On a recent evening at the Gainesville Depot, people from a wide variety of backgrounds dressed in creative, alien costumes gathered to celebrate the 85th birthday of Ona B. Reed.
Aviators, archaeologists, oilmen and housewives used everything from store-bought Star Trek costumes to fringed lampshades, creating an otherworld atmosphere to honor a woman of diversity. Ona B.’s interest in aliens stems from an inquiring mind which leaves no possibility unturned and no adventure unconquered.
“I was 22, I guess, when Denton Airport was given to the city,” Ona B. said. “There was a big air show, and I was doing my big jump. Well, I found out later, that it was the same time of the crash at Roswell.
“People got to kidding that I jumped out of the UFO.”
It was in July of 1947 that an object first thought to be a “flying disk” crash-landed in a field near Roswell Army Air Field. Shortly after the initial press release — which said the disk was an unidentified flying object — a second release was given to the press saying the debris was part of a weather balloon.
Ona B.’s big, brown button-eyes sparkled as she told the story of her first jump. It was just after she had earned her pilot’s license, one of the few women to undertake such an endeavor at that time. Fifty years later, Ona B. jumped again to celebrate the airport’s anniversary — she was a spry 73-years-old.
“The second jump was really a lot easier,” Ona B. said. “Those big, old, round parachutes were hard to land. The new ones were a lot easier to control. It was almost like landing an airplane — when you came down you just ran.”
Former president George H.W. Bush sent an autographed picture of his recent jump to Ona B. suggesting that next time they could jump together.
“Thinking about it now, I don’t know what I was thinking — jumping that first time,” Ona B. said. “I had just gotten my license and if something had happened, I never would have been able to fly.”
Ona B. did continue to fly much of her life. After receiving her private pilot’s license from North Texas State University, she purchased her first airplane and flew home to Gustine where she parked her plane in a cousin’s field.
Growing up in Gustine during the depression was a hard, but happy life for Ona B. She picked cotton with her family, filling a wagon up to the top before taking it to the cotton gin; danced on the new bridge over the river Leon; went to school; did her chores and played with her friends.
It was hard to get ahead farming on someone else’s land, but the Rambo family — including mother, father and Ona B., and later sister Peggy — made the best of the times.
“We had a car, but when the depression came along, Daddy put it up on blocks like most other people did because they couldn’t afford the gas,” Ona B. said. “It was really hot and it was really cold sometimes. I spent a lot of time up on the roof of the porch. Daddy used to park the wagon full of cotton right there at the porch so I could jump off of the roof into all that cotton. I can still remember the feel of that cotton when I landed on it.
“About once a year Daddy would let me go with him to town to take the cotton. They would put a quilt in the wagon for me to lie on. I remember one time we were at the gin — it was a powerful machine — it almost sucked my quilt right up into that cotton gin. My daddy, he was a slight man, he held onto that quilt until somebody could turn off the machine.”
When Ona B. graduated from high school, she received a partial scholarship to Draughton’s Business College in Abilene. After college, Ona B. went to California with a cousin, but could not find satisfactory work and returned home. She worked in Camp Bowie and in Fort Worth, sharing a rented room.
One of the jobs she took was riveting airplanes for World War II pilots to fly.
“We were conscious of the fact that we had to do this right because our boys were flying those planes,” Ona B. said. “If one rivet was not right, it could take a plane apart. And sometimes a plane would get all shot up and still make it home. The rivets held it together.”
It was during her post-high school wanderings that she received her second proposal from Earl Henry Smart. The two had been in school together since the first grade and were very competitive in achieving high marks from their teachers.
“When we were in the first grade, he wrote me a note that said he hoped we would get married,” Ona B. said. “I guess everyone thought we would get married.
“I never really thought about it. Things were just the way they were. We grew up thinking we’d just be farmers and farmer’s wives. But Earl Henry, he was going to make money and buy a ranch.”
Ona B. and Earl Henry were married and then he went off to war. He had not been home long when he was tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver in front of his young wife.
Ona B. was a widow at 21-years-old.
That is when her life changed.
“I thought all at once I was going to fly,” Ona B. said. “I guess it was because Earl Henry was an aviator.”
So, Ona B. and her airplane went home.
She was known in certain circles as Barnstorming Barney — her middle name is Barney after her father, but growing up everyone called her Ona B.
Ona B. met and married her second husband some years later and her family grew as she added two children. An oilman, Bill Reed moved his family several times, including a couple of years in Venezuela. When her husband went into business for himself, the family settled down in Gainesville.
Ona B. was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1968. Her world changed for a second time.
“I looked at life in a totally different way,” Ona B. said. “Everyone who had cancer died. The only one person I knew of who had cancer and had not died was John Wayne. Those were not good odds.
“When I finally decided that I would live a year or so, I decided that I would do everything I wanted to do. That is when I got into archaeology and history, and I started flying more. It was a long time before I felt like I would live. And now, I have lived as long since I had it as before I had it.”
The impetus which ushered in the flurry of activity is still a vital part of Ona B,’s personality. She is active in many societies, some of which demand physical participation. An avid member of the Tarrant County Archaeological Society, she participates annually in field school. Recently, she advised a historical group about recording a plantation site - an event that required her presence in a largely overgrown area hiding foundations, wells and cisterns, as well as uneven footing and fallen fences.
Although she has broken bones and has been a bit under the weather at times, for the most part Ona B. enjoys good health.
“I do not have time to be sick,” Ona B. said. “I have too much to do.”