Don't Wait for MebyBenLong©
Reaching into a larger box that had been set on the ground, he pulled out a mangled backpack. The nylon had been ripped in several places, the frame had been battered just like everything else, but it still looked like a backpack. "We found a small propane bottle in a pocket of the pack, unused, along with a receipt from Bishop Sporting Goods store that looked like it had been there half a century, but was still readable. It had the last four digits of your credit card, and the date of August 16th, 2011." He looked around the table; nobody said anything for a moment. "I don't know what to believe. The events of the last week are totally unbelievable. If I hadn't been here myself to see this unfold, I'm not sure I would believe it." He put the items back onto the table, and paused momentarily before looking around at the people around the table. "There are certain reports that are classified because no one ever knows what to do with them; I suspect this one will be one of those."
February 13th, 2012
The conference in Las Vegas over, I climbed into my plane and headed for home. I could have taken commercial, but taking my own plane was both cheaper and faster than commercial and a helluva lot more fun. I'd filed IFR, not because the weather was bad, but because it was nighttime.
My mind wandered again to the thought that had been permeating my being for the last six months. I'd promised Jimmy Fallon that I'd find his Lizzie Warshawski and tell her that he loved her, and not to wait. Now I knew that, if I ever found her, I'd be able to tell her also about what had become of him. I'd checked back with the Air Force; they'd been unable to shed any light on who Lizzie Warshawski was. Jimmy's parents had both died in the 1950's -- he had no other known relatives.
But in my mind, something about Lizzie was unfinished business.
I'd flown up to Oroville, researched county records. I found a record of an Andrej Warshawski that had owned a house in the 1940's. I supposed that was Lizzie's father, but had no proof. He'd apparently sold it in 1948; I found no other record of Andrej Warshawski, anywhere. I'd used all the modern methods I could think of, but came up empty. I'd done what I could, but had left empty handed.
Flying an airplane takes all the senses, including the ones that we can't quite define. A pilot is feeling the plane; its vibrations pummeling his backside and hands with information about what is happening in the engine, and in the air. His ears are tuned to the hum of the engine, whether turbine or piston; often the ear hears something change before the instruments tell the same tale. His nose smells the exhaust, his eyes scan the instruments and sky -- and the mind takes it all in, categorizes it all and makes a decision about once every second -- "Am I still good to go, or do I abort?" Good car drivers do the same -- bad car drivers are seen along the highways waiting for a tow truck. There are no tow trucks for airplanes; so we keep all our senses working.
This day I had just passed Barstow when I sensed that something wasn't right. I couldn't immediately pinpoint what it was, but one or more of my senses had picked something up. I immediately went into hyper sensitive mode, scanning every instrument, and planning immediately what my next move was. Almost immediately ahead was Victorville and a two mile long runway left over from the days when it had been an Air Force base. I'd poked into the GPS the VCV call sign for Victorville and checked the heading that would get me there most directly, when the engine shuddered, stumbled and nearly quit. I immediately punched the "direct to" button and felt the autopilot turn the plane slightly as I began to trouble shoot.
Years of training and practice took over -- I didn't even have to think of what to do. Fuel pump on, fuel selector valve swapped, ignition check -- and there it was. One of my two magnetos had apparently failed. Fuel pump back off, fuel back to fullest tank, and try again with the magneto -- still nothing. Setting it to run on only the one magneto, the engine smoothed out somewhat, but was running at less power than normal. I called Los Angeles Center, told them I had engine problems and was diverting to Victorville. They immediately asked if I was declaring an Emergency. I said no -- not yet.
I was surprised to see fire engines setting on either side of the runway as I approached, and they immediately started up, following me down the runway as I touched down and began taxiing in. I then found out that the trouble with landing at the end of a 12,000 foot runway is that you then have to taxi 11,000 feet to the hangers and fuel station. I asked the tower to give my regards to LA Center for their help and asked if he could call me up and wake me when I got to my turnoff. We both laughed, but I didn't realize how much I'd really been shaken up until I climbed out of the plane and found my hands trembling from the adrenaline.
It was still fairly early, but the airport repair shop was closed and had already gone home -- so I was spending the night. I wasn't unfamiliar with Victorville; I'd lived there for several years as a kid while my dad was in the Air Force, back when the field I'd just landed at was known as George Air Force Base. A taxi arrived shortly, and I asked him to take me to the Green Tree Inn. It used to be "the" hotel in town, but now was just one of several. In some respects it was still the same town -- although I realized it had grown much larger since the days when it was just another "town" on Route 66. I changed my mind and asked the taxi driver to take me to a good steak house, which he did -- leaving me his business card so I could call him directly when I was done.
I ordered dinner, my ears beginning to search out and spy on the tables around me. A young couple across the room was making goo-goo eyes at each other, there giggles telling me exactly what they would be doing later. A family of four near the entrance was trying to be civil with each other, but something about the frigidity in the air told me the parents weren't getting along too well. Closest to me, four older women at a table were discussing their love lives, their friend's love lives, and generally just solving the world's problems. I wasn't really listening, I couldn't repeat what had been said until I latched onto one woman say "But haven't you lived here all your life, Beth?"
"Oh no, it just seems that way. Mom moved here when she got a job teaching school in 1950. I was born in Oroville and grew up there for my first eight years." My ears were immediately all over their conversation, but for whatever reason it had come up -- the discussion had moved on to something else.
I got my dinner ordered, and had just started my salad when the ladies finished theirs and began to act like they were getting ready to leave. Leaving my salad, I stood up and walked over to them.
"Excuse me, Ladies. I don't mean to interrupt but as I came in a bit ago, I heard one of you say that you'd grown up in Oroville, until about 1950?"
"That was me, why?" I looked over at the woman, having already done the math. She would have been born in 1942 if she'd been 8 when she left which made her 70, or right at it. I wouldn't have picked her to be that old, maybe late 50's. She looked good for her age.
"I was up there a few months ago, trying to locate someone that had lived there back in the 1940's; I was just wondering if you've ever heard of someone named Lizzie Warshawski?"
You'd have thought I hit her with a sledgehammer. Her mouth fell open, but she shut it again rapidly, her eyes narrowing; it was obvious that she was now wary of me. Her head nodded. "Yes, I know a Lizzie Warshawski. Why are you looking for her?"
"It's kind of a long story, but I think she knew someone named Jimmy Fallon back during the war, and I've got a message for her from him. Would you know her, or know how to find her?"
Whereas before she'd looked like I'd hit her with a sledgehammer, now she sat back down in her chair, pale as if she'd seen a ghost. "What is it Beth? What's wrong?" One of the other women stepped up beside her, in a protective stance.
"It's ok," she answered, waving her away. Turning back to me, she said "I haven't heard those names in a long, long, time."
"So you know her? Is she still alive?"
She nodded. "Yes, I know her, and she's very much alive. Lizzie Warshawski is my mother, and Jimmy Fallon was my father." She stuck her hand out, as if to shake mine. "I'm Elizabeth Wilson, Elizabeth Fallon before I got married," she said as I took her hand. "Maybe you'd like to tell me that long story?"
Looking around at all four ladies, I realized that my month's long search might almost be over. I nodded in agreement; "Perhaps you'd like to sit back down?" I didn't have to suggest it twice.
I went over to my bag and retrieved a couple of items that I'd been keeping with me for the last few months. Putting one in my shirt pocket, I returned to the table and began the story. I passed out several newspaper clippings about the finding of Jimmy Fallon. One was from the Greenville, South Carolina newspaper, telling how their World War II hero had been found after being missing for nearly 70 years. Another was from the Oroville paper, essentially the same, but slanted as a missing Oroville pilot from the war. A third, the most comprehensive, was from the NY times. Someone had obviously put some effort into that article, having details such as that the plane was hundreds of miles from where it was supposed to be and that it had been found partially buried by a rock slide. None of them mentioned me, or anything of how the Air Force came to be searching under a pile of rocks for a 70 year old missing plane.
Not unexpectedly, all four ladies took my tale of how I unexpectedly came to be in Victorville again after over 40 years with a healthy dosage of disbelief. Just as I had with the Air Force, I repeated certain segments again and again, culminating with the discovery of the plane and his body, exactly where I'd said they were and my sudden engine problems causing me to land here. I explained that I'd searched out Jimmy's family in South Carolina, but discovered that he'd been an only child, his parents long deceased. Still, the idea that I'd spoken with a man, held the hand of a man, provided water and food to a man, dead for 70 years -- remained too far out to believe.
"I don't blame you for being skeptical, I would be too. I could have read these articles, come up with some cockamamie story, except for a couple of things." I didn't continue; I just let them think for a moment.
"What things?" Beth finally asked.
I reached into my shirt pocket, keeping the object hidden in my hand. "I can't tell you how this happened, it defies anything I've ever experienced in my life -- but I swear to you, it did." I looked around at all four as I paused, my eyes coming to rest again on Beth. "How could I have known Lizzie Warshawski's name, if Jimmy hadn't told me? Even the New York Times couldn't come up with that information. As far as I can tell, no one anywhere knew about Lizzie Warshawski and Jimmy Fallon -- except for them," I looked around at them again, "and now you."
I looked at the picture in my hand. "I didn't tell you about this. I took it out of the cockpit when I found it, just before I found Jimmy. I didn't even tell the Air Force; I put it in my pocket, and then forgot about it until later, and then it didn't seem to matter." I slid the picture across to Beth.
She looked at the picture, turned it over and read the writing, then looked at the front again. "That's my mom," she said simply. She glanced at it one more time, and then passed the picture around the table. I took my cell phone out as they looked at the picture, and pulled up the pictures.
"I can't explain this. All I can tell you is, that as I was about to go for help, Jimmy asked me to find Lizzie and tell her that he loved her, and I promised that I would. Call it true love, whatever you want, but I've got a message that I promised to deliver." I handed over the cell phone, and showed them how to peruse through the pictures. "You can see the picture in the cockpit before I took it out," I said, pointing at the picture of the planes instrument panel.
We sat saying nothing for a while, the ladies continued passing the picture and cell phone around. Apparently Beth decided to believe me, or to at least share her story, as she began talking quietly.
"I never knew my father. He didn't even know that Mom was pregnant when he disappeared. He and Mom met at a USO dance, and they fell in love. They only had a few months together. He'd asked her to marry him, but they hadn't announced it to anyone when his plane didn't come back. It was about that same time that she discovered she was pregnant.
I was born in '43; she put his name as the father on the birth certificate, giving me the married name she never got -- Elizabeth Fallon - but I've been called Beth all my life. Mom has always been Liz, but she said that my dad always called her Lizzie."
"Mom was living with her parents, and Granddad always felt that the Polish spelling of his name made him stick out, and not in a good way. When Grandma died in 1948, he had his name legally changed from "Andrej Warshawski"," she pronounced his first name with the "ja" sound at the end, "to "Andrew Shaw." Mom had her name changed to Elizabeth Shaw at the same time. It wasn't that grandpa sold the house to someone else; he'd just legally changed his name. He lived there until he died in the '70's. Grandpa insisted that Mom go to college, he and grandma helped raise me, at least until grandma died. Mom got a job with the school district here in Victorville, and we moved here when I was 8. I really don't remember Oroville at all -- I've always thought of Victorville as home."
I don't know what it was that triggered the memory, but suddenly a thought popped into my head. "Oh My God!" I blurted out.
Beth stopped; all four of them looked at me. "What?"
I reached for the picture, Beth handed it back to me. I looked at the picture for probably the ten thousandth time since I'd found it -- and saw what I'd never seen before. I looked back at Beth, dumbfounded.
"I know your mother."
"What?" she took the picture back, looked at it, and then back at me. "How?"
I shook my head, clearing my thoughts. "I didn't recognize her before. She's so young in that picture, but she was my teacher! I knew her as Miss Shaw, I may not have ever even known her first name, but she taught History and Drama in Junior High School. I had her for 7th grade before we moved away. You said she was a teacher and suddenly it all just clicked..."
It wasn't far to the nursing home. All four ladies came along; or rather, I rode along with them as I didn't have a car.
I don't think I would have recognized Liz Shaw if I hadn't been introduced, she now looked even less like the pretty Junior High School teacher that I remembered from thirty five years before than she did in the 70 year old picture. Frail and in poor health, this nearly 90 year old woman was a mere wisp of the woman that had been my teacher. Nasal cannula and an oxygen bottle told the story; back in those days -- everyone smoked cigarettes.
She was seated upright in bed, apparently asleep, but her eyes opened up when we entered the room, lighting up when she saw her daughter. A smile crossed her face, her eyes flicking to me and the other ladies questioning who we, or at least who I, was.
"Mom, this is Terry. He thinks he was one of your students, from years ago."
She offered her hand, I shook it gently, surprised at the coldness of her skin. "Forgive me if I don't remember you, but you don't look like a 14 year old anymore." I smiled at her attempt at humor.
"Miss Shaw, I, um, have a message for you...." Now that I was here, I couldn't go on. Finding her had somehow seemed so important, but now that I had, I found myself unable to speak -- a lump in my throat. I reached into my shirt pocket and retrieved the picture.
I glanced at it, turning it upright and handed it to her. She reached for the picture, puzzlement at first -- and then her eyes went wide with recognition. Her hand trembling, she turned the picture over; I could tell it was to confirm what she already knew was going to be there. Turning her eyes to me, she clutched the picture to her chest, her eyes coming back to me. "You found my Jimmy."
"Yes. Yes I did." I looked around, pulled a chair from next to the wall over to the bed and sat down. She reached her hand out to my knee, and I began the tale, one last time. "He called my name as I was about to start back, and when I turned around he said, 'I need you to tell my Lizzie that I love her.' I told him that I would, and then he asked me to also tell you one more thing. He told me to tell you 'Don't wait for me.'" I paused, letting her think about it momentarily, expecting that she, like everyone else would question the validity of my strange tale. Instead, she reached over and took my hand and began filling in the missing blanks.
"We weren't supposed to be seeing each other. It was just short of my eighteenth birthday when we met, he was nineteen, almost twenty, and my father didn't approve. I'd snuck out with some of my girlfriend to go to the USO club. From the first time I saw him, I knew he was my one."
"They didn't always know when they were going to get away from the base, but we'd make plans, and he always told me - to keep my father happy, if he wasn't there within fifteen minutes of when I thought he would be that I shouldn't wait for him. I always waited though; I'd tease him that I had to because he was always late, so I couldn't tell if he was late because he wasn't going to show or if it was just because he was late as usual. But I'd always wait as long as I could, regardless. Sometimes he'd never show, other times he'd show up late and he was always glad to see me. He'd kiss me; and then smile and put his finger on my nose and say 'I told you not to wait for me - but I'm glad you did.'" She smiled, obviously living the memory, and glanced over at her daughter, and then back at me. "I had a girlfriend whose parents had an unused maid's quarters behind their house at the back of the property. We'd go there and I always made it worth his while."
"Mother!" Beth said, obviously at least mildly shocked at the insinuation that perhaps her mother had been a little bit illicit back in the days when marriage supposedly came before sex.
"What? You didn't think you happened by magic, did you? I knew almost immediately he was my one, that he was going to be the father of my babies. Back then we didn't have the pill like they do today. We had condoms - or we had babies." She paused, collecting her thoughts. "Jimmy disappeared before even I knew I was pregnant. And then when he didn't come back... I waited a month before I told Mom and Dad. I thought Dad was going to kill me, but he didn't."
Her head swiveled around the room, talking to all of us. "What can I say, it was the war years; we were young, and we knew he might never come back, and I wanted to have his babies," she said, grinning happily at Beth, before looking back at me, her grin disappearing into a more somber look. "And he never did -- until now." She released my hand, taking it back to hold and look at the picture two handed for a moment.
"He asked me to marry him, but we didn't have enough money for a ring. We were going to wait to tell everyone once we got the ring. He figured we'd have enough saved up by January, so we said if he didn't get shipped out first, we'd get married on Valentine's Day." She paused in her tale, obviously tired, but I suspected also reliving the memory again. Moments later she continued, "The last thing he ever said to me was the night before he left. He was walking to the bus to go back to base; he turned around, pointed his finger at me and winked and said "Don't wait for me!"