“I never was good about flying with anyone other than Daddy,” daughter Gwen said. “He flew so smooth, just like riding on air. The smoothest landing you could ever imagine.”Juan added, “Smooth—really he was careful—extremely smooth. He was just a natural. That’s all there was to it.”
“The only thing I wanted to do was skydive,” Gwen noted. “I went through the training. Daddy was flying the plane. We went up and had the door off, and I was gonna jump, and he looked at me and said, ‘Babe, why would you want to jump out of a perfectly good plane?’ I began looking down and I didn’t jump. He would let me fly with him and take the controls, but I never got my license.”
“When I was young, Dad did a lot more flying, but then he couldn’t pass his physical. He was too big. Every once in a while he’d go up, and I’d ride with him,” said Juan, who earned his pilot license at 16. “He would let me take the controls, but he let other guys teach me.”
Nora Lee did more than wing walk with her hubby during the hard days of the Depression. One of the first women in the South to ride a motorcycle (she was given a silver loving cup for being the first Nashville woman to do so), the Woodbury native drove cars through flaming walls as the aerial acts alone were not bringing in enough paying customers.
“The airplane would draw a crowd of people, but he had to have something to cause people to pay money, so he had to get them in,” Juan said.
So the thrill show with Nora Lee crashing a Plymouth through flaming wooden barriers proved the solution. To witness such spectacles, adults paid two bits and children coughed up their dimes.
At 50 to 70 miles per hour Nora Lee plowed autos through burning timber walls. The double walls, set 10 to 12 feet apart, were built of one-inch thick boards, doused with gasoline and then set afire.
Working the ticket booth, Nora Lee would make a quick change and then perform the show’s grand finale. She said, “Seems folks are more interested in seeing a woman break her neck than a man.”
Miraculously, she escaped serious injury from the dozens of car crashes, but knew, “some day I may not be so lucky.” Then came a near brush with death.
“A couple of 2-by-4’s shattered the windshield and all but knocked me out,” Nora Lee recalled. “I never could remember clearly what happened after that. I came to with Louie patting the fire off of my clothes and the crowd cheering for more.” Gwen said, “That was the last time she drove.”
While she retired from the wing walking in the 1930s, Nora Lee performed her final stunt for an airshow at Smyrna Airport in 1948.
“She said she was never ever scared except for the very last time she did it,” said Gwen, who with her brother Juan witnessed the event but only clings to scant memories of that day
“She remarked that one time Dad got sick and couldn’t fly, and Monk (her brother-in-law) flew her and it was rough. She had marks all over her from the guy wires,” Juan said. “Never again would anybody take her up but Dad. It’s funny, when she got older, she wouldn’t even get up on a step ladder,” Gwen, said although Nora Lee did drive a four-wheeler in her late 80s. "She was a card,” Juan said. “She was not one to complain.”
“She was a shy person, really, until she knew you, very kind and generous and had a lovely personality,” Gwen remembered. “She was the best mama, that’s for sure.”
During their childhood, Gwen, Juan and their brother, Louie Jr., 80, who lives in Smyrna, grew up on Currey Road in Nashville. Many of the tales the family hold on to were preserved by Louie Jr. who shared them over the years with kin and friends.
“Mama said that Daddy used to make a fly by the house and yell out the window what time he’d be home, and she’d know what time to make supper,” Gwen said.
Gasser, who also operated a boat dock on the Cumberland River, once met famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart and knew many of the Grand Ole Opry stars of the 1940s, as he sold them gasoline during the days of World War II when the fuel was rationed.
He made his last flight about a year before he died at age 59 in 1964 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage and crashing his truck less than a mile from Cumberland Field.
His beautiful daredevil wife-turned-homemaker outlived him by 37 years and worked as a florist at Tusculum Florist for 15 to 20 years. She also found a hobby much more gentle than walking wings and driving through flames. She painted, flowers for the most part, and left her children a nice, charcoal self-portrait.
Louie and Nora Lee Gasser bore three children, and their descendants include 11 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren as well as several great-great-grandchildren.
Nora Lee slipped the bonds of this earth Dec. 21, 2001, at age 92.
Recollecting the grand old days of barnstorming with her husband in the cockpit beside her, she told reporters, “We would earn as much as $500 for a full day’s show. I would have walked a rocket ship for that kind of money during the Depression.”
As for their legacy, great-grandson and recent Riverdale High School graduate Dalton Lauderback, 18, said, “Granny (Nora Lee) and Grappy (Louie) have given all of us the fantastic story of their eventful life. From walking the wings of the bi-plane to driving motorcycles through blazing structures, the Flying Gassers, my great-grandparents, taught me to never back down from a challenge and face my fears head on. Nora Lee was a daredevil early in life, but when I knew her she was the kindest, most warm-hearted women I ever knew—Granny was truly an angel among men.”
The Flying Gassers, Louie and Nora Lee, lie side by side in Nashville’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. Chiseled in stone, below their names and between their birth and death dates, glides an airplane, frozen in time, symbolic of their love of flying and for one another.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.