Jonas: Could you say more about herself? (are you from? Birth? Education? Profession? And more...)
Claire: I grew up in the United States, in a small south Georgia town in the middle of a swamp. I spent most of my time fishing and hunting, camping and hiking, and running from spiders and snakes. Also chasing me at one time or another were hornets, wasps, wild hogs, mad dogs, giant woodpeckers, and a panther. When I wasn't outside in swamp world I was inside reading a book or playing cards.
When I was eight I learned to play penny poker, taught to me by my Dad's fishermen buddies in our river cabin down on the Altamaha River. In the beginning they won a lot of my pennies (I had an infinite supply) and they also took me fishing with them and taught me how to catch just about every kind of fish in the river. When I was a teenager I bought a bass boat and kept it on the river so I could go fishing on the weekends by myself.
I remember one time going to get my boat out, and some high school guys were hanging around the boathouse and found a Black snake. One of them threw it at me so they could laugh when I ran, but I caught it in my right hand and threw it right back at them and had a big laugh when they scattered! That was the day I took the boat out to investigate the legend of the gorilla on Bald's Island (right), supposed to have been seen sitting on a log reading a newspaper and sipping gin.
Bald 's Island is a dense, spooky jungle island off the river a bit and back into the swamp. I tied up at the bank under a willow tree and got out and walked around the island looking for gorilla tracks. That was the day the huge Water Moccasin fell off the tree branch into my boat and almost directly on top of me. I am proud to say I did not jump out of the boat or turn the boat over. I did rock the boat violently when I beat the snake to death with the boat paddle. I also did a good bit of screaming that was likely unsettling for the wildlife on the island, including the gorilla that I never did find. (Left, in the Okefenokee Swamp, August 2013)
BIG GAME HUNTER
When I turned 16, Dad gave me a 28 gauge shotgun and my grandfather gave me a .22 caliber rifle, both specially fitted to my shoulder. Dad took me quail hunting and dove shooting with the shotgun and I was always the only girl in the group. He took me squirrel hunting and taught me how to shoot a squirrel mid-flight from tree to tree with the rifle. I insisted that we cook and eat whatever we killed, so he had me clean the fish, skin the squirrels, pluck the birds (after wringing their little necks if the shot didn't finish them), and even gut the deer. (I don't recommend gutting a deer. As vile an odor as you will ever smell results from that and teaches you never to gut another one.) I was already lacking in the macho department that the sport required and was way too sympathetic with the poor animals, so cleaning them pretty much finished me as a hunter. Dad found it amusing and didn't push me too far in that direction.
My parents believed I would do something important one day and they thought it was up to them to figure out exactly what. I think Dad originally had some idea of my becoming a famous woman big game hunter who would travel with him on his hunting trips and become legendary for killing large creatures like grizzly bears and elk. One year he went hunting in Newfoundland and killed an elk and a moose, and we had to eat elk burgers and moose burgers for two years. We never could figure out how to make them taste good. Dad didn't really mind that I wasn't a brilliant and naturally talented big game hunter, like a female Ernest Hemmingway, because he had other plans for me, anyway.
FIRST WOMAN AIRLINE PILOT
By the time I was 18 we had collected five private planes, and every single one of them was crashed at least once by one of my parents, except a friend crashed the Stearman. I made an astute but scary observation at an early age that pilots who truly love to fly also seem to enjoy crashing every now and then. Dad was a World War II B-26 Marauder pilot, a Catch-22 pilot (right), who had somehow survived 61 bombing missions and still loved to fly. He was lucky and very good to survive flying the bomber they called the "Widowmaker." It was also nicknamed "Martin Murderer," "Flying Coffin," and "B-Dash-Crash." Since I was his oldest son I had to learn to fly our five easy planes that must have seemed to my father something any simpleton could do, but it wasn't my favorite thing. I enjoyed being out on the river by myself but not at 4,000 feet in a plane by myself. I'm an earth sign, a Taurus, not an air sign like both my parents, if that has anything to do with it and I think it might.
I have never been comfortable flying in a plane and, from my father's perspective, mischievous fate had dealt him a daughter who needed to be converted to the flying religion, and he set out to do that. I flew the planes anyway because it made him happy and proud, but he had grander ideas than that. Apparently, he hoped I might become one of the first women airline pilots, but he gave up on that when he saw the look on my face the first time he suggested it.
His idea might have gotten a better reception from me but he proposed it at a bad time. I landed the Cessna, one of our five airplanes, after taking it up for a solo cross country and I had a bad experience in the air. I was flying along feeling so happy and free that I took my seat belt off, like they tell you never to do, because I wanted to have more freedom of movement. Just after I did it, I hit a terrible pocket of turbulence and it started bouncing me up and down off my seat and kept smacking the top of my head into the ceiling.
I panicked and abandoned the cross county and turned the plane around and flew it back to the airport, but I couldn't find the airport so I flew around and around looking for it until I realized to look straight down beneath me, and sure enough there it was. I landed that plane and jumped out and kissed the asphalt and vowed never to fly that thing again. My parents thought it was such a great story that they loved to tell it at cocktail parties and oh how everyone laughed, and that pretty much finished me as a pilot. It was right after that when Dad made the ill-timed suggestion that I should think about a career as an airline pilot.
He seemed for awhile like he had given up on the idea of me becoming one of the first women airline pilots, but then he decided to re-organize me by trying to get me back into flying with the Stearman.
I was sitting in my bedroom with my hair in rollers because I had a date that night with my boyfriend David, a very cool, handsome guy with a red Corvette and a Harley-Davidson Sportster that he let me drive and ride, so I was focused on getting beautiful for my date. (He also had a dirt bike I liked to ride - wearing his shirt and with rollers...hmmm (above, right. I eventually stopped torturing my hair.) Dad rushed in and told me, "Come on, we're going to the airport, we're going up in the Stearman," (below left), one of the five airplanes we owned. He bought it because it was one of the planes the Army Air Force used to train him as a pilot and he loved flying it.
Well, I told him I didn't want to go up in the Stearman. It's a bi-wing with two open cockpits and made to fly upside-down. When it's upside-down, the only thing holding you in is the seat belt contraption with shoulder straps and thigh straps. Designed to fit a grown man, it was adjustable but I never could get it to keep me snug in the seat so that, upside-down, I was hanging in the seat belt about an inch off the seat. Not only that, but I had to wear an old parachute that was way too big. It was a challenge just to keep the parachute from slipping off me while sitting in the plane. I was told, "If you fall out or if you have to jump out because the plane is crashing, just remember you have a parachute, so pull this cord and you will float down." I thought, "Oh, like that's gonna work. I feel so much safer now."
Those are the first reasons I didn't want to fly in the Stearman. The other reason was pretty good, also. The Stearman is used as an air show plane, intended to cause everyone on the ground to gasp at how dangerous it seems. That's because it's every bit as dangerous as it seems. The guys who fly it will argue with you about that. They think they have it all under control, but even Bevo Howard, the best of the best, flew his into a tree one day and himself into eternity.
Bevo Howard had come to town about two months before with his trick airplane, a one-seater bi-wing (left), with his name written upside-down so you could read it from the ground because that's how he mostly flew his plane, upside-down. Apparently Dad had been influential in hiring him to come to the airport and put on a one-man air show. My brother Bill and I were so excited about meeting him that we went out to the airport to greet him when he landed. Once he realized whose kids we were he invited us to fly with him, but I think we were the excuses he needed to fly Dad's Stearman.
Up I went in the Stearman with Bevo Howard, who flew me upside-down the entire length of the runway and about 1,000 feet above it, where I dangled loosely in the seat belt contraption. That was after no telling how many snap rolls and spins, and then he finished with the upside-down flying as the grand finale. That's when I realized the pilot was crazy and so was the airplane.
Dad had recently been checked out in the Stearman and was all about flying it. So when I told him, "I have a date with David and I want to stay home and get ready," he commanded me, "Come on, let's go!" I resisted, "Can't you see my hair is in rollers?" But he insisted I go, and I suspected at the time it was just a ploy on his part to get me back interested in flying.
So we went up in the Stearman and he did snap rolls and dives and loop-the-loops, and the more he did, the more the rollers flew out of my hair so that when we finally landed, a couple of them were still hanging onto my hair, a bunch of them were on the floor of the plane, and the rest of them were in the corn fields down below somewhere. When I climbed out of the plane with all that wild, bushy hair he started laughing. What a father! Did he do that on purpose?! He doesn't look like a crazy pilot but he was.
I was frazzled as my hair on my date but I happened to have the best boyfriend on the planet who knew how to make things right, which usually involved some significant kissing. As for what's up with the rollers, I was born with this hair, (right) which makes me wonder whatever made me think I could make it straight, especially considering my nickname was Cotton when I was a child!??!! I finally gave up on straight hair at about age 50.
The Stearman was crashed landed only a few weeks after that into a stand of tall pine trees, which toothpicked when the plane was skewered by them. The pilot got into some kind of brain lock from diving and dove straight down into them. One tree missed the guy in the back seat completely, only scraped his skin a little, but the tree that went into the front of the plane came up between the legs of the pilot, missed his body completely, except for his elbow which was broken. Nobody could believe they survived. And that pretty much finished them as pilots and it also finished the Stearman. The bad thing was, the plane crashed; the good thing was, they couldn't fix it, so I never had to fly in it again.
With the Stearman gone, Dad gave some thought to buying an AT-6 (right), a World War II training plane that he enjoyed being trained in during the war. Thankfully he came to his senses and decided to just get checked out in it and fly it a little instead. Everyone in my family flew in it. My brother Bill describes the plane just the way I remember it:
"There were no smooth edges on that airplane anywhere. It was the roughest, loudest, nastiest plane I've ever been in. And they used it to train pilots to fly in World War II. What in the hell were they thinking? Everything about it was a crash."
Doing snap rolls in the AT-6 was like being strapped loosely into a heavy metal tin can, airlifted to 2,500 ft. and tossed sharply from side to side and then flipped upside-down to see if you would fall out. You had on a parachute that didn't fit and wouldn't stay on, so there was nothing to worry about. The plane was so loud you worried the engine would blow up. It rattled and shook so violently, you worried the wings would come off. Distracted by the dried oil slick and dirt and grime on the floor of the plane, you were caught by surprise when the fun started.
A snap roll is a 360 degree auto rotation or 'horizontal spin.' The idea is to stall one wing of the plane, causing a high-speed roll. In a fraction of a second the world will explode right in front of you. It's about 5 or 6 times what you'd feel on the craziest roller coaster — and you don't have to stay on the tracks. (Kirby Chambliss)
When the snap went to the right, it snapped left to right and you snapped sideways into one side of the plane and then the other side, and when it snapped right to left you snapped in the opposite direction. Next, you were hanging upside-down in the seat belt contraption for a second before violently snapping back. Pilots who do this love to do it over and over and over until "let me out of this plane" becomes your single thought, but you don't dare express it. Word might get around that you don't have the "right stuff."
I flew the AT-6 with my flight instructor who talked me into slow rolling it from the back seat. Sounds simple until you consider how fast it's flying while you're "slow" rolling it and how scary the landscape looks when you're viewing it upside-down from inside a roaring rattle trap. I always thought the thrill rides at the fair were pretty lame compared to this.
In St. Augustine, Florida, 2010