Did you see where Riverside was in the national spotlight? It was in all the papers. Or at least the papers that run reprints of “Peanuts.”
In a long sequence that began in mid-June, Peppermint Patty recruits Marcie as her navigator in the 28th annual Powder Puff Derby as she pilots Snoopy’s Sopwith Camel, i.e., his doghouse. Here’s some of the dialogue from the strip in papers June 18.
Marcie: “Explain this Powder Puff Derby to me, will you, sir?”
Patty: “Actually, it’s the ‘All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race,’ Marcie… We take off from Riverside, California, July 4th and fly to Boyne Falls, Michigan.” She adds her signature line: “Stop calling me ‘sir.’”
The reference to Riverside was so specific I knew it had to be based on fact. And it was.
The Powder Puff Derby, an annual race for female aviators with a new route each year, really did take off from Riverside on July 4, 1975. Ruth McCormick, archivist for the Riverside Public Library, helped me learn more.
The derby had been supposed to take place in Riverside in 1974 but was postponed a year due to the energy crisis. But when Independence Day 1975 rolled around, 98 teams of women took off from Riverside Municipal Airport as 5,000 spectators cheered, according to coverage in the Sun-Telegram.
A hitch had almost developed in the courts the previous week.
A male pilot, Howard Rosen, had — boo-hoo — sued for discrimination when he was barred from participating. Clever headline in the Sun-Telegram: “Powder Puffs to take off without air male.” However, two men, Darryl Greenamyer and Bob Flaherty, were allowed to fly as unofficial entrants, for unspecified reasons.
The entrants included “five mother-daughter teams, the first grandmother-granddaughter team, the first team of female Navy pilots and the first Japanese team in the contest’s 28-year history,” Lois McAfee wrote in the Sun-Telegram.
The 2,600-mile route would take about 17 hours of flying time for light aircraft. But teams had mandatory stops for fuel, and of course publicity, in Phoenix, Arizona; El Paso and Plainview, Texas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Lincoln, Nebraska; Moline, Illinois; Toledo, Ohio; and finally Boyne Falls, Michigan, where the race would end July 7.
Two Riverside women participated as a duo: Grace Huffman and Tookie Hensley. The friends, who’d had their pilot licenses for two years, flew a Cessna 182 Skylane. They were members of the Riverside chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots.
Why did cartoonist Charles M. Schulz feature the derby in “Peanuts”?
His wife, Jean, was co-pilot of an entry that year with her mother, Pamela Vander Linden. They flew out of Sonoma County Airport (now the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport) in a Bellanca Viking to Riverside and the race’s start. They were the event’s celebrity entrants, according to McAfee’s story.
“The women in Schulz’s life excelled at sports and broke gender barriers, inspiring some of the female characters he created,” read a tweet last year on National Aviation Day from the Charles M. Schulz Museum.
Jean Schulz once said of her husband’s use of the Powder Puff Derby in his strip: “You didn’t give Sparky ideas, he took them.”
Riverside was cited by name twice more during that “Peanuts” sequence, in which Marcie and Patty sit atop the doghouse as they fly across the country.
“Sir, I have a question… How are we going to find our way from Riverside, California, to Boyne Falls, Michigan, when we fly in the Powder Puff Derby?” Marcie asks in one strip. Answer: a map.
“Hey, mechanic,” Patty addresses Snoopy from the ground in Toledo, Ohio, in a Sunday strip, “we’ve just flown all the way from Riverside, California… Our engine’s running a bit rough… Can you help us?” Snoopy gives his doghouse a kick, which solves the problem.
Sadly, the girls aren’t able to finish the last leg of the race. Why? Because Snoopy commandeers his doghouse for a mission on behalf of General Pershing. Snoopy is a famous World War I flying ace, you know.
Boy, it’s easy to forget how surreal “Peanuts” could be until you try to summarize it.
The Powder Puff Derby, which began in 1947, ended in 1977. The tradition of a women’s air race continues, however, as the Air Race Classic, a more dignified name. The 45th race ended June 24 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Tookie Hensley, that 1975 entrant from Riverside, competed 27 consecutive years before finally winning in 2002.
The next year, she told an audience at March Air Museum: “My message to young people: Don’t give up; keep trying. And you’re never too old.”
To my knowledge, the only other local city ever mentioned by name in “Peanuts” is Needles, the desert hamlet in San Bernardino County. That’s where Snoopy’s older brother Spike was said to live.
Schulz introduced Spike on Aug. 13, 1975 — a couple of months after the Riverside references, coincidentally enough — and the droopy-eyed, emaciated beagle became a recurring character.
The Needles Regional Museum has a statue of Spike at the ready for photos with visitors, according to the Mojave Daily News, and Spike is also incorporated into a mural on the museum’s exterior completed earlier this year. The beagle holds a hitchhiker sign reading “Needles Museum.”
The museum is closed for the summer, returning Sept. 6, but unlike a drifting tumbleweed, it’s not going anywhere.
David Allen, the tumbleweed of columnists, writes Friday, Sunday and Wednesday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.