The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

5 reasons why American aviatrix Amelia Earhart could be an expat heroine

The American aviatrix Amelia Earhart has been propelling her way into the news headlines this week. Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of her Lockheed Electra disappearing over the Pacific Ocean.

And today marked the beginning of an expedition, led by an American nonprofit group, to locate the wreckage from her plane. The group plans to scan the depths of the Pacific Ocean near a remote island where they believe Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, died as castaways.

With America’s most famous aviatrix back on our horizons, it seems a timely moment to nominate her for our Displaced Hall of Fame, where we put all of our expat heroes and heroines.

What, was she an expat, too? I can hear you asking. In fact, she was an expat briefly — during World War I, when she went to visit her sister in Toronto and ended up staying on as a nurse’s aide in a military hospital.

But I’ll admit that Earhart seems more of a domestic heroine — as American as apple pie, you might say. Born in Atchison, Kansas, in America’s heartland, Amelia grew up tall and willowy like the corn in the fields. As the Reigning Queen of the Air, she became the nation’s sweetheart and to this day retains a special place in the hearts of young American women.

What’s more, recruiting her to serve as a heroine for global nomads, many of whom have hybrid nationalities, might not fly with my fellow Americans. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has endorsed the expedition to hunt for Earhart’s plane, saying that Earhart embodies the “spirit of America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world…”

But in reviewing the main facts of Earhart’s life, I have found plenty of aspects that show how “displaced” she actually was — “displaced” in the sense of being “removed from the usual or proper place” (see definition on our About page) — and hence belongs in our orbit. Here are five of my top reasons:

1) She was born with wings.

Veteran expats and long-term travelers cannot afford to have fear, or dislike of, flying. Should we incline at all in this direction, it may help to lie back in your airplane seat (or pretend you have a seat where it’s possible to lie back) and think of Earhart, who took to the skies without hesitation, as though the airplane wings were her own. Legend has it that she first caught the aviation bug while an expat in Canada. She went to see an exhibition of stunt flying at a fair in Toronto and later wrote about the sensation she’d felt as a pilot began diving at her and her friend:

I remember the mingled fear and pleasure which surged over me as I watched that small plane at the top of its earthward swoop. I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.

From then on, it was all she could do to keep her feet on the earth. Of her first airplane flight she said: “As soon as we left the ground, I knew I had to fly.” In 1921 she took her first flying lesson, and soon saved enough money to buy a second-hand plane.

Of course it helped that in the early days, flying was a romantic sport for the lucky few, not a form of transport where everyone from pilot to passenger feels as though they’re herding or being treated like cattle. Earhart named her first plane “Canary” because of its bright yellow color. Perhaps she felt like a canary when setting her first women’s record: rising to an altitude of 14,000 feet.

By the time she became the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic solo (Charles Lindbergh was first to do so), she had her own little red airplane — a cherry-colored Lockheed Vega, reputed to be the world’s fastest aircraft and therefore favored by pioneering aviators. Hmmm… Did it make her feel like a cardinal?

2) Always restless with the status quo, she let it drive her adventures.

What’s the litmus test for being a travel or expat type? A person who is always upping the ante. We’re a gang of permanent malcontents!

No sooner had Earhart become the first woman to cross the Atlantic (as a passenger) — a flight that made headlines because three women had died within the same year in trying to achieve it — but she sought to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic (1932) and the first person to fly solo across the Pacific, from Honolulu to Oakland (1935), among other achievements.

At that point, there was nothing for it but to make a bid to become the first person to fly around the world (1937).

One wonders what Earhart might have done next, had she not gone down in her plane on the very last leg of the journey. Perhaps she would she have concluded that she’d peaked out too early? (No doubt many of you serial expats and repats can relate…)

3) She had no qualms whatsoever about the risks involved in an adventuresome life.

In the lore surrounding Earhart, great emphasis is placed on her early feminism. Much of it is said to be due to her mother, who had very little interest in bringing up Amelia and her younger sister as “nice little girls” — she even allowed them to wear bloomers!

Clad in this comfortable attire (Amelia would later design a clothing line for women who wanted comfort), the Earhart sisters climbed trees, hunted rats with a rifle, and “belly-slammed” their sleds downhill.

The young Amelia also kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about successful women in predominantly male fields, including film direction and production, law, advertising, management, and mechanical engineering.

Although she did marry eventually — to the publisher George Putnam — she always referred to the marriage as a “partnership” with “dual control,” and did not change her last name.

When she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, Earhart said it proved that men and women were equal in “jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness and willpower.”

(No doubt she would be knocked out to learn that women’s boxing will be included in the London 2012 Olympics for the very first time.)

But to me, what’s even more impressive about Earhart’s life is that she knew about the risks involved in her chosen occupation — but decided not to let them hold her back. That same kind of risk-taking is at the heart of the overseas travel enterprise, which goes against the grain of most people’s common sense. (“You want to go THERE? And FOR HOW LONG?” Expats and global nomads know the drill of fielding constant questions and doubts from the people back home.)

When Earhart set out on her second attempt to circumnavigate the world (the first had ended in a crash when a tire blew out on take-off), she wrote to her husband: “Please know I am quite aware of the hazards.” And then she went ahead and packed a jar of freckle cream. (I say that because a jar of freckle cream was found on the Pacific Island that’s now being searched.)

4) She was never more in her element than when out of her element (quite literally).

There is something that draws all of us to the displaced life. Since it’s a life of challenges, I have to assume that for most of us, it’s that feeling of being a pioneer, of going the way no one else in our circles has gone before…

In Earhart’s case, the displacement was quite literal: she loved being in the empty sky and facing the unknown. In that sense she was like a character out of Greek myth — a female Icarus. As she once said of an early flight:

The stars seemed near enough to touch and never before have I seen so many. I always believed the lure of flying is the lure of beauty…

Jane Mendelsohn was inspired to write her first novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, after reading that a piece of what may have been Earhart’s plane had been recovered on an atoll in the Pacific. Imagining the life that Earhart and Noonan might have led as castaways, Mendelsohn shows Earhart coming into her own in the desert-island setting, and finding peace of mind.

Random House editor Kristin Fritz commends Mendelsohn for creating a whole new iteration of Earhart as

a woman who had perhaps “taken this journey in order to escape the madness of the world,” a woman who “didn’t give a damn if she was alone” and finally a woman who would “live the rest of her long and brilliant life on this wild and desolate island.”

Now that’s displaced! And if Fritz is right and Medelsohn captured the essence of Earhart in her novel, then we should not feel too bad that she perished on an island out in the middle of nowhere. That’s how she would have wanted it…

5) Last but not least, she appears to have known the value of chocolate.

Here we come to the true test of an expat or international traveler: do they like chocolate? Are they addicted to that sudden charge of energy, the little lift, one gets from the sugar and the caffeine? Most seasoned expats and international travelers know that we could never have prevailed during the inevitable moments of loneliness and displacement the life entails without a chocolate supply of some sort.

When Earhart embarked on her 2,408-mile solo flight across the Pacific in 1935, she packed a thermos of hot chocolate in case she felt chilled. As she later observed:

Indeed, that was the most interesting cup of chocolate I have ever had sitting up eight thousand feet over the middle of the Pacific Ocean, quite alone.

* * *

Now that we’re touching down, I feel the need to quote from Mendelsohn’s recent op-ed for the New York Times:

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 as it was then?

For me there’s an easy answer to all three of Mendelsohn’s questions: YESSSSSSS!!! It’s time Amelia Earhart went global, and not just literally…don’t you agree?

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, another in our Expat Moments series by Anthony Windram — and yes, it does have to do with the 4th of July!

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