The Challengers Aero Club – Chapter 1

Friday after Thanksgiving 1928, Terre Haute, Indiana

Willa Brown pushed open her parents’ front door and stepped out on the stoop. “It stopped snowing,” she called to everyone inside, her breath condensing in the frigid air. “Come on. We’ve got a long drive.” Five­-foot-two Willa cinched the belt of her chic dove­gray overcoat and touched her ears through her matching cloche hat.

She and her fiancé, Jim McClellan, were driving back to Gary, Indiana, that evening, a five-­hour-drive, and as was customary for African-­Americans making a road trip through the South, they dressed in business attire. While technically they weren’t driving through the Deep South, Southern Indiana bordered Kentucky and state lines didn’t confine narrow minds.

Stepping out on the stoop, Willa’s boyfriend paused to button his suit jacket. He ran his hand across the thin fabric on his sleeves and glanced warily at the sky. Two days earlier, the temperature had been in the seventies. He hadn’t anticipated the cold snap. Willa hastened down the narrow stairs and waited by Jim’s dark­green Plymouth roadster.

They’d planned to leave earlier, but with friends and relatives dropping by to meet Willa’s tall, handsome beau, it was 3:30 before they had a chance to break away. The overcast skies made it seem later.

Hallie Mae, Willa’s mother, and Reverend Eric Brown, her father, squeezed onto the stoop behind Jim, causing him to slip on the icy cement. He steadied himself and gingerly descended to join Willa by the car. Following Hallie Mae and Reverend Brown down the stairs were their four sons, an aunt, and a girl cousin.

An icy gust of wind rattled the bare branches of the neighbor’s elm.

“Will you be warm enough?” Hallie Mae asked. Her long braid slipped from her shoulder onto her chest as she leaned forward and crossed her arms against the chill.

“We’ll be fine, Momma.”

Reverend Brown looked up at the sky. “Could be a hard freeze if the clouds lift.”

Willa gave her brothers, father, aunt, and cousin quick hugs. Hallie Mae wrapped her arms around Willa, nearly knocking the hat from her head.

“Momma, I’ll call person­-to-­person collect for myself when we get to Gary. You know what to do?” she said, straightening her hat.

“I’ll say, ‘Willa’s not here,'” answered Hallie Mae.

“Why would you be calling for yourself?” asked Simeon.

Willa grabbed her slender fourteen­-year­-old kid brother around the neck and ground her knuckles into the top of his head. “Simeon Ulysses, think. Why would I be calling Momma collect after driving five hours?” She kissed the spot where she’d rubbed her knuckles and turned him loose. The brothers laughed at Simeon’s expense.

“Oh yeah. So she knows you’re there safe and it won’t cost,” Simeon replied, regaining his composure.

“Okay, that’s it. It’s time to go,” Willa insisted.

“I’ll wait for your call,” said Hallie Mae. “And, Jim, it was a real pleasure meeting you.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Brown,” answered Jim. “I had a fine time.”

Six-­foot-­tall Jim McClellan dwarfed the entire family. The tallest of Willa’s brothers barely cleared five-foot-six. Jim had bunked with them the night before, and for a high school math teacher, they found him a good sport with a great sense of humor. The brothers crowded around to shake his hand and silently admire the new green roadster.

“Jim, Jim,” Simeon raised his voice above the others. “Jim, how’s my big sister doing at Roosevelt High?”

“You’ll have to ask Willa,” Jim said, turning up his coat lapels. “But I’ll say this…” He cupped his hand to his mouth as if he were sharing a secret. “She gives the old biddies the vapors.” The brothers roared. “She’s got her students working in the school office typing, taking shorthand, doing bookkeeping, and I don’t know what. They run the school.”

Willa’s brothers looked at one another, beaming. They knew as much and were pleased to hear it from someone other than family.

“She also makes the girls read about that lady pilot who died. What’s her name?” asked Jim.

“Bessie Coleman,” Simeon answered quickly.

Jim winked at Willa. He knew Bessie Coleman’s name, and everyone else present knew about the famous black pilot. “Willa would teach the boys auto shop if they’d let her.”

Again, everyone laughed because they knew it was true. It was apparent Jim loved their sister. At twenty-­three years old, Willa was the first of her family, and one of the few individuals from her community, to graduate from college and become a schoolteacher. They were proud of her.

No one was a bit surprised when Jim handed her the car keys. “Willa, please drive. You know the roads,” he said, opening the passenger side door. Willa kissed her index finger and touched his lips.

“Mrs. Brown, the sweet­potato pies were delectable.” Jim reached out his hand to Hallie Mae.

“Thank Willa. She made them.” Hallie Mae took Jim’s hand. “Goodness, your ­fingers are freezing.”

“Look at you, Jim! You with only a suit coat.” Papa Brown glanced around at his family. “I don’t think any of us have a coat that will fit you.”

“I’ll be fine, sir. The car has a heater.”

“You just wait right there.” Hallie Mae rushed back into the house and emerged moments later with a faded crazy quilt. “You might want to put it around your shoulders.”

“You didn’t have to, Mrs. Brown. I’ll be fine.”

“Take it,” coaxed Willa, sliding into the driver’s seat. “Or we’ll never get out of here.” She started the car.

“Thank you,” said Jim, taking the blanket and placing it next to him.

An hour out of Terre Haute, ­snowflakes melted and refroze as sleet glistened in the headlights. Jim opened, closed, and opened a vent under the dashboard.

“This car doesn’t have a heater, does it?” asked Willa.

“No, but the salesman said if I open the vent down there, heat from the motor is supposed to warm the cabin. That’s probably as good as it’s going to get.” He rubbed the palms of his hands together under the vent. “That white professor who dropped by yesterday, what was his name?”

“Dr. Miller,” said Willa, her eyes on the road.

“He put me through a grilling. I thought your parents might be tough to meet, your father being a minister, but they turned out to be sweethearts. Dr. Miller wanted to know if I was good enough for you.”

“Don’t take it like that. He thinks highly of you. He told me so. He’s recommending me for a master’s degree program at Northwestern University. He thinks I should eventually leave teaching and become an administrator. And this master’s program could lead to that.”

“Are you going to consider it?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Would you be interested?”

Jim laughed. “If I wanted to become a school administrator, my name would be Coach.”

“Be serious. Do you want to teach math the rest of your life?”

“Seriously? I like teaching, but I don’t know if I can do it for five more years.” He leaned back and blew his breath into his palms. “I learned last week that old man Jenkins, our esteemed city alderman, isn’t running for reelection…and––”

“Of course, you should run,” Willa interrupted.

“I didn’t say I was running. I have a year before I have to make a decision. I think…well, I believe…I could win that seat, considering population changes and church congregations. On paper, the numbers add up. I’m thinking about it.”

“That’s a year away. It’s a start. After three or four years as alderman, you could run for Congress! I’ll be your campaign manager.”

“Before you elect me president, I nominate that blanket your momma loaned us as my running mate.” He picked up the quilt and threw it over his shoulders as if he were a musketeer donning a cape. “How do I look?” he asked, arching his eyebrows like a silent­ movie idol.

Willa glanced over and chuckled. “That’s my baby blanket, by the way.” Seeing a turn in the road ahead, she pressed on the brake and the car skidded sideways.

“Whoa.” Jim let go of the quilt and put both hands on the dashboard.

“There’s ice on the road,” Willa said to herself and managed to recover. At thirty­ five miles an hour, the Plymouth was approaching the turn too fast. She downshifted to second gear and tapped the brake gently. When that didn’t slow the car, she pulled back hard on the hand brake. The tires locked but failed to grab on the ice­slicked pavement.

The roadster drifted through the turn, tore out a fence, and crashed brutally into an irrigation ditch.

The car horn blared for several seconds and then went silent as Willa slumped from behind the steering wheel onto the seat where Jim should have been. Her bobbed hair flecked with bits of glass. Deep gashes to her jaw and cheek began to fill with blood.

Outside of the car under the open passenger side door, Jim lay motionless. He held Willa’s cloche hat in his hand as light sleet continued to fall and darkness overtook the country road.

A white police officer held a flashlight between his teeth while lifting Willa’s stretcher into an ambulance. The rookie driver slammed the van’s back door shut and nodded anxiously toward the icy pavement. “Damned ice. I nearly cracked up on Beaton Road,” he said, clapping his gloved hands. “I don’t know what to do. Can I take her to Hillsdale and see if they’ll make an exception?”

The officer flicked away his frozen saliva from the flashlight. “They ain’t gonna accept her.”

“But county hospital is twenty miles away, and Hillsdale’s only three,” figured the driver. “She probably won’t make it either way.”

“You’ll add more ‘an six miles to your trip. All Nigras go to county, no exceptions.” The officer’s flashlight beam swept from the sleet­mottled quilt covering Jim McClellan’s body to the wrecked Plymouth. “What a shame. It’s a really nice car.”

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