When I was eight years old my mother was helping build B-29 bombers for the war effort.
In 1944 my Dad joined the Navy and soon was onboard the USS Attu in the South Pacific. World War Two raged on and men with children were being drafted. Rather than going into the Army with the draft, he volunteered for the Navy. My mother, my brother, and I left Arkansas and journeyed to Wichita, Kansas where she went to work at Boeing and became one of the many women christened as Rosie the Riveter. We moved into special housing for Boeing workers, which were mostly women, though men who did not qualify for the draft were sprinkled among them.
Jump forward to 1991 and I’m working at the Washington County Observer as a feature writer.
At the weekly rural newspaper that meant if sirens howled I followed, if calls came for any disturbance I was sent, the publisher and I shared coverage of area school board and city council meetings. In other words I covered most of the breaking news. plus every week I wrote a historical column and a feature story, which often morphed into each other. As we grew another reporter was hired, but that’s for another tale.
I was sitting at the keyboard, my mind in the late1800s where even the sound of a large metal beast blasting through the sky would’ve caused mass panic, when the publisher came out of his office and announced he needed someone to go to Drake Field, climb into the belly of a bomber and take a flight over Fayetteville for a story.
I zoomed back to the present, held up my hand as if I were in school and volunteered. I thought for sure one of the men wandering around doing various jobs would get to go. But to my surprise none of them even offered.So there I am in a line of all male reporters on the tarmac at Drake Field. Above me looms a huge plane with FiFi painted on her nose. Hanging from her belly is a rope ladder swinging in the breeze. Now I’m not one to enjoy climbing anything that goes up, but I gritted my teeth, grabbed hold, and shakily placed one foot on the bottom rung. The rope swung away, me with it. But I would not admit defeat. Hanging on tight I squeezed through the hole, my camera tucked under one arm.
Once inside the past hit me like a winter wind. Chances were my mother put some of this sleek airplane together almost fifty years earlier. The women in their blue denims with a red bandana around their heads scurried through my imagination. Their laughter and the sound of rivet guns blended with the B-29’s engines, idling up as we settled where indicated. I could almost see each of them moving about, chatting when possible, my mother among them. Young and vibrant and beautiful, her red hair caught up in the folds of that bandana.
And then there I was almost fifty years later fixing to take a ride in the same plane. She is the only B-29 bomber still in the air. She travels all around the country flying reporters so stories can be written about her. Those of you familiar with airplanes and flying know what a touch-and-go is. There I was, sitting near a small port hole while this enormous plane stuck its nose up in the air, roared like thousands of lions and was airborne. I, the only woman aboard, was also the only person who shouted with great joy. That’s me, always showing my feelings with gusto.
We flew swooping circles around town, returning several times to drop between the mountains, touch the runway with a squeal of tires and nose back up in the air to do it again. This immense bird that had delivered loads of death during a world war after America was attacked now offered nothing but enjoyment to a handful of reporters in a small town in the Ozarks. The experience became one of the many I delighted in during my nine years with the Observer.