I have done a lot of public speaking in support of Fireball, most recently this past Sunday at Way Public Library in Perrysburg, Ohio, just south of Toledo. I looked out on a large and enthusiastic crowd, especially for a snowy Sunday afternoon in the middle of the worst winter anyone can remember.
In case you don’t know, Fireball is the irresistible story of Carole Lombard’s hurly-burly life and the circumstances that led to her last fatal trip aboard TWA Flight 3 along with 21 other souls, which ended in catastrophe just west of Las Vegas on January 16, 1942. Reviewers are calling Fireball a thriller, a page turner, a heartbreaker, and a book that’ll make you cry. It really is. I didn’t realize it myself until I reviewed the audiobook and heard the story performed by national voice talent Tavia Gilbert.
But there are some smiles in Fireball too. On Sunday in Perrysburg I told the crowd that I had found a survivor of Flight 3, a woman who had flown cross-country with Carole Lombard on January 16 and lived to tell the tale. You should have seen their faces. Mouths hung open. There were even some gasps. I always liken this survivor to hundred-year-old Rose Dawson whose memories form the basis for the plot of Titanic. Mary Johnson is my Rose Dawson, and at age 94 the unknown survivor of a catastrophe.
Mary was, of all things, a young aviation researcher working for the feds and NACA (the precursor to NASA) at Moffett Airfield, California. She had been on assignment in Washington, DC, and was heading for home that fateful day. To show you what a small world we live in, I worked in the same wind tunnel (the 7×11 wind tunnel) at Moffett Field in 2007 and 2008 during my NASA years that Mary had worked in during World War II.
Mary was in her seat on Flight 3 when Carole Lombard, Elizabeth Peters (Carole’s mom), and Otto Winkler (Clark Gable’s publicist) boarded in Indianapolis. Mary then flew all the way to Albuquerque sitting two rows behind Carole, enduring stops in St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, and Amarillo. These weren’t fun stops either. There were weather and cargo delays for the plane and Miss Carole Lombard was anything but happy.
In Albuquerque a big clot of Army Air Corps personnel needed to fly west and all seven civilians on Flight 3 were ordered off the plane to make room for these priority passengers. Mary Johnson and three others gave up their seats; Carole Lombard refused to surrender her three tickets, so she stayed on the plane, and Mary Johnson’s dream of seeing Clark Gable up ahead in Burbank ended in what was the worst moment of her young life. Then the unthinkable happened and, said Mary Johnson, “Suddenly Clark Gable didn’t seem that important.”
I caught up with Mary Johnson Savoie near the end of the Fireball project. She’s right up there with the most interesting people I’ve ever met—smart, funny, and possessing vivid memories of that winter’s day. Just a couple of weeks prior to seeing Carole, Mary had been at the White House where she laid eyes on FDR and Winston Churchill, and after living through the crash of Flight 3 she went on to a rich full live with a husband and kids and became a world traveler. Hers is one of the central storylines in Fireball and yet another of a hundred layers of irony in its pages.
For me it was the biggest kick in the world to hand deliver a copy of the book to Mary this past December, and it was clear to me by the wonderful people surrounding her that Mary is a wonderful person herself and glows with an attitude that embraces life. She has been known to say, “I’ve always been lucky,” but isn’t luck really about the decisions a person makes that sets the stage for magic to happen?
Right now, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Mary is having some health challenges, and I hope you will take a moment to send some positive energy her way. The world needs Mary Johnson Savoie to be up and around and setting an example for all of us to follow, keeping it positive, showing us how to set the stage for good things to happen, and in general making the most of every single day because we just don’t know how many there’ll be.