- The Magazine
- Current Issue
- Events & Shows
- Web Extras
- Yellow Pages
Nevada native and resident Dorthella Silva recalls her brush with death in 1943.
Photo: Courtesy of Inge Costa
Dorthella Annett Hill Silva, called Dode by her friends and relatives, had an exciting life as a young woman in America. She thinks her answers through carefully as I ask my questions about life before World War II. Her gaze drifts to the ceiling and off behind me, focusing on the memories that are now fuzzy in her mind. One story in particular comes to her mind when I ask her about her most adventurous experience as a girl.
Dorthella was 10 years old when she took her father’s new car. Luckily, she did know how to drive. She had experience from starting and backing up trucks. On her way through Wilson Canyon, she saw a cattle truck coming toward her on the narrow highway. She was afraid to pull off because she was worried she would drive into the river to her right. The truck approached, trying to move over enough to let her by. Unfortunately, the truck didn’t move over enough, and the hooks on the side scraped against the side of the car. The driver pulled over and, with the help of his friend, got her to stop. Upon seeing how young she was, they took her and the car home.
“I don’t think he was as upset as people would be now,” Dorthella said about her father, curling and uncurling her toes. She explained that there weren’t as many cars on the road then, and she wasn’t in as much danger as a 10-year-old on a highway would be today. Shaking her head, she says, “I think I was too young to learn anything.”
In 1943, she had another chance to come of age while on the road. Now she was old enough to drive, legally, and was living in Silver Peak. One day, in the early morning, she went to pick up her husband from the Tonopah Air Base. It was early morning when it happened.
“I was driving down the road about 30 miles out of Tonopah,” she remembers, her gaze shifting to me. For the first time during the interveiw, she seems completely sure of her words. One hand is twirling absentmindedly as she floats back to the world in the midst of World War II. Her voice is even as she crosses her legs comfortably.
She said she remembers reading stories about war planes swooping down to scare people or landing on the highways. Usually it occurred in Arizona or New Mexico. Sometimes people were killed, mostly by decapitation.
Even so, when she saw a large shape coming toward her, she assumed it was a truck. As it got closer, she saw it was a plane. Her fear immobilized her, making it impossible for her to get off the road. The plane, a two-seater, was coming on fast. At the last minute, the pilot pulled up, Dorthella ducked, and the top half of her car was demolished. The plane crashed behind her. She’s not sure how long she tried to get out. A kind of desperation was controlling her. She explained that for some reason she was afraid of a fire.
The doors were smashed too badly to open. In fact, she never did really remember how she got out. A long time ago, she said, she thought she’d gotten out through a window. Now she thinks she must have gotten a door open, because she would have been cut by the glass if she’d climbed through a window. Luckily she wasn’t hurt.
When she finally got out, she didn’t know what to do. There was no way for her to get inside the airplane to help the pilot or the man sitting behind him, a surgeon. Her car was damaged too badly for her to go get help in Tonopah, the closest city. So she waited.
“It makes you feel incredibly helpless,” she said, describing what she thinks she learned from this expierience, “because I couldn’t help them.” The helplessness made her grow up, very suddenly. She matured because of the horror and not being able to do a thing.
Finally a car drove down the highway, through the deserted desert. Six people were piled inside, and Dorthella remembers noticing the Canadian license plates. She asked them to help her get inside the plane, but they refused. They also would not drive her to Tonopah to get help. In a last, desperate attempt, she asked them to alert the authorities about the accident when they passed through Tonopah. She was relieved when they agreed, and drove on.
Two or three hours later, help still hadn’t come. An older man stopped and offered her a ride to Tonopah to find help. Gladly, she got in his car, and they drove to Tonopah. Things started to move very quickly, and the next day she went to visit the pilot in the hospital. He had some broken bones and other minor injuries. The surgeon had died.
It was recommended that she see a psychiatrist about the incident, but it was quickly discovered that it wasn’t necessary.
“I have a strong constitution…” Dorthella quoted the doctors, “I don’t know what that means.” She told me she tries not to dwell on the bad things. While some people have nightmares or other problems, she just moves on with her life. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing,” she said wryly. Dorthella’s experience made her a stronger woman, and it still humbles her.
As I close my notes and get up to leave, I remember all the interesting stories she told me and bite my lip, wondering how I could possibly choose one. I regret I couldn’t include more of them, but I’m glad I had the chance to learn more about Dorthella. She smiles modestly as I tell her how pleased I am with the interview and laughs softly as I say goodbye. Her gait is awkward as she leads me to the door, but it has a certain determination in it I know she could have only gotten from experiences like the ones I’d just chosen to write about.