Badlands

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Across the Mojave, Potosi’s snow-covered peaks are visible in the distance at left-center due south of Red Rock Canyon’s mouth.

Two years ago right about now, in conjunction with the anniversary of the crash of Flight 3, I was asked to speak in Las Vegas about Fireball, and to appear on the local NPR affiliate. While in the city, Mary and I visited our favorite haunts, which aren’t in Vegas proper at all. They’re the village of Blue Diamond and the Blue Diamond Mine off to the west, which, if you’ve read Fireball, you know are the settings for much of the story.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Tweed Wilson, right, as a young man. Much later he would be the tough old cowboy who led a rescue party up Potosi Mountain.

That day we went on to visit the Spring Mountain Ranch, also known as the Wilson Ranch, in Red Rock Canyon. There on January 16, 1942, Calvin Harper, head loader at the mine, came driving in a hurry on the blackest of nights looking for horses for a rescue mission up Potosi Mountain where “a plane fell.” Willard George answered the door that night and talked first to Harper and then to Maj. Herbert Anderson of McCarran Field in Las Vegas, who was trying to find a reported fire on the mountain due south of Wilson’s ranch. I already described some of our day in Red Rock Canyon, but not the ranch itself.

Visiting what had once been this key spot of ground in Fireball, now a Nevada state park, had a dreamlike quality about it for a number of reasons. The park office, which was a ranch home built at the site six years after the crash, didn’t mention Carole Lombard or Flight 3, but the exhibits bowled me over. First, I saw a 1900 photo of Tweed Wilson and his brother—41 years after it was taken, Tweed led rescuers up Potosi on horseback. And over there sat a framed photo of Willard H. George, a key eyewitness who saw the doomed airliner fly over and later gave testimony that confounded investigating bodies. And there, a photo of the Willard George house as it looked in 1942, just as Harper and Anderson found it that awful night looking for horses and riders for a rescue on the mountain, which seemed to be nearby but was really more than 10 impossible miles away.

I have to say, I experienced a case of the willies at Willard George’s place on this creepy January day with cold, damp fog and periodic rainbows. I had climbed Potosi four years and change earlier and now the place seemed to be welcoming me back, welcoming me home.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Willard George was working on his car when Flight 3 hit Potosi.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The Willard George place at the time of the crash. I learned a flash flood washed it away in the late 1950s.

Each book I write becomes a part of me, not only the people but the places, since I always consider the locations I write about to be characters. In fact, I think I choose my topics in part because of the places involved. Red Rock Canyon and Potosi Mountain were the biggest and baddest I ever encountered, in literature or in person, characters that could kick any Nazi’s ass any day. Tonight, contemplating the anniversary of the crash tomorrow, I’m thinking of a little ranch and some brave men and their horses who took on those badlands of Nevada—the same badlands that had swatted a DC-3 out of the sky, and there went Wayne C. Williams, Morgan Gillette, Alice Getz, Hal Browne, Jr., Kenneth Donahue, Fred Cook, Charles Nelson, Stuart Swenson, James Barham, Robert Crouch, Al Belejchak, Martin Tellkamp, Nicholas Varsamine, David Tilghman, Milton Affrime, Frederick Dittman, Robert and Edward Nygren, Lois Hamilton, Otto Winkler, Elizabeth Peters, and Carole Lombard.

Postscript: Just up the road from the old Wilson Ranch, on lands adjacent to Wilson’s spread, sits the Bonnie Springs Ranch. Once a stagecoach stop and for decades a local attraction with a western town and petting zoo geared for families, is scheduled for the wrecking ball. Please consider signing this petition to save the Bonnie Springs Ranch.

6 comments

  1. I’ve been thinking today of Carole, Petey, Otto and all of those who died 77 years ago tonight. 💜

    Visited Spring Mountain Ranch last July and toured the ranch house. The guide, an elderly gentleman, wasn’t familiar with the crash on Mt. Potosi (I was surprised) but knew who Carole Lombard was. I was drawn to the place, it is so beautiful there! I have Fireball on my kindle so that evening I re-read a few chapters and came upon the part about that ranch and its role that night and during the recovery. I wish I had done that before going there, would have made the experience even more meaningful!

  2. I like that you consider houses and locations as characters in your work. That is how I consider movie settings and movie houses too. They are characters just as the people involved are characters. I am saying a prayer for Carole Lombard and the other souls who were claimed that night, and hope that they are at peace.

    By the way, Tweed is a wicked cool name!

    Thank you for another thoughtful piece!

    Best regards…

    1. I appreciate your continued readership, Bonnie, and that you understand what I mean about places as characters. The mountain in Fireball is a dangerous foe, the muddy air base in Mission a curmudgeonly friend, and the village of Velp in Dutch Girl an elegant old gentleman. They all live and breathe and merit respect.

      1. Robert, it’s my great pleasure to read your work, including these articles! Please keep it coming!

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