by Christina Leigh Burns
In 1994, on the 50th anniversary year of her graduation from the Women Airforce Service Pilots, Ann Darr published her memoir Flying the Zuni Mountains. The book gives an intimate look at the trials and triumphs the WASP endured to earn their wings.
“My mom was a poet to her cure, a writer by profession. This book was her way of describing to the world what these women went through and her own personal journey. . . besides having her children, being a WASP was the greatest accomplishment of her life. She took enormous pride in it. She loved, loved, flying, the illusion of it and the camaraderie these women had,” Deborah Darr.
In Ann’s own words, here is an excerpt from Flying the Zuni Mountains and a few of her poems:
I had a childhood myth I could fly to heaven and see my mother who had been killed in an automobile accident when I was three. The myth stuck to me as I grew, and I knew that someday I would fly. I was a prairie child in Iowa we didn’t have the oceans or the mountains, what we had was the sky. It played an enormous role in my life, my imagination filled it with impossible dreaming.
Before the WASP, I was writing and performing in a radio program for NBC’S Blue Network (now ABC) in New York City, The Woman of Tomorrow program, a half hour daily participating radio show with an interview in the middle. We focused on everything of interest to women from fashion to theatre to food to books. We were busy trying to tell them how to save sugar, tin foil, gasoline, anything to help the war effort.
There were 17 classes of women pilots, beginning in Houston as WAFS and finishing at Avenger Field, Sweetwater as WASPs. Women came from every walk of life, teachers, nurses, engineers, debutantes, mothers, wives.
This is the 50th Anniversary of the graduation of my class of 44-W-3, including the third class of 1944 (April 15 to be exact). Our class served as guinea pigs in that we skipped basic training and went from primary planes to advanced trainers—from PT-19s to AT-6s. If women could do it, so could the men, male pilots who were taken into the Aircorp or Airforce without previous flying training. Our class went back to the B-13 (Basic trainer) for instrument flying, and later, Instructor’s Instrument Flight.
I have had the deep pleasure of re-living the flying in the writing. The exhilaration, the excitement of rising into the air, the satisfaction of making every move count, the precision of it, being in control, and the sheer joy of seeing the sweep of the earth Flight is my metaphor, in all of its meanings. I still write flying poems although I do not fly in the pilot seat except in my dreams.
I loved the camaraderie. Friends for my forever. To suffer thorough the anxieties of flight checks, of aching bones, of effort to do it right! Living close-in with all of its ups and downs.
The worst experience was to be thrown out with short warning. To be disregarded as if we had not made a real contribution to the war effort. To be told to be silent on our own behalf when the bill came up in the Congress that would have made us veterans. It took thirty-three years for us to be recognized. To have to be quiet about our feelings of being badly treated (we were supposed to be “ladies”), not complain when were victims of sexism. To have to take up a collection to send home the body of a WASP co-pilot who died in a crash because the Army said it was not responsible and Civil Service said it was not responsible.
We were Pioneers of the Women Pilots. I was one of the lucky women who were part of the experiment that proved women could fly as well as men. The Airforce was wrong in 1977 when it put out a news release saying women had just begun to fly military aircraft. The WAFS and the WASPs were flying everything the Army Airforce owned in 1942, ’42, and ’44. In 1977 we were finally recognized for our efforts. Although it was too late for us to be granted insurance, education and most other benefits, were proud to be named Veterans."
FIRST ASSIGNMENT: B-26 SCHOOL – DODGE CITY, KANSAS
I had been practicing saluting.
The Commandant came from around his desk
to shake my hand.
Are you married? Yessir.
Then I don’t need to give you my single’s lecture. He motioned me
To a chair. Where do you hail from?
New York City, I said.
I know only one person in New York City,
he said, her name is Alice Maslin.
I didn’t blink.
She was my boss, I said.
Two hours later we were on
the golf course and I was
telling him how Alice Maslin
was the Woman of Tomorrow on the radio show,
how I wrote copy for her, how she was
re-named Nancy Booth Craig to fit
the initials for NBC.
I am practicing my golf swing.
Twice on the reasonable side of dead,
I tried to recoup what the wise men said,
Tried to recover the reason why we’re set on the earth to live and die.
Twice on the reasoning side of gone,
I tried to recall what was going on
When spinning began in this holy space,
How we came to be anchored in this lent place.
Twice in moments en route to dying,
I’ve been too close, alone and flying.
I expected bells. It was banshees crying.
But twice in moments of dreadful peace,
I knew the power of sheer release.
The answer was there within my eye.
I forgot it all when I didn’t die.
For a lark we were playing anteater
Out in the desert, making fun
Of the snout-nosed airplane equipment
Menat to save our lives. O, we did laugh
And pose with those oxygen masks
Pointing to the sand, and there
In the rubble behind the hanger
Was the stencil for the future. . . used.
The speed was so high that we were
as obsolete to flight that war
as anteaters, which weren’t funny anymore.
Between Battles in That Sometime WAR
Twenty actual dollars went into the kitty
As the train careened along.
We were hysterical with relief
That the loss was one we could afford, sustain
without any loss of virtue or virginity.
Hail! hail! Hail! Oh we did blunder
and fuss and flirt, but were mindful of what
we had to lose. . . our own hot breath.
After I ran away from home and came back again,
my Papa said, Go if you must but mind three things:
stay away from water, stay off of boats and
don’t go up in an aeroplane. So first I learned to swim,
then I learned to sail, and then I learned to fly.