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The Sky's No Limit
By Lori Van Pelt
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2005 Lori Van Pelt
All rights reserved.
In 1903 two brothers, bicycle-makers from Dayton, Ohio, dared to believe that their new invention, a flying machine built of spruce and ash, its wings encased with muslin, and powered by their unique four-cylinder engine, could sail above the ground. To test their theory, they attempted flight on December 17 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. For four years the Wrights had been perfecting their designs and inventions, working toward this moment.
Younger brother Orville lay prone near the engine, centered in the forty-foot wingspan, his left hand at the ready to operate the elevator controls. Wilbur ran alongside as the craft sped along a launching rail, heading into the twenty-seven mile per hour wind. He stopped, watching as the Flyer lifted from the ground and carried his brother aloft.
Orville felt the wind slap his cheeks and smelled the salty scent of the sea as he flew. Shifting his hips from side to side helped move the wings and controlled the rudder. Twelve seconds later, barely enough time to realize he'd sailed across the sand, he landed 120 feet from his takeoff point. Exuberant with his success, he turned the airplane over to Wilbur for his chance to take flight. The brothers each flew twice more, and Wilbur controlled the craft for the final flight, remaining airborne for almost a full minute and traveling 852 feet.
A swift gust of wind struck the little girl's cheeks, blowing her long hair behind her and skewing the huge bow secured to her light brown locks. She wrinkled her nose at the force buffeting her and tightened her grip on the sides of the wooden cart as it sped along the track greased with household lard. Suddenly the cart jumped the rails and carried her into the air. At nearly the same time, the wind stopped and she felt a corresponding drop in her tummy. Almost before she realized she was falling, the cart crashed into the ground. She heard her sister scream as she bounced forward and bumped her lip hard against the wood just before it cracked and splintered. Shaking from the impact and thrilled by the adventure, seven-year-old Amelia Earhart climbed from the wreckage and gazed at the top of the toolshed, eight feet high, where she had begun her journey to the lawn. Her lip stung but the stunt had been fun.
Adults came running at the scream and crashing noise in the backyard of the Otis home in Atchison, Kansas. Grandmother Amelia Harres Otis scolded her charge, perturbed not only at her namesake grandchild and younger sister, Muriel, but at her own brother, Carl, for having assisted the girls and a neighbor boy in such a dangerous, foolish, and unladylike venture as building what they called a "roller coaster." Mrs. Otis adhered to the standards of the time and expected her granddaughters to behave properly and conform to the social mores of 1904 by wearing dresses and hair bows and playing with dolls. The incident she'd just witnessed definitely did not square with her view of ladylike behavior.
Amelia's roller-coaster idea sprang from her fascination with an amusement park ride she'd seen when her father took his family to the St. Louis World's Fair that year. Despite her attempt at creating a backyard version of the amusement ride and the exuberant feeling of flight she enjoyed while riding it, her passion for airplanes was not ignited during her childhood, but came later in her life. Still, as a child she continued to try anything, to test the limits of her physical abilities by doing things the little boys of her age and day enjoyed, like sledding down hills headfirst and exploring forbidden caves.
In Atchison, Mrs. Otis persevered in her efforts to mold her rambunctious tomboy into a proper young lady. Amelia and Muriel, three years her junior, stayed with their mother's parents for many years while their father worked as a much-traveled lawyer, settling claims for the railroad; his wife, Amy, often accompanied him on his business trips.
The young daughters of Amy Otis and Edwin Stanton Earhart enjoyed many happy times in the home of their maternal grandparents, unaware of Judge Alfred Otis's displeasure with his daughter's choice of husband. He had hoped Amy would marry a man with better prospects. His ancestors included James Otis, whose protest against certain British laws was thought to have contributed to the American Revolution. He had himself worked first as an attorney, eventually serving as a district court judge, and after retiring in 1908, he became the president of the Atchison Savings Bank. Along the way he made astute land speculation deals and accumulated a modest fortune.
At age sixteen, Amy Otis suffered a hearing loss from typhoid fever but did not allow the setback to hinder her life. A child of culture and opportunity, she was raised in her parents' nine-room home on Quality Hill overlooking the Missouri River, and was accustomed to having the accouterments of wealth — pleasant surroundings, with books, piano, and riding stables, her routine daily needs tended to by servants. She enjoyed riding horses and loved to dance. The judge often took her with him when he evaluated land used for security against loans or for investment purposes. Sometimes he traveled at the request of the Trinity Episcopal Church, where he served as senior warden, scouting out ministerial candidates.
Amy had been accepted to Vassar in 1889, but a severe bout of diphtheria prevented her from enrolling. She decided against continuing her education, choosing instead to accompany her father on trips to the Far West. On one such excursion to Colorado in 1890, the group he was meeting with invited him and Amy to join them in climbing Pike's Peak. They traveled halfway up by horseback, camped and rested for part of the night, and started out again soon after midnight to make the final four-hour climb in time to see the sunrise from the top of the mountain. Amy was the only female in the group to tackle the final ascent and, upon arriving at the crest, discovered she was the first woman to make the entire climb.
That same year she fell in love. Edwin Earhart, a young law student and friend of the Otis's son, Mark, captured her heart at her coming-out party. He did not measure up to Judge Otis's expectations. The judge had decreed that any young man hoping for Amy's hand in marriage would have to make at least $50 per month in income in order to support her properly. To meet the condition and win the hand of the woman he loved, Edwin worked for five years before he earned as much from his law practice. The judge reluctantly allowed the marriage, presenting the young couple with a furnished house in Kansas City, Kansas, as a wedding gift.
Edwin worked settling claims for the Rock Island and other railroads. His work frequently took him away, and Amy grew lonely for her parents, brothers, sisters, and cousins, and visited her family often. The couple's first child was stillborn. During Amy's second pregnancy she stayed with her parents, and Amelia Mary Earhart, the namesake of her two grandmothers, was born on July 24, 1897, in the Otis home on Quality Hill in Atchison.
Even after Judge Otis realized the depth of Amy's devotion to her husband and after she provided him with grandchildren, he did not soften much toward his son-in-law. Edwin, always well intentioned, had little financial sense. One example of this, recounted by Muriel Earhart Morrissey in her book, Courage Is the Price, involved the family's trip to the St. Louis World's Fair. Edwin had earned $100 in some railroad claim cases and promptly spent the entire amount on the family outing. This impulsive expenditure came on the heels of a fuss with bill collectors seeking tax money. Amy had saved money from her household allowance and gave the funds to her husband, expecting him to pay the taxes with the cash, but instead of abiding by her instructions, Edwin attempted to secure a patent on a railroad signal flag holder he had invented. In filing for the patent, he discovered the invention had already been created and patented.
Amy, who had never worried about money, had to learn to live frugally, and her parents blamed Edwin for being an inadequate provider. The resulting tension eventually drove him to liquor, further worsening his marital and financial problems.
Edwin Earhart came from a large family, much poorer than the Otis clan. His father, Reverend David Earhart, was an Evangelical Lutheran missionary with twelve children and hoped that Edwin would follow in his footsteps and take up theological studies. Edwin, however, wanted to study law and graduated from Thiel College in Pennsylvania and then the University of Kansas law school after shining shoes, tutoring other students, and performing whatever work he could find to pay the tuition and buy the books.
Amy loved him and, after they were married, traveled with him. Their children stayed with them in Kansas City in the summers and spent winters in Atchison with their grandparents. As a result, Amelia and Muriel experienced both financial ease and tension as youngsters.
Edwin, when at home on visits, showered his daughters with fatherly affection and played games with them. The two girls especially enjoyed one game they called "Bogie," climbing into an old carriage stored in the Otis's barn and from the seats of the dusty wagon imagining traveling to a variety of faraway places. The game awakened the wanderlust in Amelia, although such daydreaming was not considered "ladylike" in the early 1900s when a woman's place was in the home caring for a husband rather than traipsing off to distant lands, or even dreaming of such traipsing.
While she later wrote wistfully, "Unfortunately, I lived at a time when girls were still girls," she played basketball and tennis, rode bicycles and horses, and slept with a wooden donkey rather than a doll. Her father gave Amelia a .22-caliber rifle for Christmas the year she turned nine, and she used it to shoot rats in the barn, persuading her horrified grandmother that she was helping to prevent anybody from catching the plague. Amy Otis Earhart once sent bloomer-style gym suits to her girls, and the gift sent Grandmother Otis into a tizzy about proper attire for young ladies. The girls were delighted; Amelia recalled feeling "terribly free and athletic." When wearing the attire advocated by suffragette Amelia Jenks Bloomer, she admitted, "We also felt somewhat as outcasts among the little girls who fluttered about us in their skirts."
Photographs of the time show the Earhart girls bowing to convention by wearing their long hair in braids with huge bows as befitted young women of their era. Amelia later wrote, "Tradition hampers just as much as clothing."
A sled was another Christmas gift their grandmother felt would have been better suited to boys. Amelia loved "belly-slamming," riding the sled with her chest pressed against the wood and her head stuck out front. On one occasion, she zoomed down an icy hill and nearly collided head-on with the junk man and his horse and carriage. The horse wore blinders and didn't see the child careening toward him, and the deliveryman apparently did not hear the ruckus raised by the children at the top of the hill who could see the accident waiting to happen. Luckily, Amelia slid between the horse's legs with no harm done to animal, man, or carriage.
In addition to their tomboy pursuits, the girls enjoyed the quieter pastime of books, taking turns reading aloud to each other while tending housekeeping chores. In their grandparents' library, they read The Youth's Companion, Harper's Young People, Harper's Weekly, Puck, Oliver Optic's Success Stories for Boys, along with the works of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas. Amelia excelled in her studies at the College Preparatory School the girls attended in Atchison. Sarah Walton, a teacher, wrote of her: "The joy of achievement was uppermost in Amelia's mind. The prizes at school as the plaudits and awards of the world were secondary to her personal satisfaction in a job well done."
When she reached seventh grade and Muriel the fourth, their father became head of the railroad claims department with his salary almost doubled. The promotion required moving to Des Moines, Iowa, in 1907, with his family joining him there the next year. While in Des Moines in 1908, Amelia saw her first airplane at the Iowa State Fair, but at the time she found the fifteen-cent peach basket hat she wanted to buy much more appealing than the wood and wire vehicle displayed on the grounds.
During their first year in Iowa her mother chose to have her daughters privately tutored, but although Edwin was prospering, the $25 per month tutoring fee proved too expensive, so Amy asked the girls' teachers for assignments in advance so that they could keep up with their studies even while taking trips with their father. In the summertime the sisters stayed near Lake Okabena in Minnesota, where they rode horses, played tennis, fished, and even milked cows. Evenings were spent listening to popular music of the day — on the Victrola.
By 1910 Edwin Earhart's alcoholism had become a pernicious part of the family's life. That year he was fired from his job, tried to "take the cure," but failed. Muriel recalled that once when Amelia helped him pack for a business trip, she discovered a whiskey bottle hidden in one of his socks. She poured it down the sink, and when Edwin, drunk, threatened to strike his beloved daughter, Amy had to intervene. That day, thirteen-year-old Amelia learned a rough lesson, understanding that even her father's love for her could not overcome his addiction. She was emotionally hurt by his alcoholism and grew protective of her mother and sister — in later years, domineering.
In 1910 Mrs. Otis suffered a lengthy illness and died. Amy had gone to stay with her mother to help nurse her through her final days while the girls stayed with their father. Amelia, her grandmother's favorite, felt bereft but kept her emotions concealed, a familiar trait throughout her life.
Mrs. Otis left an estate worth an estimated million dollars. In her will, she split the sum among her surviving children but placed a special restriction upon the funds designated for Amy, requiring that the money be placed in trust for twenty years or until Edwin's death. The move was intended to protect Amy and the girls from Edwin's fiscal fallibility. When he lost his job, the family survived on the meager earnings from the trust fund.
In the spring of 1913 the Earharts moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Edwin had found work as a freight clerk for the Great Northern Railway. But again his drinking cost him the job.
With an opportunity for a position with the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad in Springfield, Missouri, he took his family there only to discover the employee he was to replace had changed his mind. At this point, Amy took action to protect her family until Edwin could find stable work. She and the girls traveled to Chicago and moved in with some former Kansas City friends who had offered to help.
Amelia had attended six high schools in four years, but finally settled at Hyde Park High School where she enjoyed science classes, especially chemistry and physics, as well as math, but kept to herself. The caption beneath her yearbook photograph read, "The girl in brown who walks alone." She graduated in 1916, and afterward the family moved to Kansas City once again to live with Edwin, now working as an independent lawyer — and a sober one.
Soon after the family was reunited, he persuaded Amy to break her mother's will and use the money rather than having it locked away. Although Amy felt uneasy pursuing litigation against her own relatives, they took the case to court. The judge, after hearing from Mrs. Otis's doctor, who declared her to have been incompetent due to excess worry and ill health at the time she made her last testament, decided in Amy's favor and dissolved the trust. Her brother Mark had been in charge of investing the funds and had made some poor management choices that significantly depleted the principal. Amy received $60,000. This was a substantial amount in 1916 but much less than Mrs. Otis had intended when she had arranged the trust. Still, the money permitted Amy to send Amelia to the all-girls Ogontz School in Rydal, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, that fall. She had hoped Vassar would admit Amelia, but her application reached the college too late for consideration.
Of Amelia at this period in her life, Jean Backus, in her book, Letters from Amelia, wrote that she "was nineteen, slim and intense, more often frowning than smiling, a fine scholar, and an introvert subject to conflicting emotions generated by her stubborn opposition to certain conventions of society and habits of the family." The Ogontz headmistress, Abbie Sutherland-Brown, wrote, "Amelia was always pushing into unknown seas in her thinking, her reading, and in experiments in science. Her most vivid characteristic was her intellectual curiosity which burned brightly when she was with us and was certainly exemplified by her later career."
Excerpted from Amelia Earhart by Lori Van Pelt. Copyright © 2005 Lori Van Pelt. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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