A Poem by Sarah Byrn Rickman
Fog shrouds the wings; dawn, but a shard of light.
Twin engines labor, eager to unbridle the horses.
Toes, hard on brakes, check the trembling aircraft.
From the tower, “Cleared for takeoff.”
Brakes off. Throttle to the firewall.
Spine thrust back against the seat.
Rolling, rumbling, reaching,
Wheels eat up runway. Lift.
Ease yoke back. Climb!
Eyes on instruments. Don’t look out!
The Pacific, invisible, lies below.
Altimeter reads seven…eight…nine hundred feet…
A shock of blue—a cloudless sky.
Execute a 180, bearing due east.
Sunrays strike silver wings, turning them gold.
Oh to pull over, stop in mid air, drink it all in!
Below, murky black stuff;
Ahead, two snow-covered peaks,
Sunlight rising through the pass between them.
Above it all, a sleek P-38 flies on wings of gold.
© 2016 Sarah Byrn Rickman
This poem is inspired by, and dedicated to, Betty Huyler Gillies (1908-1998), second in command, Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, 1942-1944. In an oral history recorded in 1996, Betty described her first flight in a P-38 twin-engine pursuit aircraft that she ferried from Long Beach, California to Newark, New Jersey.
his is my winning entry in the National League of American Pen Women’s first Vinnie Ream Biennial Competition in Letters [the written word] 2015. The requirement, I was to write my personal artist’s statement, in 250 or fewer words, on the topic “The Divine call to art …”
I received my award at the 2016 NLAPW Biennial Meeting April 28, 2016.
The Divine call to art …
To the writer it is about story and voice.
A young woman earns her wings and flies — this is what she loves. Her country is at war. She joins the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) and flies military aircraft for her country. She dies in a fiery crash. She is 23.
By the time the war is over, few will remember her. Lives go on. Years pass. Memories fade. Her story is lost.
Her twin brother, always devoted but who must go on without her, lives his life — a wife, two sons, grandchildren. His wish — to have her story told. He has saved her letters home, written to family during her year of patriotic service. As he approaches his final days, he donates her letters to the WASP Archives.
A writer has contacted the Archives about this WASP. They have so little information. But the director remembers the writer and emails her. “Are you still interested?”
The letters lie in archival folders, most still in their envelopes. Experiencing the letters is like taking literary communion. They beckon: “take, read.” Paper so very fragile, but intact. The first page bears the wing insignia of the Air Transport Command. The date: Thanksgiving, 1942.
“Dear Mom, To attempt to set down in writing all the events of the past two weeks seems a Herculean task, but here goes.”
A voice, silent for 65 years, speaks across the years to the writer, who listens.
© Sarah Byrn Rickman, Author