Prose by Finlay Pogue
Art by Grace Guy
No town looked less aerodynamic than Des Moines, Iowa, when the Earharts moved there in the autumn of 1907. It was all a special kind of coal-dust black, from the blocky Fourth Street high-rises towering some six-seven stories over the little blackened alleys; the charred brick Episcopal churches, their desperate crosses reaching meekly into the sky—to the parks, like sunken, hungry cheeks, and the flat endless corn wastes that enveloped the Earharts as they crept into the city on the trembling back of their Model A. Amelia felt a heaviness, perched on the towering luggage lashed down and swaying on the boot of the car, as if the setting sun was hauling the corn and dirt and coal dust down with it into the night. Pidge was lolled asleep in Mother’s arms and her head bobbed casually out over the road. Amelia noticed, her mind wandering, that as her sister’s drool escaped her mouth it was whipped into the evening in the car’s slipstream like moonlight on the wings of bats. She closed her eyes too and, atop the engine’s wild snorting, drifted away over the wingless city.
Under a violet sky the great pinstriped balloon hurtled towards the spires of rust rock that waited like knives to thrash the Explorigator and its crew. The Moon People in their glowing orb-ships pursued—maybe six-seven of them—and on board the Explorigator the crew could hear their howls of fury. Captain Earhart gripped the great wooden wheel of the airship and hollered back to the coal-shovelers, “Give it all you’ve got, boys!” But the engine, a complex tangle of black tubes and glass dials that looked like spiders’ eyes, was billowing jet smoke into the balloon’s slipstream. One of the Moon People had tampered with the wires in the night so that, in a wretched ball of flame, the engine had erupted and the Explorigator had begun its harrowing course down to the hostile and hungry-looking desert world below.
Admiral Pidge sat glumly at the captain’s side, binoculars hanging heavy around her neck—all hope lost. Bracing the steering wheel with her knee, Captain Earhart grabbed the moody crewmember and shook her, yelling, “Snap out of it! I can’t do this without you, Admiral!” The captain’s eyes were frenzied, and Pidge, though reluctant, almost couldn’t help but smile and gamely raise her binoculars, despite the roar of creosote smoke, the war-cries of the Moon People, and the ravenous air whipping over the windshield. “What’s the situation, Admiral?”
But it was too late, and Captain Earhart knew it. With a supersonic boom, like a million birds exploding all at once, and a terrifying shudder that threw the whole crew onto the ship’s wooden floor, the Explorigator began wheeling out of control, the balloon’s air shrieking out of some unseen hole, propelling them with incomprehensible speed directly towards the ground. Pidge began crying, but in her last moments of life, Captain Earhart felt finally in complete control and, gripping the spokes of the steering wheel, felt with satisfaction the Explorigator’s tremulous death rattle.
During her lunch breaks, which were just fifteen minutes in the snow on the stone steps of Spadina Hospital, Amelia watched the planes come in and out of Armour Heights airfield to the north. Sometimes Aircos and what looked like S.E.5s would fly directly overhead, and even though they were high enough to pass like needles through the winter clouds, to Amelia they might as well have pollarded the nude, black-boned maples that lined Spadina Avenue. Red-faced, she sat wrapped in a hospital blanket savouring air that didn’t smell like blood or hypochlorite, clicking her jaw which was gently throbbing in the cold. Her hands had started shaking recently, trembling like the year’s last colourless leaves; like her father’s hands had in St. Paul the last time she’d seen him, struggling with his keys in the wasted streets. Years ago. She watched her hands intently, as if her red knuckles and long white fingers were picking up clandestine radio frequencies. Her sister was here, somewhere, in this low, snow-scrabble city…She missed her; hadn’t spoken, the two of them, in almost two weeks. It was too hard. Amelia spent twelve hours a day at the hospital, either in the kitchen or in the pharmacy sorting medicine into little white paper cups. Making her rounds, she walked through the rows of white iron beds filled with men folded like scrap metal into myriad positions, some thrashing, some twitching, some contorted in sleep. The single-paned hallways rung at all times with screams that sounded to Amelia like the distant engines of failing prop-airplanes. But out on the steps, all she could hear was the rattle of trucks along the frozen roads and the blood pulsing in her ears. She watched her breath in the air and the poor, hobbling people, soldiers, streaming along the Spadina grounds in the arms of nurses. And, to the south, an airplane emerged like a black knucklebone just grazing the sky. It moved so precisely, so unerringly forwards, it seemed to be riding the 79th meridian like a Model T off a factory line. For a moment she forgot to breathe, and her heart ossified inside her; she stood, draped in hospital greys, staring at the plane, and only then realized her hands had stopped trembling entirely.
The max. speed of her Kinner Airster was 85mph, cruising speed 70, all wind conditions considered. Amelia sat goggled in the shadow of the biplane’s top-wing glaring through the wooden blur of the fix-pitch propeller turning 1200 times a minute. She kept a close eye on the altimeter as she took her yellow-winged bird, “The Canary” down through the white into the deep, expanding green of Los Padres, the endless hills poking through the fog like drops of motor-oil on canvas. Around her streaked the erasure of the wind, the keening of the dappled outboard world taking the top layer of skin off her lips, scrabbling the plywood sides of the plane with its clockwise hands looking for loose rivets, surging through the rudder stick clenched between her knees, taking with it the fear of the mountains looming like mid-Pacific waves on all sides, taking her feet and legs and blowing her brains in a red mess out into the sky. When the fog closed in again she pulled “The Canary” up out of the black manzanita into a steep skyward climb towards the weak sun; as the delicate dials each crept towards the red, and her body became heavy in her seat (her mother had crowed, “She makes her own gravity!”) her bloodied lips parted in a smile, and the wind whistled through the middle-gap in her teeth like it did the wings of her little plane.
They’d told her to dress the part. Pidge could see the hydroelectricity in Millie’s eyes, the vast Atlantic seething in their cold pale blue, pushing her to pluck her eyebrows and nose-hairs and practice her mysterious close-lipped smile in the bathroom mirror. As they drove in Captain Railey’s car to the landing strip (“It’s a runway, Pidge!” Amelia had corrected her, turning her hands into planes swooping into the sky) Amelia leaned over and, with a conspiratorial glint, asked Pidge if she knew where they were going. Uneasy, Pidge replied, “Trepassey Harbor.” “Means ‘dead men’, in Canadian French,” Amelia whispered, clearly thrilled. She turned back towards the water, and Pidge, looking out the window after her, could see pirates in her sister’s eyes, gunpowder and gasoline and the flames of some imagined adventure raging in the blood of her thin reflected face.
At the runway, Amelia was met with bursting bulbs and camera smoke, whipped in circles by the wind, and a whole selection of gray men who looked like dwarves at her feet. They followed her to the short grassy runway and told her to pose in front of the ugly, hulking plane. The plane (a Fokker F.VII, she’d been told enthusiastically) looked like the Atlantic lobster they’d seen in tanks in St. John’s and on Sunday Amelia was going to fly it out over the desolate June sea.
Pidge stood with Captain Railey by the car and watched her sister play the part she’d dressed for, alone on the landing strip, in the lobster arms of her plane. She was a Woman Aviator, tapped for tomorrow’s flight because she’d cut her hair off and the press thought she looked like Charles Lindbergh, American Aviator. They’d told her to wear a dress and Amelia said they wanted to take her out of the sky; she was worried she looked like someone’s wife, like a bottle of champagne breaking against the side of a boat. But, Pidge thought, staring at her sister with a dreadful kind of awe, in her cloche hat and her silk dress Amelia looked more like an airplane stretched with speed across the sky.
The illustration of Amelia’s face that appeared in the 1928 advertising campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes was the only time Pidge had ever seen her sister look uneasy. Somehow, for some reason, the ad featured Amelia—in her flying cap, signature leather bomber, and black tie—looking up out of frame right with alarming pathos. Pidge first saw the ad when she purchased an issue of The Atlantic, on a whim, from the local Medford paperboy, and had taken it along Clippership Drive towards the park. There, as if by fate, a Mystic River wind had blown the paper open to the ad and Amelia’s haunting hand-drawn face, and Pidge had shrieked in her small, inward way. There was something dreadful behind Amelia’s eyes, some deeply anxious conspiracy between her eyebrows, rising towards each other like airplanes set to collide mid-air, and her solemn, unsmiling mouth. What was she looking at? Was it, as the advertisement suggested, an aeroplane that Amelia, the “Queen of the Air,” was gazing at with such desperate longing? Or was it something else? Pidge couldn’t help but think she saw guilt blackening the worried lines of Amelia’s face—Amelia, who’d never smoked or had a drink in her life, as far as Pidge knew, the new face of Lucky Strike cigarettes…Beyond that, Pidge felt the way she had that day at Trepassey Harbour, months ago—the way she had been in bouts of legless, imagined pain ever since—a kind of vague farrago of jealousy and loss, as if here, on the banks of the Mystic, she was watching her sister disappear over the Atlantic once again…She couldn’t help thinking that Amelia was somehow looking into the future—looking past the politics of ad campaigns, past funding opportunities, photo ops, celebrity engagements—into some noumenal, shimmering, presence that only she could see, and that Pidge could see only in her sister’s tremulous eyes. Later that evening, still shaken, Pidge telephoned Amelia in California just to hear her sister’s wonderful voice.
They arrived in Harbour Grace before the sun could burn the spring fog off the water and Bernt said in his solemn Norwegian way, “You can smell the salt. This is a good day.” Amelia parked the Jeep by the small empty guardhouse, and they sat on the tarmac in silence listening to the engine settling in the cold, wet air. Her Lockheed Vega 5B was straight ahead, looking alone, its red plywood fuselage grey in the fog.
She was already in the air, she had been all night—had been, in a way, since that day at the Toronto Exposition when a Great War Ace had flown so low that she’d heard the plane’s mechanical whispering as it tore the hats off the ladies and gentlemen on the lawns. Airplanes still whispered to her, and as she and Bernt worked methodically through the Vega, she counted each groan, each buckle rattle and rubber thump as words in a language that, at some level, she understood more deeply than American English.
She’d bought a newspaper for a timestamp as they’d left the hotel, as if the eighteen-hour flight ahead meant some passage between worlds, as if the Telegraph-Journal in the glove compartment could attest to something she could not. The paper was an antique to her already, made of pulped trees and iron sulfates that seemed heavier than Vega itself.
As they worked, the fog cleared, and a new void materialized: the Atlantic, looking like the unpainted wings of a Fokker F.VII. By the time they’d finished the sky was a clean white and a wind had started cutting off the tops of the waves and throwing them like fish heads against the rocks. Bernt loaded film into his camera and told Amelia to move a little to the left. The camera’s black lens hole reminded her of certain nights spent gliding over farmland, feeling the black outside press in against the windshield, seeing her face reflected in it, in turn, pale and alone. She felt comfortable in front of the camera, confident in her place inside the red machine behind her. She stood, alive as a turning propeller, looking up into the endless sky, her blue eyes reflecting back the world, condensing it into a white, solitary, spark.
The band was playing a forceful rendition of “Midnight, the Stars and You,” and black-tie couples were foxtrotting around the parquet floor, wheeling and dipping in the brocade of chandelier light. The room was hot and filled with the smoke of a hundred cigarettes in slender holders and the smell of gin and crushed olives gave the scene an olfactory bite. People were streaming into the warm evening from the open French-doors, disappearing behind black draping willows along the lakeside, or else sneaking into the house’s many rooms for quick, squealing “ren-des-vous.” There hadn’t been a party like this in Toluca Lake since W.C. Fields had moved in the previous year, and there was an overwhelming sense of release in the air.
From the right angle, you could see Amelia at the heart of a constantly changing node of avid professionals, mostly men, each looking almost hungry, clutching cocktails and cigars, their elbows slipping frequently off the mahogany bar. Amelia held them rapt, making frequent swooping gestures with her glowing white hands and, though the clarinet carried her voice away into the atmosphere of the room, she spoke with such vehemence that those around her looked like ironworkers at the gates of a forge. The eyes of the whole evening were on Amelia and people moved in patterns through her, drawn in consciously or not, until she was speaking directly to each one in turn, her hard American vowels grabbing and slapping awake each boozy, slumped-shouldered man, each morphine-limbed woman, who found themselves finally in her audience.
And yet, for all the swooning and gin-stained awe—all the sounds and smells of human life that swirled around her—there was something mechanical in Amelia’s intercourse, as if half of her didn’t care in the least about the shiny Hollywood faces pressed in around her, and the other half wasn’t even aware that she was speaking to them all. Instead, according to some, Amelia resembled a Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior radial engine howling through the thin clouds ten-thousand miles over the sea, the people around her passing through her nine-cylinder blur like high-octane gasoline. That evening, Amelia was the engineered center of Toluca Lake, and even from across the room, through the low-hanging tobacco smog and the walla-walla of so many cavorting men and women, it was clear she was taking us places.
Pidge hadn’t seen Amelia in almost two years, since Christmas with her and her husband George in Hollywood in 1935. They’d spoken on the telephone many times since then, but gradually Amelia’s voice had faded into the black static phone lines, and after a while Pidge couldn’t tell her sister’s voice from any other; Amelia’s characteristic verve seemed to be harmonized out, or else it had become part of the telephone itself, an elusive mechanic vibration that disappeared into the holes in the phone’s black mouthpiece. Maybe it was the distance, or the time; maybe they were growing apart—they were both married now, and privately Pidge felt that she knew her sister more from memory, and from Macy’s ads, than she did from Amelia herself. Accordingly, when Amelia called to invite Pidge to Florida, Pidge almost hung up, thinking someone had the wrong number. Only when Amelia hollered “Pidge!” with the receiver halfway to the holster, did Pidge recognize her sister.
Three weeks later Pidge stepped off an overnight bus in the remote, muggy township of Opa-locka, Florida. It was 6:30 in the morning, and to the east the sun was struggling through wide bands of clouds along the horizon. Everything was damp, and Pidge remembered only in that moment—as the bus heaved itself into the township’s strange, Moorish streets—that she had not packed at all for the south Florida heat. Feeling moist, she walked south-west along Ali Baba Avenue and, rounding a corner, through a distant metal fence she could see the desolate Opa-locka airfield, and a lone plane parked dully in its palm.
Today, a couple hours from now, Amelia was going to fly around the world. Pidge had read in the Medford Mercury that her sister’s first attempt had ground out somewhere in the Pacific, and Amelia had told her on the phone (and, through the line, Pidge had detected a momentary crackle of her sister’s old conspiracy) that this time her departure was Top Secret. As Pidge neared the edge of the facility, she saw George in the distance coming towards her; he was overdressed too, and from a hundred feet away, Pidge could see his prodigious, moonlike forehead gleaming in the sheenless sun.
They embraced in a stiff siblings-in-law kind of way, and George led Pidge (he called her Grace) towards the plane along a tamped dirt roadway lined with crabgrass. Pidge could see now, as they approached, two or three silhouetted figures moving mutely under the wings to the right the hanger slunk low, its tin roof some depthless combination of blinding and matte-blank. Pidge was struck by the silence of it all—the plane, the crew, even her own footsteps—everything moving, working, sweating and yet, in the strange light under the convex Florida sky, it all seemed trapped, in a way, like no human feat could take wing under such a devouring lens.
From under the plane’s fuselage, Amelia saw her sister walking towards her through the sky; she whooped and, righting the world, came scrambling out to meet her. Pidge had seen her before in multiple publications looking the same: black trousers, a grease-lined flannel shirt, her hair short and mussed. She smiled the way she did in photos too, her mouth closed tight and her eyes squinting like something newly born. The only thing that came as a surprise, to Pidge, was just how much Amelia had begun to resemble their father. It might have been the way her cheekbones piled up into her eyes when she smiled, but truthfully Pidge couldn’t quite remember her father’s face anymore; he was warmth, and weight, and the smell of gin. Maybe it was just a symptom of family, heirloom resemblances, Earhart auras. When Amelia hugged her, Pidge smelled the satin reek of oil.
Amelia walked Pidge around the plane—a Model 10 Electra—pointing out its various modified features and discussing with glee the particularly fraught sections of her upcoming flight plan. Pidge mostly listened, but at times found herself staring deafly at her sister, watching Amelia’s hands run over the plane’s aluminum wings, its clean shadows running in turn over the lines around her sister’s eyes. It was hard to believe this baffling, broad-chested machine was a tool, no different than a screwdriver, and that Amelia, turn by turn, would ride it around the world. But Amelia had been explaining aerodynamics to Pidge, in one way or another, since they’d been girls—in Des Moines, climbing from the wooden wreckage of the apple box she’d ridden over the roof edge, Amelia had claimed that if the wind had only been in her favour, and if she’d just had a little canned hydrogen, she would have made it—and Pidge had always listened, feeling a quiet sense of adventure in her sister’s every word. But it had also always seemed preposterous in a way, Amelia’s obsession with sky machines, like every moment she spent in orbit a part of Iowa or Kansas cornland disappeared. Maybe it felt like she was leaving, constantly, like she’d never really been at home; like Amelia’s planes were all doorbells to other places, and each flight a moment, suspended, waiting for someone unseen to open the door.
A quarter of an hour later, Amelia shook hands with the ground crew, gave George a swift, confident kiss, and hugged Pidge with a steeliness that, were it anyone else, would have seemed impersonal and cold; as it was, Pidge felt like the Electra had folded its wings around her while Amelia waited on the runway. When the engines rolled over (to Pidge they sounded like pigs rooting in tin troughs), and the propstorm wind began flinging gravel and dandelion heads at the watchers, Pidge was jolted briefly out of the middle-distance and reminded, suddenly, of the oceanic scope of her surroundings—the porcine plane, howling into position, the concrete runways hammered into the ground like plywood over broken windows, the bellyboard horizon towards which the Electra’s nose now turned like a blind, subterranean beast. Pidge closed her eyes and tried to think of Amelia—to picture her at home in the twin-engined maw, among the blasting pistons and spider-eyed dials—but as the engine began heaving the plane down the runway, and all sound and smell was sucked into its wake, all Pidge could see was a black dot in the great white sky.