Amelia Earhart, vanished in the Pacific July 2, 1937, while trying to fly around the world with her navigator, Fred Noonan.
Feed Loader, File
Amelia Earhart -- found and lost
- Article by: JANE MENDELSOHN
- Special to the New York Times
- June 10, 2012 - 2:08 PM
There was a picture of Amelia Earhart in the newspaper. Actually, it was in this newspaper. I read the accompanying article while riding on a train from New Haven, Conn., to New York when I was in my mid-20s.
Although I had graduated a few years earlier, I was still living in the town where I'd gone to college. New Haven was cheap, and book reviews paid money back then.
This was in the early '90s. The train was quiet. No one had a cellphone. The article in the newspaper said that a search party believed it had found a piece of Earhart's plane on an atoll in the Pacific. And maybe a piece of her shoe.
I didn't know much about Amelia Earhart, but the idea of her surviving on a desert island, even if only for a little while, appealed to me, sang to me, waved furiously to me from a great distance.
Perhaps this was because I felt at the time as if I were flying hopelessly around the world and searching for land, longing for one of those islands of stability some of us keep looking for in our 20s, a braceleted wrist held up to the face, hand shielding our eyes from the harsh sun of adulthood, not realizing that we will have to build that island for ourselves.
Whatever the reason, I was certainly not the first person to be fascinated by Earhart's disappearance. Nor the last. This July 2 it will be 75 years since she vanished while attempting to circumnavigate the globe, and people are still wondering what happened to her, still compelled by the mystery — Was she a spy? Was she captured by the Japanese? Did she sink or survive? — still searching for her shoe.
Recently, new evidence has emerged to support the theory that Earhart did land on an island. The same group that first caught my attention, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, announced that it had determined that remnants of a jar, found on that same atoll in the Pacific — Gardner Island, now named Nikumaroro — may well have come from a face cream Earhart used.
More significantly, using high-tech software, the group has re-examined reports of previously dismissed radio signals said to have been sent from Earhart and determined that 57 of them were credible. This summer the group is beginning a $2 million search operation based on a 1937 photo of what looks like the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra in the water off Nikumaroro.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said that as a young girl she admired Amelia Earhart so much that she wanted to be an astronaut, has endorsed the search, saying that Earhart "gave people hope and she inspired them to dream bigger and bolder."
Earhart's courage and boldness, her clarity of vision and, yes, her sense of herself as a modern woman who wanted to do "what men have already done" and "occasionally what men have not done" inspired me, too.
As a young woman who had never written a book, never even published a short story, and who was still orbiting that ominous territory of risk and responsibility that comes between adolescence and adult life, I was inspired by Earhart to do something that at the time felt daring and frightening and possibly very stupid: Write a novel. A novel no one had asked for and no one, as far as I knew, was going to read.
She inspired me to face the unknown, the empty sky, the blank page. Even in her mistakes — her refusal to take a necessary antenna, her lack of knowledge of Morse code, her choice of an unreliable navigator — she inspired me to accept "the inevitable risks involved," as she once said. "Please know I am quite aware of the hazards," she wrote to her husband before her last flight. She inspired me to begin my life.
I wrote my book. And the one thing for which I was least prepared happened: It was a success. (This was in the days before anybody knew about Amazon, social media or even Oprah's book club — the Middle Ages — and I had written a literary book, too literary, many agents had told me, the kind that was not actually supposed to be a success.)
But because my first book was a success I was given some remarkable opportunities, one of which was to write an Op-Ed essay in this newspaper, the very paper in which I had first seen the picture of Amelia Earhart.
In the essay I said several things about Amelia Earhart and why we still care about her, that by disappearing she remains both dead and alive, a symbol, a myth, a star on which to hang our fantasies. I also said that I didn't think it would necessarily matter if we ever found out what happened to her, and that even if we did, we might not believe it because she was in our dreams and in the air.
I still believe all of these things, but in the intervening 15 or so years my thinking has expanded. At the time I wrote the piece I was still the young woman who had just written a first book, still the person who was looking for that place to land in the ocean and not realizing that I would have to build it for myself.
Since then, I have done some building. I have lived some life. Now it is the 21st century. We still wonder what happened to Amelia Earhart — perhaps soon we may even find out — but do we know what to do with her?
Do we know how to make not just her mysterious disappearance but also her miraculous life relevant and inspiring to our global society? And could she matter across the globe, that ball around which she tried to fly that feels so much smaller today but is in fact exactly the same size it was then?
I believe she could. It is being said more frequently, more loudly and with more evidence and conviction that the 21st century is the century of women.
Research tells us that by empowering women in developing countries we can end poverty, starvation and war. These are ambitious goals, perhaps unreachable, but clearly worth attempting.
Organizations like Women, War and Peace, 10 x 10 and the Girl Effect have information that can explain more fully than I can here why giving women and especially girls the help they need — leadership development, education, violence prevention and economic empowerment — can change the world.
There are many stories of extraordinary women doing just this: fighting enormous odds to get or give an education, to escape from or fight against sex trafficking and slavery, to build local businesses in remote places. And there are more and more astounding female leaders around the world to inspire us.
But what of the heroes of the past? The legends whose power is symbolic and points beyond itself?
Historically, one thing America has been good at is offering inspiration. We haven't been doing a brilliant job of it lately, but in Amelia Earhart we have something, someone, to offer the 21st century: a heroine.
She was a leader, not a passive bystander. She was strong, not a victim. And she was not born into a rich family, as were many other women pilots of her day, but was lifted up by her own accomplishments. In other words, she gives us good shoes to fill.
So her message is one of strength and resilience. But did she really survive? I still don't think it matters.
We will always care and wonder about the things that vanish, the personal ones like a jar of face cream or our 20s, and the big ones like Amelia Earhart or the MF Global money, but what's important is taking responsibility for our actions and for the things we've lost, even and especially if what we've lost is our own way.
Amelia Earhart can be a beacon for our country and for women and men around the globe because everyone, each of us, needs to be "aware of the hazards" and accept "the inevitable risks."
It was not Amelia Earhart who was waving to me from an atoll that day on the train but an idea, an ideal, a hazy vision of myself in the future, fully human and free, beckoning. I'm still flying toward that future.
We all are. Earhart's mystery endures because of who she was as a person, the pilot of her own destiny, mistakes, failures and dreams, reachable and unreachable. She still beckons.
Jane Mendelsohn is the author of "I Was Amelia Earhart" and "American Music." This essay was distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.
© 2013 Star Tribune