Every once in a while the opportunity comes along to meet someone truly inspirational.
The Hot Glass Roadshow travels around the globe and I have been lucky enough to accompany it a smattering of times. We get to meet a plethora of different people, a host of different characters with stories and histories as varying the places we visit. If we are lucky, sometimes we are able to spend some time with these amazing people, listening, laughing and learning from them first hand. One of those amazing people whom I was extremely fortunate to have met is Bernice “Bee” Falk-Haydu.
Everett, Chris and I met Bee while the Hot Glass Roadshow temporarily resided in the courtyard of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, FL. Every Thursday night, the Norton hosts an “Art After Dark” event. Keeping its doors open a bit later than usual, the Norton welcomes the community to enjoy art and our shows in a lively, festive atmosphere.
It was at one of these events where I spied a keen eyed woman with a gold medal around her neck. She was paying particularly close attention and I guessed she wasn’t a day over 18. Accurately guessing ages not being high on my list of skills, it was not surprising to find she was a few days older than 18; 91, in fact. Regardless, she was sharp as a tack.
She spoke with Chris and they connected right away over a mutual love of flying. Bee’s love and dedication to flying, however, runs a bit deeper than most. She was a member of WASP. What is WASP, you might ask? In case it doesn’t ring a bell, it stands for Women Airforce Service Pilots. There were 1,074 female service pilots flying every type of plane in the US Airforce’s arsenal during WWII, and Bee had flown all of them. However, after the war ended, the real fight began.
The women pilots were denied veterans benefits. Bee began a fight she continues to this day to have these amazing women’s accomplishments and contributions to the country recognized. It took until 1977 before veterans benefits were granted to the WASPs. The gold medal Bee wore is the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to her by President Obama himself.
It turns out the WASPs have a mascot. Walt Disney designed and drew Fifinella, a little sprite in a flying suit complete with goggles, helmet, and wings, to represent the WASPs. Bee had a pin with her likeness and asked if it would be possible for Fifinella to be made in glass.
Unfortunately, Fifinella is really complicated. I knew she would take at least an hour or more to make. Even then, there is no way to know how well she would turn out. Human figures are extremely difficult to accurately sculpt. Everyone is intimately familiar with the human form, making any minor transgression glaringly visible. That, coupled with the scale (it would have to be fairly small), a lack of torches and the fact that we were confined by a set schedule… I thought it would be practically impossible. Bee, Chris and I all traded contact information and I let her know that maybe, in the future, we might try.
About a week later Bee returned, just to see a few more shows. I talked to Chris and Everett, asking if they were up for some running around. This piece would require teamwork, timing, and over 20 separate bits of added glass. For Everett, it would require running bits while assisting me; simultaneously holding a conversation with the audience while listening to me give directions on one of the most complicated pieces I’ve ever made for a “You Design It.” What’s more, he’d have to keep this up for an entire hour. Figuring it was as good a time as any, we decided to take the allotted hour and make an attempt at Fifinella.
Fifty nine minutes later we finished. While the colors were muted because of the heat, the form didn’t look too bad for a first try. We wouldn’t know till the next day whether or not she turned out.
Fiffy turned out better than I could have hoped.
Travelling and demonstrating glass with the Roadshow sometimes provides me with hidden, unexpectedly rewarding benefits, most importantly the chance to have unexpected encounters with incredibly inspiring people such as Bee. What’s more, every now and again, I have the chance to give back. It may not be in my power as a glassmaker to give medals, accolades, or veteran’s benefits, but I was given the opportunity to use my glassmaking skills to say thank you to an unsung American hero.
For me, making Fifinella was more than a glass demonstration. It was the chance to honor Bee for a lifetime of hard work, commitment and perseverance, not only to our country, but for ALL the female pilots overlooked, unrecognized and forgotten to history.
Every once and a while you get to meet someone truly inspirational. More importantly, every once in a while, you get to say thanks.
Visit Operation Fifinella to learn more about Bee and the WASPs.