5. Beryl Markham.
Fictional heroine Ace Carroway loves to fly and faces danger with grit. Real past and present pilots have that same love and that same courage. I’d like to pay some homage to a few of them in this blog.
I discovered Beryl Markham (1902-1986) later than I ought. I had half a dozen Ace Carroway stories drafted by the time I read her memoir “West with the Night.” Ace fought bad guys and lions, flew like an ace, solved problems like a UNIVAC, and wielded a wrench like a master mechanic. Too much for a real person, right? Well, Beryl Markham, a real person, did all that, and more: she also had an affinity for horses and was involved in all aspects of thoroughbred racing.
Beryl Markham’s memoir is fabulous. Hemingway (yes, the Hemingway) admired it, saying, “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. … this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.” High praise on the one hand, and sexist and snipey on the other. Hemingway was not without his own arrogance, one might note. Put lipstick and a bra on Hemingway and make him look in the mirror, and he’d declare himself an unpleasant girl and high-grade bitch.
Here’s a line taken at random from the memoir, by way of example of its quality. A child of England growing up in East Africa, Beryl had just spent most of a night at a Kikuyu tribal dance with Kibii, a Nandi boy. They left before dawn. “We liked walking in the dark, past the edge of the forest, listening to the shrill cry of the hyrax and the noise of the crickets that sounded like the snipping of a million shears.”
Lovely writing. And also, this is how Beryl grew up. Helicopter parents, take note, this little blonde girl was left to run unsupervised through 1910 Africa. She became acquainted with all of Africa’s dangers, from the Siafu ant to the angry bull elephant. Of the two, Beryl feared the ant more. I mentioned lion, above, and Beryl was indeed attacked by a bachelor lion when she was a girl. As she ran around her father’s ranch and the surrounding wilds of Africa, she was injured frequently, but the lion attack was a few notches more serious than average. She survived, and remained fearless. She survived to age 83, bearing numerous scars of mostly forgotten origins.
As regards aviation, a pilot named Tom Black (destined to win the London to Melbourne Centenary Air Race in 1934) taught Beryl how to fly a Gipsy Moth. In 18 months, she had earned a “B license” which granted her independence, enabling her to carry passengers or mail. She carried both, and from the proceeds bought an Avian and leased a Leopard Moth. She scouted elephants for rich big-game hunters, and one of these invited her to London. One thing led to another, and she accepted a challenge to fly the Atlantic against the wind, east to west.
Her grueling flight was made especially harrowing because of a storm, followed by an intermittent fuel line blockage. The last hundred miles were characterized by the engine dying for unpredictable amounts of time. The Vega Gull, a very advanced aircraft for 1936, glided until fuel flowed again, and the engine would restart. Over swampy New Brunswick, but short of her goal of Sydney airport, the engine died for the last time, and she crash-landed, dashing her head against the cockpit when the landing gear sank instantly into the muck and the plane tipped forcefully nose-down.
She had accomplished the goal, however, and the American press mobbed her when she eventually arrived in New York. The flash of fame was brief, and Beryl moved on to other endeavors. Her interests always drifted toward thoroughbred horses, and Africa. She lived her later years in and near the Nairobi race track.
Ace Carroway was meant to be a larger-than-life character. As it turns out, she’s merely Beryl Markham’s wingman.