What Doesn’t Kill You

By Angela Noel

August 4th, 2016

Weeks after the birth of her first child in 1946, Dolores Meurer Reed climbed into the cockpit of the Navy surplus airplane she and husband Bob bought with the last of their newlywed nest-egg. Not long after her wheels left earth, the instruments failed–every single one of them. “I landed it on fear alone.” She promised herself she wouldn’t fly again. At least, not until her babies had all grown up. Flying, her capricious and complicated first-love, kept trying to kill her.

On her first assignment after graduation from WASP training in 1944, the wing of the plane she had, until that morning, been scheduled to fly, fell off mid-flight. (Read more about her experience as a World War II Women’s Air Force Pilot here.)

Nearly twenty years later, after her children had grown, she returned to the air. Dolores began competing in air races like the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Races, otherwise known as the “Powder Puff Derby,” in 1965. While criss-crossing the U.S. and South America dozens of times, her airplanes, old and new, tested her luck and skill. Parts of her plane fell off over Alabama and blew up over Nicaragua. She ran low on gas, engine sputtering, over a snake-filled swamp in Mississippi. She passed out over Lake Tahoe. Her airplane’s landing gear wouldn’t descend properly, so she beat it with her foot until it cracked into place in California. But after each near-death experience she slid back into the cockpit,undaunted.

1982 All Women’s Baja California Air Race Winners. Dolores Reed on the far left and fellow pilot Sigrid Ramelli on the far right.

Forced by instrument failures or engine stalls to land in restricted areas in the U.S, Military Police greeted her plane on more than one occasion. Worse, she found herself on the wrong side of the border with contraband tequila and extra passengers–one of them a Norwegian forbidden by the Mexican government to marry one of its citizens. But somehow, someway, the universe conspired and Dolores always made it home.

During WASP reunions, my grandmother and her friends would stay up until the wee hours. Dolores looked forward to every moment with Ikey, Jean Rose, Margaret, Bonnie, Gene Fitzpatrick and others who had scattered all over the country after the war. Their love of flying always brought them together again. My eight-year-old self would stare, wide-eyed, as Grammy talked of these raucous parties. These lady pilots would tell stories, sing songs, drink black Russians, and laugh until they fell off their chairs in a heap on the floor. They would tell the one about the time Dolores got poison oak on her butt while peeing on a remote island after mechanical failures grounded her plane. Or the one about the angry Commanding Officer that asked Dolores to move to another table in the mess hall because he didn’t want to sit near a woman. Yeah, that guy was a real S.O.B.

Grammy, on her 80th birthday, wearing her original flight suit from WWII
Grammy, on her 80th birthday, wearing her original flight suit from WWII.

Born during the depression in 1918, Dolores lived to see her ninety-third birthday. The years of scarcity in her youth made her both practical and frugal. She saved aluminum foil in neat squares in her kitchen drawers, ketchup packets in her cabinets, and giant blocks of cheddar cheese in her freezer.

When I was thirteen, she took me upstairs to her bedroom and presented me with an array of baubles and gems. Which of them did I want when she died? Taken aback by the question but intrigued by the shiny things, I chose a ruby and opal monstrosity. Heavy, ornate gold bound twenty-five stones in a cluster like a glittery balloon. Only later, after her death on February 20, 2011, would I learn its history. Purchased for Dolores by my grandfather, it had been his final gift to her before he died in 1974. My mother had searched Grammy’s condo for three days to locate the ring, finally finding it in an empty face cream container in her medicine cabinet. The woman who’d carefully wrapped up her cheese to protect it from freezer burn, had also stowed an antique ring in an old jar and forgotten about it for decades.

From her estate, I received the ring, a moonstone necklace, a paperback copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (owned by my grandfather), a scarf, and a pair of purple socks.

Infused with meaning, these objects had worth. Some of them had monetary value, but most paid dividends only in sentiment. The antique ring and the pendant would be stolen from my home less than a year later. Mercifully, the four young men, who’d made my home their personal souvenir shop, left James Joyce, the scarf, and even the socks behind.

Losing those objects, mere vessels for memory and meaning, reminded me that my grandmother’s legacy is not in “things. She found freedom and laughter both in the adventures she had and the people she had them with. Her gift to me was never what she had accumulated throughout her life, but her life itself.

If Dolores can do it, so can I. So can you.

Be awesome in real life.

We live in the wind and sand. . . and our eyes are on the stars.”WASP Motto

Me, Grammy and my sister Dawn in 1984.
Me, Grammy and my sister Dawn in 1984.

Consider donating to support the development of a dramatic mini-series about the WASP’s. Learn more about the project here: Fly Girls

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

13 thoughts on “What Doesn’t Kill You”

  1. I laughed. I cried. My heart squeezes. You, my daughter, continue to keep my mother’s life contributing to the joy of others. Thank you, dear girl.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer! My Grammy was a special lady. I’m sorry you didn’t know your own grandparents. I credit a teacher I had who offered me advice when I was at a “quarter-life crises” crossroad. “Go live with your grandmother,” he said. One of the top ten best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. I doubt he knew it at the time, but that teacher changed the course of my life. I think that’s proof that not only our grandparents, but other teachers and mentors emerge. No doubt, you’ve known many of them in your life, too. What magic they bring!

  2. Oh my goodness, Angela! I want to hear more. What an extraordinary life your grammy lived. As I read your story, I was brought back to the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Have you read it? If not, you need to! When you write about the planes your grandmother flew falling apart – it parallels what is written in Unbroken. I remember reading that pilots had a 50/50 (or close to it) chance of surviving each flight they went on. The majority of the deaths were due to plane failure – not enemy fire. How special your grandmother was to keep climbing onto those planes! I think I would have been a mental mess. Thanks so much for sharing her story. There should be a narrative nonfiction in your future! 🙂

    1. I did read UNBROKEN, and I thought just like you did. I can’t believe my grandmother used to fly those things. I really hope the project Fly Girls: The Series actually makes it off the ground (no pun intended).
      You know, I’d like to write her whole story, but I’m afraid to get it wrong! I have her handwritten memoirs, many of which I referenced for this post. I think a fictionalized account might someday be in my future . . . you never know.
      Thanks so much for reading! 🙂

  3. What a wonderful story, and how proud your family must be to keep it alive. My heart broke a little at your lost treasures, but you’re right—your heritage is in her memory and the life she lived, not the things she left behind. Still, I’ve got a few nearly-empty pots upstairs that may get repurposed… your Grammy had an excellent idea there!

    1. My grandmother would be tickled pink to think you might use her jar-storage idea. It makes me smile to think so. But, I’m not so sure about freezing cheese. That one seems a little like cheese-abuse.
      I’m so glad you felt her feisty spirit coming through. I sure miss her. 🙂

  4. What a beautiful story and tribute to your grandmother! It brought back such good memories! I have a lovely opal ring that my gram left me – she wore it, along with a gold band, as her wedding set. I would be heartbroken if it were stolen. You seem to be a person who attempts to live fearlessly, perhaps because of your grandmother’s example.

    1. I do try! Though, just as you often say, I have plenty of fear. I don’t want to ignore that it exists, but I do want to see it for what it is: An invitation to awareness and nothing more.
      Thank you for sharing your story of your own ring. I believe I may be reunited with my grandmother’s ring someday. Maybe that’s a silly thing to believe. But, if it doesn’t happen what have I lost by having faith without expectation? I guess I’ll find out. 🙂

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