by Angela Noel
Wham! The tree branch outside my grandmother’s San Diego condo attacked my forehead. I saw stars. Big ones. My boxes of clothes and books waited for transport indoors, but the unexpected tree ambush stopped me cold. Pay attention, it said, in the language of trees. You need to learn something.
Over the next three months I would sleep in her spare bedroom/office. On the desk and in boxes, letters and tax forms kept company with three-cent postcards of war planes ominously printed with the slogan, “The ENEMY is listening – don’t SAY it. The ENEMY can READ – Don’t WRITE it.”
Throughout her home, memories spilled from closets and corners. A trophy case at the top of the stairs held awards from the air races she had won, or almost won. A wooden propeller, the only surviving piece of a beloved plane destroyed by a storm, hung in the garage by a car she could no longer drive. She stowed vodka in the pantry and blocks of cheddar cheese in the freezer. Suspicious of the microwave, she refused to use it. Instead, she stored appliance manuals and unused cookbooks in it, unwilling to waste such a useful space.
Every Sunday she’d make eggs and toast for us. Over breakfast, she’d tell me stories of her days as a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP). Though spanning less than two years of her life, these heady days populated her thoughts for the almost seven decades to follow. The little girl who would become my grandmother fell in love with flying at six years old. Her father gave her a one-dollar bill to take a ride in a barnstormer biplane at Lambert Field in St. Louis. To pay for flying lessons, nineteen-year-old Dolores Meurer washed planes at the airfield, opened a dancing school, and modeled shoes. When Jackie Cochran called for female pilots to join the war effort, my grandmother, along with 25,000 other women, answered. On August 9, 1943 at the age of twenty-five, Dolores began her WASP training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The rigors of training ensured only the best would earn their wings; less than one percent of those who applied graduated.
Dolores and her classmates spent their training days in classrooms, in the exercise yard, and in the air. Ground school for four hours every morning taught the hopeful aviators mathematics, meteorology, and physics, among other critical subjects.
“If you have a master’s it’s going to be pretty easy,” Dolores’ math teacher told his students one day. “If you just have a degree, you . . . Eh. If you don’t have a degree, it’s going to be tough.” My grandmother did not finish high school. She told me once, as we talked over eggs and weak coffee, she’d completed the seventh grade. Six-year-old Dolores in the biplane and twenty-five-year-old Dolores in the classroom embraced her love of flying to push fear of failure and insecurity aside.
Never one to turn down a party, my grandmother earned a nickname while at Avenger Field. Breaking curfew one night, she and several of her friends snuck back into the dorms. The officer of the day found the laughing group. To my grandmother she said, “Dolores, keep quiet or I’ll give you a demerit.”
“Oh, go ahead. Give me ten demerits,” Dolores replied.
The officer obliged.
Her classmates called her “Demerit Meurer” ever after.
Dolores’ determination and good humor saved her from many close calls. One week before graduation, while flying back from California to El Paso, her compass went crazy, becoming totally useless. Nearing the scheduled time of arrival and running low on gas with the airfield nowhere in sight, she had to make a choice. Taught never to land in mesquite because it tangled in the landing gear, but equally fearful of running out of fuel, she decided to land in the brush to ask for direction. Four men in sombreros, astride their horses, approached. They spoke no English. She’d accidentally landed in Mexico. “El Paso? El Paso?” she repeated, hoping. When they finally stopped laughing at her, they pointed the way home.
The next day, the crewman working on her plane said to her, “Mam, yew shure had a lot of mesquite in yer landin’ gear.”
She replied, “I’ll have to fly a little higher next time.” I imagine her winking at the crewman, smiling wide. Tomorrow, at least, would be another day to fly.
Always the threat of failure, or worse, accompanied their days. After 6 a.m. reveille, they headed from their dorm rooms unsure if they would return. Fifty-two women in Dolores’ class were cut—“washed out”—from training. Earning their wings, though, did not earn them safety. Thirty-eight women gave their lives as WASP, flying planes sometimes not fit to be flown.
On my grandmother’s first assignment in Hondo, Texas, the base closed temporarily due to a crash. “On my way to my room, the Catholic chaplain met me at the nurse’s quarters and said, ‘Dolores, I just came to give you last rites. According to the schedule on the board, you are the one.’” A quirk in the scheduling had placed Edie Keene in the doomed plane instead. Shaken and mourning, Dolores climbed into the cockpit the very next day. No time to stop for tears or “what ifs” she had a job to do.
To my grandmother, whose heart led her to fly, to dance, and to break rules of every description, I owe so much. She showed me how to answer the call of adventure, letting the party last until the sun rises to a new day. Dolores, my Grammy, taught me not to waste a single moment, or a good piece of tinfoil.
Yes, the tree might say. Now, don’t forget.
Angela Noel currently lives and writes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her blog, You Are Awesome, features posts about people, just like Dolores and her WASP friends, who invite adventure, creativity and passion into their lives every day. Follow her on twitter @angiewrite or check out her blog at www.angelanoelauthor.com.