Two events from last week prompted this true story: the seventy-fifth anniversary of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and what would have been my Dad’s 86th birthday.
Whenever Dad saw a picture of Amelia Earhart, he’d get a wistful faraway look on his face and mumble under his breath, “You know, she would have been an attractive woman with just a bit of makeup.”
I remember observing Dad as he watched a news report about her on TV: A picture of a smiling woman with short-cropped hair had popped up on the screen, and Dad was wearing that wistful look.
I asked him who this friendly looking lady was, and he said,” Why Amelia, of course. Amelia Earhart.”
“But who is she?” I wanted to know.
Dad looked at me solemnly. “She was a famous pilot who disappeared in 1937 and was never seen again!”
I remember thinking what a wonderful name Air-heart was for someone who flew.
“What do you mean she disappeared?” I asked.
“Well, she just vanished. She was trying to fly around the world, but she disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.”
I was fascinated. That night he told me all about Amelia and her co-pilot Fred Noonan, and how they’d taken a Lockheed Electra 10E ( Dad knew his airplanes) and attempted to circumnavigate the earth. I’d heard adults bump into each other unexpectedly and say, “Small world,” but I still figured it for a very big place. In school we were learning about exotic lands, and it seemed unbelievable that this smiling woman, this Air-heart, had attempted to fly around the whole kit and kaboodle.
Planes were Dad’s passion. He first got to ride in a plane during the war. He was in the Navy at eighteen and had been shipped off to the island of Guam. Dad was there with the Seabees to build runways and barracks to prepare for the invasion of Japan. When I was young, I misunderstood him and thought he was saying the island of Gum, which to a kid sounded like a terrific place. I imagined an azure sea surrounding a tropical paradise composed of chewing gum and bubble gum, licorice-flavored gum and cinnamon gum. No wonder there was a war out there—who wouldn’t fight for a place like that?
During the war, Dad was temporarily removed from duty when he hurt his hand. I used to fantasize that he got hurt while helping remove the wreckage of a Japanese Zero that had kamikazied into their camp, but his injury occurred while moving a latrine. Nevertheless, he was allowed to go up in a B-24 Liberator with a few of the guys and treated to a spectacular aerial view of the island that he never forgot. He must have gazed out at the limitless Pacific and wondered about his beloved Amelia, lost in all that water.
Many times when Dad and I would be walking together, my little hand in his big one, I’d look up at him and see his prominent Adam’s apple, his head tilted back as he studied a plane flying overhead. When I was small I was terrified that one day he might get into an airplane himself and disappear like this Air-heart person.
I was miserable when Dad decided to learn how to fly. My mother didn’t approve of the costly lessons but didn’t complain. Dad seldom asked for anything. I went with him when he took his first flying lesson. My brother David rarely accompanied us; he was too busy playing sports and filling his trophy case.
The flight lesson departed from Airport Village, a small extension of the San Jose Airport. I watched Dad and the flight instructor climb into a tiny plane and take off, the plane getting smaller and smaller until it disappeared into the haze. I waited nervously on a small observation deck until Dad and the instructor returned.
Several months of lessons followed, and before long Dad took his solo flight. When he returned, there was a ceremony; his instructor took a pair of scissors and cut the tails off Dad’s shirt. I remember being startled by this, but Dad assured me everything was okay. In fact, he’d worn that old shirt for just that reason.
He explained that pilots always got their “tail-feathers” clipped when they first flew solo. Dad looked happy about it so I decided it was okay, but the whole thing seemed off putting to me. We once had a pet parakeet named Chipper, and Dad paid extra at the pet store to have the bird’s wings clipped so it couldn’t fly away. It seemed strange that clipping a bird’s wings prevented it from flying, yet pilots symbolically submitted to similar treatment to celebrate the fact that they could.
I liked accompanying Dad in our old Packard when he drove to the metal building beside the airport where he rented a plane. The building smelled of grease, gasoline and body odor, a pleasant smell I’ll always associate with Dad. There was a candy machine, and he would give me money for a chocolate bar. There I’d be, with a big circle of chocolate around my mouth as my father disappeared into the wild, blue yonder. One day I was rewarded for being Dad’s airport buddy—he invited me to go up with him. I panicked at first. The little Cessna Dad rented looked pretty rickety. But the lure of flying over rooftops overrode my fear. Before long I was champing at the bit to be soaring like an eagle.
Dad was extremely methodical. Although he never said it, you always knew what he was thinking: “If you’re going to do something, do it right.”
He began his pre-flight checklist. To my horror there were nearly twenty items on the list. I watched him pull back the engine cover and pull out the dipstick to check the oil. I should have been grateful that he was so conscientious—after all, our lives depended on it—but I wasn’t. In my head I screamed, Enough already. Let’s goooooo!
We didn’t go. Dad examined the plane like a surgeon looking for a lump. Then he pressed a button and the plane pissed a small stream of gas onto the gravel; he said something about clearing air from the fuel hose. I stood beside the plane and tried to be as patient as possible. I was pondering how long eternity was when Dad suddenly dropped the hood back over the engine and informed me we were ready to depart. He lifted me up and buckled me into the co-pilot’s seat. He turned the ignition switch and the engine roared to life. The little plane trembled, and then purred like a living being.
I couldn’t wait to slip the bonds of gravity. Fear and excitement were dueling in my stomach.
Conclusion on Sunday