The Secret That's Worth Knowing About Amelia Earhart

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 20, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- The detectives have come back with their evidence. One rubber heel for a woman's size 9 shoe. A threaded top from a bottle that once held stomach medicine. A piece of aluminum skin from the fuselage of a pre-World War II plane.

These are now offered up as proof that Amelia Earhart died on an inhospitable atoll in the South Pacific. The 39-year-old pilot and her navigator attempting to add yet another first to her list -- The First Pilot to Circle the Globe near the Equator -- missed Howland Island. Out of fuel, they had landed at Nikumaroro. Out of water, they died there.

Well, maybe. The Fate of Amelia Earhart has produced a cottage industry of speculators and mystery lovers. Frankly, I find the mystery of Amelia Earhart's death less intriguing than the mystery of her life. If this woman has remained in the limelight long enough to please even her ardent publicist and husband, George Putnam, it is not because of her disappearing role, but because of her historic role.

She is still one of that string of ''first women'' stretching back through time. Amelia Earhart, ''girl pilot,'' ''aviatrix,'' was born in 1897 in Kansas and never saw a plane until she was 10. She didn't start flying until 23. In 1927, at the tail end of one women's movement and before another, she was a 30-year-old Boston social worker with a pilot's license.

Out of the blue, Ms. Earhart was asked if she wanted to fly across the Atlantic. In the 1920s, flying was still something between a feat and a stunt. After Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic and became an American hero, people seeking attention for another flight, came upon the idea of the ''girl pilot.''

This tall, curly-haired, flight-jacketed woman who might have passed for Lindbergh's sister, quickly came into her own, breaking records and preconceptions, showing her strength. One month, an article appeared saying it couldn't be done -- ''Why I believe Women Pilots Can't Fly the Atlantic -- an outspoken warning by Lady Heath.'' The next month she did it, solo.

In some ways, her career became Being Amelia Earhart. Flying and speaking about flying, flying and writing about it. She made her living from her life, her fame fed by the string of firsts that must have become harder and harder to achieve.

Before she set off for the final trip around the world, weary, under-prepared, with a hard-drinking navigator, she told friends that she had just one last big trip in her. Had she made it home, Amelia Earhart might eventually have ended up like the pilot Beryl Markham, living in a bungalow on the edge of a Nairobi race track. Or become an honored foremother at the front of some latter-day parade. Instead she became the heroine, perhaps a touch too romantic, but properly courageous, of any girl who wanted to fly in the face of convention.

''Women must try to do things as men have tried,'' she wrote in 1935. ''When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.''

So let the aviation buffs set off again in search of bones and the serial number on a plane. In the end, the mystery of the spirit, the secret of daring, and the puzzle of courage are more intriguing and harder questions than the whereabouts of a long-lost plane.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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