Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Straighten up and fly right...


           There once was a female pilot who broke more distance and speed records than any other pilot in history, male or female. In fact, she holds many of these records to this very day, more than any pilot living or dead. A woman who helped found the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots – the WASPs in WWII. She was the first woman to enter Japan after WWII and witnessed General Yamashita’s surrender  in the Philippines. She was far and above the best and most famous female pilot in American History. Can you guess her name?  Bet you think I’m going to say Amelia Earhart aren’t you. Well I’m not. I’m talking about Jackie Cochran.  Wait, you don’t know about Jackie Cochran? You say you’ve never heard of her? Well, until about four months ago neither had I. It took a trip to California with a friend for me to learn about this amazing woman.
            A close friend and I (actually she is my sneaky partner in crime)  traveled to Disneyland a few months ago for a dose of fun, Mickey Mouse, and literary labeled lunches at the Sidewalk CafĂ© in Venice Beach. While in Disneyland we headed over to the California Adventure side of the park and got in line for the Soaring Over California ride. (I love this ride like some kind of six year old on a pixie stick bender) The ride is a huge Imax type floaty chair ride that leaves your feet dangling and the wind in your hair. Seriously, that’s the technical name. Look it up. Anyway, in the “hangar” in which you queue, the walls are lined with pictures and blurbs about famous figures in aviation history. Familiar names like the Wright Brothers, Chuck Yeager, and Earhart are there but what caught my eye was the picture of a smiling, blonde woman climbing out of the cockpit of a 1940s fighter plane in heels no less. In a word – BADASS.  It was Jackie Cochran.
            I love chicks in history who kicked some serious male booty. This chick was wicked cool. Jackie was born Bessie Lee Pitman in Mobile, Alabama to a relatively middle class family. She married airplane mechanic Robert Cochran in 1920 when she was only 14. She gave birth to her son, Robert Jr only four months later. (Read whatever you like into that) The family moved to Miami where they lived for four years until Jackie filed for divorce. Along the way she lived in several cities and held down several menial jobs. She also changed her name to Jackie. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that Jackie first set foot in an airplane. She was hooked and immediately began flying lessons.
            Her contributions to the field of aviation are amazing to say the least. She was the only woman to compete in the 1937 Bendix Air Race, which she won, with less than a gram of gas left in her tank when she crossed the finish line. She worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race for women. Also that same year she set a new woman’s speed record. (see what I mean..BADASS)
            Jackie Cochran was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. She served in the “Wings of Britain” before the U.S. entered WWII. This group was responsible for flying American made aircraft, bombers and fighters, from the States to British Air Force bases. She recruited women pilots in the States to head over to England and fly in their ATA (British Air Transport Authority) in addition to offering her services to the Royal Air Force.
            The war was raging by 1940, so Jackie took it upon herself to write First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt about establishing the need for women’s branches of the Armed Forces. Enter the WACs, WAVs, and the WASPs. (My Great Aunt was a WAC because my grandpa was a turret gunner in the Army. I’ve been told I look like her and have her gumption and drive. I should be so blessed.)
            Jackie was instrumental in the setting up and use of female pilots in the war efforts. She was a real go getter and refused to have a door slammed in her face or told no. By the end of the war she was considered the best female pilot in the country. (I would wager the world at the time, but that is solely my opinion)
            She was the first woman to break the sound barrier (Chuck Yeager was right on her tail) The first woman to fly a jet across the ocean, and she received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Flying Cross. All by the age of 42. Not bad!
            After the war, Jackie continued to show some serious girl power mentality. In the 60s, she sponsored the Mercury 13 program, an early effort to the test the ability of females to be astronauts. She ran for Congress in 1956, losing to the first Asian American to win, Dalip Singh Saund.
            Jackie Cochran left a huge legacy for the American people, yet little is really known of her outside the aviation community. She was a contemporary of Amelia Earhart and achieved so much more in her career then Earhart did. Yet, school children know Earhart and not Cochran. It is because of our love affair with the tragic nature of a life cut short.
            There is a line in the movie “Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian” in which the Tuskegee Airmen thank Amelia Earhart for clearing the skies for them. I think they should be thanking Jackie Cochran as well. She blazed a trail that was hotter and faster than any other flyer in history. Take that, Amelia Earhart.
            Jackie died in 1980 at the age of 74. God speed, Jackie Cochran, you “have slipped the surly bonds of Earth  and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”  (High Flight by John Magee as quoted by President Ronald Reagan.)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

His Music Just Left The Solar System

For the first blog of 2012 (sorry it’s late kids, I’ve been cray cray busy this month) we are going to talk about blues. Well, we are going to talk about one specific Blues man, Blind Willie Johnson. I am sure some of you have heard of Blind Willie if only for the reason he was mentioned on an episode of West Wing.  Others will know him from his music and the legacy he left behind. But I’m sure some of you have never heard of him at all. I’m going to fix that right now.
Blind Willie Johnson was born in Texas in 1902 (or so we think. Records are a little sketchy). Willie was not born blind but a tragic accident at the age of seven robbed him of his sight forever. It was some childhood illness or something of that nature. It was his stepmother who caused Willie’s blindness. You see my little blog loves, his stepmother was carrying on a dalliance with another man. Having an affair for those of you who need the vernacular. Bumping uglies with someone who was not her baby daddy for the folks who like it a little crude. Willie’s daddy caught her in the act.  They pair fought and she tossed lye at her husband only to miss and hit Willie in the face. This permanently blinded him.
            Willie found solace in music, gospel music to be precise. He sang gospel songs, accompanying himself on the guitar, for donations in the streets. He mainly worked in small towns and cities in Texas. As he matured his voice took on a rough, low baritone. He practically growled his songs. Even more so, and before, then people like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.  A guy way ahead of his time was our Blind Willie. Willie recorded 30 songs over the course of 3 years, mainly recording in Atlanta and Dallas.
Despite what he could do vocally and on the guitar Blind Willie died in poverty. He died of a combination of malarial fever, with syphilis and pneumonia added to the mix. (This is what is listed on the death certificate but it is not known how true it is.) His house had burned down and Willie was living in the remnants on a wet bed, wrapped in newspapers instead of blankets. His wife at the time, Angeline, said she tried to take him to the hospital but they refused to admit him stating his blindness as the cause. Other sources report he was refused because he was black. Blind Willie Johnson died in 1945 at the age of 48.
His legacy goes on to this day. Many artists have covered his songs and claim him as an influence for their music. “If I had my way I’d tear the building down” was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. The White Stripes covered “John the Revelator” (One of my personal favorites truth be known) Artists from Led Zeppelin to Beck and Nina Simone have paid homage to Blind Willie by keeping his music alive.
What was it about Blind Willie Johnson that keeps resonating with the American People? Was it his story of a simple background of hardship? Is it the sadness of his childhood and tragic death? I think it is simply what he could achieve in his music. Such sweetness in the haunting potency of  “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” which is only slide guitar and vocal moaning, to the rich growl of “Samson and Delilah.”  Blind Willie conveyed emotions we have all felt at some point in our lives.
Let’s pass on the music he left and make sure Blind Willie is never forgotten.