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‘Decision Height’

One of the pleasures of writing this column is hearing from readers. Sometimes there’s an almost mystical coincidence that brings together reader stories and my stories, along with a few other unexpected events that wrap themselves together in an even larger story — and that’s what happened this November.

November marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I. In 1954 it was renamed Veterans Day.

Then, there’s my Oct. 15 column, “Her Final Flight,” ushering in a number of reader questions and comments about flier Mary Barnes, local member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

What followed was an email from Mr. Murdock, a Grants Pass gentleman, asking if I was willing to help with the high school’s production of an award-winning play about the WASP, and also to perhaps provide information about these heroic women to the all-female cast.

The play is “Decision Height.” It’s a fictionalized, yet fact-based story of American women training to be WASP pilots in World War II, so they can fly military airplanes for the government. The phrase “Decision Height” is an aviation term that marks the moment a pilot must decide whether it’s safe to descend for a landing, or he or she must go around and try again. In the play, it’s a metaphor for the personal decisions these patriotic young women must face after choosing to help win the war, which forced them to leave family, friends and fiancés at home.

Meredith Dayna Levy, while a graduate student, wrote the first draft of the play in 2012. She designated her fictional WASP Class as 44-4. Ironically, the real life WASP Class 44-4 began its six months of Army Air Corps flight training in November, exactly 75 years ago. So the young actors of Grants Pass High are unexpectedly commemorating that milestone with their November performances.

I was invited to a rehearsal of the play by Director Julie Kennedy and enjoyed speaking and answering questions about the WASP with these enthusiastic young women. I reminded them that they should feel as brave in their performance as the women they portray. After all, they are only two or three years younger than most of those WASP pilots were at the time they enlisted.

The play begins on the first training day, with the women learning to live and train together. They gradually overcome their differences and meld themselves into a sisterhood of love and support. We see their world through Virginia’s letters, sent home to a fiancé who rarely writes back and demands she come back home. Carol, the “shrimp,” is naive and funny. Eddie is the tough girl hiding a soft heart. Alice has left her 5-year-old daughter with her parents back in Oregon. We peer into the lives of these women and those around them. We share their joy, fear, uncertainty and painful tragedy.

It’s a piercing drama filled with humor, sadness, singing and a tear or two, performed by a talented cast who have embarked on their own special mission — to celebrate and remember the WASP.

“Decision Height” will be performed at the Grants Pass Performing Arts Theater on the weekends of Nov. 9 and 16.

Fifteen WASP pilots called Oregon home when they enlisted, two of them died flying during the war. WASP Laurine Nielsen spent the last 25 years of her life in Grants Pass.

There are many ways to remember Veterans Day, but few will have more meaning than this play. It’s a choice, a decision to remember these women veterans — veterans whom so many have forgotten.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “To Live and Die a WASP: 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.

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