THE NEWFOUNDLAND QUARTERLY :: ONLINE EXCLUSIVES
Online Exclusive for #435 (a)
Amelia Earhart came to me one sunny evening on the shore of Ontario's Spanish River. Steve and I had finished paddling for the day and I was spread out on a warm rock, plastic cup of wilderness wine in hand, watching dragonflies. It was just shy of one year after I had broken my back on a similar trip in the British Columbia Rockies. I was happy to have my body back, happy I could once again poke myself into little hidden folds of the world like this. I was happy for dragonflies.
They looked like biplanes, plodding but sufficient. I found myself looking for little goggles and was disappointed to find none. I thought: Amelia Earhart. And I wrote this poem:
Several years ago, I had gone as a CBC reporter to the town of Trepassey on Newfoundland's southern shore to work on a series about rural Newfoundland ten years after the cod moratorium. While waiting for a fisherman to come in for an interview, I wandered in the tiny town museum, housed in an old saltbox house. There sat a picture of Amelia Earhart, and beside it, her curling iron, purportedly left behind when her plane took off.
Amelia Earhart had been in Trepassey. The Amelia Earhart. As evidenced by her curling iron. How had I not known? If Trepassey were anywhere else in Canada, there would have been a billboard. Or maybe a roadside "World's Largest Curling Iron."
Back home in St. John's after the canoe trip, I Googled Amelia Earhart. I couldn't recall precisely what she was famous for. The first woman to make a trans-Atlantic flight as a passenger aboard a plane dubbed Friendship. The first woman to pilot a plane non-stop across the Atlantic. The woman who disappeared on the final leg of her attempt to be the "first of our sexi" to circumnavigate the globe by plane. The first American woman to leave behind her curling iron in a Newfoundland outport. I logged her at the back of my mind her under "Cool Lady Adventurers" and carried on.
Two years later, she emerged again. I was between jobs and wanted to immerse myself in a writing project. At the end of three university degrees, I was (still) perseverating on what I wanted to be when I grew up, and amid the confusion was a recurrent theme of boldness. As if on cue, out stepped Amelia.
I read three of her autobiographiesii, the final one published posthumously by her husband. She hadn't always wanted to be a pilot. As a young woman visiting Toronto from the United States at the end of the first world war, she was moved by the sight of wounded soldiers hobbling down King Street on crutches. Instead of returning to the US, she stayed on and trained with the Canadian Red Cross as a nurse's aide. At the end of her posting at Spadina Military Hospital, she felt she would rather like to become a doctor and enrolled in courses at Columbia University to that end. After a year or so she realized medical school wasn't her thing - "I thought… of sitting at the bedside of a hypochondriac and handing out innocuous sugar pellets to a patient with an imaginary illness… This picture made me feel inadequate and insincere" (Earhart 1932, p. 23) - and quit to take a job as a social worker in Boston, where she worked primarily with immigrant children.
I read further still, through her early training as a pilot, and the story of how she was selected to be the Friendship's sole female passenger. Amy Phipps, daughter of a wealthy American industrialist and wife of a British politician, had purchased a plane from American pilot and polar explorer Commander Richard Byrd, planning to become the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Phipps (then known as Mrs. Frederick Guest) eventually decided against making the trip, and instead charged WWI Captain-turned-reporter Hilton H. Railey with finding someone to take her place. Of his find - a handsome young social worker with actual flying experience - Railey wrote breathlessly in 1938iii:
With intense interest I observed and appraised her as she talked. Her resemblance to Colonel Lindberghiv was so extraordinary that I couldn't resist the impulse to ask her to remove her hat. She complied, brushing back her naturally tousled, wind-swept hair, and her laugh was infectious. "Lady Lindy!" Most of all I was impressed by the poise of the boyish figure at my desk. Mrs. Guest had stipulated that the person to whom she would yield must be "representative" of American women. In Amelia Earhart I felt that I had discovered not their norm but their sublimation.
Earhart agreed to make the trip and was sworn to secrecy, as it was considered bad luck to discuss details of a flight - particularly a dangerous one - before embarking. Wilmer Stultz was hired as pilot, and Lou "Slim" Gordon as mechanic. The men began preparing the plane in a Boston hangar for, as far as the world was concerned, Commander Byrd's forthcoming Antarctic trip. Three weeks passed as they worked and waited for the perfect window of weather, while Earhart continued to work with her immigrant children; only her supervisor - of necessity - knew her plans.
Finally, on the morning of June 3rd, 1928, a Sunday, the weather complied. After a late-night breakfast with some well-wishers at a hotel, the trio boarded a tug at 4:30 in the morning - under the ruse of leaving on a fishing trip - steamed out to the Friendship, fired up its three motors, and tried to lift off. But the plane, heavy with fuel, seemed glued to the earth. They purged six of their eight extra cans of gasoline and were able to unstick themselves and launch into the blinding sunshine. Near Halifax, they flew into a bank of fog and had to land for the night. There, their secret was out. "We have a sheaf of Halifax newspapers with strange assertions about us all," wrote Earhart in her logbook (Earhart, 1928).
At 9:30 Monday morning, they were bound for Newfoundland. "2:50. Visibility better. Clear toward sea. The fog hangs in white curly masses over the land. We are near Trepassey. What is in store for us?" Then: "At once a dozen small boats began to circle madly about us… The tempo of the maritime merry-go-round was extraordinary. Truly, I've never had a more entertaining half hour."
The next morning was blowing a gale. Slim set about repairing a crack in the oil tank with cement and adhesive tape. The next day wasn't much better. Nor was the next day or the next. They chopped wood. They played rummy. They read The Story of the Titanic Disaster. They played instruments as people lined the fence to listen. They went eeling. They borrowed night clothes, and bought new shirts and hose from the merchant.
Finally, on the morning of the 17th, another fortuitous Sunday - a full two weeks since they had left Boston - the weather broke, and the crew snuck away while the townspeople were at mass, leaving instructions for a telegraph to be sent to the flight's backer containing only the code word indicating they'd "hopped off": Violet. Cheerio. - A.E.
Twenty hours and forty minutes later, they touched down in Burry Port, Wales and Earhart's international celebrity had begun. Her adventures continued, of course, and she went on to accomplish much greater feats than being a passenger. But it is her two weeks in Trepassey that holds me. Who among us has not been trapped somewhere along an adventure, trying to maintain good humour, but inevitably willing the hands of the clock to move faster and feeling a bitter hostage to circumstance? How unreal must this pants-wearing envoy from the Roaring Twenties have seemed to the people of outport Newfoundland whose men would leave for weeks at a time to fish and whose women wore their knuckles raw on bread dough and laundry?
I love that she recorded in detail her impression of the place and its people. I love that she was an attentive and stylish writer (Earhart 1928, pp. 74-75):
We are lodged in one of the mansions of the town… The stove here is a three-decker, with the oven on top. Heavy iron kettles and pots are used for cooking. Tea and coffee only are known. Houses are clean and fences whitewashed… The train has just pulled in - it comes twice a week, and the town watches to see who gets off… School has been let out early and I have a vision of many white pinafores and aprons on the dock… Mrs. Devereaux (at the home of whom we are lodged) was quite overcome, and felt me to be sure I was present in the flesh.
I love that the people of Trepassey kept her curling iron to put on display. I looked for traces of it in her notes, but found none in spite of her very detailed account of what she wore and brought with her on the Friendship (Earhart 1928, pp. 48-49):
Just my old flying clothes, comfortably, if not elegantly, battered and worn. High laced boots, brown broadcloth breeks, white silk blouse with a red necktie (rather antiquated!) and a companionably ancient leather coat, rather long, with plenty of pockets and a snug buttoning collar. A homely brown sweater accompanied it. A light leather flying helmet and goggles completed the picture, such as it was. A single elegance was a brown and white silk scarf… Toilet articles began with a toothbrush and ended with a comb. The only extras were some fresh handkerchiefs and a tube of cold cream.
Perhaps it wasn't her curling iron after all. But what's the harm in believing it is?
You can imagine the stir the arrival of the Friendship caused among local newspapermen.
First was the astounding notion that Earhart had managed to keep her trip a secret, even from her family. The New York Times reported that Earhart had made her will before she left on the trip and reprinted a portion of a cover letter left for her sister, whom she called "Snappy" (June 4):
Dear Snappy: I have tried to play for a large stake, and if I succeed all will be well. If I don't, I shall be happy to pop off in the midst of such an adventure. My only regret would be leaving you and mother stranded for a while. I haven't told you about the affair as I didn't want to worry mother, and she would suspect (she may now) if I told you. The whole thing came so unexpectedly that few knew about it.
The reports soon turned to Earhart's appearance and manner of conduct in her host community; in effect, her qualities of ladyhood (NYT, June 4).
Miss Earhart's slightness of build was accentuated by the tight-fitting brown knickers and high laced boots she wore when she stepped from the plane here this afternoon. Her close-cut, light hair was tousled by the wind, for she wore no hat… [She] refused everything but sandwiches and coffee. She visited the Roman Catholic church here and spent half an hour with the nuns.
The report continued with word that refueling was stopped when mechanic "Slim" Gordon noticed a leak in the fuel tank. Nevertheless, he expected all fuel would be on board by daybreak and that "hop off" would commence by 9, weather permitting.
Weather, however, did not permit, and the crew was grounded for the day, allowing time for townspeople to begin asking questions in earnest. Where were they headed? What would be their route? The questions irritated the crew, for it offended their desire for privacy. Pilot Stultz' terse answer, reported in the NYT (June 5) was simply that they were "headed for Europe and 'will carry on after that 'till our gas is all used.'" And Still Earhart acted the emissary of the adventuring class:
Apart from their reticence as to their plans Stultz and Gordon have agreeably impressed the people here and Miss Earhart is a general favorite. Their lack of flying garbs rather surprised the people here… [who] could not understand how men could brave the cold of these Northern waters in ordinary civilian garb or Miss Earthart in a sweater and breeks. To this little village, this example of the modern woman comes as a great surprise, and to none more so than the sisters in the small convent where she visited yesterday afternoon… Her courage is commended here. (NYT, June 5)
The St. John's paper The Evening Telegram (June 5) added its own observations, adding that the aviators had partaken of "a real Newfoundland dinner at which were served chicken, dandelion, and fixings." It might as well have been the queen who had come to visit.
The weather refused to let up, and over the next twelve days, The New York Times and local papers The Evening Telegram and The Daily News continued to keep an eye on the grounded crew, reporting that Earhart and Stultz had taken a trolley to Renews and had enjoyed their visit, and that on one attempt to take off - after four successive trials - had discarded every surplus item with which they could part, including spare clothes and a movie camera. Finally, on June 14th, the Times reported grimly that the "crew of the Friendship no longer conceal their keen chagrin."
Earhart recorded her growing sense of unease in her diary (Earhart, 1928; pp. 83-87):
Fog has come in thick and woolly and rain is now accompanying. The weather reports sound favorable but there is no chance of our getting out of this fog I fear. Job had nothing on us. We are just managing to keep from suicide… I am going to bed as I can't help and none of us are sleeping much any more and we need all we can get. We are on the ragged edge.
Here is where I must introduce a mysterious twist in the story. In all of Earhart's autobiographies, she maintains a plainspoken, candid relationship with her readers. We might fault her for showing too infrequently her doubts and fears, and portraying flying around the world as a woman in the early hours of aviation as common as baking a tin of muffins, but there is nothing, we feel, she could truly be hiding.
But the newspaper record of the day begs to differ. Consider the following headlines:
Miss Boll, In Tears, Finds Herself Left (NYT, June 4)
This name is new to me. I dig back through the records and find her 1948 obituary in the Times. Married five times to various rich men, the gems she wore on her left hand alone were once appraised at nearly half a million dollars. For parties, she often wore 33 diamond bracelets on one arm. Her favourite piece of jewelry was a 206-karat necklace. No wonder she'd become known as the Queen of Diamonds. In 1927, returning to New York from Paris on board a French ocean liner, she carried with her a 62-karat diamond formerly belonging to Polish royalty, and another 48-karat diamond from Tiffany's. As if all this weren't enough to make her the polar opposite of Amelia Earhart, social worker for immigrant children, upon disembarking from the ship, Boll told reporters "I have no wish to pilot an airplane, for that is man's work; and I have never been so ridiculous to think anything else."
According to reports in the Times, Boll had flown with Bill Stultz as recently as March, 1928, and pledged a sum of $25,000 to be flown across the Atlantic, and that Stultz had accepted. When she learned he had flown off with Amelia Earhart, she phoned up the Times (June 4):
[She] broke into tears while talking, and her sobs were audible over the wire. "I can't understand it," she said. "Wilmer was down here only a few days ago and I asked him when we has coming back to fly the Columbia. He said in just a few days, and that we would be here today sure." Miss Boll's voice broke again and she was undoubtedly weeping as she went on. "And now he had gone and taken off with the other woman and I was sure he would fly with me... I am so upset. My car is waiting down here now and I am going right out to Curtiss Field now and see if I cannot take off at once."
Mabel Boll, or "Mibs," as she was also called, did just that, and arrived in Harbour Grace a week later, in her furs, to a field of thousands of onlookers. They, too, were grounded by weather, while the Columbia was roped off and autographed by townspeople. A reception was held in their honour, hosted by local clergy and government men. They had lunch at the home of Sir John Bennett, colonial Secretary of Newfoundland. Boll, in an obsequious act of public relations, sent the grounded Earhart a telegram in Trepassey, suggesting their crew come to the smoother waters of Harbour Grace, and that the two crews would start together.
Earhart does not mention Mabel Boll in her books, and merely makes passing comment that newspaper portrayals of a "race" to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic were overblown, and that safety was the crew's only concern. Perhaps, but I can't help imagining Earhart standing in borrowed flannel in an early morning window in Mrs. Devereaux's "mansion," forever grounded by fog, gritting her teeth over the Queen of Diamonds with her furs and her receptions and her hunger only for fame and not for flying beating her to the hop off. How many empty hours did Earhart dwell on this, watching the white pinafores of the schoolgirls and the goats grazing in the back garden? Mrs. Guest would not have wanted Mabel Boll to take Amelia Earhart's place as the representative of our sex to accomplish the previously impossible and forever be emblazoned with the title of pioneer aviatrix.
Sunday, June 17 (NYT):
The tri-motored monoplane Friendship started from Trepassey, Newfoundland, at 9:51 am [today]… They transferred their additional fuel to the plane, loaded it in and then with their meager stock of food in their arms took leave of the few persons who had gathered to say farewell. These were few because the aviators had kept their decision secret and nearly every resident of Trepassey was at church, thinking the plane's crew were planning merely further test flights…Carrying a stout hearted young woman as co-pilot, the Friendship hopped off from here at 9:51 AM Eastern Standard time for a transatlantic flight.
Mibs was defeated, publicly and personally. She was not a good loser. Upon her return to New York, she told reporters that she had received different weather reports from Earhart (a claim that was later proven untrue), and "curled up her lips in distaste when she told reporters about the meals she had cooked - 'boiled potatoes and codfish.'" "Oh!" she continued as she stepped from the plane. "This is the sweetest place in the world compared to up there, where it is nothing but a wilderness." She then gave away two Canadian (though I presume they must have been Newfoundland) dollars as souvenirs to reporters.
As Mibs stewed in her defeat, so began the adulations for Earhart, beginning the day of the crew's arrival in Europe with an interview with Mrs. George Palmer Putnam, the New York publisher who would print Earhart's first book, and one of the original backers of her flight.
"I have seldom encountered a more thoroughly delightful person," said Mrs. Putnam. "She is most extraordinarily cool and self-possessed.,, It will be a joy to have America, and our sex represented in England by such an altogether fine person as Amelia… She is a lady in the very best sense of the word, an educated and cultivated person with a fine, healthy sense of humor. And a girl easy to look at, too…. We certainly will be delighted to welcome her home to America, and eagerly look forward to having her as our guest at Rye."
I wonder what Mrs. George Palmer Putnam thought of Miss Amelia Earhart when, in two years' time, G.P. had divorced her in order to marry the fetching aviatrix
On a sunny Friday in June, eighty years and two days after Amelia Earhart landed in Trepassey, I loaded the dog and all of my books and papers on Amelia and began the long drive south. I had called ahead the before to the Trepassey Motel, where I'd stayed the time I discovered Amelia's curling iron in the museum, to make sure they were open for the season and that they had a room for me. On the website I was reminded the owner's name was Jerome Devereaux.
He returned my phone message.
Then I asked him if he'd ever heard the story of Amelia Earhart having stayed with a Mrs. Devereaux, and was she any relation to him? Indeed he had, and in fact, his aunt still owned that house - but she lives in town now - and his own mother, Laura Devereaux, had met Amelia when she was a young girl - she just turned ninety - and she remembers the day like it was yesterday and she loves to tell stories. Did I want to talk to her?
No kidding. That's what this place is like.
So the next day, I was off. Taking my time, past Tors Cove and Ferryland and Fermeues and Renews, onto the Avalon Barrens past Portugal Cove South and the Ediacran fossils of Mistaken Point, the great horseshoe of Biscay Bay, every so often letting the dog out to vibrate with excitement in the fresh air. I reached Trepassey by mid-afternoon and after catching up with Jerome over a cup of tea in the dining room, moved everything into my room for the night. His mother was getting her hair done, as she did at least once each week, and especially when company was coming. In the meantime, did I want to see the house where Amelia stayed?
Mrs. Devereaux's "mansion" is clad in white siding and sits on a sloping lot facing the harbour. People stay in it from time to time during the summer, but the two-storey saltbox on the south side of town on the road to the lighthouse looks, like so many older homes in rural Newfoundland, largely uninhabited. Two crumbling posts on either side of the walk show where a gate used to be. The vegetation, mowed down by wind and weather, is taking over the cement. The concrete foundation has holes big enough for a cat to fit through. The wooden door with three teardrop windows leading to a small porch is grey with age. We didn't have a key, so I snapped some pictures and we went back to the hotel. I wandered in the cemetery while waiting for Mrs. Laura D. to get finished with her hair.
Jerome roared off in his red truck, the dog and me in hot pursuit. We stopped at the Dr. McGarry Seniors Complex, I pulled out my recording gear, and Jerome led me through the security door and down the long hallway to his mother's apartment. Inside was a small woman you'd swear was 60, not 90, with a brand new hairdo and a big hug for both of us. Her walls were covered with photos of various vintages - weddings, graduations, new babies, family reunions. Fresh flowers on the table and small card with an image of Jesus. Hand-printed envelopes from great-grandchildren. A small dish of candies. Jerome helped himself to a plate of cod with drawn butter from the pot on the stove and was gone again.
First thing was to establish how she was related to the Mrs. Devereaux of the mansion. But marriage, obviously? Yes, Mrs. Laura was a Hewitt before she married, and Fanny, well, she was married to Rich, they had a store, and what the relationship was between her husband and Rich, she wasn't really certain. A cousin. But the reason she'd come to know Amelia was not because of Mrs. Fanny Devereaux, but because Laura's father had a workshop - he was well gifted in the hands - and he fixed her gas tank for her the evening she landed.
"I can see the plane now," she said. "It was anchored down off where Hick's Home Hardware is to. That's where they stayed to Mrs. Devereaux's. 1928. Now I'm 90. 28 from 90, what's that? 62. I was what? I was born in 1918. I was ten years old. I was going to school, and I remembers her asking me how I come to be down where I was. see, my father, he was, what will I say? He was kind of an all around person, he could do anything. Now I got a son just like him. But anyway, I was ten, and her gas tank gave out. There was a hole in it. There was a coach or something running here, but she had no way of getting her tank fixed, see? But anyway, he fixed her tank for her. This was how I come to be involved. When I saw her, she looked so different from anyone I saw, because that was in the old times, and there was not very much on the go at that time. Oh my god, my dear, I didn't know what she was. Like you know, she looked lovely. I must say that. She had a lovely leather coat on her," she pointed to a colour on her Jesus card, "like that. Yes, a rusty colour. She had a pair of jodhpurs on her, you know the kind with the tight legs? And she had the leather boots to match, they were laced right from the sole, you know, right up to her knees. And then she had this aviator cap on her. And the big goggles. And her hair! 'Twas kind of a brownish complexion. I couldn't get over her. She never went out of my mind."
We talked for an hour, Mrs, Laura and me. When she tired of talking about Amelia, she toured me around her small apartment, telling the stories of all the faces in her cherished photos. On a far wall was an old photo of her father, in his black pants and wind-whipped hair, sitting on a hillside. And her little terrier Monchy. And of old Mrs. Alice Devereaux. midwife to 300.
I passed on a glass of wine and a plate of fish, a little afraid of offending her, but took my leave to drive along the road to the lighthouse at Powle's head and release the dog from her prison in the hatchback. Being so close to the Grand Banks, Trepassey has a bit of a reputation for poor weather, but on this evening, the sky was clear and the low sun cast a golden glow on the barrens, lighting them up like a tapestry. The dog and I walked up a bill to visit the old battery and looked down on the long harbour leading into town.
In hindsight, Earhart said stopping here in Trepassey was a "tragedy" for the delays it caused, and wished they been able to load enough fuel in Halifax to get them all the way across the Atlantic. Yet of her time here she wrote: "The cruelty of country and climate is surely a contrast to the kind hearts of the people of Newfoundland. They were untiringly good to us."
As I left Mrs. Laura's house, she'd given me another hug. "If you ever comes back this way, stop in. You're welcome to."
She never went out of my mind.
i A phrase Earhart uses often in referring to record-setting among women as a group.
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