Because my mother is no longer alive to ask, I try to imagine the emotions that would have been swirling through her mind as she entered Penn Station on an unknown day in early January of 1944—fear, excitement—surely she must have experienced both.
It was cold then, temperatures hovered around 27 degrees—and although I don’t know for sure—I imagine her alone as she stepped up to the ticket window and swapped her hard earned cash for a one-way ticket south.
She had had months to imagine her future because in the fall of ‘43 she had received word that her application to join, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, had been accepted; an application that required 3 letters of recommendation, permission from her parents, good health and some form of flight instruction under her belt.
If she kept a diary of her train travel it is long gone, but of three things I am certain; she was less than a month into her 19th year, and she had two loves: a Navy pilot named Lon and flying airplanes.
Days later when she arrived at Avenger field, home of the WASP training ground in Sweetwater, Texas, a letter from Lon waited to greet her, it began:
First of all Happy New Year. Secondly, for somestrange reason I suddenly miss you very much. Maybe it’s because my buddy keeps singing “My Shinning Hour.” I’ll never forget good old Woody Herman playing that and then that mad dash for Grand Central. Well I’ve got a bunch of good memories to take with me if nothing else. It seems that they aren’t going to waste any time with us; I’m going to shoot a few landings aboard one of the carriers here and then I’m shoving off for either Pearl Harbor or New Caledonia. I’ll probably be here for about a week, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to get over to Sweetwater to see you. I was really looking forward to flying over there and showing you my plane but I guess we’ll have to take a rain check on it.
On the way over I met a pilot who knew all about Sweetwater. He told me he could have got a job instructing there, but the instructors have quite a good time there, and that the girls are very nice to their instructors and check pilots so they don’t have any trouble with their check rides. Don’t let any of those nice guys pull anything over on you just because they are instructors and officers. You’re there to learn to fly and it isn’t a country club. You can go without a few dances for a couple of months and stay in and study instead. I did and it didn’t do me any harm. If you can show your instructor that you really want to fly, without being an apple-polisher about it, he’ll go out of his way to help you along; however tell him he doesn’t have to go so far out of his way that you’ll need night work, after hours in the local nite-spot. Tell them that you’re engaged or something and after a while the wolves will stop bothering you, and if they don’t, send me their address and I’ll write them a letter that will fix their wagon. If that doesn’t stop them I’ll come back and personally beat them into the middle of next week; after that I’ll court-martial them (which I’ll be able to do when I get back).
When the going gets tough, and it will, just take out my wings and look at them and say “If that dope can do it, I can.” Just don’t let it get you down, El, that’s the object of the course, to sort the softies out and to make flyers out of the ones that have something on the ball.
All you need is one little thing, whether you’re a boy or a girl makes no difference, you have to have it to play football, baseball, and the rest, and more than ever is flying—and that is guts. My father brought me up on that and I found that it works pretty swell. If you have guts you can do anything you want to so keep plugging every minute, there will be plenty of time for fun when you get your wings.
Love and X’s, Lon
She penned her response January 10, 1944.
Hello. We’re here at last and so far everything has been too good to be true. The kids are wonderful; the food is wonderful, and the field is a dream. You know I don’t think I have ever seen all of the sky before, and there can’t be a moon anywhere else in the world like in Texas—and the sun—the sun is so red you could paint all of New York with it.
We live in barracks, and they really are barracks. We have to make our beds according to measurement, and all our things go into one little locker. Every Saturday morning we have S.M.I. (Saturday morning inspection) and I guess you know what that is. By the time we are finished we will all be wonderful housekeepers.
I wonder so often what you are doing. Did you ever get over your cold—and Lon, didn’t you know it was Charlie Spivak, not “good old Woody Herman” playing “My Shinning Hour” that night we raced for Grand Central. We have Glen Gray’s recoding of it on the jukebox in our “Rec.” hall.
Oh, Lonnie, the sky’s so blue I can hardly wait to get up in it! It was freezing last night and this morning, but this afternoon I can smell spring and spring is wonderful, isn’t it…
Lonnie—I’m going to write to you even though the letters may take a long time to get to you because they will eventually. I’ll be waiting each mail to hear from you. Incidentally, now I’m a “Fifinella” and I’ll be flying with you even though you may not know it. If you say hello and don’t throw me out of the cockpit, I might even do your shooting for you.
All my love, “Irish”
And from there their story unfolded—or as fate would have it, a mere chapter in my mother’s long life.
My siblings and I are fortunate our mother took the time to transcribe the many letters that knit her younger self to a forever-youthful Lon.
He was easy to fall in love with; smart, dashing, funny and hopelessly romantic, in every letter he poured out his affection for our mom.
From another letter dated, July 13, 1944, Lon spoke about the prospect of the WASP’s being decommissioned:
…After spending so much on you it would be a poor investment to let you go; besides that, they would be losing one of the best pilots in the WASPS, I’m sure of it honey. It would probably be better for me if I had a wife who would keep both feet on the ground, but come what may I’d take you if you were a lady wrestler.
Say, do you gals ferry ships out of the States the way they did in the picture?(“picture” is a reference to “Ladies Courageous,” a film my mother abhorred.) Maybe you’ll have received your wings by now or by the time you receive this letter. If so, Congratulations darling, I’m so proud of you, but I knew all along that you’d do it. Besides, look at all the praying I did, and the stars, they were wonderful to me. I’ll always believe in wishing on a star and all because of you honey. Don’t forget to send me your new address as soon as you find it out. Are you through with training when you get your wings, or do you have some more? I imagine all you have to do is sit in the cockpit of the new planes for a while and then take off. Remember to keep your guard up and I won’t have to worry a bit. ‘Nite sweetheart, I love you so much—write soon and keep me informed of your last lap. Good luck.
All my love, Lon
And in spite of the raw fact that I would not exist had he lived, I couldn’t help but feel the void he left in the world, and my mother’s heart, when the news broke that he had been gunned down.
In a box that contains pieces of her WASP memorabilia, along with the many letters he wrote to her from the South Pacific, is a newspaper clipping, despite its brittle state it is easily read:
Ensign Lonnie Ring, U.S. Naval Airforce, 20 years old, and a graduate of the Pelham High School was killed by the Japanese while parachuting to earth from a plane that had been shot in the Pacific area.
He was killed in the battle of Leyte Gulf, his parent’s received word on Thanksgiving Day.
In 2007, 53 years after their last letters were written, my mother granted an interview to the, Virginia War Memorial, about her experience as a WWII WASP; just yesterday I unearthed the VHS tape of the unedited interview and watched it.
Seeing her sitting before the camera it was almost as if she were in the room with me and I found myself wanting to direct the commentator and implore him to ask different questions, to dig deeper into the reservoir of memory while he had the chance. Later, I found myself swallowing anger toward him when he asked her about her fiancés death.
“What happened when you found out? How did you cope with that?” he asked of her.
“What—that he was killed?” she responded staring wide eyed at him.
He must have nodded yes for an uncomfortable silence ensued. And I watched my mother, in all her grace, wrestle with buried emotion. Her eyes landed on her lap, a telltale sign that she was fighting tears, then once she was composed she looked back at him.
“I think the way anyone would. It was devastating.”
Memorial Day is upon us, although the origin of this day of remembrance is not completely clear, I think we can all agree that the intention behind its having become a national holiday was to provide people a time to honor those individuals who served our country and sacrificed their life doing so.
This year I find myself paying homage to Ensign Lonnie Ring, of the U.S. Navy, a man whose love for my mother wrapped itself around her in a way that saw her through one of the most rigorous experiences of her life. But beyond that his ability to love her so openly helped shape her expectation of what it meant to be loved, a gift I dare say that lasted her lifetime.
Read more from Elin Stebbins Waldal on her blog, Beyond the Backyard Blues