Flight

Amelia Earhart

Up, up and away.

February 1931:

[In] our life together I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. If we can be honest I think the difficulties which may arise may best be avoided should you or I become interested deeply (or in passing) with anyone else.

Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.

– Amelia Earhart, letter to George Putnam

December 1931:

It’s late, and Amelia is starting to feel a little drowsy. Jenny is reeling off some interminable tale about a surly waiter at an Ambassador’s dinner. Amelia sighs and tugs at the neckline of her evening dress, feeling trapped behind the mask of her polite half-smile.

She’s thinking about the journey she made three years ago, the journey across two thousand miles of featureless grey Atlantic, the shadow of her plane flitting over motionless boulders of cloud. So very different to the almost unbearable six days at sea she endured to reach London this time: six days of leaning over cold iron railings and peering into the thick banks of slowly rolling ocean mist. A castaway on an iron island, wishing to fly free.

Beside her, George stirs, ever so slightly, in impatience. She knows that his tiny motion has gone unnoticed by the other diners, and that only she can detect it and only she can knows what it means, and she is for a moment glad at this evidence of their closeness.

Her husband of eight months is more comfortable in formal wear than she, but he, too, is growing tired of Jenny’s meandering. Jenny is unquestionably charming, her dark eyes raccooned with mascara and her dark hair bobbed fashionably short. So swift is she with her quips and jests that it sometimes seems as though the conversation is scripted to let her shine. But like so many other Europeans, she seems to be a graduate of the endurance school of conversation, spinning every anecdote out into a story and every story out into a saga.

This sometimes infuriates Amelia, who has not entirely lost the slow taciturnity of her Kansas youth, but then she and Jenny are unlike in so many other ways besides: Jenny’s gamine form is contrary to Amelia’s own more rangy figure, her symmetric fall of black hair at odds with Amelia’s tousled blonde mane. And while both women are known around the world, Amelia cannot see how their roles might be interchanged; she would be no more at home in front of a movie-camera or music-hall crowd than Jenny would be five thousand feet up with only an altitude stick to play to.

“So,” says Jenny, turning her bright black birds’ eyes to Amelia, who has thus far escaped her good-natured teasing. “Have you met Herr Jung?”

“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” says Amelia, glancing hastily down the table, trying to untangle the knot of half-remembered introductions in her head.

Jenny follows her eyes. “He’s not here, darling,” she drawls. “He’s in Switzerland. He is a colleague of Herr Freud, although he has some very interesting ideas of his own.”

“Really?” says Amelia. “I don’t believe I have met Herr Freud either.”

“Really?” echoes Jenny. “You really must next time you are here. His ideas on –” she circles one hand at the wrist–”qu’est que c’est qu’on dit, the unconscious, the part of ourselves we only see in dreams, they are extraordinary.”

“Is that so?” says Amelia. Jenny’s been spending a lot of time in Paris of late, and takes every opportunity to adopt Continental pretensions. Amelia’s not convinced she really even speaks French.

“Yes,” says Jenny decisively, waving her cigarette holder. “For example,” she says confidingly, leaning in close enough for Amelia to smell her cologne, close enough to create a sense of intimacy belied by the rapt attention of the other diners, “his ideas on dreams. He believes that in our dreams, nothing is as is seems. That everything is simply a symbol of something else. As with this new surrealisme of Messieurs Breton et Dali. A clock is not simply a clock, it is something else also: the passage of time, or the fear of age. To eat an apple is to give in to temptation. And so on.”

“That sounds fascinating–” begins Amelia warily, sensing the closing jaws of a trap, but Jenny breaks in.

“For instance,” she says, “Herr Jung says that when one is flying in one’s dreams, it is not flying at all.”

“Then what is it?” asks Amelia.

“It is sex,” says Jenny, wickedly, her small teeth shining. “It is of sex that one truly dreams. What do you say to that, eh Amelia?

There is a hush, broken only by a half-amused, half-shocked titter. Amelia can see out of the corner of her eye that diners all the way down the table are leaning in to see her reaction.

She allows her half-smile to crack open a little wider.

“Herr Jung may be right,” she says slowly. “But then, tell me Jenny, if he is… what does it mean when one dreams of sex?”

The lull goes on for a second longer, then there is a murmur of amusement, puffs of cigar smoke expanding over the table. A few admiring glances, a few outraged ones, and the meal continues.

George squeezes Amelia’s hand gently below the level of the table.

Touché,” says Jenny dryly.

March 1932:

George is rocking to and fro in his curious, seesaw manner, breathing heavily through his open mouth. Amelia is motionless and unmoved, gazing into the space beyond the curve of his neck, mildly aroused as he moves within her, but no more.

This is the part she likes best, the part of the act which she feels best reflects their marriage: an understated exchange of strength and comfort without histrionics or fuss. He is entranced by beauty that she cannot herself detect; she is supported, yet calm and independent, free to indulge her own fancies and dreams within the gentle cage of his arms.

As is often the case these days, she is dreaming of flight. Not pedestrian, plodding exhibition flybys which tax neither her aeroplane, her body nor her mind, but the euphoric, headfirst rush of open flight over endless ocean, silent but for the wind and the easily-forgotten drone of the motor. And George’s motion is in-keeping with the dream; an undulating pressure that lifts and drops her alternately, in mimicry of the gentle buffeting of the stratospheric wind.

Her reverie is broken as she feels George grow shuddery and anxious in his final seconds. For a moment she is resentful, then wistful as she recalls Jenny’s tipsy powder-room scuttlebutt: extravagant and no doubt exaggerated tales of prodigious lovers, unorthodox locales and something called le petit mort, a state of rapture Amelia finds it hard to imagine arising from her own dispassionate couplings.

A brace of juddering spasms, and George is done. He rolls away and over, his heavy breathing ragged in the exhausted silence.

“I love you,” he says. Though she knows he means it, he does not look at her as he says it.

“I love you too,” she replies, and closes her eyes.

May 1932:

It’s dark over the Atlantic tonight. But not calm.

Amelia is looking through the thin glass egg of her cockpit, snatching glances at the black sea between impenetrable icebergs of cloud, simultaneously cursing and glorying in the lightning bolts crackling far behind her torpedo-shaped Lockheed Vega. The sky around her is a flickering maelstrom of electric blue and burning red; the altimeter is out, the dead hand of its needle jolting dully across the dial as the wind shoves and pushes at the plane; the barograph is her only indication of height, and even it has been thrown out by the vast low-pressure basin of the storm.

Standing tip-toe, Amelia can just see over the bulbous nose of the aircraft. The sea is almost featureless, the scale of its vast sweeping arcs lost at this distance, but she guesses that she is perhaps ten thousand feet up. Then there is the vibration from a separating seam in the engine manifold, as yet inconsiderable, but insistent and growing. And the alarming, but innocent glow of orange-red flames jetting into the sky from her exhaust pipes.

Amelia fears none of these things. The sky is my friend, she thinks. The sky will not let me fall. But even as she thinks it, the throttle grows sullen and unresponsive, the ‘plane losing speed no matter how tight the grasp of her gloved fist. She realises, with a jolt of alarm, that the windscreen is thickly sheeted with half-liquid ice, the face of the moon growing vague through the aqueous veil, and without a murmur of warning, the Vega flips out at the tail and spins.

Amelia hauls at the stick with both hands, pulling it back until the cords of muscle in her neck stand out like drawstrings, the image of a rancher roping a steer at the rodeo flashing into her mind, but the Lockheed continues to plummet in its long, flat spin, until the cabin is a blurred circle of pale yellow lights and the clouds are smeared across the horizon, and still Amelia hangs on the stick, and abruptly the ‘plane flattens out and bumps back into level flight.

The windscreen is streaked with flattened rivulets of water, the control surfaces free once more as the warmer air melts off their stifling burden of ice. Through the window Amelia can see the white-caps on the ocean. The barograph shows her that she has dropped at least three thousand feet, and she tugs gingerly on the stick to inch the ‘plane up again, watching for ice on the glass. The flames lick their way out of the exhaust once again.

Shuddering, Amelia is weak for a moment, her body slackening with the sudden release of tension, then she laughs wildly – once, then twice. Every nerve and blood vessel in her body sings with exhilaration. A chorus of adrenaline.

I can do this, she thinks. After all, Lindbergh made it. But no-one has yet replicated his feat, and certainly no woman. She thinks of Doc Kimball at the New York Met Office and his grim premonitions, his mournful roll-call of the seven women who have died attempting this same passage before her. She thinks of the 99s, waiting patiently in their Earhart jewellery and Earhart fashions for news of their President’s safe landing in Ireland. For the triumph of the New Woman.

But more than anything else, she thinks of the sky. The sky is my home, she thinks in a momentary flash of fantasy. Looking around her, spying the pink glow of dawn at the horizon, she believes this with a pure, perfect passion. I cannot fall. And for a moment, the sky calls back to her.

The sky is my friend, she thinks, relishing the prospect of such union.

And her thoughts move on, to another, still more impertinent, if not intimate, conceit.

July 1937:

It is much too hot in New Guinea, and Amelia is feeling it, though she gives no sign. To the world at large she is unflappable as ever, a figure of almost superhuman calm.

Tonight, she will fly to Howland Island, the second-to-last leg of her round-the-world trip. She is anxious about navigating her way to the isolated two-mile island, but gives no sign, determined to give her doubters no rope with which to hang her.

A few choice insults stick in her mind. A chance meeting with a drunk political aide at the White House who asks if she uses her maiden name because hers is a marriage of convenience. A veteran flyer of no small repute who berates her for flying a man’s machine; the dismissal of her “magnificent display of useless courage” from a correspondent to the New York World Telegram.

Most painfully, even the professionals of the nascent commercial aviation industry – the beneficiaries of the industry she has nurtured with her record-breaking flights – are belittling her as a little more than a flying circus performer. Beside their catcalls, all her plaudits fade to nothing.

She wishes she could talk to George. But he is thousands of miles away, his finances drained by the expense of mounting her trip. In the hold of her spanking new “Flying Laboratory”, as it has been dubbed, are ten thousand exclusive stamps with which he hopes to recoup his investment. Though she has never questioned his business acumen before, she has a sinking feeling that perhaps this time it will not be enough.

“I have more-or-less mortgaged up my future,” she wrote to a friend a few days ago. “Without regret, however, for what are futures for?” But the bravado is not entirely genuine; for the first time, Amelia is beginning to feel that her actions are more for the Press’ benefit than her own, a feeling that makes her unsteady and unsure.

She sits on the wooden bench and looks at the bleached blue of the sky, straining her eyes in the hope of making out some feature, some mark to reveal its awareness of her. The sky is warm, inviting, open. She wishes again that she could talk to George. She needs his support, his strength, his all-encompassing generosity of spirit. And the feeling of fullness in her belly, her sudden bouts of nausea and giddiness make her wonder if there is, perhaps, a more urgent reason to see him.

If it is a child, she thinks, when was it conceived? She has not been with George for months, hardly at all since March, the outset of this expedition. She has done nothing but sleep and fly. This baby, she thinks, if it is a baby, would be a real child of the air.

For a moment, she pauses. Then she rises to her feet and walks slowly over to the ‘plane. Time to fly. The sky awaits her.

November 1992:

The wreckage of an aircraft, believed to be a 1937 Lockheed Electra, is found on the remote Pacific islet of Nikumaroro, some four hundred miles from Howland Island.

Amelia Earhart is still missing. ##

4 thoughts on “Flight

  1. Wow. Your description of the spin and near-crash is astonishingly vivid. The love of the air and flying that flows through this piece is utterly convincing, and strong enough for the reader to feel it. An exceptional piece of writing.

  2. Very cool. Without wishing to be wanky, there’s poetry here, especially the balance between Amelia’s mundane and transcendent loves, the way they support each other and compete with each other in her mind in a very messy real-life way. Cracking dialogue too. Cheers

  3. Thanks!

    This is another old story – can’t date it exactly, but I do remember that I modified the ending when the wreckage was discovered on Nikumaroro. So it was probably written in 1990 or thereabouts.

    I’ve always been pleased with this story, which despite its length and apparent polish was written in about two hours for a meeting of the writing circle I was attending at the time. I’d just read a biography of Earhart and this story basically came out of my deep immersion in the subject. Reading it back, I’m surprised by how structured it is, and how consistent the imagery is. None of that was deliberate; it just emerged in the writing process.

    One irritation is that I no longer have much idea how much of it is historically or factually accurate – I know some of the details were taken directly from the biography and others I just made up for the purposes of the story. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know which incidents are real and which aren’t (although some are more obvious than others) without re-doing the research. Which I probably never will.

    The wreckage found on Nikumaroro (home, incidentally, to these terrifying critters) turned out not to be conclusive. The efforts of dedicated researchers have turned up more tantalising evidence over the past two decades, but not enough to solve the mystery.

    Amelia Earhart is still missing.

  4. I loved this the first time I read it, and still do. It’s a consummate piece of writing, an effortless read, the muses were with you on this one. The emotion in this reminded me of the poem ‘High Flight’ by John Gillespie Magee:

    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

    Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
    Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
    And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Leave a Reply to Sarah E. Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.