Part I: Teresa James — Chapter 3 of The ORIGINALS
“How are ya, honey,” the gravely voice greets me through the screen. “Come on in. I just got back from Mass and the coffeepot’s on.”
Shelves bulging with books bearing aviation titles line the narrow, enclosed porch. Stacks of magazines with glossy picturesof airplanes top every table. The house is abloom with flowers. Religious icons, symbols and statues of the Virgin Mary fill every remaining cranny.
Eighty-six-year-old Teresa James and I sit in the small dining room at a Formica table and stir our coffee. Photos from the 1930s and ’40s line one wall. Teresa as a nineteen-year-old, clad in jodhpurs, a zip-front leather vest over a long-sleeved blouse, and a leather flying helmet, stands beside a Travel Air OX-5 biplane flanked by a couple of adoring young male pilots. Teresa as a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, World War II, taxis a P-47 fighter aircraft away from the flight line. The face in both pictures wears the same devil-may-care look that the woman sitting across from me wears. Only now the face is lined with character and age.
The unruly black curls evident in the vintage photos have given way to unruly blonde ones — “they said blondes have more fun; I decided to find out for myself” — but the merry brown eyes miss nothing and the smile that broke men’s hearts from Long Island to Hollywood and Alaska to West Palm Beach, lights up the already warm south-Florida day.
“It Was a Man, of Course”
Teresa launches into a tale of how, at age nineteen, she learned to fly — “It was a man, of course” — and laughs.
“I was never interested in flyin’, but my brother Francis was. He and two of his friends took off one Sunday from this field outside of Pittsburgh — it wasn’t an airport, just a field surrounded by trees and wires. They were going to Detroit but only got as far as Cleveland. They ran into high winds, ran out of gas and crash-landed. My brother’s leg was broken, bad. They thought for awhile they’d have to amputate. When he got out of hospital and was home, he couldn’t drive, so he got me to drive him to the airport. I told him he was crazy, but I took him and he got me out there listening to these guys hangar flyin’.
“On Sunday, these guys’ girlfriends would pack picnic baskets and they’d all fly off somewhere and have a picnic. They tried to get me to go along, but I wasn’t havin’ anything to do with flyin’. Then, one day, this beautiful silver airplane lands and out steps this Greek god. Oh wow! I want to meet this guy bad. He says to me, “where you been hidin’?” Then he asks me to go flying with him the next weekend. I said no, and then I coulda killed myself. I was really nuts about that guy.”
His name was Bill and, two weeks later, Teresa did go flying with him.
“I sat stiff as a board, my feet tucked down by those rudders. It was a trainer airplane with an open cockpit, tandem — one seat behind the other — and I sat in front. I had a full set of controls in front of me just like he had in front of him. I was scared to death I’d move and accidentally touch one and throw the airplane into a spin and we’d both be killed. My ankles were frozen in one position, I could hardly walk when I got out of the plane when we got to the picnic spot. Oh, I had a good time while I was there, but all I could think about was when I had to climb back in the airplane again.”
“Oh, God, I Was Scared”
Soon after that, Teresa learned that Bill had gone to Chicago to take an airline job. Love got put on hold for awhile. Even though Bill was gone, Teresa continued to drive Francis to the Wilkinsburg Airport. But she refused any further offers of rides. Then Harry Fogle flew into her life.
“Harry was fresh out of Parks Air College in St. Louis. Francis kept needling me. ‘Why not learn to fly and surprise Bill when he comes back,’ he says. ‘Get Harry to teach you.’” So early one Sunday morning in July 1933, Teresa James took a deep breath, swallowed her terror, pulled a leather helmet over her protesting curls, secured the goggles, and stepped into the backseat of the Travel Air biplane for her first lesson.
Once in the air, Harry put the airplane in a shallow turn to the left. Teresa looked down, over the side of the plane, and quickly shut her eyes. “Oh, my God! I was so scared I reached forward and tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned around, I said ‘please . . .’ and motioned at the ground below. He says, through the gosport tube, ‘Put your feet on the rudders and your right hand on the stick. Feel what I’m doing.’
“All I felt was the wind on my face and that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
To read Part II, see next week’s blog.
This is Part I of Chapter 3 from my first book, The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II. Part II is coming next week.
The second, updated edition of The Originals is available from Braughler Books. See it on my website.https://sarahbyrnrickman.com
You can find The Originals on Amazon.com.
Thanks for reading, Sarah Byrn Rickman`