Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Amelia Earhart

Some time back, I started writing a short story that used Amelia Earhart, the famous aviatrix, as a central character. I had to do some research, of course, and read some biographies and a whole lot of websites. I never finished the story, but Amelia stuck with me.

Turns out she wasn't such a good pilot. She had a bad habit of nosing planes into the ground and occasionally landing in the wrong spot. Her sensational around-the-world flight, the one where she went missing over the Pacific Ocean, had to be delayed because she crashed her Lockheed Electra on take-off. In fact, a contributing reason for her disappearance was that she insisted on using a new radio-directional finder in her plane, and not the one she had trained with.

But what she was, was a woman far out of her time. She was a pacifist due to her service in WWI as a nurse. The wounded men she saw set her firmly against war. She was an unshakeable feminist in an era that feared the idea. She always wore slacks, kept her hair tomboyishly short and insisted on being treated as any man would be. Slender, dashing and attractive, with strong charisma but a humble, self-effacing manner, Amelia made a perfect media figure.

Amelia also had courage enough, and determination, for several people. As a young woman, she had no fixed notion of what to do with her life until she happened to go to a Los Angeles airfield and took a flight with a barnstormer. When she landed she knew she wanted to be an aviator and nothing could sway her. She lost her fiance because of her firmness.

She worked hard to learn to fly, and to get her own plane. She became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, though strictly speaking she was only a passenger. But that flight brought her fame, which she built upon. Using the public eye, she worked to encourage all women to explore any job field they wanted, whether it was open to women or not, and she tirelessly promoted other women aviators.

Amelia spent most of her life a single woman -- an oddity in that era. It wasn't until she met G.P. Putnam, of the publishing family, that she married. Even then, she did things her way. Amelia and GP caused a scandal by taking up together before he was divorced. And she almost didn't marry him. She was so leery of the concept of marriage, the idea of being fixed to one person for life no matter what, that she wrote a letter to GP just before their marriage, letting him know that he was always free to walk away.

GP was her greatest supporter, using his ties to the newspapers and magazines of the day to promote her latest flight. That's what helped lead to her around-the-world flight.

She nearly made it. Current thinking is that she was off course for her next stop, Howland Island, and either had to ditch in the ocean or on one of the many atolls in the area. The US Navy was called out to help in the search. They heard radio voices, but could never identify them enough to locate her.

There have been rumors over the years. That she was captured by the Japanese and executed as a spy. Her route took her near some secret Japanese bases. That she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, landed safely but died of injuries or thirst. There have been many reports over the years of sightings at various times and places in the Pacific, but none have been substantiated.

The latest theory comes from the tiny island of Tinian, located here, east-northeast of the Phillipines. A man has reported a conversation he had all those years ago with someone who claimed to have buried a white couple in aviator suits on that island. There's enough substance to the claim that an expedition has been mounted and the area is being searched.

In a way, I hope they don't find her. It would settle the mystery and let Amelia sink at last into the annals of history, to be forgotten in due time. As it stands, her mystery keeps her alive in memory and lets future generations learn of this remarkable woman. She is even today a woman to look to as a role model for being yourself and doing what you are destined to do. I would hate to see that lost.

Let me leave you with a poem she wrote, "Courage":

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release from little things.
Knows not the vivid loneliness of fear nor mountain heights
where bitter joy can hear the sound of wings.
How can life grant us boon of living,
compensate for dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate,
unless we dare the soul's dominion?
Each time we make a choice, we pay with courage
to behold the restless day and count it fair.

No comments: