When I travel on a cross-county I spend a lot of evenings in bookstores, used bookstores when I can find them. It’s a bit of a ritual. I try to find St Exupery’s section, see if they have anything beyond Wind, Sand, and Stars and buy a copy of The Little Prince. I store them in my baggage and give them out as gifts to people I meet, people I care for in my plane. I know it’s strange to give a children’s book to an adult, even more so to give it to a relative stranger, especially when I know they don’t understand it. I don’t expect them to. I realize people rarely read the books I give them, but I hope my gift will somehow infuse the words into them, even subconsciously. I was packing my plane for the FiFi tour last week and thought I saw a copy of The Little Prince in the far back corner of my baggage, but just couldn’t reach it. I gave up and started throwing everything out of my baggage compartment on my hangar floor. Headsets, folders, towels, notebooks all went flying, until I finally grabbed the book. As it hit the ground a handwritten note on Terrace Hotel stationary fell out of the cover. I just stared at the note without picking it up. I knew exactly what it said and who it was from. It was a letter from Florence Mascott, WWII WASP 44-10, to my mother who was dying of cancer written in March of 2010. She had written it after a beautiful dinner in the Terrace dining room with a group of Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, where we were all soaked in martini’s and flying stories, sharing smiles and hugs after our day together. Florence wanted to wish my mother a Happy Birthday and thank her for having me, so she asked the waitress for a piece of paper and wrote her a letter at the table. I never got the chance to give it to her. I went to my mother’s funeral a few weeks later. One of the great messages in The Little Prince is the importance of ‘taking care.’
I am always responsible for everyone I fly. I am their protector in all ways and even if I have to struggle, I try to find some thread to connect me to them, to care about them. It is my duty to bring them back safely and most flights that is where our relationship ends. But some days I have the greatest feeling of joy knowing I will care for someone truly special, someone who will always be with me, imprinted on my data plate. I stood in my hangar and replayed that day in March four years ago, as if it was yesterday. That afternoon I loaded Florence into my Stearman and watched her climb up the wing, barefoot and ponytailed. It was as if I was watching an eighteen year old student pilot climbing into her Stearman at Sweetwater, Texas for her first training flight. She beamed, shy but fearless and just happy for the chance to fly.
After all the photos were taken of the WASP’s together around my plane we taxied off the ramp into the grass and put our arms up, straight up to the sky, and cheered to us. Two gals flying together about to go on a great adventure. “Yahoo!” Florence yelled. At lunch she had told me she was worried she would be sick or worse, scared. I took her hands in mine and I promised I would take the very best care of her. I told her I had just flown my eighty year old mother all across Florida and she loved every minute of it, so with her “Yahoo,” I knew Florence had chosen to believe me. Trust is usually more hard-won.
We took off to the south and flew over the orange groves at 800 feet, low so Florence could smell the orange blossoms and I turned us to the north and told her I was going to take her to a secret place, my favorite place. I told her to look down and she would see elephants magically appear for her. The Ringling elephant preserve is hidden north of Fantasy of Flight and there were at least twenty to be seen that afternoon. Florence clapped her hands and giggled as we circled the elephant ranch five times. With each turn she pleaded, “Just one more time, please, just one more.” I started to sing to her the song my mother sang to me, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” I watched as her smile grew wider across her face, and her hands slowly emerged over the edge of the cowling as her shoulders relaxed. Then Florence held perfectly still and I knew it was time for me to stop singing. I looked in the mirror at her face, a face I held so dear, I thought of how Florence’s trust had been granted to me so easily. Wondering why it couldn’t be that easy for everyone to believe I would take care of them in my planes always. We flew silently across the lakes on our return to the airport as I watched tears run out from behind her glasses. I don’t believe she was sad, she simply had remembered why flying had been so important to her sixty-five years ago. It was as if Florence had run into an old beau. A Stearman who had imprinted on her data plate, decades before, and she had forgotten how much she missed his company. At that moment, I was just happy to be ‘taking care.’