29 January 2010

A Photo Comes Full Circle


Months ago we did a screening of the film at Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California.  I made a lot of new and wonderful friends at that event, including James Lowe, lead singer of the seminal 1960s rock band Nikrent3The Electric Prunes and a relative of Pancho's grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe.  Another person in attendance that night was Nikki Nikrent Robinson, whose great uncle was a fellow named Joe Nikrent.  Back in the 1910s, Joe and his brothers were a famous race car driving team known as, what else?, the Nikrent Brothers.  They raced against the likes of Barney Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet, among others, and were sponsored by Chas Howard of Seabiscuit (the horse) fame.  Joe even raced at Indy in 1913, but had his hopes dashed when a bearing gave out in his car after lap 67.  He also ran at Muroc  — the dry lake was used as a race and proving grounds for many decades —  and reached a speed of 108 mph in his Buick.

Given his penchant for speed and daring, it is no surprise that in the 1920s Joe Nikrent became the official timer for the National Aeronautic Association.  In this capacity he attended all sorts of aviation events and record attempts.  I've seen photos of him congratulating Pancho's friend and fellow female aviator Bobbi Trout after she set a new solo endurance record in 1929, and with pilot Waldo Waterman as he prepared to conduct a new high-altitude flight for Bach.  So it's no surprise that when Pancho set out to break Amelia Earhart's air speed record, that Joe Nikrent showed up as official timer.  Photos taken that day of Pancho, such as the one seen at left, frequently show Nikrent at her side giving what appears to be, shall we say some fatherly advice?  One has to imagine, given the informality of those poses, that they had a good rapport. NikrentPhoto It seems to me based on the photos, that Joe Nikrent wasn't just there as a stern judge of whether or not Pancho had set a new speed record — he was clearly there as a friend and supporter.  The first attempt Pancho made on the record, she came up short.  But you know the rest of the story: she came back the next day, refreshed and recalibrated, and flew at 196 miles per hour to become fastest woman on earth.  It was front page news and the biggest achievement of her aviation career.

At some point after that Pancho gave Joe Nikrent a personalized glossy photo (seen at right) emblazoned, "To Joe Sincere best wishes from Pancho 1931".  This was one of two photos that Nikki brought to our Planes of Fame screening, and which everyone in our audience was allowed to hold and admire. It was wonderful to see such a terrific photo of Pancho and to know that when she signed it, she was flying high.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, as Amanda and I arrived in Mission Viejo for the first screening of the film in Orange County.  Waiting for us at the auditorium was Nikki Robinson and her husband, and they brought a special gift: one of the two photos in a beautiful custom frame.  I was absolutely floored when Nikki announced the photo was for me, a gift in honor of Pancho and our film.  It's just about the nicest gift I've ever received, and completely unexpected.


The photo is on the wall of my living room now, where I see it every day.  I'm thrilled to be custodian  for it.  Every time I look at it, I get a little thrill knowing that it was handed from one speed demon to another, in celebration of a very special achievement.  There's a little more to it, of course.  One thing Amanda and I both learned about Pancho as we created the film, was that although life threw her a lot of curves, she never gave up.  Pancho constantly re-invented herself, endured, and then rose to the top again.  In many ways that thread in Pancho's life helped keep us going, as we faced all sorts of adversity while making the film and almost gave up two or three times.  The fact that Pancho never gave up, and that neither did we, is brought home to me whenever I look at that print.