Gypsy Lady

It’s so easy to take for granted the written (or typed) word. I wish that blogs had been around when my grandparents and great grandparents had been my age. What I wouldn’t give to have read about their day-to-day lives and thoughts on things.

I would give almost anything I own to have a day with my grandfathers. My mom’s dad passed when she was only 19, and as far as I know, he’s the only person I was related to who has ever been quite so interested in photography.

I mean, every one of my siblings and both my parents have cameras and we all take a billion pictures at events. But I mean to really dig into it and love it. He was the only one. I wish I could have shared that with him in person. But it’s neat to feel that link connect us despite the fact that he never knew I would exist.

My dad’s dad, we called him Papa, was into fishing and card games and coffee. I remember him taking the time to color with us kids when we visited. He always let me sneak candy from the jar by his recliner before dinner. And he would stand in the yard with my dad and uncles talking while his grandkids played on the swing-set. That’s what I remember the most of my time with him before he passed when I was almost four.

My grandmothers are another story. I’ve had a lifetime with them, and for that I am so grateful. My dad’s mom, who goes by Mema to us, is a mother of five, grandmother of fifteen, and great-grandmother of eleven.

She is someone who always does what she thinks best for her family, whether that means standing up for one of us or opening her home to us. She is opinionated and speaks her mind, and she’s great to talk things through with. I love, love, love my Mema.

My mom’s mom, my Nana, is who I wrote about passing away this summer. She was a mother to four, grandmother to six, and great grandmother to four.

She was a total firecracker. I’ve never met anyone quite like her and I doubt I ever will in my life. She was just someone who marched to the beat of a different drum so well that people would have joined in and danced along if they knew how to do it like she did.

She was artistic and creative and fashionable. She went swimming every day. She went out dancing with my grandfather when he was alive. She was an avid gardener. She had a facebook account and used email and read my blog. She declared good news to be “Mahhhhhvalous.” And she made living in your 80’s look good. Two months before she died, when I told her that she looked nice and tan, she agreed and matter-of-factly informed me that getting 20 minutes of sun a day was important for your intake of Vitamin D which allows your body to break down and consume vitamin C.  She was actively involved in church when she wasn’t traveling all over the world. She always said that cruises were the way to go, which is funny because when she was younger, she preferred to fly.

And when I say she preferred to fly, I don’t mean she was a passenger. She was the pilot and owner of her own plane, which she named Gypsy. I was told we were descended from Czech gypsies on her side before her family tree landed in the U.S., so that’s where she got the name. It was very fitting for my Nana, who flew herself and her friend, Frances, all over the United States in the 1940’s, when she was younger than I am now.

These days, you can’t just up own a plane and fly off as she did as easily due to the way the world is (landing in someone’s field would likely get you sued) and financial constraints (it’s not a cheap hobby). But what an adventurer she was. If you have the time, I’d love to share an article that she wrote in Flying magazine in 1946.

The article was called “Two Gals and a Plane” by “Dorothy (‘Gypsy’) Nichols,” and I feel like it captures her so well. It’s not a blog, but it certainly does give you a real glimpse of the pluck my Nana had.

Some people will say I’m crazy, but I think it’s just the other way around. Anybody who doesn’t learn how to fly and buy a small plane, then take off for everywhere, is just plain crazy. All this solemn male talk about cost-per-mile and upkeep is so much prop-wash.

I fly with Frances Horne. Fran is my girl friend and never had flown till I took her up after I got my private license on November 24, 1944, at Ford-Lansing (near Chicago), Ill. Since then we have flown about 20,000 miles all over the country- a total of 236 hours- and we’ve never experienced a dull moment in all that time.

Fran is from Gary, Ind. She was graduated from the high school there. I was graduated from high school at Merrillville, Ind., in 1941. My folks live in Crown Point, Ind., where my father runs a chicken farm. He doesn’t like the flying machine much and my mother is so scared of it that she talked all five of my brothers out of flying; the three of them that were old enough to go to war wound up in walking jobs in Army, Navy, and Marines. While my mother wasn’t looking, I learned to fly and she’s not as mad about it now as she used to be.

I was taught to fly by Fred O. Perkins, an old-timer who learned aviation when it was really dangerous and served in the AAF till he was medical-boarded. I learned, soloed and got my license in November, like I said, but it took the rest of the winter to get enough money to buy a plane for myself.

I bought a 65-h.p. Aeronca, model L-3B, powered with a four-cylinder Continental engine. Like Fred Perkins, it is a veteran of the AAF, reconverted. We named it Gypsy. Gypsy had 130 hours when I got her and cost $1,650 and she was in swell shape and still is. All the repairs I’ve ever had to make were to a damaged tail wheel, replacing a piece of plexiglass that popped out, and a 100-hour overhaul, which I wangled for $56.

My Nana was pushing the propeller to start the plane.

Well, after I got my private license I couldn’t see any sense flying around the same airport all the time, so on April 3, 1945, Fran and I took off from Ford-Lansing and headed south. We’ve been going ever since.

That brings me to one of the objections that everybody raises to traveling in a light airplane- how can you take along enough clothes when weight is such a factor? But like all other objections, it’s what I said a little while ago, a lot of prop-wash.

I hate figures, but Fran and I worked it out together, and the score is something like this: weight allowance for two passengers, 185 pounds each, or 370 pounds; allowance for baggage, 10 pounds; total 380. Weight of one person (me) 125 pounds; weight of passenger (Fran) 125 pounds; weight of luggage, 70 pounds; total 320 pounds. That leaves a margin of 60 pounds for extras, which with us is mostly souvenirs and presents for the folks back home. Everywhere we go we buy presents like crazy. If you ask me, that’s the most expensive thing about traveling in airplanes, buying presents. You get to so many places and see so many swell things that you’d never see at home and the first thing you know you’re broke.

With our luggage allowance- 35 pounds each- Fran and I have enough to go anywhere and dress for the occasion. We carry our stuff in two small handbags and two baskets we picked up while shopping in Mexico. Each of us has two pairs of shoes, two dresses, two or three blouses, two sweat shirts, one suit, one topcoat, one pair of jodphurs, one pair of slacks. We share an electric iron and cosmetics.

After Fran and I got started we decided to go to Texas and have a look around. We worked out a system. We’d be in a restaurant, or working, or in a movie. “Let’s go someplace else,” I’d say, and we’d rush to our room and pack in five minutes and be off. Sometimes we’d decide where we were going and sometimes we’d just cruise around until we found a nice place. It doesn’t really make a lot of difference, at least in this country, because most places are nice that we’ve seen and we’ve been in a lot of them. Our route so far has gone from Ford-Lansing to Brownsville, Tex., Austin, El Paso, Phoenix, Ariz., back to San Antonio, Tex., then to Baltimore, Md., plus intermediate points and side trips.

This system of ours is a good system even if it doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes we’ve started too soon and gone broke along the way, which leads to complications. Another thing, if you fly that casually, sometimes you get lost. But there’s one thing I can’t understand- why anybody should object to getting lost in an airplane? We’ve been lost many times and have made a number of emergency landings, and every time we’ve wound up having more fun than if we’d found our field and sat down calm and collected.

One thing is, when you sit down in a corn field, a long way from an airport, you usually meet people who are delighted to see you, because it’s seldom an airplane pays them a visit. Like the time we were flying from East St. Louis on a compass to Iberia, Mo. We got low on gas and couldn’t find Iberia and finally buzzed a little town we saw off to the right. So we landed in a pasture near the town and the next thing we knew every citizen of St. Elizabeth had come to by truck, horseback, muleback, bicycle, and automobile to see us. They were so happy about the whole thing that we could still be visiting them if we hadn’t wanted to get on our way.

Another time we ran into a storm over the Georgia swamps and had to sit down in a field next to a peach orchard near Macon. There were no people around. We had to walk for what seemed miles through peach trees before we reached a farm house. But when we did, again we received a hearty welcome. It was almost as enthusiastic as the one we got when we landed in a field in front of a school at Johnson City, Tex., when the whole school, including teachers, came out to celebrate.

Two other emergencies we made in Texas are among our favorites. On the first we were trying to make Brownsville by sunset and ran out of gas because of headwinds. So we sat down at the 4-G ranch and for one of the best over-nights of all our travels. It had a private swimming pool, a lovely mansion and a perfectly swell Southern-hospitality hostess, and in the morning we picked oranges for breakfast from trees outside our bedroom window.

On the second landing we were really in trouble, almost zero-zeroed in a ground fog that caught up with us near Uvalde. We finally crossed our fingers and landed on what looked like more fog but (we hoped) would turn out to be a runway. It did. The joke being that when we taxied up to the hangars we were greeted by half a dozen instrument pilots with fancy twin-engined jobs who had been sitting there for two days, afraid to take off in that kind of weather.

Our all-time favorite forced landing and the one we’re most proud of was at Antlers, Okla. We took off from Dallas after the Red Cross called for volunteers to fly blood plasma to Antlers, which had been struck by a hurricane. We landed in a space that looked about as big as a backyard and delivered the plasma. I held my breath when we took off again in the face of trees that looked as tall as mountains. Gypsy did her stuff like the perfect lady she is, and we got a wonderful letter from the Red Cross. That is our most prized souvenir.

Speaking of souvenirs reminds me- this silly talk you hear about how expensive it is to fly. All I say is, it can’t be. Fran and I never have made much money. We usually get jobs together as waitresses. Sometimes I do typing, and occasionally I tell fortunes. It’s no way to get rich, but we’ve managed to live pretty well and do all the flying we wanted on what we’ve earned. Besides, I’m taking lessons toward my commercial and after that I’m going to study for an instructor’s rating, so that when we make one of those forced landings of ours I can try to sell some of the folks that come running to the plane on either taking a ride or learning to fly.

As for the cost of keeping Gypsy going, all I know is I figured it out the best way I could recently and gas and oil for the 20,000 miles (according to my receipts) ran less than $100, hangar rent was about $80, repairs about $20. That figures out to one cent a mile. That’s my story and I’ll stick to it. I’ll bet you can’t find one of these solemn male operation experts who can beat that! Of course, there’s that $56 for the 100-hour overhaul.

Fran and I are heading for Vermont as this is written. Then we’re going to Cleveland for the air races and from there to visit our folks. Next stop Florida; warmer in the winter. Besides, we hear there are pilots there who can tell us about flying in South America… END.

She never did make her South America trip as planned. Somewhere in the midst of planning for Brazil, she met my grandfather, fell in love, and got married. She traded in her plane for the chance to be a wife and mother of four in Savannah, GA. But she still traveled all over the world. I feel certain that for her, Heaven was the next great adventure.

I love, love, loved my Nana.


11 thoughts on “Gypsy Lady”

  1. What an inspiring woman she was. What a great article and story. Thank you for sharing. And what a great story to tell your children one day of their Great Grandmoter! I never knew your Grandmother but since I have known you and reading this story it seems like you have a lot of your Grandmother in you. Just what an awesome story :o)

  2. She never flew to South America, but I did fly with her to Paris, and that was a HUGE adventure. Nana really was an explorer!

    1. I still laugh thinking of her adventures (misadventures? haha) through France trying to tell you where to go even though she didn’t speak French and you did. lol

  3. I am blessed to have all four of my grandparents still living. My mom’s parents were missionaries to Liberia, W. Africa back in the 50’s and my Grandfather was a genius in math while playing major roles as a lay preacher. I have begged them to share their stories with us but I can’t seem to convince them to write them down. ARGGG!
    My dad just finished a 20 page history of his childhood and gave it to me for Christmas. That was one of the best gifts ever.
    My prayer is that the heritage of my God fearing grandparents will continue to impact the third and fourth generations.
    Thanks for sharing Meghan.

    1. wow that is so cool! What a neat gift from your dad too. Maybe you can just bring a recorder and interview them. Then you can type up their stories later. I would love to read some of what your dad shared!

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