A Girl Name Frankie
By MacKinlay Kantor
Readers Digest May/1966
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50's main page
So this is 1969, and it is 15 years
since the Bravest Woman in America left off living, and I wonder how many
people have forgotten her, and how many still remember.
Her name was Mary Frances Housley.
She was a stewardess for National Airlines until she relinquished her job
(you might say) in 1951.
"Frankie" Housley -- friends called
her by this nickname -- was 24 years old at the time. So, if she were among
those present now, she'd be 39. I'd picture her residing today in a fairly-new
ranch-style house in a suburb, arguing with a 13-year-old daughter about
whether the little critter should wear stretch-pants to a junior-high school
dance. Or ordering an 11-year-old son to move his model of a lunar vehicle
out of the living room. Or some of those things . . .
The date was Sunday, the 14th of
January. The plane was a DC-4, NAL 83, the Norfolk shuttle, proceeding
on the first leg of its journey: Newark to Philadelphia. The aircraft had
been delayed for minor repairs at Newark while air over much of the northeastern
United States thickened with snow and sleet that early afternoon.
Shortly after 2 p.m., the airplane
approached the field south of Philadelphia close to the Delaware River.
It was a coach trip with only crew of three: pilot and co-pilot, Capt.
Howell Barwick and Edward Zatarain; an Mary Frances Housley, stewardess.
Twenty-five passengers in the cabin looked out at the driving storm. The
smiling Miss Housley reassured them, as she had hundreds of others in months
past, although in truth Mary Frances was no veteran herself. She had been
flying only four months. Some of the passengers were soldiers and sailors;
there was a Marine; there were mothers and children.
Visibility was close to minimum.
Wet snow plastered the ground. At 2:13 p.m. the wheels touched the runway.
The DC-4 thrashed from sided to side as Barwick fought to bring his
braking action to bear. Off the end of the runway, smashing through a fence,
the airplane bridged a 30-foot ditch and lurched to a stop with a scream
of ripped metal. High-octane gas began to spew, and the first flames bloomed.
Start in Knoxville, Tenn., where
she was born , 12th of October, 1926. I found that there was always a hill
in her life, or a height. While she was still baby, her family moved to
a handsome brick house on a peak of the Northern Hills area. And in Knoxville,
at the time, to live in North Hills was something.
Snapshots show Mary Frances as a
chubby child with tousled hair. When she smiled, the smile spread clear
across her face. When she grew older, she liked the name Frankie and tried
to adopt it, as girls do. She didn't get away with it then.
Later, the family moved to Fountain
City, Tenn., to another hill. Seeking the germ of Frankie's greatness,
I drove to Central High School of Fountain City -- sure enough, an other
hill. I didn't know quite how to find out what made her thick. Teacher,
boy friends, girl friends ? I tried them all
"Yes, I thought Latin to Mary Frances
Housley," Mrs. Pace Moore Johnston told me "But I have never contented
myself with teaching Latin as a language. We examine the economics, the
political factors of Rome. Often I have taken my classes to city-council
meetings, so that we might learn something by comparison with the structure
of an ancient state."
She smiled calmly. "Sometimes I
have been criticized for this. People have said, 'If you are teaching Latin
to young folks, you should merely teach Latin.' But on the day when I may
not include the wider and more important studies of humanity in my courses,
I will walk out of this classroom."
It would seem that Mrs. Johnston
included those studies of humanity. Frankie appeared to have picked up
some ideas along that line.
Perhaps she gained them also from
the principal, Miss Hassie K. Gresham. Folks said that Hassie Gresham used
to hold her audiences spellbound as she told incidents from the lives
of serviceman who once attended Central High. On the wall of the auditorium
where she spoke, a marble tablet bore the name of seven Fountain City boys
who died in World War I. Above the list was engraved a paraphrase from
John XV, 13: "Greater love have no men than this: that they lay down their
live for their friends."
In the quiet of the big, bare room
you could very nearly hear Miss Gresham's voice. And in searching amid
fancied rows of attentive teenagers, it was possible to pick out Mary Frances
Housley, her face breaking into vivacity as she smiled at something funny
that Miss Gresham said.
So the record continues. Mary
Frances Scrambled into momentary disaster in teen-age matrimony, and very
shortly scrambled out of it. She worked for a succession of doctors in
Jacksonville, Fla., as office assistant. And the ? bang ? it was 1950,
and her current employer was recalled for active duty with the Navy. Several
other young doctors for whom she might have gone to work faced the same
prospect. That was how it came about that, on September 6, Frankie filled
out an application to work as a stewardess. The very next day was hired.
Home was an apartment in Vernon
Terrace, Jacksonville. Her current roommate was a pretty, gray-eyed girl
named Peggy Egerton, another fledgling stewardess.
. . . Life, said Peggy. How she
loved it! People. Life and people, every waking moment.
"Oh, I'm in love, "Frankie would
cry, coming in at heaven knew what hour. "Peggy, wake up! I've got to tell
you all about it. He's the most wonderful man! I'm in love!"
Eddie George told me about her when
we were having dinner. Eddie had been a B-24 pilot during World War II.
"One night I called Frankie and
asked her for a date, but she already had one. I was tired and sore. I'd
been struggling with the tax return for my tobacco store, and just couldn't
lick it. I had to send it in the next day, but I had bogged down.
"I came into this place, sat down,
looked around ? and there was Frankie. She left her party and came over
to me right away. 'Eddie, have you finished the tax?' she asked. I told
her it was too much for me; I guessed I'd have to be delinquent. 'But you
can't' she said. 'you're supposed to have that done by tomorrow!' I said,
'The hell with it,' and she went back to her party. Next minute here she
was by my side again. on, Eddie. We're going over to your place to work
on the tax. I've told my date good-by. Now come along. 'It took almost
all night for us to work it out."
"Was she in love with you, Eddie?"
"Not me especially. She just loved
Saturday, January 13, Frankie
called Peggy Egerton from the place at Jacksonville airport where stewardess
checked in for their flights.
". . . Darnedest luck," Frankie
lamented. "I've got to work, so no double date tonight. Some girls were
sick, and there was a foul-up."
"Where are you going, Frankie?"
"Oh, up to Newark. Then tomorrow
I've go to work the Norfolk shuttle. I'' be back in Jax on Monday. "They
discussed a future double date, and Frankie's laughter jingled through
Thus she flew on her last trip north.
She proceeded in Flight 83 to Philadelphia on Sunday, January 14, and she
went into the flames.
She forged open the door of the
cabin. It was an eight-foot drop to the sleety ground outside. Had she
willed, Frankie could have taken that drop then and there, and no one would
ever have blamed her. But here were her passengers, and one woman was screaming,
and the children were wailing.
People were twisted in their seats.
Some of the safety belts seemed jammed from impact. Gasoline flames swathed
nearer hauled a dazed passenger nd shoved him into space. Another, the
next was a woman; her coat was on fire. Frankie got her out.
People heard the stewardess's voice.
"Just be calm," she said. "Take it easy, and everybody will get out. There's
nothing to worry about."
Frankie went back into the cabin
Ten passengers she released, and
dragged to the miraculous coolness of the hatch opening. The pretty
enamel on her nails suffered as her fingers clawed at metal fastenings
of the safety belts.
A woman tell it -- a woman who found
herself mauled through seething space, and realized that the door was before
her wrench loose from her savior's hands. "No," the woman cried. "You go
Frankie looked at her wide-eyed.
"I've still got some passengers back there!" -- and the force of her little
body shoved woman out trough the door which opened on life itself.
Some of the soldiers and sailors
helped, dragging less-able people through the hatch, but they were outside
now -- bruised and cut, most of them, from the eight-foot fall. It was
90 seconds since the DC-4 came to broken rest across that ditch, and a
high-octane-gasoline fire doesn't wait for anybody even the prettiest stewardess
you ever wanted to make a date with.
There were still four women tangled
in the forward section of the cabin. Frankie plunged into the reek on her
eleventh trip, and there were two babies up there somewhere, and on of
them was named Brenda Joyce, and she was four months old. And Brenda Joyce
was the one they found in Frankie's arms after the wreckage had cooled.
You go to Fountain City, Tenn.,
on a warm, sunny day, and the willows rim a quiet section along North Broadway
and wave their pliant fingers at anyone who passes by.
You go through an arch marked "Lynnhurst,"
and birds are thick and flowers, too. You follow a long drive west, and
you come at last, past perils of mockingbirds and roses, to an area
where you can stand and see hills on many sides.
Frankie lies on a hill now. Toward
the north s the hill where Central High School looms, and where her principal
used to talk about heroes. Maybe three miles away to the southeast is the
house where she spent the first nine years of her life -- and that is on
a hill also. And away off beyond the environs of Fountain City and Knoxville,
bigger ridges stand purple. You might imagine that Frankie was up there
somewhere, waltzing; she'd says loved to dance.
She could be, too. Could have been
dancing with her darling, and snuggling delightedly with him in bed, running
through life with all the verve, perplexity, heartbreak and exultation
of any young wife during 5000 nights and days of these past 15 years.
Except that something made her go
back into that airplane cabin 11 times, and 11 times was just one time
A crashed airplane is strictly
for the stalwart men in asbestos suits and masks. It is not for the petite
little Miss Pretty -- not unless she is a Mary Frances Housley. Then she
has such love in her heart that no high-octane explosion can ever blast
The fur tree makes a long shadow
on her hilltop grave when the sun is low in the west, but morning sun can
find her sod . . . as brave a woman as ever breathed. There she lies.
Always a hill for Frankie.