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Before and after her junior high school classes and on Saturdays, 13-year-old Mary worked in an Allapattah five & ten, earning $6.20 for a 31-hour week. Through high school she worked 32 hours a week in a drugstore for $16. In late 1944—the fall of her senior year—when the training of military fly-boys for World War II was on the wane, the Embry-Riddle School of Aviation in South Miami passed out leaflets inviting boys and girls to learn to fly. Mary gambled nine dollars for half an hour of dual instruction to see what it was like. During her first flight the instructor asked her if she was nervous flying over water, and Mary was. He asked her if steep banks bothered her, and they did. Still, she was a sucker for it. She was seven months getting a license because a half-hour dual or solo was usually all she could afford on her Sundays off from school and work. Lewis Smith, her Embry-Riddle instructor, remembers that at first she was shy on the ground and timid in the air. "She started slowly," Smith recalls, "but once she got the idea she had it forever."
Among Mary's professed failures on land, the only one relevant to her flying is her command of English. When excited, she uses words the way Niagara Falls uses water. "I have been known to talk for two hours," she admits, "without solving a problem." At times she is at a loss for words, but only because there are few in the dictionary that convey her true feelings about being in the air. To describe a flying experience, she often resorts to polyphonic peeps, burps, chirps, barks and clucking noises. On the second solo flight of her life she tried to stall an old J-3 Cub deliberately to get into a spin. She throttled back too slowly and, because she is only 5'4", from the rear seat she could not reach the carburetor heat control. The carburetor iced up, the engine quit. "Suddenly beemp-beeop," as Mary retells it, "the propeller stopped. I started picking up air speed with my heart going dittity-dittity-dit. I slowly eased back on the stick and toopity-toopity I landed wumphity-wumph in a grass field."
Although profanity is commonplace among aviators, Mary is never profane. In extreme instances of stress, she sometimes exclaims "Sheesh!" In her early days she had a few close calls that rated at least a double "Sheesh!" In her third year of flying, with a lap to go in an air race, Mary thought she was well ahead of everybody. But there was a rival nearby, blanketed by Mary's outside wing. As she turned a pylon, Mary saw the other plane crowding in on her. To avoid a collision, she hauled around so hard she went into a power stall and flipped upside down, 200 feet off the deck. Ground bound at 45�, she got the plane upright and gutfully obeyed the good book. Resisting the temptation to pull back hard on the stick, she gently pushed, hoping at least to get air speed enough so the wheels would strike first. At this point the air show announcer collapsed. Movies of the race show Mary's plane disappearing behind a row of parked cars before it started flying again. "I seldom perspire," Mary says, "but, sheesh, when I landed, my blouse was stuck on me."
To keep flying in those days, Mary took any odd aerial job she could get. She never crop-dusted or fertilized, but early on she gave frost-flying a brief fling. Some 22 years ago Mary tried her first frost flight (the idea is to stir up the air close to the ground) over 20 acres of tomatoes. She went aloft in a Stearman in the last hour of darkness before dawn, since that is usually the coldest part of a day. No one had given her much advice, and Mary presumed that the best way to keep a field defrosted was by flying as low as she could without reducing the tomatoes to a paste. This proved to be her salvation and almost her undoing. No one remembered to tell her there was a power line guarding one end of the 20 acres or that there was an outhouse made of pine trunks solidly planted among the tomatoes. Three times Mary flew under the power line that she did not know about. On her third pass a foot above the tomatoes, sheesh, she ran smack dab into the outhouse, totaling the Stearman. The impact tore the engine off and flipped the plane. Mary remembers hanging upside down, aching and dazed, smelling gas—then the comforting feeling of going boompity-boompity-boompity as rescuers dragged her across the tomato rows.
By her second year of flying Mary was doing aerial tricks of a simple sort, motivated more by economics than by love. Cross-country flying, the ambition of most new pilots, costs money. Mary turned to aerobatics to get more out of the scant flying time she could afford. This early stunting did not help her get where she is now, but it did teach her to keep her wits. Because the planes she flew aerobatically 25 years ago did not have an inverted fuel or oil system, she got used to conking out while flying upside down. Today if her plane busts a crankshaft in the middle of a trick, or gets a vagrant washer in a cylinder, or suffers any of the many ills that aircraft are heir to, it is usually no big deal for Mary. Limping or dead stick, she manages to get down safely.
After high school Mary earned $66.50 by working 78 hours a week—48 hours in an engineering company and 30 more at night in an ice-cream parlor. Here again, for want of money and time, she was three years getting a commercial air license and an instructor's rating. Although she grew up at a time when Uncle Sam was offering all kinds of benefits to the deserving and to sponging slobs alike, Mary paid her own way. But she did capitalize indirectly on one benefit of the Federal Government. In 1948 she persuaded five veterans—including the cook and dishwasher of the restaurant near her ice-cream parlor—that they should learn to fly under the G.I. Bill. Then, with five signed-up students in tow, she applied for an instructor's job at Brown's Airport in South Miami and got it.
While instructing, Mary fell into an arty sideline: skywriting. Because his own smoke signs in the sky were punk, a Stearman owner named Cleon McLendon hired her to try it for $125 a week. At the outset Mary did no better than McLendon. Pulling around as tight as possible, she could not even complete one letter before part of it was fading away. She succeeded only after a veteran skywriter let her in on the great secret of the art: to hang up letters that last, you have to fly high in very stable air. In her career Mary sometimes wrote quickies like " 7-Up" and "Fox Furs," but her big accounts were Hi-C orangeade and L.P. Evans, a used-car dealer. Within a year she was ripping off "L.P. Evans" in exquisite script and could put up 16 Hi-C signs with 50 gallons of smoke oil. Pepsi-Cola had its own team of skywriters. Although they often competed with Mary for sky space over Miami, the rivalry was always cordial. When he was done with his own chores, the Pepsi pilot would help Mary hang up her Hi-C signs. When Mary's job was done, they sometimes used their remaining smoke oil to play a game of tick-tack-toe.
The little old airports where Mary learned to fly and survive are now all gone, victims of urban sprawl. Chapman Field, where she timidly began, is a power plant and public park. Sunny South Airport, where she got her instructor's license, and Brown's Airport, where she first taught, are residential plats. Amelia Earhart Airfield, where she was nearly killed in the air race, is gone, and so is the old Tamiami Airport where her flying school once prospered. Her present base, the new Tamiami Airport, sits far west of town amid fields of pole beans and tomatoes. And to practice aerobatics, Mary moves even farther west, beyond the geometry of road and field, to the edge of the Everglades. "Some of my best flying," she says, "has been seen only by alligators and pygmy rattlesnakes."
On semisubmerged land that Mary and her husband Charlie purchased out on the edge of nowhere, the Gaffaneys have built a runway. Originally intended for sailplane instruction, the strip is now used by sky divers who would rather take their chances landing on a rattlesnake than tangling with a passing jetliner closer to town. Mary and Bill Thomas, the cello player who now teaches aerobatics in Miami, also practice off the strip, checking and critiquing each other.
For small-plane pilots the farmlands and boondocks west of Miami have a peculiar drawback: quite a few wild species of the area are freeloaders. There has never been a case of an alligator getting on a plane, but lots of lesser creatures do. When Mary's Pitts biplane is on the ground, she puts a plug in the line venting her gas tank and also in the pitot tube of her air-speed indicator. Why? To keep mud-daubing hornets out. While Mary was flying a Stearman six years ago, a snake stuck its head out of the landing wire hole of her lower left wing. The snake seemed to enjoy the slipstream; for more than a minute it pressed its head forward into the blast as dogs are wont to do in an open car. Mary has had small tree frogs get inside the instruments on her panel—God knows how. While she was flying upside down, yawning to relieve ear pressure, a tree frog jumped off the outside of the instrument panel, missing her open mouth by inches, and sailed out into the slipstream. Since Mary was above 2,000 feet at the time, the frog undoubtedly broke all previous frog-jump records. While giving dual instruction in a sailplane, Mary felt something suspiciously like a snake worming around under her slacks on the back of her right leg. Fearful that it might be a pygmy rattler, she reached down and gave it a tentative touch. It was not a snake at all, merely a small rat that ran, hickory-dickory, back down her leg and forward under her student's seat. "A rat just ran under your seat," Mary said. "Do you see it?" Distressed at this news, the student lost precious altitude, and since they were downwind, Mary had to really sweat to get the sailplane safely back to the strip.