Memories — WAFS 1999 Reunion

 In Sarah Byrn Rickman, WAFS Pilots of WWII, WAFS Reunion 1999

 With My Friend, WAFS Nancy Batson Crews

“Lake Country Estates,” the sign read. A pickup with the Stars and Bars emblazoned on the side went by going toward town. I knew I was in Alabama. I turned onto Stuart Drive.

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.

Fannie Flagg Treats Us to Lunch

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 owners of the Irondale Café (the McMichaels family) and 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. 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 and 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.

The WAFS Meet the Birmingham Press

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 long table and 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.

The Irondale Café was on Wednesday’s schedule. During lunch, Fannie Flagg called personally to wish the WAFS well for their reunion. The café —a long-time institution in the little railroad town of Irondale just east of Birmingham on I-20 — was owned, from 1932 to 1972, by Flagg’s great aunt Bess Fortenberry. 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, 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.

Would I Like a Ride in a Stearman?

The most important acquaintance I made that afternoon was Dr. James A. Pittman. Nancy introduced us. He asked me if I had ever had a ride in a WWII trainer airplane. “No, I haven’t,” I answered. “How would you like a ride in a Stearman?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” I said.

“Have Nancy bring you out to the airport Saturday.”

Thursday morning, I had to hurry to finish my filmed interview with Poole, because she, Gertrude and B.J. [who I already had interviewed] were leaving that afternoon. Florene, Teresa and I were spending the night at Nancy’s and Nancy would take Florene to the airport at the crack of dawn Friday. Teresa and I could sleep in. She wasn’t leaving until Saturday.

Tears were shed as a museum staffer arrived to pick up the three who were flying out Thursday afternoon. They 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 fifty-seven years after it all began in Wilmington, Delaware. Nancy was beaming!

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. With that, my interviews were complete.

Film from interviews with these incredible ladies appears in my 16-minute documentary “Five WAFS Up Close and Personal. The film features Batson, Erickson, James, Meserve and Miller — all five qualified pursuit ferry pilots. 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. Please read next week’s blog for my adventure flying with Dr. Pittman in his WWII Stearman flight trainer the Saturday following the reunion.

For Nancy’s story, please read my biography of her: Nancy Batson Crews: Alabama’s First Lady of Flight (University of Alabama Press, 2008). On Amazon, from the University of Alabama Press or the author.

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