MEMORIES — THE WAFS REUNION, 1999

 In Sarah Byrn Rickman

Hosted By My Friend and Mentor, Nancy Batson Crews

… A Women’s History Month Special! …

The house, as Nancy had described it, sat at a ninety-degree turn in the road. As I rounded the corner and pulled into the drive, two women sitting on the front porch rose from their wicker chairs, waving. One of them was Nancy. The other, I knew the minute I laid eyes on her, was Teresa James.That was how The WAFS Reunion, June 1999, began.

Florene, Teresa and Nancy

 A Gathering of WAFS Eagles

Nancy enlisted the help of a lot of people to bring off this gathering of Eagles. She convinced Birmingham’s newest Marriott to give her complimentary rooms for the visiting WAFS. The Southern Museum of Flight hosted the press conference to introduce the WAFS to Birmingham.

Monday evening, after two trips to the airport to meet arriving flights, we congregated in the hotel lounge. The six WAFS— Nancy Batson Crews, BJ Erickson London, Teresa James Martin, Gertrude Meserve Tubbs LeValley, Barbara Poole Shoemaker and Florene Miller Watson — totally captivated the serving staff. The young men and women—new employees because the hotel was newly opened—fought for the opportunity to bring them drinks and food and then hung around for conversation.

With the other five situated at the Marriott, Nancy and I called it a night and drove back to her place. Nancy was beaming.

Next morning, we gathered at the Southern Museum of Flight for a tour, then got ready for the afternoon press conference. The WAFS sat behind a long table. The museum director introduced them. All six told their flying-in-WWII-stories for the press and guests and they answered questions. Nancy was beaming.

Fannie Flagg Treats the WAFS to Lunch

The Irondale Café was on Wednesday’s schedule. Fannie Flagg — Alabama author/humorist who immortalized the café in her book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café — treated the WAFS to Southern fried chicken and those legendary fried green tomatoes. During lunch, Fannie called personally from California to wish the WAFS well for their reunion. Her great aunt Bess Fortenberry owned the café from 1932 to 1972. When Flagg wrote her famous novel, her aunt and the cafe became famous.

Nancy’s friends, family and the aviation community turned out in force for the reception back at the museum where they met and talked with these ladies in person. Nancy (third from left), the hostess with the mostess, was elegant in a long straight white skirt open to the knee and matching top decorated with sparkly things. Nancy was not a woman who paid a lot of attention to clothes, but when she wanted to look good, she carried it off with aplomb.

Nancy Was Beaming, She’d Been Doing a Lot of That!

Thursday morning, I hurried to finish my filmed interview with Poole because she, Gertrude and B.J. were leaving that afternoon. Florene, Teresa and I were spending the night at Nancy’s.

Tears were shed as a museum staffer arrived to pick up the three who were flying out. All three hugged me like I belonged with them and said they hoped we could all do this again. It had been wonderful. They all thanked Nancy repeatedly. She was the reason they had all come together again 57 years after it all began in Wilmington, Delaware. Nancy was beaming! She’d been doing that a lot!

When we got back to Nancy’s that evening — after dinner at Cracker Barrel — I prevailed on Florene to let me interview her. She was the only one I had not had time to film. She agreed.

Midnight Interview With Florene

Nancy and Teresa went to bed and Florene and I sat up until midnight. The audio portion of the videotape is alive with the sounds of an Alabama country summer night. The windows were open to let the night cool in. To a chorus of cicadas, other insects and croaking frogs, Florene talked about her WAFS years.

Film from interviews with these 6 incredible ladies appears in my 23-minute documentary “Six WAFS Up Close and Personal.” For more information on the film, please contact me — Sarah Rickman — at sarahbyrnrickman@gmail.com

My first WASP (WAFS) book was the result of this reunion. The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of WWII was published two years later.

For Nancy’s story, please read my biography of her: Nancy Batson Crews: Alabama’s First Lady of Flight (University of Alabama Press, 2008). Available on Amazon.

Note: Twenty-two when she joined the WAFS, Nancy Batson earned the nickname the Golden Girl of the Ferry Command.3 Her prowess at the controls of an airplane, her absolute dedication to the job, her winning personality, and her engaging Southern accent all contributed to her acceptance by both the men and the women of the Ferrying Division.

Sarah’s Books Are  Available On Amazon. Click here to check them out.

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