I grew up In Sweetwater, Texas, during World War II, and on July 1 of this year I made a
sentimental journey home to attend my high school reunion. Shortly after my return
to Dallas, two articles concerning the WASPs appeared in the Dallas TimesHerald. From these articles I obtained your address.
Prompted by the reunion and the articles, I searched through my writer's journal (I
have taught English at Eastfield College, one of the Dallas County Community Colleges, for
nearly twenty years) and found an undated entry which I had written perhaps twelve or
fifteen years ago. I have always liked the piece and I hope you will too.
Now that I am also gray-haired and grandmotherly, I realize that you WASPs were early
role-models for me. In those pre-LIB days you were my first examples of
extra-ordinarily accomplished women. I admired you then; I admire you
still. If you wish to use my writing in any way, feel free to do so. If you do
not, that's all right too. I just thought you might like to know how at least one
little girl (and probably many little girls) living in Sweetwater a long time ago
felt about you.
Helan (Kelly) Drake
Sweetwater, Texas, in case you don't know, is a small town off
Interstate 20 about 200 miles west of Fort Worth. That's where I grew up. When
I think about Sweetwater, I think of mesquite trees, red ants and rattlesnakes. I
remember winters when blue northers lashed down upon us out of innocent-looking skies,
dropping temperatures thirty degrees in an hour. I remember springs when dust storms
sucked up freshly-plowed topsoil from the Texas high plains and spewed it eastward,
turning daylight into red dusk. I remember summers when the always-sparse rains
stopped altogether, when everything green turned yellow and foot-frying heat rose visibly
from sidewalks and streets. I remember autumns which would have been summers
anywhere else, when days were still hot and dry but nights became milder and almost
The summers in Sweetwater are which I remember most vividly. I went swimming often,
at least three or four times a week, primarily, I suppose, because there were so few other
things to do in Sweetwater. I always walked to and from the city pool, probably a
total of five miles both ways, often in temperatures of a hundred degrees or more.
I'd swim for hours from shortly after lunch until five or six in the afternoon.
I never lolled around the side of the pool, sunbathing. I swam, dived, dunked
for pebbles, and played water tag with my friends. From the time I took the free Red
Cross swimming course when I was ten until I went away to college after high school
graduation, swimming was my favorite summertime activity.
Among the most memorable times for me were the summers during World War II when the local
air base, Avenger Field, was, for a time, the training camp for the Women's Air Force
Service Pilots, the WASPs. The WASPs were a small, select, voluntary group.
WASPs weren't taught to fly; women had to be licensed pilots, young, and in
excellent physical condition before they could join. In the early 1940's their
numbers were few. These women were different, they were special, they were my idea
of "high class" women.
These "high class" women held a powerful fascination for me. When, during
the summer, they came to the swimming pool (just about the only place for them to go too,
apparently), I observed them keenly. They stayed among themselves; they didn't mix
with the locals, who, like me, stared at them with mixed curiosity and awe. They
were tan; lithe; bold in appearance, speech, and behavior. They were aloof,
self-contained, self-assured, and self-sufficient; at least so it seemed to me then.
Their hair and their make-up had an elegance, a just-rightness, which no local
beauty shop could produce. Their clothes were unlike anything found in J. C. Penney,
Sears Roebuck, or even the elite Levy's Department Store. They wore jewelry, even
while swimming, the likes of which had never been seen in Sweetwater. They spoke
boldly and in hard, Northern-sounding accents. They used words we didn't use in
Sweetwater - some long and fancy words, some short and pungent words. They even
cursed openly, something which no "proper lady" in Sweetwater would ever do.
In the women's dressing room at the pool, they stripped and walked around naked,
unashamed of their nakedness. We had never seen anyone do that. Every
Sweetwater female changed in and out of her bathing suit barricaded behind the
firmly-locked door of a dressing booth. They never used the booths.
When winter came and the pool shut down, I didn't see them much. The only things
left for anyone to do in Sweetwater were going shopping in town or going to the movie.
The WASPs didn't seem to shop, at least not in Sweetwater; and when they took in
movie, they went at night. Since I did my shopping at Woolworth and my movie-going
in the afternoon after school, our paths seldom crossed.
But I read about them in the newspaper. I read about their deaths. When anyone
from Avenger Field was killed in a plane crash, the story appeared on the front page of
the Sweetwater Reporter. And many of these women were killed.
Perhaps my memory is mistaken (perhaps it was because I was so enamored of them that
I thought so many died), but in my memory one or two of them died every month or so.
Why they died, I don't know. Insufficient skill in flying? Poor
maintenance of airplanes? Carelessness? Unfamiliar weather conditions?
Who knows? But it seems to me that every few weeks one of them died. I
would read the newspaper accounts over and over again, feeling stricken by the loss.
They seemed so perfect; they seemed to have everything. Somehow, I suppose, I
thought that they should be invincible, immune to the vicissitudes of ordinary people like
Eventually the war ended; eventually I graduated, went away to college, married, and moved
to Dallas. Then several years ago, after I had lived there for more than twenty
years, the World War II WASPs had a reunion in Dallas. Again I avidly read and
re-read newspaper accounts concerning them. Almost all had gone on to active,
exciting, and fulfilling lives after the war. Many were still flying,.
Accompanying the article were pictures of gray-haired grandmotherly-looking women.
I searched each pictured countenance for traces of the goddess like creatures I
remembered from my youth. What I saw were bright-eyed, smiling "senior
citizens". These women would no longer turn heads, even in Sweetwater, Texas.
But to me they will always be special. They will always be golden eagles who
soar through my memories of other times and other places.