Carole Lombard Las Vegas

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.

Legacy

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenIt’s 75 years plus one day after one of the most important women in America went up in flames. The way she died reflected the life that had preceded it: Charge ahead, accomplish at top speed, damn the consequences. Charging ahead that January 16, a Friday evening, had fatal consequences when her plane struck a mountaintop west of Las Vegas at 185 miles an hour. Up she went with Petey, Otto, and 19 other humans in a fireball seen in the moonless sky for 50 miles.

The latest couple of generations, your average people on the street, don’t even recognize the name Carole Lombard, but in the 1930s and 40s she made dozens of motion pictures and earned a higher salary than any other actress in Hollywood. She was thought to be a glamour-puss but at heart remained a Hoosier from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a tomboy.

Lombard’s Hoosier generosity drifted gently across hedonistic Hollywood as she launched careers and rescued the occasional soul. Among those she nudged on the path toward greatness were Lucille Ball, future queen of television, and Robert Stack, the future Elliott Ness then just starting out.

The tomboy aspect made Lombard a fearless champion of women’s rights in a town then—as now—ruled by men. She cursed like a dockworker and, when irritated, told many a Hollywood executive to “kiss my ass.” In fact, she had “kiss my ass” etched in brass plates and placed on the doors and walls of her home. She gave interviews where she disclosed how she “lived by a man’s code” and proceeded to do just that. In 1938 she looked a reporter in the eye and stated, “There is nothing I’m afraid of.” She espoused equality of the sexes and the still-yearned-for-today equal pay, and more than held her own on male-dominated soundstages where she knew as much about camera setups and lighting as many of the hard-nosed crew members around her. She was certain she would move behind the camera one day and produce and direct motion pictures, which women weren’t doing at that time. She also knew she would move other talented women into prominent roles alongside her.

As World War II edged closer to the American consciousness, Carole Lombard the New Deal Democrat and fan of FDR began to drape herself in the flag. There was nothing unusual about this action because movie stars routinely told the public what the public wanted to hear. But Lombard put her money where her mouth was, literally. When it was revealed that in 1937 she paid all but $20,000 of her half-million-dollar salary in taxes, she said, “Taxes go to build schools, to maintain the public utilities we all use, so why not? I live accordingly, that’s all.”

There was some sort of cosmic justice involved when this woman who once professed that “Hollywood marriages can’t succeed” fell in love with the fan-voted king of Hollywood, Clark Gable. They became Hollywood’s most beautiful and unconventional couple—unconventional because he was still very much married to another woman for the first two years of the relationship. When Gable finally untangled himself, he and Lombard eloped in the spring of 1939 during production of Gone With the Wind and settled into life on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley dubbed “the house of the two Gables.”

They were the Brangelina of their day, certainly in popularity, but Gable loathed the press and kept as low a profile as a king could keep. Lombard never met a camera she didn’t like, or as close friend Alice Marble put it, “What a ham! What a ham!” The marriage of self-involved Gable and socially conscious, shutter-loving Lombard worked for a while, but by the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor late in 1941, cracks were showing in their marital veneer, in part because of Gable’s alley-cat prowling. The newly formed Hollywood Victory Committee went searching for a star to host the first event to raise funds for national defense against Japan and Germany. Lombard leapt out of her seat to volunteer and plans quickly developed for a wintertime trip to Indianapolis where she would sell war bonds in the capitol building of her home state.

As described in Fireball from GoodKnight Books, the resulting trip played out like a triathlon. Three days by train with whistle stops preceded arrival in Chicago and a day of appearances there. Then a commute to Indianapolis for 12 hours where she faced the crush to deliver two heartfelt speeches broadcast on national radio, and participate in two flag raisings, a tea, a dinner, and two receptions, all of which helped to raise $2 million for the war effort in one long day—four times the amount projected.

At the end of that January 15, she decided she had done her duty and now it was time to take care of Carole Lombard by getting home to her carousing husband by the fastest means possible. That meant air travel, something expressly forbidden because of the fear of accidents in wintry weather or sabotage by Hitler’s spies. To which the response was predictable: Kiss my ass.

At 7:20 local time on January 16, the brightest flame in Hollywood suddenly grew into the brightest flame on Mt. Potosi, Nevada, when TWA Flight 3 failed to clear the 9,000-foot peak and hit near-vertical cliffs. It took the better part of 24 hours to sort it all out and come to grips with the fact that force-of-nature Lombard now ranked as the highest-profile casualty in the new world war. Seventy-five years and one day ago she rode to glory at age 33, leaving behind a legend as Hollywood’s most original movie star along with a legacy of charity to her fellow humans and service to a nation just beginning to understand what sacrifices lay ahead.

A Stretch of Desert

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

Frustrating. Torturous. Maddening. She forces her legs down the steps of the DC-3 Sky Club for the umpteenth time. She’s so weary she can’t even remember all the stops, but among them have been St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, and, of course, Albuquerque. Petey is practically a statue at this point and is not speaking to anyone or even getting off the plane most stops—except this time in Las Vegas she’s stretching her legs if not actually participating in conversation.

They’re so close to home. So painfully close. All that separates her, Petey, and Otto from their own warm beds is one last stretch of desert out there in the blackness of night. She’s told it’s only one hour by air from McCarran Field in Las Vegas to Burbank where Pa will be waiting for her, and Stuart for Petey and Jill for Otto. They’ll all be there, and she and Pa can finally make up for their knock-down-drag-out of a week earlier. Can it be a week already since he had left for New York? Yes, a week exactly, and how much she has seen and done since then, including this latest cross-country adventure courtesy of TWA. She can’t wait to tell him about all of it—every last story she’s been saving day by day. They’re already on their third set of pilots and third time zone in a long and grueling passage. They hadn’t slept at all Thursday night, and sleeping hasn’t really been possible today given the cold at 10,000 feet and the relentless screaming of the engines of the plane on either side of the cabin.

Coca-Colas and cigarettes have kept her going as they always do, and she is tired and hungry despite having just eaten on the plane, and boy does her posterior hurt. Everything hurts after going a million miles an hour yesterday in Indianapolis and then 180 miles an hour on the plane ever since. But finally the end is in sight after fog, headwinds, turbulence, mail delays, passenger delays—17 hours coast to coast my ass.

Nightfall has been chasing them west for quite a while and finally swallowed the plane up prior to landing here at this desolate little piece of nowhere. Las Vegas is fit for an Army base maybe but not for much else except coyotes. They’ve waited what seems like forever for fuel in the little Western Air building, the passengers milling about, including 15 Army boys that started out full of energy but have quieted down a bit. Her own companions sit there under thunderclouds, but at least Petey and Otto understand now: She had been right to ditch that stupid train in favor of a quick—well, everything’s relative—straight shot from Indianapolis to Hollywood. Two solid days on the train versus less than one by air? No contest!

She knows she hasn’t been her usual self today, and Petey has every right to be furious with her for needing to get home to a cheating husband as fast as possible. Petey has worked very hard to give Clark a chance and Petey likes Clark, but he is what he is, which amounts to a long set of pluses and an important set of minuses. Plus number one: He is Clark Gable, deemed the most attractive and marketable man in the world. Minus number one: He is Clark Gable, who draws women like a magnet and doesn’t have a whole lot of willpower to turn them down when propositioned, and that happens every single day when he’s out of her sight.

Still, she has so much to live for, work toward, and dream about. Sooner or later she’ll be able to carry a child to term, and that will change everything. It has been so much fun since Fieldsie has a little boy and Freddie does too and how Pa will love being a, well, pa. They’ll find the right formula sooner or later. And her career is rebounding, with a new picture previewing in three days that she believes might be her best yet and certainly is the most important yet given the world situation, plus she has two more lined up after that, both romantic comedies. So many people in her life need her and she loves to be able to help her family and friends. Loves it more than anything. So it’s important to keep making pictures and keep the money coming in, so she can help.

Then the big thing. The biggest thing. The war means new responsibilities, and she has already seen how important she can be and how much she can contribute and needs to contribute.

The station man calls the passengers to line up to board. A couple of the Army fellows ask her for autographs and she smiles as genuinely as she can given everything and signs, and then the door opens and they file out into the cold night air to the plane. She puts an arm around Petey on one side, and Otto puts a hand under Petey’s elbow to steady her up the steps on the other. What a godsend Otto is. She gets Petey in her seat and then settles into her own and fastens her seat belt. One more hour, then in the arms of her man. She’s going to talk his ear off all right, and he will kid her for not shutting up for the first hours they are together again. But driving him crazy is half the fun.

She can see the pilot up there working the controls and hears the engines sputter to life. One more hour. So much to live for. Almost home.

Pinnacle

Unexpected. Overwhelming. Astonishing. She steps out of a car at the Indiana State Capitol to a sea of bundled souls. If they’d been locusts they’d constitute a plague; if bees they’d be a swarm. But they’re people and they’ve besieged the Capitol. A military honor guard from the Culver Academy stands at attention 30 strong in present-arms. Police officers with batons keep a watchful eye of the cordons. A raft of newsreel cameras on tripods is ready along with a firing squad of photographers facing the platform where she will speak to the nation. When she climbs the steps onto the platform alongside Indiana’s governor, the mayor of Indianapolis, and others, all she can see are humans stretching back along the plaza all the way past the cross street and buildings beyond, a full fraction of a mile. Thousands of people—maybe tens of thousands.

It’s Thursday, January 15, 1942, and Carole Lombard has arrived. In every sense of the word, she has arrived. Never the most popular actress. No Academy Awards. A penchant for headline-grabbing that puts some in Hollywood off. A social climber, others say, for marrying king-of-the-movies Clark Gable. But today she will just be herself and let the chips fall, here in her home state among thousands of friends and family, people with her sensibilities and values.

For the next eight hours she will be in constant motion, deliver five speeches of varying lengths, shake thousands of hands, remember every name of every person she just met 10 minutes earlier, charm wallets into the open air, and sell four times the pre-event estimate in U.S. war bonds.

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

Leaving the Capitol after a speech and frenzy of bond selling. [©2013 by GoodKnight Books. All rights reserved.]

It had been a long road traveled to reach this point for the girl born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, quiet unassuming Jane who had been transplanted from Indiana to Southern California at an early age and caught the acting bug as a teenager at a time when motion picture studios had been a ravenous people mill. Jane-turned-Carole managed to get a few parts that impressed no one, and then her face had been torn up in a car crash that, it was assumed, had ended the journey. But those who believed her to be finished didn’t know this iron-willed girl who accepted the facial scars from the accident and moved on to start over in Hollywood.

The life that followed had been a full one, with its share of successes, failures, and controversies. No one so unconventional as to be labeled “Hollywood’s profane angel” would be universally loved, but all who truly knew her would be won over. Now here she stands in the spotlight in what she recognizes will be the high point of her life. If she lives another 40 or 50 years there will never be a day to top this one, when the self-acknowledged “ham” will kill more flashbulbs and magazines of film than any other celebrity on the planet. She’s in her glory, so on message, so keyed up, at times nervous to say the right thing. But all eyewitnesses will agree that she never once slips or fails to live up to the demands of the moment. She nails it. She hits every mark and delivers every line from the first public appearance at the train station to the last, a cameo at the Indiana Roof ballroom next door to her hotel where she steals the mic and makes a final plea to “buy a bond!” Every take is Cut and Print, to use the lingo she understands so well.

Gracious.

Radiant.

Genuine.

Humble.

Warm.

Vibrant.

These are words used most often to describe Carole Lombard this day. As revealed in an audio recording that surfaced recently courtesy of Lombard enthusiast Brian Anderson, Carole is heard displaying all the poise of her hero FDR in a speech in front of 12,000 who are all but hanging from the rafters at the giant Cadle arena in downtown Indianapolis.

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

Hours later still going strong with Otto by her side as she chats with an official. [©2013 by GoodKnight Books. All rights reserved.]

An hour later she’s running on pure adrenalin in her Claypool Hotel suite greeting cousins and friends from Fort Wayne. Her mother, the 65-year-old Petey, is all-in but not Carole. Carole knows what she’s just accomplished and she pronounces it enough. Tomorrow morning she’s to appear at Wasson’s Department Store down the street to sell more bonds but she knows she’s already raised $2 million. In other words she’s done her duty, as have the people of Indianapolis. It’s a wrap. Rather than depart on the train tomorrow, Carole pronounces that she, Petey, and Otto Winkler the PR man are packing and leaving tonight, and not by train, by air. Eight hours of absolute power have corrupted absolutely. They’re taking the first available flight west, Carole proclaims to the shock of Petey and Otto. Both protest, but Carole knows how safe air travel is these days, and she swears they’ll both thank her when tomorrow night at this time they are snug in their beds at home and not in the middle of nowhere on some damn train. Otto digs in his heels so she turns magnanimous and offers to leave it to the fates. A coin flip. Call it, Otto, heads—or tails?

With furious packing, consternation, and hurt feelings, the most successful day of her life ends. With a vengeance.

Learn all about Carole Lombard’s life and death in the expanded trade paperback edition of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by GoodKnight Books.

Those Damn Peaks

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

Carole Lombard and dignitaries just off the east steps of the Indiana State House in Indianapolis on January 15, 1942. As of now, she had less than 36 hours to live.

If you’ve read Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, you know the significance of January 16; a year ago, since the date coincided with the fall of weekdays culminating in Friday January 16, I conducted a Twitter campaign to take you minute by minute through Carole Lombard’s last hectic 36 hours of life in real-time. That exercise taught me just how fast she careened toward her own death. It’s 11:30, she’s here; it’s 12:15, she’s there; 2:05, time for a wardrobe change to be here at 2:15. She had spent Thursday January 15, 1942 dashing and appearing. Make a speech, sell bonds, dash a few blocks to raise a flag, change clothes, go to a tea, change clothes, go to dinner uptown, then motorcade to the evening “gala.”

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

Mary Anna Johnson was a young federal researcher when she saw Carole Lombard board TWA Flight 3 in Indianapolis. Mary would be bumped from Flight 3 before it crashed, and tell me all about the experience 70 years later.

Last year’s Twitter recreation of the timeline for today, January 16, took a more linear turn. Imagine you’re flying west on a TWA red-eye, and it’s the middle of the night and you stop in lonely Indianapolis. Modern air travelers have no frame of reference for what a DC-3 interior was like. Basically you sat in the equivalent of a big tin can, sloped uphill, in terrific noise. You can’t imagine the noise of two commercial transport engines on either side of you, so if you got on the plane at LaGuardia or Newark and hopped your way west, by the time you reached Indianapolis, you were bushed. Sleep, when it came at all, was fleeting and fitful. Then as you sit in the silence of a darkened tarmac (the tinnitus of those engines still in your ears), your flight attendant, known then as an “air hostess,” announces that a VIP is boarding and please respect her privacy. Onto the plane steps Carole Lombard, her mother, and their PR man, with Lombard still wired from all she had experienced in the last 18 hours, from her first appearance in Indianapolis on.

As I write this I guess she’s somewhere over Missouri and now she’s sleeping fitfully and fleetingly while flying beside and in front of two passengers who are spitting mad at her for making them travel by air at all. Spitting mad. This is one of many aspects of the story that people don’t quite get because there are no photographs to depict it and few eyewitnesses spoke of it, but this party was Unhappy with a capital Un. Carole’s mother, whom she knew as “Petey” sometimes and “Tots” most of the time, would go to her fiery death furious at her daughter. PR man Otto Winkler would spend his last day trapped on the tin can and anticipating an air disaster because he had dreamed it would happen. So here he is right now over Missouri, expecting the worst after he had expended all his energy in Indianapolis and then hadn’t slept all night. Imagine, just imagine…

Stop after stop followed as the TWA’s transcontinental Flight 3 hedge-hopped west, stopping to pick up and drop off passengers and mailbags and to top off the tanks for the next leg. Then there’s another aspect of the thousand aspects to the story: the Army Air Corps guys. They had gotten onto the plane in dribs and drabs and by the last stop, the unscheduled stop in Las Vegas, there were 15 of these fliers on the plane as passengers, and only four civilians. One of the reasons I decided to write the manuscript I’m finishing today, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, is because of the affinity I feel for the Air Corps boys after writing Fireball. Newspapers reporting the crash of the plane gave the impression these young men were all pilots, but they weren’t. They were also co-pilots, navigators, radio men, and engineers. They were parts of flight crews in the Ferrying Command who took medium and heavy bombers east to the war, then snagged commercial flights back to California and did it over again. In the coming months these young guys were expecting transfer to American bases where they would train Air Corps conscripts because experienced Air Corps fliers were in short supply. Then after promotions they’d head to Europe or the Pacific as senior-level officers or non-coms.

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

A TWA DC-3 transcontinental Sky Club of the kind that crashed on this date in 1942 killing the flight crew, 15 Army Air Corps fliers, and four civilians, including Carole Lombard.

The life of an army aviator wasn’t easy because their ships were reliable and yet not at all reliable. We were then just out of the era of the biplane and still figuring out multi-engine aviation. Here’s something else to think about: When TWA Flight 3 took off into the Las Vegas darkness on this night, January 16, the 15 fliers sat there in the noise analyzing climb rate and engine performance. They could feel the overweight ship laboring to reach altitude because this is what they did for a living—they flew multi-engine planes. And since they were flying out of McCarran, an army airfield, they all knew Vegas and the dangers of the surrounding mountains and must have been wondering where those damn peaks were. But some of them also knew the pilot, Capt. Wayne Williams, because he had been teaching classes for the Army in multi-engine flying so they’d figure, with Capt. Williams up there, we’re OK.

They weren’t OK. A whole bunch of little things happened along the way that conspired to put Mt. Potosi in the way of Flight 3 as she power-climbed to altitude. The result: fireball—the image in my mind for years as I’d fly through Vegas and look over at Potosi and imagine what the people of Las Vegas witnessed in the western sky this night at about 7:30 local time. From 30 miles off they saw a little pinpoint of light that represented 22 humans going up in flames. I’m very fond of, and feel close to, all of them, not just Carole, Petey, and Otto, and on this January 16, with the trees barren and the sky appropriately gray, I’ll look at my watch and think about where they were and what they were doing on this, the last day of their lives.

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

Mt. Potosi, Nevada. Imagine TWA Flight 3 coming into view from the right and power climbing toward the distant peaks. At just about dead center in the photo she hit the rock cliff walls just below the peak in the dark at 185 miles per hour.

Killer

A group of men climbed a mountain on January 17, 1942. Men had been climbing mountains for thousands of years before that, but these men were special. They were in a rush. They didn’t know exactly where they were going, and they were underequipped, underdressed, and underfed for the climb. History forgot these men, but I had a feeling they had a story worth telling. Brother was I right.

Ron Kantowski, a writer for the Las Vegas Tribune-Review, reminded me this week about these men when he climbed Mt. Potosi to the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3, where Carole Lombard and 21 others died on the evening of January 16, 1942. I hadn’t met Ron when I was researching Fireball in the Vegas area or when I stopped there on the book tour last year. I wish I had, because Ron gets Fireball. He took inspiration from Fireball and decided to make the climb himself.

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

Mt. Potosi as seen from Ninety-Nine Mine Road. The outcropping at center-right is an hour’s hike/climb away up a boulder-strewn dry wash. Then you cut left along the line of green at the right edge of the photo, which is where the loose shale begins. Then you go UP. The outcropping seems to be the peak but no, it’s just a foothill.

Ron documented his climb in a Review-Journal piece that to me was validation. Mt. Potosi kicked my butt the day I climbed it and left me bruised and bleeding after falling and bouncing off rocks onto other rocks, with enough cactus embedded in my arm to make a hairbrush. I could feel cactus needles in my arm for a year after the climb; there will always be cactus needles in my arm. “Something to remember me by,” I can hear Potosi saying.

Guess what? Kantowski’s experience was similar, like reporting cuts and bruises and torn clothes. Like getting mired on all fours in shale, which doesn’t sound like peril but try it on a 45-degree mountainside with a drop of a couple thousand feet behind you. The oddest thing about the Potosi climb was going up facing the mountain, focused on each branch to hold on to, choosing rock ledges carefully because some were solid and some weren’t. Going up occupied my brain so completely that I didn’t think much about getting back down until I started the descent. Then the realization: holy shit, I can see all the way down. Thousands of feet down.

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

After 2.5 hours of climbing, you reach a ridge. Across a valley you can make out the destination, visible through trees at lower-center.

There’s a way to access the crash site along the ridge that calls for driving and then hiking, but it’s the long way and first responders to the plane crash followed a more direct route. The leader of this group was a Clark County deputy sheriff named Jack Moore; the group also contained a former high school football star named Lyle Van Gordon who climbed into the morning sky like a rocket that day and reached the crash scene, in two feet of snow, long before the others.

I’ve been told that the most powerful moment in Fireball is when Van Gordon climbs up to where he can first see gleaming silver aluminum from the plane and believes that it has crash landed; that he can smell wood smoke from a campfire built by survivors. Van Gordon was an uncompromising man, not the friendliest in the world, but in this moment having just made that climb his intentions were pure. He represented the best in all men. Because he did smell a campfire, because the aluminum gleamed silver in the morning sun, he believed in a happy ending. It becomes chilling because of what happens next.

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

The plane, in a million pieces large and small, ended up in a ravine. This is the lower end of the ravine, where Lyle Van Gordon climbed 73 years ago until he could see gleaming airplane ahead. The first pieces of debris that I saw that day were spotted here, far below the impact point.

Ron alluded to this passage in his column—he and I both understand that moment, having stood where Van Gordon stood in a place that I guess is beautiful for a limitless view toward the north, with Las Vegas spread out 30 miles off like Plasticville. To me Potosi is a harsh place. A savage, unforgiving place. It was harsh prior to the crash, and it was harsh after the crash. It will always be harsh. Brittle, brown desert that goes straight up. Potosi is a killer—that’s the truth of it. Anyone who scales its heights is lucky to come down more or less intact.

The crash site is about to grow a lot less accessible in coming weeks, as the heat takes over, bringing with it all the trappings of a desert summer. Round about October nature will unlock the peaks of Potosi again for the next adventurer. I know I want to go back one of these days to pay my respects to the 22 lost there, and 6 men who scaled a mountain.

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

This photo of a random spot of ground at the crash site shows the amount of debris on the mountain. The more you study the photo, the more pieces of airplane you can find.

Fireball in Las Vegas

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

Las Vegas features a giant that dwarfs even the mightiest casino. That giant is Mt. Potosi, which looms high in the southwestern sky and can be seen from nearly every vantage point in town. You can’t see it if you’re standing behind the Luxor, or Caesar’s, or the other casinos, but if you’re out and about, Potosi can’t be missed. Potosi is where life ended for Carole Lombard and where life began for Fireball. Each year when I’d visit Las Vegas on business, there would be Potosi, never an inviting sight, but always a compelling sight. I knew the wreckage of Flight 3 was up there, and I knew that one day I would go see it. This is not new information to anyone who has read the book, but I bring up the subject of Potosi again because I just returned from my most important visit yet to Las Vegas after four TV interviews and two on radio, and a Saturday lecture at the impressive Sahara West Library on Sahara Avenue.

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

On Las Vegas NBC affiliate Channel 3 with Tom Hawley talking about the 1942 plane crash near their town. [Clicking on the image takes you to the TV segment.]

Sahara is a street that’s important to the narrative of Fireball, because at the intersection of Sahara and Las Vegas Boulevard, Clark Gable spent the longest weekend of his life, waiting in a bungalow under heavy guard at the El Rancho Vegas Hotel for word on the fate of his wife. Back then the El Rancho stood alone in desert as the southernmost point in town and the first of the modern casinos. Now the site of the El Rancho is one of the last remaining empty lots in that stretch of the Vegas Strip. Nothing’s been there since the main building, the Opera House theater and casino, burned to the ground in 1960 during a Betty Grable appearance (Betty reportedly lost $10,000 in costumes that night). The owner tried to keep going on just the cluster of bungalows around the casino-in-cinders, but it didn’t work.

One of those bungalows had been Gable’s, and I have stood at the spot and pondered what he went through that weekend as he stared at Potosi, what his MGM handlers went through, and Gable’s friends, who rushed to his side by the carload when they heard that Carole’s plane was down. My appearance on that street, in that city, with Potosi visible just to the southwest, was what I can only describe as meant to be.

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

The first modern Las Vegas casino complex, the El Rancho Vegas, along Highway 91 just south of town. Here Clark Gable endured the longest weekend of his life.

On Saturday the story poured out of me to the assembled crowd of locals; I showed two videos and then came the Q&A. It was fantastic to get the perspective of people who have lived with the story all their lives. One woman remembered as a little girl looking at Potosi and seeing the polished aluminum of the wreck gleaming in the sun. TWA had tried to dynamite the mountainside to cover over the site, but their plan failed and locals for years afterward remembered the eerie, reflective glow of the right wing against the cliff wall.

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

Attendees of the Sahara West event watch one of the GoodKnight Books videos.

Attending on Saturday was well-known Southern California poet Lee Mallory, whose father and stepfather were pilots. Lee’s Uncle Harry grew up in Goodsprings and learned about the crash and aftermath from people who lived it. In fact, those eyewitnesses passed on relics from the crash to Harry, who had them built into a shadow box with brass name plates, and this incredible history display is now in Lee’s possession. Lee hadn’t yet read the book but was able to pepper me with questions that hit on many key facts and myths related to the event. Another attendee firing impressive questions was named Dennis. He had visited local spots connected to Flight 3, like the site of the El Rancho and the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings, where Gable supposedly drank his way through the weekend. No doubt the Pioneer was a player in the tragedy, if not Gable’s home base, because it was here that reporters congregated during days of rescue and recovery. It was a practical matter: in an area so remote, the Pioneer featured the closest telephone and the best way for reporters to get their stories out.

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

Signing books after the lecture and Q&A.

The Sahara West Library is a state-of-the-art facility. I haven’t seen better audio and video capabilities anywhere, and I want to thank Marci Chiarandini for fantastic support throughout the planning and execution of the event.

We also snuck down to L.A. for a couple of days. I paid my usual respects to Carole, Clark, and Petey at Forest Lawn, and we stopped in at Maria’s Italian Kitchen in Encino, which is currently featuring a Fireball tie-in. Patrons bringing a copy of the book into the store receive a discounted meal. The crazy thing is that Maria’s is located near the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Petit Avenue, and Petit Avenue was the address of the Gable ranch. George Healy of Maria’s, who read Fireball and has become one of its leading proponents, wasn’t aware that one of the key locations in the book was less than a quarter mile away! It’s just the latest in a thousand weird little coincidences and ironies around Fireball, which is a very special book to me and, as I’m finding, to a growing number of people around the country.