My Mother Had Wings

I read a blog entry the other day written by a young woman who said she didn't believe in heroes. That the only person you should have to look up to is yourself. Hogwash, I say. (And awfully narcissistic, to boot.)

Meet my hero - my mom:

Out at the Castor homestead.
Haines, Oregon, September 1921.

Cute little kidlet, huh? My maternal grandmother, a very talented artist, vain fashionista, and disturbed personality, spent all the money for her hospital stay for the birth on new, post-pregnancy clothing. My grandfather, obsessively trying to grow watermelons in the Nevada desert at his research station, had handed off cash to her and sent her north to Oregon, to have the baby in a hospital near her family. Instead, penniless upon arrival, she ended up having the baby in her parents' home in Haines, Oregon. Geraldine Norma Hardman, born September 3, 1921. Who would guess this little girl would grow up to be a fearless woman?

And yet, she did. She would become a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and be one of the first women to be trained to fly American military aircraft.

Her brother was a pilot, her uncle was a pilot, and she worshipped Charles Lindbergh as she read stories of flight late at night by flashlight. She was a licensed pilot by 16. And when the call to duty came for women pilots in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, she was there. She was the youngest woman ever signed on to the WASP program. She was also the only of her siblings in military service to survive the war - her brother George was lost in the Pacific in his Douglas SBD Dauntless when his flight group was swept away in bad weather, never to be heard from again. Her stepbrother Jack was a paratrooper and died in the D-Day invasion. Jack's last name was Quaid, and his handsome face and toothy grin in yellowed photos from 1943 England looks alarmingly like Dennis Quaid.

Nice oversized flight leathers, huh?

The War Department simply did not have the right gear for women, so they ended up in a lot of roomy garb. The jumpsuits the WASP were given were so big they had to be tightly cinched at the waist and were given the nickname Zootsuits. This is probably a winter photo. As the WASP had to ferry aircraft out of season for their theater of action, the women were often stuck with open cockpits in winter and closed cockpits in summer - freeze or fry.

Keep in mind, these planes were either fresh from the factory or war weary, which means they were often dangerous. 38 WASP died during WWII, including two of my mom's very close friends, Mary Hartson (for whom one of my sisters was named) and Paula Loop. The government had the gall to try to blame Paula's tragic accident on her period. Yep. That's right. How sad and pathetic is that?

My mom accompanied Paula's body home - she also was a witness at the inquest. Because the women were not accorded actual military status, there was to be no color guard or any other honors when Paula's body reached her small Oklahoma hometown. However, when the train pulled into the station, the whole town had turned out to welcome their sister home, including all of Paula's male relatives in their WWI uniforms and medals. My mom snuck out to call her commanding officer to ask what to do, considering the "NO HONORS" restriction. Mom's commander said, "You let those folks do whatever they want to do for Paula." Amen to that.

Mom (second from right), the girls, and one of the studly male flight instructors.
Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas, 1943.

The town of Sweetwater, Texas, home to Avenger Field, the training base for our women pilots, basically adopted the WASP women. They still cherish the memory of their flying daughters. I went to Sweetwater with my mom a few years back - the last WASP reunion before her death. It's a middle of nowhere town where tumbleweeds bounce along the main strip at night and the cheerleaders still have bake sales at the local K-Mart on Saturday mornings. (Of course, the day we arrived a freak weather front moved in, dropping the temperature from the high 90's to the 30's. Fortunately, I won $400 on a "Jackalope Bucks" scratch-off ticket and was able to buy gloves, hats, and scarves at K-Mart for mom and all the siblings who came with us.)

Jerry Hardman's official WASP graduation photo.
Class 43-W-5
She hated this picture and she hated being called Geraldine -she was Jerry all her life.

After graduation from Avenger Field, Mom traveled all over the U.S. and Canada, ferrying everything from trainers to bombers. She loved the bombers, and, when my sister (Nurse Rachet) and I met a B-25 pilot at a Confederate Air Force show in Texas, he said he'd be glad to give Mom a ride. But, sadly, Mom's health declined too rapidly for us to arrange it. The same pilot said he'd be glad to take Mom's ashes up and scatter them after she died, but 9-11 made the scattering of substances from planes a less than appropriate activity in these United States.

Bowling Green, Kentucky, November 1943.
I love this picture. Up on the wing, writing in her flight log.

I think she sent this picture to her father and stepmother out in Nevada. Hard to believe that, by this time the following year, she would be married and expecting her first child. Mom had to give up flying when she was pregnant with my oldest sister because it affected her depth perception; she was landing planes still in the air. Rather than destroy a piece of aircraft vital for the war effort, Mom hung up her goggles. She raised 9 kids - 20 years of giving birth. I have no idea how she did it. I'm the last of the group. My oldest sister turned 60 just last month. I hit 40 in November.

I still miss Mom like I was a frightened 10-year-old sometimes. Other times, I just wish she was here for me to call when I see something wild on tv or get outraged about something ridiculous. She always called me on Sunday nights. What I would give for one of those calls right now. I'd like to hear her say that everything will be okay. That I'll find a new job. That I can just come home if I need to.

It's this way, honey. Just keep moving forward.

Eventually, I'll get my rump in gear and transfer all my stories and thoughts about Mom into a logical and readable format. Some stories need to be told before everyone who remembers is gone. I'm afraid of what happens when the last witnesses to WWII pass away. It's up to us to remember and document.

To readers on BlogHer: I wrote this entry for my blog back in 2005, four years after my mother's death. This was early in my life as a blogger, so I had not yet developed my own distinctive voice. However, this post did catch the eye of a number of people, including then-newbie blogger Rosie O'Donnell, who thought this story should be a movie. (It would be great if Hollywood would agree!) My mother's birthday is coming up over Labor Day Weekend, and I thought it would be a wonderful way to celebrate her birthday and her legacy by sharing her story with you.

With every good wish,


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