and then continues, "And yet, there's a joy knowing that James and his wife have led such a wonderful life."

And when she says that she seems content with the concept of it all. At peace.

But what are the chances?

That James Clinton and Zeiger would even end up living in the same town is a minor miracle.

But that they would be in the same building in the same room on the same day?

That he would be called upon to speak and she would be called upon to teach.

That he would decide to tell the story of the switch.

That she would realize what was happening.

That in this big old world, 53 years later, the two of them could be there to share that moment in time...is almost impossible to fathom.

Here's to Marty

They get together now, from time to time. Not just Kim Zeiger and James Clinton, but Kim Zeiger's children and grandchildren and her husband, Walt Zeiger.

And Martin Nisker's wife, Virginia, comes, too. She's 95 with eyes full of mischief and life.

They all sit around a table telling stories and looking at old pictures from a lifetime ago.

James Clinton and Shirley Clinton take it all in with a mixture of amusement and awe.

Virginia reads a poem she wrote about her husband, "Three cheers for Marty, the love of my life, producing three children, and I am the wife ..."

And then James Clinton stands up slowly and pulls out a little piece of paper. He has a glass in one hand, and he reads in a slow and deliberate cadence, and you could hear a pin drop as he says the following: "It is an honor to toast the memory of Maj. Martin Nisker ... loving husband and father. Gentleman and career Air Force navigator. I wish also to toast the air crew members who perished with Martin when two air rescue aircraft collided off the coast of Bermuda a half century ago."

He holds out his glass, and two families, pulled together by chance and fate and tragedy, reach out towards him with their own glasses.

"Here's to Marty."

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