Eyes on the sky: Edmonds resident caught the flying bug in the early days of flight

  • By Mina Williams Enterprise editor
  • Tuesday, August 10, 2010 8:41pm

EDMONDS — Alice Eakle Marks got the ride of a lifetime when she boarded as a passenger on a Boeing 40-C, her all time favorite aircraft. The realized dream came to the 89-year-old Edmonds resident, who grew up on an air field at a time when aviation was still earning its wings.

“My life has always been aviation,” said Marks. Her ride on the classic biplane on July 24 was courtesy of Addison Pemberton, a Spokane businessman who lovingly restored the old mail-carrying plane.

She was just 3 years old when her father, a returning World War I veteran, took a position as caretaker of an emergency landing field in DeKalb, Ill., just outside Chicago. At the time, cross-country air mail service was getting underway. The family lived adjacent to the airstrip.

Emergency landing fields were a vital part of the aviation system at the time. When weather forced pilots to the ground, they relied on a string of such fields to provide safe harbor. Accurate and timely weather reports were another function of the field support.

The task of manning the weather station and reporting conditions fell to young Marks as a weather observer for the federal government.

The self-described tomboy was the eldest of eight children. “I had been unofficially performing the job since I was 10 years old,” she said. “I officially got the job when I was 16. It was a choice job for a girl of my age.”

Marks’ strip had weather instruments sophisticated for the time, an anemometer to gauge wind speed and direction. The equipment was located atop an antenna and needed servicing on a regular basis. Because of this, she often climbed the tower to manually clean and maintain the equipment.

“The government expected me to do the job, no matter my age. Although they thought a male associate would be doing the pole climbing,” she recalled with a glint in her eye.

As a teenager Marks hung out in the hangar with the fly guys. She recalls them as being very gentlemanly. “After all, my family held their lives in our hands,” she said. “When they talked to me they realized I knew weather and they trusted my judgment. I wasn’t there to flirt with them. I wanted to talk aviation.”

Despite the glamorous pilots who surrounded her, Marks’ role models were Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn. She sketched their portraits and presented each with her colored pencil renderings in 1936. Earhart resonated with Marks for her flying ability; Hepburn caught Marks’ attention with her portrayal of the strong-spirited Jo in “Little Women.”

Marks went to college and met a crop duster, Henry Marks, who became her husband. “We courted in the back of an airplane,” she said.

Realizing her high flying dream was bittersweet, she said. Even though she was around the Boeing 40-C as a girl, due to a tragedy, she had never rode in one. Her flight dreams were cut short when a mechanical accident involving a prop severed her younger brother’s arm while he was under her care. Though the boy survived the accident, “That was the end of my hanger days,” she said.

Her hangar days may be over, but her memories are being recorded. Marks and Sanderlin have co-authored, “And There He Came With One Wing High: Life on an Emergency Air Mail Field 1924-1942.” The book, to be published in September, contains illustrations by Marks along with photos from the air strip her family operated.

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