By Angela Noel Lawson
May 7, 2019
When Jackie Cochran called for female pilots to join the World War II effort, my grandmother, along with 25,000 other women, answered. Twenty-five-year-old Dolores Meurer began her training as a Women’s Air Service Pilot (WASP) on August 9, 1943, at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The rigors of training ensured only the best would earn their wings; only 1,074 applicants graduated. Her experiences as a WASP spanned less than two years of her life, yet those heady days populated her thoughts for the almost seven decades to follow.
However, unlike my grandmother at 25, I lacked purpose. I’d quit my job at a startup magazine in San Francisco. The novel I’d planned to write when I graduated college was 75% complete and 90% terrible. And, I’d broken up with my first serious boyfriend. Adult life was just so much harder than I thought it’d be.
Of all my troubles, the romantic turmoil held precedence. The failure of that relationship seemed to signify so much more than just two unsuited people parting company. Heartbroken, I racked my brain for ideas on what to do next. I decided to visit a mutual acquaintance of my now ex-boyfriend and mine, a man named Mr. Clark.
Answering a different call
Mr. Clark was a philosophy teacher, and owned a hotel in Yuma, Arizona with his wife, Tina. White-bearded and kind, I hoped Mr. Clark could help me put some of the pieces, my pieces, back together. Tina and Mr. Clark offered me a room for the night, free of charge.
After dinner that night, Mr. Clark invited me for a walk in the neighborhood. A cool, desert-evening breeze blew around the adobe buildings. Mr Clark patiently listened to me explain, or maybe complain, about my 25-year-old life as we strolled in the twilight.
Though too embarrassed to mention the boyfriend directly, I still needed answers. My head was a thick and colorless mess of half-formed thoughts.
As we wandered, we talked about writing and storytelling. I confessed my novel wasn’t good, and that I’d run out of ideas. Was the novelist/freelance writer life for me? I didn’t ask it aloud, but in the yuck of my brain, I wondered if writing success would somehow prove I deserved to be loved.
At some point in the conversation, I mentioned my grandmother and her service in the war. I knew relatively little of her at the time. She was mostly just my grammy, showing up on holidays, and giving me presents on my birthday.
But, Mr. Clark hit upon an idea. “You should go and live with your grandmother,” he told me. The exact words of the conversation are largely lost, but that I remember. I felt a tingle in the back of my brain, a light in the darkness.
Much would have to fall into place for me to take advantage of his advice. But over the next few months, the pieces fell. In the Spring of 2000 I moved in.
Over weak coffee at breakfast or vodka and water at twilight, my grandmother told me stories. She laughed about the many times she got in trouble, earning the nickname “Demerit Meurer” for her many minor transgressions, like breaking curfew, or mouthing off to the officer on duty.
But, WASP training was no joke. The stakes were high. Admission to the program required a pilot’s license — an expensive thing to earn. Though her father had been the one to ignite his daughter’s love of flying by buying her a $1 biplane ride high above a St. Louis, Missouri field when she was six years old, he discouraged her flying dreams. Concerned for her safety, he thought she should be a typist instead. Unlike other trainees, Grammy had neither husband nor father willing to help pay for lessons. Instead, she washed airplanes, taught dance classes, and modeled shoes to earn the money to fly.
Once accepted, training was rigorous. Texas Women’s University maintains a history of the WASPs, detailing their regimen:
Up before dawn, the trainees spent nearly 12 hours a day at the airfield. Half their day was spent flying in very crowded airspaces doing stalls, spins, turns, take offs, and landings. While the other half of the day was spent in ground school studying navigation, flight training, physics, aerodynamics, electronics, mathematics, weather, communications, meteorology, Morse code, military law, and aircraft mechanics. By the time they graduated, the women had spent 560 hours in ground school and 210 hours in flight training.
My grandmother remembered her math instructor offering his opinion of the road ahead for his pupils.“If you have a masters it’s going to be pretty easy,” he said, “If you just have a degree, you . . . Eh. But if you don’t have a degree, it’s going to be tough.” Grammy had no college degree, nor a high school diploma. In fact, she’d confessed to me, she’d only completed the seventh grade.
And then, death. Thirty-eight WASPs and trainees lost heir lives during the two years of the program. My grandmother was almost one of them. On her first assignment in Hondo, Texas, the base closed temporarily due to a fatal crash. Grammy told me the story.
“On my way to my room,” she said, “the Catholic Chaplin met me at the nurse’s quarters. He 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. While she mourned the loss of her friends, she was undeterred; flying was her first love.
A crash of my own
At some point during my months at my grandmother’s, I called my ex. I closed the door to my bedroom and sat cross-legged on the bed. He picked up after two or three rings.
“Hello?” He didn’t recognize the number.
“Hi. It’s me.” We’d been together two and a half years, I assumed he’d recognize my voice.
“Hi there,” he purred. He’d answered my calls many times with the same greeting — back when he loved me. Had his heart softened?
“It’s Angela,” I said, unsure.
“Oh,” he replied. Clearly, he thought I was someone else. Then a second later, “Why are you calling?” Not unkind, just uncaring; there’s a difference.
While my heart broke open all over again, cheeks burning, I wondered the same thing.
“I guess, I just wanted to see how you are. Maybe I thought you’d want to know where I am. . .”
“Uh, sure.” I imagined him shoving the phone between his ear and his shoulder and opening the refrigerator.
Though I knew the call was doomed, I rushed to tell him I’d been living with my grandmother and learning a lot. He offered little more than a “good for you.” We hung up a minute or two later. I lay back on the coverlet of my borrowed bed and considered crying. My heart squeezed. My pride stung. But, no tears fell. I wouldn’t call him again. I’d emotionally crashed and burned, but I could still walk away.
Assembling the pieces
In the movies, catalytic moments like these result in a montage of changes. Green plants are bought. Make-overs are had. A new life ensues in the space of a patchwork of scenes. But real life doesn’t work like that. What I learned from my grandmother’s experiences would take years to strengthen and manifest.
For example, when an essay is rejected for one reason or another, I think of a 19-year-old Dolores washing planes to make enough money to fly, defying her family’s expectations of her and the cultural norms of the time. She had grit. She refused to be told no.
When work is hard and I feel like an imposter, I remember my grandmother learning physics with a seventh-grade education. She never gave up. She never gave in.
And when my heart hurts because love has left me barren and broken, I recall when my grammy’s friends died in that deadly crash, she got up the next day to fly again. Loving something (or someone) doesn’t mean it won’t hurt me. But if it does, I still get up again.
The end (but not the end)
My grandmother, and her fellow WASP’s, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010. My grammy attended the ceremony, wearing her original, 67-year-old uniform. She died a little less than a year later, at the age of 92.
My mom called me with the news of her death on a snowy February afternoon. I’d been visiting a friend with my almost two-year-old son in tow. I missed the call. As I twisted the key in my car’s ignition, I listened to my mom’s tortured, tear-choked voice in my voicemail, “She’s gone. She’s gone home now.” The snow seemed to speed its decent as we pulled away from the curb and took to the streets.
The treacherous, slippery roads and poor visibility made for white-knuckled driving. But, I had my son in the backseat. I had to get home. I ached to cry for the loss of my grammy. But not here, I told myself, not yet. I like to think she was in the car with me then. In fact, I like to think she’s here with me now.
At the advice of a wise friend, I’d moved in with my grandmother. And she, without even knowing she was doing it, helped me put the pieces of myself together. Those three months, like the time my grandmother spent at Avenger Field, will populate my thoughts and animate my actions for years to come.
Your turn: Where do you go for advice or inspiration?
Originally published on Medium in The Ascent publication.