In Full Flight – Heroine with a Dark Past

A few months ago we remembered the late Harry Selby, one of the last Professional Hunters from the tradition of multi-month African safari hunting trips.

Not long after that, the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, sent a review copy of a book about another great character of Africa, Dr. Ruth Spoerry, a French-born doctor who became famous as the flying Mama Daktari, or Mother Doctor. Over a period of 50 years, Dr. Spoerry became famous for flying all over rural Kenya, landing in remote villages and providing medical treatment.

In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement, by John Heminway, tells the story of this amazing woman and of her accomplishments in bringing medicine to the African hinterlands. The book also tells of a shadowy past, going back to World War II, where, while still a medical student, she was part of the French resistance.

The Nazi occupiers of France caught up with her and Spoerry eventually ended up in Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women. While at the Ravensbrück camp, she fell under the influence of another woman who was a collaborator with the Nazis. She was assigned duties to provide medical care to fellow prisoners, but also got caught up in “mercy killings” of a sort. The woman with whom she worked was later convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death, though she cheated the hangman through suicide.

Spoerry survived the war and returned to France to complete medical training, though she couldn’t escape the scandal of Ravensbrück. She eventually made her way to Lebanon, then Kenya, where she found her calling and future fame as the flying woman doctor.

The author, John Heminway, is a British documentary filmmaker and author who got to know Spoerry in 1980 when he went to Kenya to write a magazine story about her. In numerous further meetings he thought he got to know her well, but it wasn’t until after her death, in 1999, that he began to learn of Spoerry’s earlier life and began researching her hidden past; research that included Spoerry’s own journals.

The author, and note his name is Heminway, not to be confused with the Ernest Hemingway family, which also has Africa and Montana connections, has a distinguished background as an author, filmmaker and journalist. He now lives in Bozeman, Montana and has been an adjunct professor at the Montana State University film department, recognized for his achievements with an honorary doctorate.

The book has gotten rave reviews from a variety of publications and reviewers, and it’s a pleasure to add my recommendation.

Glenn Brackett, bamboo rod artist and craftsman

Changing topics, at last week’s meeting of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Glenn Brackett, founder and owner of Sweetgrass Rods, now located in Butte, reflected on his life’s work, built around the building of bamboo flyrods. He became acquainted with people at the R. L. Winston company, in the San Francisco neighborhood where he grew up, then as an employee and an owner, and later with his partner, Tom Morgan, moving the company to Twin Bridges. Twelve years ago, Brackett and fellow worker Jerry Kustich left Winston to start Sweetgrass Rods.

Brackett prefaced his remarks by saying, “I’ve got something like eight decades of memory to share with you, so I don’t know just where to start.” Growing up in the Bay Area, John Muir, one of the early advocates of wilderness, was a big influence. “We all have heroes,” he said, “mine was John Muir. He opened my consciousness to the wild world, and I’ve always tried to live with that.”

Brackett is widely recognized as one of today’s master bamboo craftsmen, and he talked of his years of making a wide range of bamboo fishing rods, along with violin bows, wind chimes, canes, and other items. After a period when bamboo rods were in decline, there are now some 10,000 people making bamboo rods, some professional, some hobbyists. “I help a lot of them.”

Working with bamboo is a challenging art, he says, and he concluded his remarks, saying, modestly, “After building thousands of rods, I’ve reached a point of competency of maybe 70 percent.”

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