By Nancy Parrish, Executive Director, Wings Across
In the beginning was DAD:
|My father passed away in 1993. He
was the pilot in our family. He was the hero, the one we all were proud
of. An Air Force officer for 25 years, he was a LT. Colonel with a gentle
spirit and hazel eyes that sparkled when helaughed.
I can still remember being with dad on an air base at sunset, having to stop
the car and get out as the flag came down. He’d salute, I’d put my hand
over my heart, then he’d wipe his eyes. Then I’d wipe my eyes. My father’s
daughter, I was very proud to be an Air force brat—I still am. I was very
proud of my father—I still am.
||He passed away in 1993 never
telling me his story. Never telling me about how he was shot down over
Yugoslavia … how it took him months to walk out…about the Partisans who
helped him and about how cold it was there in February. He never talked
about how he left the Georgia farm, volunteered, joined up as a private and
retired an officer and a gentleman. And believe me, dad was a true
gentleman. Over the years, I only heard little bits and pieces of his
story, but only when I would ask. Most of the time, I was too busy to ask.
I thought we had time. I thought that, as he was
recovering from surgery, we’d put the computer my sister gave him to good
use, and I’d help Dad write the great American history of his life.
And then, suddenly, it was too late, and that’s a shame. It’s a shame
on me, because I could have … should have… would have.
God closed that door, but when He did, He opened
another huge chapter for me, because when dad died, that’s when I truly
started discovering mom!
And then there was Mom
Although I’ve never seen her fly, Mom was ‘the other
pilot’ in our family. She gave up flying when she married dad, the career
Air Force pilot. She gave up flying because she wanted to raise a family
and so that she could always ‘be there,’ for both my sister and me. For all
of our childhoods, every button and every stitch on every Easter outfit,
Sunday dress or costume was designed, fitted and made from scratch by mom,
including the flannel Christmas gowns and the matching purple organdy
outfits with the ridiculous hats (of course, those made the front page of
the local style section). She kept us both on the best-dressed list most
of our childhood, and is always willing to do it now for her grandchildren,
when one of them needs a one-of-a-kind costume from scratch.
When asked, she would always say, yes, she served in
World War II, but dad was the hero, his service was the most important…after
all, he was the one who put his life on the line for his country. But now
dad was gone, and more and more, my questions began to be about her. This
time, I didn’t want to wait until it was too late.
My mother is a WASP. I’d say ‘was,’ but I don’t think any woman who ever
was one considers it a past tense kind of thing. Once a WASP, always a
WASP. I had grown up knowing my mom was a WASP, but I guess I took what she did during
World War II for granted. I didn’t really realize how unique and special
her story was until I started asking questions!
As a producer for PBS, it made perfect sense for me to
do a documentary about mom and about the WASP.
So, I began researching. I
found a few autobiographies and a few minor references at the library, but
nothing in the official histories of World War II and nothing in the
official jr. high and high school history textbooks. So I began asking
everyone I’d bump into, “Do you know what WASP means?” In line for my
driver’s license renewal, the grocery store, the library, the movie, I’d ask
and I’d get those typical ‘white Anglo Saxon Protestant’ stares. NO ONE knew
what it really meant, not even an associate Dean with a double Masters’
Degree in History and Women’s Studies. Not even the Presidents of two major
A few words about the WASP
Just in case you don’t know, WASP is an acronym for
Women Airforce Service Pilot. According to the one line describing them in
the Encyclopedia :
“WASP: a group of women pilots formed by
Jacqueline Cochran during World War II.”
But the WASP were so much more than that! The very
least it should say is that the WASP were the first women in history to
fly American military aircraft.
How extraordinary was it back in the 1940’s, for a
young girl not only to want to learn how to fly, but to really do it? How
extraordinary was it for a young girl to pay her own way to go serve her
country, to put her life on the line and to do it without expecting anything
in return. The WASP did…and they did it with honor, with patriotism, with
sacrifice and with commitment. Why? Because they wanted to ‘do their part’
to help win a war…and because they all loved to fly.
What were you doing when you were 21? These
incredible young pilots were flying bombers and fighters, towing targets,
ferrying planes, equipment and personnel, flight testing redlined aircraft,
instructing male cadets, flying radar tracking and night straffing missions,
doing their best to help win a war. These women are role models! They are
pioneers. They mowed down the tall grass so that women pilots today can see
the mountains. They are heroes. Yet most of America doesn’t have a clue
that they ever existed! The best the Encyclopedia can do is not enough,
not by a long shot!
WINGS ACROSS AMERICA
I know I can’t rewrite history and I know that one
documentary, even two or three, is not going to change the fact that lesson
plans on WASP are not part of the ‘History of World War II’ curriculum.
They should be. Their history is a missing part of the history of World War
II, the history of American military aviation and the history of women. The
history of this inspirational group of women should be instantly available
to any teacher and any student in any classroom anywhere in the world. And
so Wings Across America was born!
What began as questions to discover more about mom
turned into my mission: to make sure that the history of the WASP is not
forgotten and to make sure that generations from now, kids are inspired by
the courage and sacrifice of this incredible group of women. Dad’s
computer, the one we were going to write his story on, became a tool that
allowed me to explore the exciting possibilities of creating a virtual
museum and digital library. Beginning 3 years ago with just one web page of
mom’s story, this project now includes almost 100 megabytes of digital
information on the WASP. That’s just the beginning.
With the help of a network of PBS stations, Baylor University and Steven
Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, Wings Across
America will give every single surviving WASP the opportunity to tell her
own story on broadcast quality video tape and on her own web page.
Wings Across America is way beyond a
documentary. Once we have the digital stories of the WASP, EVERYTHING is
possible! Can you imagine anything better than having one of these
incredible women actually speak to a class of 5th graders…telling
them that they can do anything, and do it fifty years from now!
For most of my life, mom was the engine who drove our
family. It was her spark, her determination that continually pushed all of
us way beyond where we thought we could go…higher and higher up the
mountains. After all, she flew in World War II. To her, there is no such
word as impossible! Sometimes, her ideas were a little outrageous, but we’d
always give it a try and, usually, mom was right…until dad passed away, and
I began my journey to discover mom.
In an instant, I am no longer my father’s daughter,
but I’m the one with the outrageous idea, pushing everyone on toward this
mountain. I know that, with God's help, nothing is impossible, and I’m
bound and determined that we will succeed. Wings Across America will
put the WASP into the digital classrooms of the future, and if we have to,
we’ll do it one WASP at a time.
Sounds like something mom might say!
Perhaps I’m not my father’s daughter at all. In
discovering mom, I may have discovered me!