29 November 2010

Another Fight for Pancho

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This post was originally planned for October but due to some unexpected delays ... well here it is now with apologies.

BCPancho4Pancho's legacy as an aviatrix and adventurer is well known, but one part of her story that I'd like to shed some light on, is not.  Like most of the challenges in her extraordinary life, this one chapter is true to form -- Pancho got knocked down but she got up and came back swinging.  The year was 1958, five years after the biggest shock of her life -- the moment she'd lost her ranch to the U.S. Government in eminent domain.  By now Pancho'd regrouped, having won a substantial monetary settlement.  She and her fourth husband Mac were trying their darndest to start life again, and build a new resort north of Edwards that included an artificial lake and Marina.  That was just about the time that Pancho discovered a small lump in her right breast.  According to Lauren Kessler's biography The Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho was initially told that it wasn't cancer.  Three days after celebrating the good news, a letter arrived with a dumbfounding correction: the lump was definitely malignant.  Fearing the absolute worst, Pancho consoled herself by visiting a number of friends.  One of them, pilot Russ Schleeh, had survived a terrible accident a number of years earlier.  The Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing he was conducting high speed taxi tests on, suffered a nosewheel collapse and was consumed in the resulting crash and fire.  Despite a broken back Schleeh managed to get out of the plane, had rehabilitated himself, gotten out of the USAF and gone on to a championship career in boat racing.  "This was the kind of fighter that she needed to talk to," Kessler writes, "the kind of story she needed to hear." 

Photo: Pancho poses with husband Mac in happier days.

She would need all the spirit she could muster.  Breast cancer back in the 50s, before the era of chemotherapy, always meant mastectomy.  It was a much more fearsome surgery than what is performed today (as bad as that is), with the incision running from Pancho's lower rib right up to her armpit.  As Kessler notes, the surgery would leave deep physical scars and cut so much muscle that it even threatened to deprive Pancho with the use of her right arm.  It didn't, but only because Pancho refused to be beaten by the cancer and the surgery — as soon as she got home she began exercising her arm by chopping wood.  It seemed like an outright victory, but in 1960 the specter of death reappeared in the form of a tumor in her left breast.  That was devastating news, coming just after she'd begun to recover from the first surgery.  If the cancer didn't break her at that point the other problems in her life threatened to: by now her marriage to Mac was beginning to fall apart, her government settlement money was nBCPancho3early all gone, her marina was a dustbowl, and she was by most accounts on the brink of bankruptcy.

The cancer was one more milepost on a long road of decline for Pancho.  By the end of the 1950s she'd be forced to give up the idea of building a new Happy Bottom Riding Club and face a far grimmer, sadder future.  In the coming years she'd lose nearly everything: her real estate holdings and investments, her luxury Cadillacs, her airplanes, her husband, and her health.  But she never lost her sense of perspective, or her sense of humor.  Amazingly, at least some of what she found funny, was directly linked to her cancer.  Pancho had always cultivated an androgynous look — obviously you can't go from being named "Florence" to being called "Pancho" without that.  Now flat-chested, she may have felt even closer to her alternate persona, and tougher too.  She boldly offered to show her surgery scars to anyone who asked about her health, and would crudely announce "I had some health problems so I had to have my tits cut off" just to get a reaction.  In the interview we conducted with Patrice Demory, she recalled that she once went with Pancho to the post office.  It was a memorable day to say the least.  Pancho was delighted to have received a package which she opened to reveal a set of "falsies".  She then proceeded to wave them in the air, approaching bewildered post office customers and staff and announcing with glee that "I finally got my tits!"  Demory herself was shocked and amazed, but says "one of the things I learned from Pancho that I really liked, was that it doesn't matter what kind of fun you are haivng as long as you are not hurting anyone else." 

BCPancho1Fifteen years after Pancho's battle with cancer, she was living all alone in the Mojave Desert, in poor health and scratching out a living.  That's when a fellow named Ted Tate came and knocked on her door.  Tate is generally credited with being the man who helped rehabilitate Pancho, and who (with the help of others) brought the wild card that was Pancho back into the deck at Edwards.  Through their friendship, Pancho would find a new role on the base, make many new friends, and reclaim her position as the "First Lady of Edwards".  For his part, Tate loved to relate the story of his first meeting with Pancho, how he'd knocked on the door of her house, not knowing what to expect.  A harsh voice said through the door, "Are you here on business or is it a social call?"  When Tate responded that it was the latter, Pancho promptly shot back: "Well then give me a minute.  I've got to put my tits on."  It was classic Pancho, in all her faded glory.  Aviatrix, adventurer, legend . . . and breast cancer survivor.