Our Dream, The Originals, Becomes a Reality
Continued from last week: “We’ll get your interviews with the remaining WAFS,” Nancy Crews told me at the end of last Friday’s blog. “We’ll have a reunion in Birmingham. How soon are you available?”
This was a woman who, over the previous 15 years, built a successful real estate venture on land she inherited from her father. Before that, she ran a glider-towing business in the California high desert. She raised three children. As a young woman, she flew the Army’s fastest World War II aircraft. This woman finished what she started, and she did it with style.
And at 79, Nancy qualified to fly copilot for her corporate pilot friend Chris in a King Air turbo jet. (See photo left.)
Nancy fixed me with her keen gray aviator’s eyes and waited.
“L-let me check my calendar,” I stammered
Getting Acquainted at the ‘Whistle Stop Cafe’
She made it happen! Four weeks later, I met “BJ” Erickson London, Teresa James, Gertrude Meserve LeValley, Florene Miller Watson, and Barbara Poole Shoemaker. Those five WAFS, Nancy and I were having lunch at The Irondale Café in Birmingham and getting acquainted.
The Irondale Café is famous. Birmingham native Fannie Flagg wrote about it in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. Fannie’s aunt Bess Fortenberry once owned the café. And talk about a coincidence, while the WAFS and I were there, Fannie called the current owner to chat. When the famous author heard who was dining there, she picked up our tab!
I was still getting used to the realization that I now had access to the Originals. I listened, transfixed, to their stories. Over time, I earned their trust. I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real. I videoed my interviews with all six. Those films, today, are part of my 23 minute-WAFS documentary “Six WAFS Up Close and Personal.”
WASP Archive and In-Person Visits Yield More Stories
Back home in Ohio with the beginning of my story in hand, I managed some necessary traveling — sandwiched between my freelance newsletter jobs. I visited the WASP Archive at Texas Woman’s University. TWU is Mecca for WASP scholars. I managed a week in Florida. More interviews with Teresa James, a key player in my coming book.
Through Nancy, I received an introduction to Nancy Love’s daughters, followed by an invitation to visit them in Virginia. I learned about their extraordinary mother — the woman who birthed the idea of the WAFS back in 1940.
I had worked on The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II a year when, June 2000, Nancy was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
My agent, Liz, was trying to sell The Originals to New York. “Great story, but we can’t sell it in today’s market,” was New York’s response. Liz was ready to start the rounds of the mid-sized presses.—We didn’t have time.
The Grim Reaper Pursues The Originals’ Angel
“I’ll pay the printing costs,” Nancy said. Liz and her husband Greg, the publishers, went to work. The specter of the Grim Reaper pursued Nancy across every page I wrote.
I made three trips to Birmingham between June and November 2000 to work with Nancy. I watched her health deteriorate, but never her spirit. Incredible strength of character and the will to see the book through were Nancy’s trump suits. Doctor Jim, her physician and personal friend; Chris, the corporate pilot who tapped Nancy to be her copilot; and I, her hand-picked storyteller, helped cheerlead.
“Now we know an airplane’s not gonna get me,” she quipped.
I returned in December for my fourth visit. I met her son, Paul, who came to be her caregiver. The three of us talked a lot. Nancy approved the finished manuscript on December 22, 2000. She gave me, and the book, her blessing.
The Book’s Fate Was Totally in My Hands
The next day, I left to drive home. Nancy and I both knew it was our last meeting. She died January 13, 2001.
I had to finish the job without her. The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II was published July 2001. The story of Nancy Love’s original WAFS was, at last, told. Nancy Crews’ wish fulfilled.
In 2008, I made good on the rest of my promise to Nancy Crews when the University of North Texas Press published Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II. The following year, 2009, the University of Alabama Press published Nancy Batson Crews: Alabama’s First Lady of Flight. I had told my mentor’s story as well.
I’ve added six more books about the women who flew in World War II. My first WASP novel, Flight from Fear (2002), was followed in 2014 by Flight to Destiny (fiction based on the original WAFS’ story). WASP of the Ferry Command and Finding Dorothy Scott: Letters of a WASP Pilot were published in 2016. In March 2018, we released my first Young Adult-focused WASP biography—BJ Erickson, WASP Pilot. Nancy Love: WASP Pilot, another YA-effort, followed in 2019. Number 10 is coming October 15.
The Originals—Where It All Begins—the Best Seller
The Originals outsells them all—the 4,000 copies Nancy ordered are gone.—And why not? It IS the beginning of the story. I released a second, updated edition on September 10, 2017— the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron.
Nancy Batson Crews dramatically changed my life. She made possible my crowning career achievements. She helped me fulfill my dream. None of what has happened to me since 1999 would have taken place had it not been for her faith and trust in me. She was, and is, my inspiration.
The last thing she asked me to do for her was to send a copy of the finished book to Fannie Flagg, to thank her for our lunch. When the books arrived July 2001, I did as Nancy asked.
In Loving Memory: Nancy Batson, Teresa James, and BJ Erickson
Fast forward to 2013. A local librarian friend called me. She had heard Fannie Flagg on the radio talking about her new book: The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. The WASP were in it, she said, and Fannie told how she had learned about the WASP from this book The Originals.
The library’s copy of Fannie’s new book was waiting for me at the circulation desk. On the back page is this inscription: Written in loving memory of Nancy Batson Crews, Teresa James, and B.J. Erickson, and all the other WASP who came to the aid of their country in a time of need. — Fannie Flagg.
From left: BJ, Gertrude, Nancy, Florene, Teresa, Barbara.
Buy The Originals
Buy Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of WWII