Saturday, March 4, 2017

When One Door Closes

The airplane engine roars as it crosses the sky just outside my bedroom. Every morning, before school I race to catch a glimpse of whatever flying contraption is zooming above. Still dressed in my pajamas, I push
the window open as far as it goes so that I may poke my head outside. I reach for the heavens above so that I may at least try to catch that plane. I figure my morning ritual gets me that much closer to that man-made bird in the sky. After it is out of sight and all that is left is the cloudy trail of smoke that it leaves behind, I close my eyes and imagine myself in the pilot’s seat. I plan on dreaming my fantasy into reality. No matter what it takes, I am determined to explore the skies. It is 1942, and I am sixteen years old. In two more years, I'll be old enough to join the Fly Girls program. In the meantime, I can dream.

My mother, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with flying.

“It’s too dangerous,” she says.

"Women can fly airplanes as well as any man!" I shout at the top of my lungs.

The only reaction I get out of her is a more fervent shaking of the feather duster around the furniture. In those moments, when I bring up my one true passion, she pretends not to hear me. No matter what I do or say, I have not been able to convince her that my flying is a good idea.

I may not like it, but I do understand her point of view. It has just been me and my mother since Pops left when I was a kid. We are a team and besides that, I am her offspring. She can't help but be in protection mode when it comes to her one and only child. Daughter and mother. We look so much alike with our matching chestnut shoulder length hair, high cheek bones and hazel eyes, that people often confuse us, and she doesn't want to lose me. I get it. I think she hopes I'll meet a nice boy and settle down instead, but I'm holding off from getting too serious with anyone. I want to be free and flying is the quintessence of freedom. To soar like a condor, moving through the air with ease, that’s what I call the prize in the Cracker Jack’s box. And that's more important than being bound to some man. Besides, marriage can come later. For now, I have other plans.

For one thing, I plan to make it to London—in England, thank you very much! Maybe I'll see King George or Princess Elizabeth. She'll be queen one day. I'd like to shake her hand. She's a woman who will be put in a leadership position. I admire that. I’m a leader myself. I plan to lead myself with one foot in front of the other, until I am able to hop on my own plane and take it for a spin. I don’t know when. I don’t know where—but one day, it will happen.

Then one late spring afternoon, when the sky was as clear as a baby blue sapphire, the agapanthus and lilacs were in full bloom, and the birds were singing their joyful tunes, my mother decided to surprise me. I didn’t think that could ever happen. We knew each other too well to keep anything from each other. However, on this one occasion she managed to take my breath away. I barely made it to the kitchen chair before the tears started pouring out of me like maple syrup on pancakes. I may have been sobbing, but I have never been happier in my life. I simply could not contain myself. I must have used about forty-nine handkerchiefs that day to clear my face and my nose, but it was worth the laundry load I would have to do. 

Since the days, when I held my arms out from my body and zoomed around the yard pretending I was a plane myself, my dear mother has been fighting me to be more ladylike. I begged. I pleaded. I even got down on my knees once, but she would never budge. I almost gave up asking. However, on my seventeenth birthday, she showed me that she really did care about my thoughts and my dreams.

It was then when I opened the single present I would receive this year. The small box fit in the palm of my hand and was as light as a feather, yet the power contained within it was visceral. I felt tingles in my arm the moment my mother handed it to me. When I opened the lid, I saw for myself why this package didn't have any weight to it. Nestled inside was a crisp white piece of paper that was folded up several times over. My mother wanted me to work for this one. I carefully unfolded each layer, until I saw what was written on it. I didn’t even have to read the whole thing. The logo at the top of the page told the whole story. A drawing of a plane with the words RECEIPT: Johnson Brothers Flight Academy scrolled above it were my clues. This single piece of paper would literally change the course of my life. In exactly five days, on the following Saturday, I was going to have my first flying lesson!

I think Mr. Andrew Johnson was pretty impressed that a mere “girl” as he called me had so much spunk. I had not only read the training manual, I had long since memorized it, before I even signed up! I understood the technical side of flying, I just needed the practical experience under my belt. That’s why I was here. This Mr. Johnson, with his 6’ foot stature, pomade styled amber-colored hair, with a smile that would give Cary Grant a run for his money, this was the man who was going to be my teacher. He certainly was on the dreamy side in the looks department, but I had to keep my mind on the plane and not his piercing emerald colored eyes.

“All right, Ms. Mahoney. It’s time for your first lesson,” he said. “Rule number one. Always listen to me. On this aircraft, I am God. What I say goes—at all times. Rule number two. Pay attention. Forget day-dreaming. That’s for sissies. This is serious business, this flying. And rule number three, no matter what, always have fun.”

I let out a slight giggle. Of course, I was going to have fun! I had just won the Betty-Jean Mahoney sweepstakes. I was going to be the first girl in the neighborhood to get her wings!

And so it began.

By the time my eighteenth birthday arrived, I marched myself down to the recruiting office for the WASP’s—the Women Airforce Service Pilots and signed myself up. I graduated at the top of my class and afterwards, I received my first orders. I had the pick of the litter. While some people wanted to test fighter planes at home, I wanted to get out and see the world. I opted to fly cargo planes, carrying military personnel and equipment from Oakland all the way across the Atlantic. I was headed for London! 

As I got ready for my first “official” flight for the WASPs, I gazed into the mirror. I felt older somehow. More mature. Perhaps it was the fact that I wore taupe colored trousers, a brown leather bomber jacket, with a cream colored scarf that Mother purchased at Macy’s for this very trip.

“If you are going to fly, you should at least have a touch of feminine in your wardrobe.”

“Thank you, Mother. You’re the absolute best!” I said while I held her tightly and kissed her on her cheek. My mother was my hero.

After checking the engine and the exterior of the plane, I climbed into the cockpit. This was it. I was doing it for real. I turned on all the instruments needed to fly this baby. I taxied down the runway and within two and half minutes, there was lift off. I headed in the direction of a whole new world. Enthusiasm abounded. Nothing was going to stop me now.

Seeing the Earth below me is a dream come true. From the peaks of Yellowstone that push their way skyward, the grassy plains of South Dakota that show me a sea of green that goes on to infinity, or at least until the next land formation shows up, to the ubiquitous 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, it all seems so surreal from this perspective. All this beauty on one planet and I get to see it in one flight.

I imagine what it must have been like for Orville Wright with the wind blowing through his hair at Kitty Hawk. Of course, these days I'm in an enclosed cockpit. Nevertheless, the windless atmosphere does not detract from the excitement I feel every time I'm up in the airmost especially this time. I'm on a mission for the United States government. Somehow it feels more important now.

What I didn't know was that my first mission for the Fly Girls was to be my last.

The roar from the engine was muted by the hand held radio that almost magically started talking to me. “Chestnut Beauty. Chestnut Beauty. This is Eagle Leader. Do you copy? Over.”

“I hear you loud and clear, Eagle Leader. Checking on my status, are you?”

“Listen here, Chestnut Beauty, I just want to tell you, that a few years ago, I never would have thought that a dame could fly a plane, but the women in this organization, most especially you, Kid, have changed my mind. It has been an absolute honor serving with you.”

“I do declare, Eagle Leader, I believe your flirtation is making me blush!”

“Hey, Kid, I’m a happily married man and far too old for you, but if I were single and about 30 years younger, then sure, you could consider that flirting. But in all seriousness, I have a bit of bad news.”

“And you have decided to tell me now? When all I can see anywhere below me is ocean water as far as the eye can see. You thought now is the time for bad news?”

“Kid, I just want to say in advance how sorry I am.”

“What do you mean? Is my mother okay?”

“Oh. Yea…Yes. Sorry for the confusion…She is perfect. I d-don’t want you to think it’s anything like that," he stammered.

The tough guy on the other end of the line was really an old softy at heart. He never wanted to hurt anyone, least of all mehis favorite. I was his ace pilot. And from my point of view, he was the one who filled the proverbial shoes that my father left behind. Even though he was about to say something that I didn't want to hear, I cherished the subtle hints of a nurturing heart he always seemed to offer. Before carrying on, he took a deep breath to compose himself again. In a moment's time, the no-nonsense leader of us lady pilots had returned.

"The truth of the matter, Kid, is that they scrapped the program. The WASP’s are done. This is your last flight. There has been a reservation made for you at Pan American at Heathrow to return through New York. From there, you'll catch another plane to San Francisco. If your mother can’t pick you up, I will make sure to be there myself, Kid.”

The thirty seconds of silence felt like a lifetime.

“Hey Kid, are you still there?”

“I’m still here. Thanks for the warning. Thanks for allowing me into the program and giving me this wonderful opportunity. Thanks again and don’t worry about it, Eagle Leader. All is how it is supposed to be and in the meantime, I did make it up here. It’s been grand. Truly, it has.”

“You’re a trooper, Kid. Keep me posted. Over and out.”

I may have sounded relatively cheerful to the colonel, but after our conversation, I slumped back into my seat. I felt the disappointment in every part of my body. I had made it here— a woman flyer, no less. It wasn’t easy to do, but I did it. Now after all my hard work, they are going to take it away from me—just like that. Maybe my mother will get her wish after all. Maybe I am supposed to be a mother and a housewife. The prospect does not sound very appealing.

A few hours later, I landed at Heathrow. I recently read that the name was chosen because the airport was placed in an old agricultural site named Heath Row. Makes sense. Well, I am sorry for the plant life that used to be here. They may have lost their residence, but I sure am glad, there is a landing strip for me. It may be my last flight, but I intended to have a perfect landing. My last would be my best. Smooth as butter.

A driver inside an olive-green military Jeep waited for me at the gate. At least I had a ride to the hotel. After sulking in my room for a couple of hours, Norma threw open the door without even knocking. That’s how she operated. Full steam ahead. The tall blonde bombshell and Betty Grable lookalike, who had men flocking at her feet and who filled out her flight uniform better than any of us other girls did, had one last mission in mind and she wanted me to participate.

"Betty-Jean, quit sulking. We are women and we actually made it up there. We are the trailblazers for our daughters and granddaughters and in the meantime we had some fun. Now get off your keester and join us for a drink downstairs at the pub. The rest of the girls are all coming and I'm ordering you to come too."

“Yes, Sir,” I said with the most lackluster utterance I think I have ever made.

Norma wrapped her arm around mine. “Listen, sister. We are going to have some fun. I hear these Brits have some pretty cute men for us. Who knows? Maybe we’ll each land an English husband.”

Norma practically planned her wedding with her imaginary husband right then and there. I was a little more subdued. But maybe a drink was in order. I hear the Brits drink warm beer over here. It should be interesting to see what that tastes like.

Margaret, Mildred and Marjorie waited for us at the table. I nicknamed them the 3 M’s. Not only do they have the same first letter in their names, but those three dames finish each other’s sentences. It’s like they have one central brain managing the three of them.

“Hiya, Kid,” they said in unison. They do that too—say the same thing at the same time. It’s a little spooky. But they are fun to be around.

“I see Betty-Jean…” Marjorie started.

“…is sulking…” Margaret added.

“…because it’s the end of her flying days.” Mildred finished.

“She’ll get over it. Won’t you, Kid?” Norma said.

My eyes rolled into the back of my head, and that action seemed to summon the alcohol gods, because in that moment, a tall glass of the darkest beer I had ever seen magically showed up in front of me. The waiter said it was something called a stout. I am game for anything right about now.

“Now tell me about it, Betty-Jean. Describe the beer to us,” Norma commanded.

“Yea, Betty-Jean describe it,” the 3 M’s said simultaneously.

This was a game they sort of invented for me and I was always willing to play. I picked up the glass and held it in my hand. I considered the possibilities behind this glass for about ten seconds before I slipped on my storyteller's voice, making certain to inflect the words with precision so that each of the listeners would feel the tale being told, as though they too were a part of the story.

“I gaze at the almost black concoction sitting in front of me. Was it a beer, or was it really a witch’s brew? Did it hold some magic in its body that was about to be shared with me?  The richness of the liquid holds up a luxurious foam at its head that is so thick I can swipe my finger through it, which leaves a trail behind. I reach for the glass and begin the trek of moving it towards my lips. Anticipation builds inside my mind. How will it taste, I wondered? Swirling it in my mouth for a moment or two, I allowed my tongue to penetrate the roasty flavors. It was bitter and nutty. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, but liking it wasn’t the point. Drinking this stout was an adventure. Wasn’t that what life is all about?”

“How do you always do that, Betty-Jean?” the three M's asked. 

“She does it because she’s a storyteller. A writer waiting to be born.” 

The five of us were stunned by the mysterious voice that was attached to a tall drink of water of a man who had just spun around in his stool, in order to join in on our conversation. We just stared at this 6’2 well-dressed man. He wore a dark suit and had blonde wavy hair. He was not only good looking, but had an English accent to boot. It made him sound more aristocratic than us girls from the States. I blushed at his words, and stuttered out a few of my own.

“I..I am not a writer, sir, I..I’m a…”

“…a pilot. Yes, I gathered that much from the uniform you are wearing. The brown bomber jacket was a dead-giveaway. A woman flyer, who could be a writer too. You could be known as The Reporting Aviatrix. It has a nice ring to it don't you think? 

"Ladies, allow me to present myself. I am Jonathon Abbott.”

By now my face moved past the various shades of embarrassed pink and well into scarlet, as I sat there, for possibly the first time in my life, at a complete loss for words.

He handed me his card while the girls rattled off their names. I saw a “Sir” in front of his first name and the job description Publisher—Daily Mail. Even though I am an American, I knew about this famous English newspaper. And this guy was in charge.

“And this here is Betty-Jean. Yea, she can be a writer. She is great with words,” Norma said.

“So, I see.”

While my head still peered down towards the card in my hand, my eyes lifted to look upon the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life. To say that sparks were flying would have been an understatement. Maybe my mother was right. Maybe I could be married after all…

…Playing this memory again in my mind ended, when I was shaken out of my reverie by my granddaughter’s voice.

“And that is how you met Grandfather, Gramz?”

“Yes, it is.”

“And that’s how you became a journalist? Just like that. A new job was given to you on a silver platter without even trying?”

“That’s right. I was so unhappy about losing my job as a Fly Girl, but then like magic, something new showed up to take its place. I always liked to write. My English teacher, Mr. Stravinsky, encouraged me to give up my dreams of becoming a flyer in order to become a writer instead. The balding Mr. S, who practically never was without a cigarette somewhere in his vicinity, said to me on a regular basis, “Miss Mahoney, You need to continue your education and become a writer. I’d be happy to send a letter to Stanford, Berkeley or even Harvard on your behalf. Just give the word, and I will give you the best recommendation letter in the history of recommendation letters.’ I never took him up on it, because I wanted to fly so badly, but I guess there was another plan for me. Plus, I was able to have my cake and eat it too.”

“You mean Grandfather?”

“As though my meeting him was a forgone conclusion, written into the annals of my life-plan before I was even born, I knew within about three whole seconds that he was the man for me.”

“And you had a career too. A woman, not to mention a married woman, rarely worked in those days.”

“Your grandfather was a different kind of man. He wasn’t bothered by my working. He loved to see my enthusiasm when I ran around the country catching story after story, and for a short while I traveled around the world for my job—at least part of it anyway.”

“Pulitzer prize winner for your coverage during the Korean War.”

“Well, I wasn’t the first you know. Marguerite Higgins won before me. I suppose you could say that I idolized her. She was a kind and generous woman who took me under her wings while we were in Korea. There weren’t many English-speaking women over there outside of nurses, so we were comrades in arms—or rather comrades in pen and paper. After a couple of months we were separated with different assignments, but we kept in touch via letters.

“It was the most intense time in my life. I barely slept that year. It was exciting. Dangerous, to be sure, but in the end, I was ready to come home.”

“How come?”

“First of all, I missed being home. I may not have lived there long, but I loved England. More importantly, I missed Jonathon, and he missed me too. And there was something even more pressing. You see, your grandfather came to visit me six weeks before I left the war behind forever and after that short weekend, I knew it was time.”

“You were pregnant, weren’t you?”

“Yes. With your father, of course. A war zone was no place for a mother-to-be.”

“So, your mom got her wish too. You were married and you were about to start a family.”

“Yes. Once I made it back to London, we moved your great-grandmother here. She spent her last years as an expatriate. I never thought I would see the day when she would leave California, but she loved it here. She helped raise your father, aunts and uncle. And I am grateful for that.”

“And you? Were you happy you never moved back to America?”

“Yes. I may have grown up in Oakland, but London has been my home for nearly eighty years. I have had a wonderful life and at the end of it, I will be buried here. I am happy about that. My body will be next to your grandfather’s and my spirit can fly off to meet his.

“Now, that’s enough about me. I told you all this, because I don’t want you to worry about what your parents said. Your father is a business man and he never did approve of my lifestyle. He wants his daughter to follow in his footsteps, not mine. The thing is, it doesn’t matter what they want for you. It’s what you want for yourself that matters. If they won’t pay for your college education, because they don’t approve of your major, then I will take care of it. Just remember, if you want something badly enough, it will happen. Just go off and get it. Be the writer you want to be. Start writing whenever you can. Write in journals. Write for the school paper. Write a play. Whatever it takes, just do it. It will all work out, honey. Just remember that when one door closes, another one—an even better one—always opens up.”

The End—or rather The Beginning of Something New…

July 17th, 2017

Writer’s Note

I have had the honor of listening to my grandmother's stories for over 50 years. A few months before she passed, she told me a new story that I had never heard—one that wasn't fiction. She had shared how she wanted to be a pilot for the Fly Girls program during WWII. She had dreams of flying cargo planes to London, where she wanted to get off the plane in order to become a journalist. She said she was accepted into the program and was next in line, but it was scrapped before she had the opportunity to be a part of it. I always knew my grandmother was a writer at heart, but her aspiration to take flight was news to me. Not to mention the fact, that I had no idea that there were women pilots during the 1940's. That information impressed me dearly.

Moreover, as she shared her passions with me, a tale began weaving in my own mind. When One Door Closes is a work of fiction, but there are elements taken from the life of my grandmother in this story. Her inspiration is all over the place. It was my desire to finish it before she passed so that I could read it to her. Only weeks before she left this planet, I was able to do just that. She heard the connection between her own life and I am grateful I had the opportunity to share it with her.

Her celebration of life was over the weekend and today I decided to revisit “her” story. It means even more to me today, because I am certain that now she really is flying around and having a grand old time.

I dedicate this story to my grandmother, Bette Jean Gallagher Tunney.

1 comment:

  1. Loved it! I started reading with a "ho-hum" attitude but by the third paragraph you had me hooked.