Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mom Loved to Fly

Elizabeth Jones, c. 1930
My guest author for this blog post is my Mom's cousin, Cheryl. With all the media focus lately on Amelia Earhart, I asked Cheryl Owens Fox if she would write a memorial blog about her Mom, Elizabeth Esther Jones, my great aunt. She was an airplane pilot at the same time as Earhart, which was astounding, really, as women were seldom allowed in "men's" professions. Hope you enjoy! (PS. I must point out the great photo Cheryl provided of her Mom with my grandfather, Daniel Jones!)

Mom loved to fly.  For as long as I can remember, whenever she heard an airplane overhead she would stop and watch it, smiling, until it flew out of sight.  I don’t know when she was first attracted to flying. Perhaps it stemmed from her admiration of Amelia Earhart, an adventurer and a strong supporter of equal rights for women who refused to be confined by convention.  Mom certainly did her best to be unconventional!  Or maybe it was when she fell in love with an aspiring pilot named Woodie.

Elizabeth with Daniel Jones
My mother, Elizabeth Esther Jones, was born in 1914 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Welsh immigrants who had arrived in the US in 1905. Her father was a coal miner in Wales, so his skills enabled him to find work in the Anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania. Working in the mines provided a good living for his family, but it also took away his health.  He died in 1920, when Mom was only 6, just a month after his eldest daughter had passed away because of heart problems.

Mom watched her mother struggle to provide for herself and her 3 children, working as a cook and a maid as she had in Wales before emigrating.  When she was 14, Mom quit school to work and help support her family so that her two brothers could continue their education.  She and her best friend Marion found work in the Wilkes-Barre Lace Mill.  As the mill was owned by a Mr. Smith, they jokingly referred to it as “Smith College.”  Years later, they would still laugh about it.  They both worked at the mill through their early twenties. Apparently wages were reasonably good, as Mom was able to pay for flying lessons and was earning more than my father when they married in the late 1930s.

"Woodie" - Woodrow B. Evans (c. 1935)
I don’t know when Mom first met Woodie, but by 1935, they were engaged to be married.  Woodrow Baden Evans was an electrician at Dorrance Colliery, a coal mine in Wilkes-Barre where Mom’s father had worked years before.  Woodie was learning to fly, and on April 24, 1935, he earned his private pilot’s license.  Sadly, it was only 4 months later that he was electrocuted at work.  He was only 22.  I know Mom mourned him for a long time, as I have found notes among her papers that she had written about him after his death.

By early 1937, Amelia Earhart had already flown solo across both the Atlantic and Pacific.  Just two days before Earhart began her ill-fated trip around the world, Mom took her first flying lesson.

Elizabeth Jones' flight log

I still have her pilot log book, one of my most precious possessions, so I know her lessons were in a Taylor Cub.  She flew out of Wyoming Valley Airport, a small airport just a few miles north of Wilkes-Barre which is still in use and still offering flying  lessons.  She also joined the Wyoming Valley Flying Club which was led by her flight instructor, Bill (Roland) Klisch.  Mom’s friend Marion occasionally accompanied her to her flying lessons, and eventually Bill and Marion fell in love and married.  The three remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Taylor Cub, like that flown by Elizabeth Jones in 1937

Amelia Earhart’s plane was reported lost in the Pacific just one month after Mom’s first flight.  She was my mother’s idol, and for years Mom saved the many newspaper clippings she had accumulated about Amelia.  I remember reading them when I was young and dreaming about having adventures like she had.

On Sunday, December 12, 1937,  mom flew her first solo flight.  Her flying club newspaper wrote “…She experienced a little difficulty with the stabilizer adjustment on the first landing and as a result bounced around a little, but all who witnessed the second landing agreed it was perfect.”  She was so proud of her “wings”.  When she was older, she had them mounted on a disk that she could wear on a chain around her neck.  She never took it off.

One of mom’s stories about her flying days involved a famous boxer who she had met at Wyoming Valley Airport.  She talked about how big he was, and how her hand disappeared in his when they shook hands.  I had forgotten his name until recently, when I was flipping through her pilot’s log and noticed something handwritten on the second page.  It was an autograph:  “Good luck, Jack Dempsey”. She had met the man who was boxing’s world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926.

Boxer Jack Dempsey's autograph in Elizabeth's plane manual

My family moved to Florida in 1958, about a year before my grandmother passed away.  Although she enjoyed her new home, Mom always missed her family in Wilkes-Barre.  She also never forgot Woodie, her first love.  It was over twenty years after my father died that I lost my mother.  She had given me careful instructions that she was to be cremated and her ashes returned to Wilkes-Barre, where I was to spread them on her mother’s grave and on Woodie’s.  I knew my grandmother was buried in Mount Greenwood Cemetery in Trucksville, just a few miles outside of Wilkes-Barre, along with my grandfather and step grandfather.  But where was Woodie buried? Mom couldn’t remember the name of the cemetery.  When I was young, we had visited his grave several times, but I had no idea where it was located.

Elizabeth Jones' mother, Elizabeth's (1880 -1959) grave, Trucksville, PA
Finding Woodie’s grave was almost an impossible task.  I spent many hours on line trying to find him, and even convinced a dear cousin who lived near Wilkes-Barre to help me visit all the cemeteries in the Wilkes-Barre area.  I could not find him.  I spread half of my mother’s ashes on her mother’s grave that year, but, hoping I would find Woodie one day, I saved the rest and returned home to Alabama.

Several years later, I was looking through some of my mother’s papers that had been in storage when I came across a small, yellowed newspaper clipping.  It was about Woodie’s funeral at Fern Knoll Burial Park in Dallas, Pennsylvania, and told how his friends from Wyoming Valley Airport had honored him by circling above and dropping flowers during the ceremony.  I discovered his grave was just a few yards from the graves of my father’s father and step-mother.  That was why I remembered visiting it when I was young.

When I finally stood in front of the Evans family’s tombstone, tears began  streaming down my face.  I had never met Woodie, but I knew how much my mother cared for him for all those years.  I placed a photo of the two of them on his grave marker, along with Mom’s ashes, and told him that he had never been forgotten.  In my mind, I could see Mom smiling.