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.
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.
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.