11 September 2007

Bob Cardenas Remembers a "Shock"

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In 1946, Bob Cardenas was sent to Muroc AFB to work on the XB-45, a top secret jet bomber which joined the Air Force in 1950. He vividly remembers the day he first met Pancho Barnes. Frank 'Pete' Everest, a fellow test pilot working on the X-1 program, invited Bob to join him at the Happy Bottom Riding Club. First, however, he had to undergo a rite of passage -- an audience with Pancho.

"It was a ritual that you had to go through," he recalled in our recent interview. "You went to the house and knock on the door. The first view I had of Pancho, she was in a pair of panties and a sweatshirt and her hair all over the place. And she was looking at your face real well to see what kind of a shock treatment you got. I forgot what I said. I said some stupid thing like, 'nice sweatshirt' or something like that. That was my introduction," Cardenas continued," and apparently I passed because from then on, I could walk over there any time I wanted to."

Cardenas paints a vivid illustration of the rough-and-tumble bar and hotel that was Pancho's "Fly-Inn". One thing he vividly remembers (but which we've never seen a photo of) is a work of art which may have been destroyed in the fire that later ravaged the ranch. "There was a painting behind the bar," he explains, "of [Pancho] in boots and britches and a leather jacket. And she had one arm around Second Lt. Tooey Spatts, and the other arm around Second Lt. Hap Arnold. That impressed the hell out of me being a young guy, who the hell she really was, a pilot. And a damn good one."

For Cardenas, Pancho's bar was "a place you could relax, I mean really relax." It was a wonderful place, and sorely needed, because of what they went through during the day. "Some of your test flights were a little hairy," he remembers. "And part of the breaking down and settling after the day's flying was being with someone that you could talk to, that understood what you were talking about. And she was a good listener and you could use any kind of language you wanted to!" Bob laughs and adds a little test pilot philosophy into the mix. "There wasn't fear," he explains. "I want to make it clear that, you could be afraid but you didn't have fear. Fear is actually your best buddy, it's your best friend. It keeps you from making stupid mistakes."

As for Pancho's famous hostesses, Cardenas dismisses any notion that they were anything but social entertainers. "Yes, she had some young ladies that would dance with you," he says. "They'd play the piano and they served you the food. And you could talk about anything you wanted to talk about. I remember the thing [Pancho] told me one time. She said, 'I have nothing against love, but not on this place. You want to shack up with her, you take her to Hollywood but not in here, okay?'" He smiles and then adds, "Of course, one reason that I didn't go to Hollywood with any of the gals, was I had my sweetheart Gladys back in Dayton, Ohio."

That's not to say Bob Cardenas didn't enjoy some of the spectacular events at the Happy Bottom. One thing he remembers vividly is a gimmick Pancho worked up. At one point, she told her pilot guests that breaking the sound barrier entitled them to a free steak dinner. Soon the feat became commonplace, and Pancho found that she was giving away an awful lot of steaks! So, she developed a new gimmick, obtaining an uncut rubber mat of fake women's breasts or 'falsies'. Whenever a pilot set a record, broke the sound barrier, or "did something stupid", he'd have to walk across the mat. This "booby prize", Cardenas explains, was pure Pancho. "Yeah, well, Pancho was always dreaming up of ways to, you know, get at you," he says. "Shock treatment, you might say."

Postscript

Pancho Barnes often told friends that Glen Edwards ate dinner in her restaurant the day before he was killed. In the book Glen Edwards: Diary of a Bomber Pilot, author Daniel Ford suggests that Pancho's memory may have been incorrect. Whatever the case, Edwards did visit the rancho, and Pancho was clearly saddened by his death.

One thing that did clearly rub Pancho the wrong way, was the Air Force's decision to change the name of Muroc to 'Edwards'. Pancho complained in a letter to Air Force Col. Schuler, that the name-changing was "illegal" and "harmed my business." Pancho had another reason, other than economics, to be aggravated. After all, many, many men were killed in the early years at Muroc/Edwards -- historian Ray Puffer puts the figure above 340 -- and Pancho doubtlessly knew quite a few of them. Plus, it was Hap Arnold and men like Al Boyd who really put the base on the map. So while Glen Edwards may have deserved the honor, Pancho hinted to friends that she'd wished ... it had been named after someone else.