It’s the evening of December 31st. New Year’s Eve. I’m so done with 2020 and eager for 2021 to begin and be better. It’s a low bar, 2021; you can do it.
Over the past few days, reading news articles looking back over 2020 and focused mainly on its awfulness, I tried to be mindful of the things I’m grateful for. My dogs. My health. My home. My friends.
Included in that last category are a whole host of people I’ve never met in person, likely never will meet, but who reached out to me after reading my book, Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter. Their kindness and sincerity make them seem like friends. From the very first such “fan mail” I received shortly after my book came out in February 2014 to the one that arrived in my Facebook Messenger inbox this morning, my reaction is always the same: giddiness, happiness, and a huge smile, knowing that my writing brought enjoyment to someone else.
Here’s what I now know for sure: Positive feedback from readers is an author’s best reward for the hard work of writing and publishing a book.
In the spirit of saying goodbye to 2020 on a positive note, today I scrolled back through emails and Facebook Messages I received this year about my book. (I maintain a Facebook page for the book, which is a ton of fun, but am not including comments to those posts here.) To keep things in reverse order chronologically, I start with the Facebook Message received this morning.
December 31st – My phone alerts me to someone (not an existing Facebook friend) making a Messenger request to contact me. The name is clearly Scandinavian and the notice indicates that a photo is attached. Unusual. I open Facebook on my desktop and there I see the actual message along with the attached photo, which has the caption: “My P-12.” That tells me it’s someone reaching out because of my father, most likely having read my book. In the late 1970s my father restored and flew a 1929 Boeing P-12 bi-plane. They’re very rare. After a few years flying it in airshows, he donated it to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where it has been on static display ever since. The man writing to me is a SAS Airline pilot who happens to be restoring a P-12. He came upon my name in a comment I made to a photo of my father’s P-12 posted on the Museum of Flight’s Facebook page some time ago, leading him to my personal Facebook page. He has created a Facebook page all about restoring his P-12 as well as the history of the airplane and wondered if I might have additional, unpublished photos of my father’s P-12 he could publish there. I’ve replied, suggesting we exchange emails to make sharing photos and video easier. I look forward to hearing back from him, a fun start to 2021.
November 21st – I receive an email from Buzz, an engineer who worked in Boeing Flight Test 1966-70, being laid off during The Boeing Bust when the company’s workforce was cut from 80,400 to 37,200 between early 1970 and October 1971. My book quotes another flight test engineer, Dennis Mahan, several times. Buzz write to say that he and Dennis were roommates as they both began their careers at Boeing in the ‘60s and he wondered if I had Dennis’ contact info. I did, and reaching out to Dennis, learned all sorts of amusing anecdotes from both men about their wild bachelor days as young engineers living in a rental house on the shore of Lake Washington. Turns out they spent time at Edwards Air Force Base when Boeing was conducting tests there, pretty wild times with plentiful alcohol back in those days. Dennis and Buzz lost contact years ago, so it was gratifying that my book led to them being reconnected as they both approach their eighties. Buzz was in the middle of my book when he wrote me, but shared this: “I forgot to tell you how much I respected your dad. I think everyone who worked in Flight Test would say that Lew was our favorite test pilot. I am enjoying your book. I had to laugh when I saw the photos of the Desert Inn swimming pool. You could always tell when a first-time engineer went to Edwards and stayed at the Desert Inn. They would come back with a nice scab running from the hair line to the end of the nose, the result of a drunken dive into the pool.”
November 9th – A retired airline pilot writes to thank me for my book. He shared an anecdote that related to one of the more memorable incidents I describe in the book – a near-disastrous deep stall initiated by an FAA pilot from which my father was barely able to recover and save the airplane – so I asked if I might share it on the book’s Facebook page. He agreed, so long as it was done anonymously. Here’s the Facebook post I created out of his lovely email. He closed his note with this, “Miss Wallick, you have honored your father well. I am certain he is very proud of you.” Tears leaked from my eyes when I read that. It’s all I ever wanted to achieve with the book, to preserve my father’s legacy and make him proud.
October 17th – Dave Walloch writes to say thank you, again, for my book. He’d just re-read it. A year ago he wrote in part, “Looking forward to reading your book, and just wanted to tell you that we Boeing Wallochs have many times been asked if we were related to the famous test pilot, Lew Wallick.” Dave’s my age, so he enjoys the trips down my memory lanes, so similar to his own. His most recent email says, “I really enjoyed reliving my childhood of wooden hydros, Sting-Rays, and the unique experience of growing-up in the PNW. I did the same stuff, except for the airplanes and water skiing.”
October 17th – Dave’s email was wonderful enough, but a few hours later, another arrived. This time, Jim, a ship captain, wrote to thank me for writing my book. As so often is the case, he had close connections to my world of aviation: his father worked at Boeing from 1933-1968; a Boeing test pilot gave Jim his first airplane ride around 1950; and even though the “call of the sea” won over the allure of the sky, Jim’s work as a ship captain in Southeast Alaska meant lots of time flying in iffy conditions to get to/from a ship. He saw parallels between flying a large commercial jet and maneuvering a cargo ship. Jim now has a grandson pursuing aviation. He closed with, “Thanks for your well-done memoir of your dad’s career. Keep up your writing projects – you have an easy-to-read writing style.” As I struggle to work on my current book-writing project, sometimes falling into that dark chasm of self-doubt, Jim’s words lift me up.
September 16th – I “meet” a woman named Lindsay who recognized my last name after I commented on a Facebook post about the passing of one of my father’s test pilot colleagues. This was on the Seattle Vintage page, a place for sharing old photos and memories of Seattle. In reply to my comment, Lindsay posted a photo from around 1960 showing five people standing next to a small civil airplane; two were her parents, one was my uncle (who eventually became a test pilot but was then a brand new engineer), another was a test pilot I remembered from childhood. We took our conversation off the public page and connected via Messenger and email, swapping photos and stories and finding serendipitous connections between our two families that still astonish and delight me. So much so, I wrote an entire blog post about it.
September 4th – Eric, a reader who is also an aviation nerd (he uses the word “enthusiast”) thanks me for my book, appreciating the anecdotes about life in the Seattle area, where he lived from 1985-2011. After mentioning the deep stall story (noted above by the November 9th correspondent) as just one reason he enjoyed the book, Eric closes with, “I could go on & on but won’t so thank you for the wonderful stories and let’s hope Boeing has a new generation of test pilots emerging with the ‘right stuff’ as your dad’s generation did to regain its past reputation.”
April 27th – A retired airline pilot named Terry writes to share some of the parallels between my life and his own, growing up immersed in the world of experimental aviation. His father was an Air Force test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, where Terry grew up watching all the experimental airplanes and rockets, being around the test pilots including some who eventually went into space. It’s possible our parents met when my father went to Edward AFB for test pilot school in the 1950s. As an airline pilot Terry flew all the Boeing models my father tested, from 707 through 767. His wife grew up in my home town of Bellevue, and they eventually settled in the St. Louis area, on a lake, where his daughters grew up water skiing. It’s these parallels, these similar experiences and connections, that usually prompt someone who has read my book to write to me. They’re the basis of an instant connection.
February 13th – I receive an email from Quinn, a kid I met five years earlier who’s now in college. In 2014 my book had just been published, and I was frequently asked to give presentations. Wanting to provide attendees something more than what they already had in the book, I sought help editing an old video my father had used at his own presentations many years earlier, a video created from an old film that was itself spliced-together film clips from Boeing test flights from the 1950s through 1980s. I often listened to my father provide narration to the original film as it played for his audiences. The later video, however, included narration, the voices of my father and a few other test pilots. But there were some bits in the video that only a true aviation nerd would find interesting; I wanted them removed to prevent boredom and shorten the play time to roughly 20 minutes. My hero was Quinn, then a sophomore at Seattle’s Aviation High School. Quinn was not only smart, but personable and delightful to work with. He accomplished exactly what I hoped for. Fast forward five-plus years and Quinn writes, “I was sitting in class for my aircraft mechanic license, when my instructor had shown me a picture of an old bi-plane at Boeing Field. He pointed out to me an older gentleman in the back ground and said, ‘You know who that is? That’s Lew Wallick! One of the best pilots of his day!’ As soon as he mentioned him I knew I had to reach out and say hello! I’m going full bore into aviation currently. My pilot ratings are getting knocked out. I’m going to school to work on planes, so I can fix them after breaking them, and hopefully one day I can do some real piloting, flight test!” Exchanging a few emails, we discussed the possibility of Quinn stopping in my neck of the woods to refuel as he flew cross-country to gain hours toward various ratings. That didn’t end up happening, both because of winter weather and, eventually, the pandemic. I had mentioned to Quinn my amazement that six years after publication, Growing Up Boeing was still selling copies online. He replied, “I’m really glad to hear your book is reaching people! I can only imagine how you feel after selling a successful book! I would be blown away at people wanting to read a book I wrote about my dad and growing up in the jet age, it’s inspiring and really cool! To this day I cannot believe at how much technology impacts our lives. I mean you, a single human being, have written a book and anyone in the WORLD can read it whenever they want. We take it for granted too often! I see you’re writing another. I can’t wait to read!” I was tickled that Quinn understood how much my book meant to me. He got it. I hope to someday cross paths with Quinn again. Maybe by then Quinn will have reached his goal of becoming a test pilot.
February 5th – A reader named Larry writes to tell me how much he loved my book, sharing his own memories of life in my home town at the same time. Larry went to my high school, the same class as one of my older brothers. His father spent 20 years in the Air Force as a flight engineer, then a couple years in that capacity at Boeing. Larry flew as a pilot for UPS for 30 years. He said my book inspired him to write his own father’s stories. “I’m hoping to start putting together aviation stories of my dad as I’m the only other family member in aviation. He’s been gone five years and then another five with pretty bad Alzheimer’s. When I’m gone, so are all of Dad’s great stories if I don’t put them down. My best to you!” I hope he follows through, even if only his own family members end up reading and treasuring his father’s stories.
I love reading these emails and messages. They’re so affirming, and reassuring. Maybe I’m not an imposter! Maybe I really can write! I make sure to thank each correspondent, letting them know how happy it makes me to hear from them, how pleased I am to know they’re enjoying the book. We often end up exchanging several notes, sharing some memories and stories. It’s delightful.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to get such fan mail?!
In addition to the people mentioned above, throughout 2020 I also corresponded with a few “regulars” I met because of my book, people with whom I’ve developed friendships through more consistent email contact.
There’s Dennis, mentioned in the November 21st email from Buzz, who I remember from my childhood as a fun, funny, always joking guy, but didn’t see for decades until it was time to get serious about my book. My father provided me with Dennis’s contact information. Dennis was instrumental not only in offering great (and often the most amusing) anecdotes from his decades working with my father at Boeing, but also in nudging me toward certain stories I was completely unaware of, the deep stall incident being the most noteworthy. The first time I sat down with Dennis for an interview, sometimes around 2002, he asked me, “Did your father tell you about the time he nearly died in a deep stall?” No! And that ended up being the most memorable story in the book. Dennis, along with two other flight test engineers who have since passed away, was key in helping me the summer I actually wrote the book (2013), especially critiquing technical passages for accuracy or checking his own flight logs to verify dates of particular flights. I imagine hundreds of emails passed among us that summer, and I became friends with the three of them through that process, something I’m so grateful for. It was like having my father around, working with me, long after he had passed away. Dennis and I still check in with each other regularly, sharing updates on our lives, news about Boeing or people we know. I’m one of the few left who understands Dennis’s time at Boeing and can share those memories with him, even if I didn’t live them myself.
And there’s Steve, who emailed me a couple of years ago after reading my book. Steve also checks in periodically. Turns out that he, his wife Ann and I all share that common history I wrote about – growing up in Seattle area at the same time, experiencing many of the same cultural moments – as well as current world views and political leanings. If Boeing does something stupid – the 737MAX fiasco comes to mind – Steve writes to me about it. Steve and Ann still live in Seattle, and he’s a private pilot, so aviation is another interest we share. Over the course of exchanged emails, we’ve developed a friendship, all hoping that someday we can meet in person. This year I got a Christmas card from them.
Back in early 2018 one of my father’s colleagues reached out to introduce me via email to an airline pilot, Dan Dornseif, who was working on a book about the history of the Boeing 727. On January 23, 2018, Dan wrote to me directly: “Thank you for being willing to talk with me about the 727 and the important role that your father played in making this exceptionally successful airplane a reality. We just recently published a book on the 737 titled Boeing 737: The World’s Jetliner which was released this last August. One of the first books that I added to my aviation library in preparation for that project was your book, which I found very insightful and enjoyable. My favorite parts were the stories about the Long Beach flyby and the 727 deep stall. The deep stall story, in particular, is of paramount importance to my work on the 727.” Dan and I eventually talked by phone, and over the next several months I shared some photos I had of the 727 or my father, and gave him permission to use part of my telling of the deep stall incident in his own book. In October of this year, I received a copy of Dan’s book: Boeing 727: Triumph in the Skies. It’s amazing. It’s huge – a coffee-table book in dimensions and heft, full of photos, technical details, and interesting anecdotes. Incredibly well researched and written. I’m only half-way through and thoroughly enjoying it, learning a lot. Dan even graciously plugged my book in the acknowledgements. He’s already working on his next book, a history of the 757 which will again include mention of my father. In fact, Dan found and shared with me a photo of my father exiting the 757 after its first flight that has special meaning to me (but would take too long to explain here).
I’ve said too many times to count that my book is the gift that keeps on giving. The first gift was the trust that my father and his colleagues placed in me, sharing stories that in many cases they’d never shared publicly before, believing that I would treat them honestly and with respect. I turned those gifts into a book. Some, like my father, died before the book was published, but others got to see the end result and approved, which made me exceedingly happy.
But would my book find an audience? No author knows the answer to than until they send their baby out into the world, holding their breath, hoping for the best.
That’s why these emails, Facebook messages, letters and reviews on the book’s Amazon page are so meaningful to me. They are the readers’ gifts to me, the best reward possible. Validation, plain and simple, especially for a self-published book. As Quinn noted, my book is read by people around the world – I’ve received emails or messages from readers in Brazil, England, Canada, Sweden, Australia, Azerbaijan, Spain and other countries I’ve forgotten at present. How cool is that? Technology is indeed wonderful.
But most of all, each reader’s note refreshes happy memories of my father and my childhood. That’s the best gift of all.
I share all this for several reasons. First, selfishly, it’s been a fun rabbit hole for me to go down as this awful year grinds to a halt, something positive to reflect upon, a reminder that 2020 wasn’t all bad.
Second, reviewing all that correspondence caused me to reflect on how much the world of writing – and reading – means to me, how it sustains me. I put a book out in the world with literally no expectations, and six years later, people are still buying it (even more so in 2020, thanks to the pandemic keeping people home). Some readers go the extra mile of writing to tell me they’re enjoying it, and why. (Note to self: write to authors whose books I like, telling them why I enjoyed it.) Plus, through this blog, I’ve found more members of my writing tribe among other WordPress bloggers as I follow their blogs and learn about them. Writers supporting and encouraging other writers is so important.
Third, and last, I hope my experience encourages other writers struggling, maybe for years, to get a book written. Don’t give up! Follow that passion. It took me almost 15 years from decision to start to final product, but I can tell you with conviction that the rewards are absolutely worth all the effort and angst.
I just need to remember that as I struggle every day to work on my next book.
Happy New Year from Conall, Finn and me in snowy Idaho, and thank you for reading!