I love stories about people doing good work, about people being of service to people that can barely be of service to themselves.
This is a story about Henry and millions of others like him. It’s a sad testament to what many of us have to look forward to assuming we have the fortune to live long lives. Or is it the misfortune?
Henry is an Alzhiemers patient. He has been in this nursing home for ten years spending much of it in silence, relegated to his wheelchair and effectively dead to the world around him. He doesn’t recognize family. He doesn’t respond to simple questions. It’s a life I watched my mother getting ready for. Her early stages of the disease were a glimpse of a future I don’t want to see.
It’s a terrible thing to watch someone at one time full of life and energy reduced to a struggle to contend with the most basic aspects of life. It’s insidious and medical science barely understands the mechanisms of the neurological aspects involved.
So getting back to Henry. His caregivers tried everything to communicate. Henry was a shell without reply.
Then one day someone wraps ear phones around his head, pushes the iPod play button, and music from his era begins to play. Almost instantly, Henry lights up. His eyes pop open wide, his body begins to rock side to side, back and forth. He sings in a language that maybe only he understands as the music transports him to another time.
For a moment in time, he’s young again.
Henry’s story is included in a new documentary film about the subject of reaching the unreachable through music. Alive Inside is a wonderful program film about the Music & Memory initiative, designed to bring healing through sound.
If you ever saw “The Right Stuff,” then you are familiar with this person, one of those obscure movie characters who turned out to be a real person – Pancho Barnes. She was the owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a remote bar and grill situated in the Southern California high desert along the edges of Edwards Air Force base.
In 1928 she took flying lessons on a whim and immediately displayed a natural skill for stick and rudder. After only six hours of instruction Barnes made her first solo.
Within the year she was competing in air races and running her own barnstorming show. She picked up Union Oil as a sponsor in 1929 and broke Amelia Earhart’s womens speed record of 196.19 mph.
After completing her contract with Union, it was off to Hollywood where Barnes went to work as a stunt pilot. She founded the Associated Motion Picture Pilots, a union of film industry stunt fliers who promoted flying safety and standardized pay for aerial stunt work. She flew in several air-adventure movies of the 1930s, including Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels.
Like many others Barnes lost her money during the Great Depression. The only thing remaining was her Hollywood apartment. She sold that and purchased 180 acres of land in the Mojave Desert.
Her Happy Bottom Riding Club, a dude ranch/restaurant, catered to airmen at the nearby airfield and her friends from Hollywood. Barnes became very close friends with many of the early test pilots, including Chuck Yeager, General Jimmy Doolittle, and Buzz Aldrin. Pancho’s ranch became famous for the parties and high-flying lifestyle of all the guests.
A misunderstanding with the Air Force in the early fifties ended with her place designated off-limits to military personnel. The whole affair played out in court during a high-profile lawsuit, Pancho Barnes vs. the U.S. Air Force. Sometime during the trial the Happy Bottom Riding Ranch burned to the ground in a mysterious fire. She won her suit and was awarded $375,000 for her business and property.
Pancho Barnes died in her Boron, Calif., home on March 30, 1975. Her son dropped her ashes from an airplane flying over the desert remains of the old Happy Bottom Riding Club. She was 73.
I tell you, we got two categories of pilots around here. We got your prime pilots that get all the hot planes, and we got your pud-knockers who dream about getting the hot planes. Now what are you two pud-knockers gonna have?