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    May 21, 1932 - Londonderry, Ireland - The female aviator Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic receives cheers from the crowd after touching down in North Ireland

    The Day My Father Remembered He Met Amelia Earhart

    As my father’s recent past clouded over, a red Lockheed monoplane appeared from nowhere.

    By James Harkin

    October 28, 2022

    At 1 p.m. on May 21, 1932, a lone red Lockheed monoplane, swooping in low from the direction of the Atlantic Ocean, overflew fishing boats off the northwestern tip of Ireland. The pilot, Amelia Earhart, had been in the air for fifteen hours, flying all through the night. Ireland wasn’t where she wanted to be. The destination had been France, but Earhart’s ambition to be the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic wasn’t going according to plan. The first thing to go was the plane’s altimeter, which in deep fog meant that much of the time she had no idea how high she was above the water. When part of her motor fizzled and broke she made the decision to fly low; fearing flames, she said later, it was better “to drown than burn.” Then came thunder and lightning, which buffeted the Lockheed for about an hour; at one point it fell into a spin and lost three thousand feet before she righted it. As the sun came up Earhart, half blind in its reflection, noticed that her reserve fuel tank had begun to leak. She couldn’t go on. With nothing on the horizon but her own imminent demise she abandoned the goal of France and stared down through her goggles in search of anything that looked like dry land.

    Amelia Earhart was already famous. Four years earlier she’d made the same journey across the Atlantic in the passenger seat, and her pioneering spirit had captured the imagination of the world. Her beguiling blue eyes and Tomboyish, devil-may-care sensibility struck a chord: young women began to imitate her cropped hair and her manly attire, and for a time the lanky, androgynous “Amelia look” was all the rage. She’d already somersaulted over the established rules of marriage and business, pushing both technology and herself to the limit to conquer everything before her. But it wasn’t enough. To be famous for being a passenger, Earhart considered, was cheating. Until she attempted the journey herself, she’d be a woman basking in the glory of someone else – a token, an ornament and, in her words, a mere “sack of potatoes.” Flying on her own across the Atlantic was the most dangerous journey she could possibly make, but she needed to do it. Her ambition and self-belief were boundless: she was tempted by the prospect of space travel, and looked forward to landing on the moon.

    In 1932, however, where she came down was rural Ireland. After the fishing boats came a railroad and Earhart, desperately in search of somewhere to bring the plane down, followed it in search of an airfield. There wasn’t one. Instead she arrived at a series of grassy meadows overlooking the River Foyle and straddling the border between Derry in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The townland is known as Culmore. According to the letters she left behind and her many biographers, Earhart made a number of fraught reconnaissance passes in an attempt to land the Lockheed but was frustrated each time by fields thick with grazing cows. Eventually she found a clearing, made another pass and collided with the ground in an empty pasture, trundling down a long sloping meadow before cutting the engines. Weary beyond tiredness, she remembers sitting in the cockpit for a few minutes before, aloud and to herself, screaming “I’ve done it!” The farm belonged to the Gallagher family. Most reports agree that the first person she came across was a lone foreman who’d been working the field at the time. His name was Danny McCallion and as he approached the Lockheed, says Mary Lovell in her biography The Sound of Wings, Earhart hollered:

    “Where am I?”

    “In Gallagher’s pasture,” replied McCallion.

    “Have you come far?”

    “From America.”

    “Have you now?”

    Another of Earhart’s biographers, Doris Rich, tells it slightly differently. According to her Danny McCallion replied:

    “Sure you’re in Derry, sir.”

    It was easy to make the mistake; as she climbed out of the plane Earhart’s face was still smeared in grease.

    “In Derry? Oh Londonderry,” she replied, using the Anglicized version still preferred by many of the city’s Protestants.

    “Whose home is that over there?” asked Earhart.

    “It belongs to the Gallaghers.”

    “Could I stop there?”

    “Yes, sir – I mean ma’am.”

    “And have you come far?”

    “From America.”

    “Holy Mother of God!”

    A crowd gathered around the Lockheed and McCallion, having recovered his composure, is said to have summoned a policeman to keep an eye on it. At some point he took Earhart to a nearby, peat-roofed cottage and gave her a drink of water while he waited for his boss to return. There the story dries up. What we do know is that Earhart spent the night in Derry at the home of a well-to-do local woman, one Mrs. McClure. While she slept news of her arrival was making its way around the world, and telegrams of congratulation were flooding back into Derry. WE DO CONGRATULATE YOU. STOP. YOUR FLIGHT IS A SPLENDID SUCCESS, read the one from Charles Lindbergh, who was then still mourning the death of his young son. The following day she was flown to London at the expense of Paramount News; the Lockheed she called her “little red bus” made the same journey, where it was reassembled and put on show in Selfridges on Oxford Street. In London Earhart stayed at the American Embassy and met Edward VIII, then the then Prince of Wales (he would abdicate five years later, to marry Wallis Simpson). At a lively luncheon given her by the British Institute of Journalists she was met by a standing ovation. “The nicest thing that has happened to me,” she said, with a hint of feminist mischief, “is having all these men stand and sing ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow.’” Shortly after she was ferried to Paris, her initial destination, where she was presented with the highest decoration available to France, The Cross of the Legion of Honor. From there she was on her way to Rome, where she was received by both the Pope and Mussolini.

    May 21, 1932 - Londonderry, Ireland - The female aviator Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic receives cheers from the crowd after touching down in North Ireland

    Amelia Earhart arrives in Londonderry, Ireland, May 21, 1932. Alamy

    Before all that, however, she allegedly met my dad. Thirteen days after his thirteenth birthday, on the afternoon of May 21, 1932, James Harkin Senior was playing with his older brother Tom in the shadow of a thatched stone house nestled at the back of their family farm when he saw something unfamiliar lurching around in the sky.

    One windy, forbidding afternoon almost eighty years later, both of us stood in the same place, looking up at the sky. My father was only at the beginning of his journey into incapacity. He was still living in the same Belfast home my mother had died in twenty years before – my sister and I had long since moved away – but the time was fast approaching when he’d no longer be able. A few months before, he’d collapsed awkwardly on his hip and ended up in hospital, where he’d promptly collapsed again. Angry with himself and with us, he’d taken to hobbling around the house growling “too many birthdays,” “I shouldn’t be here at all,” and “I’m done, but I won’t lie down” – like a prisoner harrumphing on his way to the execution yard. His mind had been giving way too. As his recent past clouded over, Amelia Earhart appeared from nowhere. He’d never mentioned her before; it was as if the memory had been recovered from a previous life.

    One windy, forbidding day we’d driven him eighty miles back to Culmore and the family farm that he still calls home. The place is no longer used for livestock. From the car I walked him around the old stone farmhouse toward the empty, cavernous cattle sheds and hay barns where he’d worked as a boy. He was in a hurry, leaning heavily like some ancient, sturdy mechanical contraption on the walking aid he liked to call his “three wheeler,” easeling along faster than he had been for a long time, taking care to avoid the antiquated farm machinery and rusty cattle grids. One good fall would have killed him. At a gate looking out into an unkempt grassy field, he’d stopped and begun talking, entirely unprompted, about Amelia Earhart. Her plane was bright red and might have been the first he’d ever seen. It was, as he remembers it, flying in low from the Donegal coast and making directionless passes, clearly in search of somewhere to land. Finding the fields thick with my grandfather’s heavy beef cattle, however, it lifted itself back up into the air and flew on over a ditch.

    Then image becomes action as he and Tom sprint after it as fast as they can. Instinctively, as we journalists do, I press the record button on my iPhone.

    “We followed the plane out and up onto the main road as fast as we could go. We could fairly run back then. Tom was the smallest of all of us but he was the fastest mover. Poor Tom, he was going well then. He could run like hell.”

    He breathes in deeply, as if to suppress something.

    “We were no time at all before we were in Gallagher’s in Springfield. Gallagher’s was a huge farm: big people, very rich people. The plane stopped about fifty yards from a small cottage, a laborer’s cottage.”

    Could the laborer have been Danny McCallion?

    “I don’t know. I would say so. I think that was him. He worked for the Gallagher’s anyway.”

    What happened then?

    “She was still in the plane, and we went up and sat on the wing. We climbed up, like young fellas do, and sat on the wing. And she came out to talk to us.”

    Sporting a baggy flying suit with huge flabby pockets hanging over each knee, Earhart must have looked like a visitor from outer space. For ten minutes, according to my father, she’d sat on the wing chatting to the pair of them. What was she like?

    “She was a very nice person to talk to.”

    But what did she say?

    “I don’t mind. I never thought there was going to be this quiz. We sat up on the wing, and she came out to talk to us – just me and Tom. The crowd came after, but she talked to us first. Is she still alive?”

    Did you leave before the crowd got there?

    “I don’t think so, I don’t think we would have. We were free and easy then. Those were the days, when we were very young.”

    Anything else you remember?

    “No Jimmah, I don’t think I would. I do not. I just can’t explain it. Too many birthdays. It’s a long time ago, I can’t be expected to remember all that.”

    Sometimes, I suggest, it’s easier to remember the things that happened when you were very young.

    “You might be right.”

    He pauses.

    “I remember the wee dog. Everybody was interested in the wee dog being killed.”

    What dog?

    “The wee dog getting its nose cut off. The dog ran out at the plane and the nose was cut off him. It was terrible to look at. I remember as well the police coming and shooting it. Its nose had been cut off him at the eyes. The poor wee dog. I saw it all.”

    The police constable wasn’t called to guard the plane; he was summoned to put down a horribly wounded dog. He aims his index finger down to point at the floor, imitating a pistol.

    “The newsmen had the whole thing wrong. We were there long before them. They’ll stick in anything, them people, just to fill up the paper. They’re no good. Only chancers, and I wouldn’t mind telling them that if they were here now. Isn’t that your job, ah sorta?”

    The dog wasn’t the only casualty of Earhart’s unexpected visit to Ireland. Another plane returning from Derry to London crashed, killing two journalists who’d been sent to report on her arrival. Earhart didn’t last much longer herself. Five years later, in a bid to become the first woman to fly around the world, she, her navigator, and another Lockheed went missing in the middle of the Pacific, somewhere between Australia and Hawaii. Her disappearance came just twenty-two days short of her fortieth birthday, and its circumstances were every bit as romantic and mysterious as her life. The plane was never found, some insisting that she’d been executed by the Japanese as an American spy, others whispering that she’d been stolen away to Tokyo to make propaganda broadcasts. Even after her death some quibbled with the cost and ambition of her grandiose expeditions; one of her staunchest admirers sniped that she’d been “caught up in the hero racket.” However she did meet her end, she would have faced it, according to the editor of her letters, with courage and equanimity. “Since there were no more oceans to cross, no more uncharted areas to explore, nothing more venturesome to attempt than following paths developed by standard airlines, from her point of view if she ‘popped off’ on this ultimate flight it would still be worthwhile and would present the best death she could wish for – she said so more than once.”

    Who lives and who dies? Amelia Earhart was an adventurer: eventually it had killed her, as part of her must have known that it would. My father, on the other hand, is indestructible. His wife is long dead, even though she was much younger and expected to outlive him. So are his brothers and almost everyone else he knew: as a policeman, serving in the worst years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, many of them died violent, untimely deaths. Young men sometimes blunder through life as if they’re immortal, but it’s as if he’s borrowed everyone else’s longevity to keep himself around. Like tuning up the strings on a violin, where tightening up one might weaken those around it. Or perhaps there exists some precise mathematical formula by which everything is connected and energy is transferred, all of us hooked up in invisible cobwebs of metaphysical wiring in a system which only gives when it takes away.

    Here’s what I think: rather than reading the runes looking for the meaning of life, we could do worse than examining the ways that we die. Death, after all, brings life – its purpose and its value – into painfully sharp relief. Just as my father slipped into infirmity I began reporting from the civil war in Syria and its gruesome cull of young men. In doing so I’ve come across journalists who’ve been adventurers like Amelia Earhart: some are now dead, others still missing. Most of the Syrians I’ve met acted more out of conviction than a thirst for adventure. Some were killed shortly after I interviewed them; I became, by default, a kind of last confessor. All were true believers or martyrs in the making, and convinced that their own death, should it come to that, was a price worth paying. My conclusion: there are simply different kinds of people and different ways to die, and the goal isn’t always to buy extra time.

    So where does that leave my father? Eighteen months after our trip back to the family farm I pay him a visit in the Belfast nursing home where he now lives. If the room numbers were consecutive his should have been thirteen, but it has been changed to number twenty – “for luck,” says one of the nurses, but he hardly needs it. He’s well taken care of here and seems well liked; despite all his faults there’s plenty of life left in him. I find him in the common room, dozing but with one eye half-open – like a sleeping ogre. To jog his memory I’ve brought with me a wrinkled old newspaper photo of Amelia Earhart in Culmore. I found it in an envelope I found among his belongings at the family home – we’d been clearing the place out to sell, to pay for his care. My guess is it was taken later the day she arrived, or very early the next. It’s a lovely photo, if a little staged; an ecstatic throng of men and boys are crowding around Earhart’s Lockheed and holding their hats high in time for the photographer’s lamp. Earhart, in the middle of all this, sits astride the cockpit and draped over her machine – as if engaged in some curious inversion of traditional advertising in which the woman has become the main event.

    “That’s well kept. Did I give you that?”

    He used to have a better one, he says, but he gave it away to a girl on a plane about five years ago.

    “Why did I do that? I never thought. But the papers spoiled it. You could have a good stab at it. You have the right details now. You’ll floor them, I’m telling you. Keep me a copy.”

    While we wait our turn to be seated for lunch he rehearses the details of the day.

    “She saw the cattle, and she lifted the plane right away. If she’d landed she’d have been at our front door, I’m not codding you. But she wouldn’t have wanted to land where there was cattle in the field.” He blinks. “Where am I at?”

    A convoy of wheelchairs heads toward the dining room. One old man is being given a tiny glass of water and a thimbleful of pills before he eats. What are they, he asks? “Horse tranquilizers,” says the nurse. Everyone laughs and then the old man does too. My father is in the departure lounge, and like everyone else here he’s waiting for his time to go. When he grumbles at having lasted so long I tell him he’s been granted extra time and he likes the idea: it reminds of the football that he used to love. As his dementia progresses, however, his condition may deteriorate very quickly. Would we reach for the off switch and snuff him out if we could? Don’t think it hasn’t come up.

    In one of the letters she left behind, I tell him, Earhart writes: “I must have frightened all the cows in the county.”

    “That’s right. That ties up with mine.”

    His eyes fill up with tears. I press him on which way Earhart might have turned when she zoomed away from his family farm – toward Derry or toward Donegal – to get his story straight. Now I’m interrogating the former policeman and he bristles.

    “You’re cornering me now. You’re mixing me up.”

    Can you remember anything else?

    “I don’t mind. Oh Jamie, Oh Jamie, I wouldn’t mind after all this time. That’s the answer to that question. I did fairly well, though.”

    Clutching for something he does remember, I ask about the dog.

    “I took it badly, because the dog got shot. I nearly cried – I was very fond of dogs.”

    Were local people angry at what happened?

    “No, they realized the dog needed to be shot. We would have had to do it do, the time I was on [the police force].”

    So you’d have shot it yourself, if you’d needed to?

    “No, no. I wouldn’t have done that.”

    Why not?

    “Because I was used to dogs at home. We had a dog ourselves when I was growing up. She had pups. What was its name? I can’t remember its name.”

    Shep, I say.

    “Jeepers-O, Shep. I remember the time he disappeared from the house. We thought he was a goner, but it was the time the dogs go after the bitches, and then he arrived back in the back yard weeks later.”

    He laughs.

    Did Shep have to be put down in the end, I ask him?

    “No. And I wouldn’t do it.”

    I press him.

    “They were family dogs. They stayed with us until they died.”

    And you looked after them?

    “Oh aye, surely.”

    In the background a CD player is playing Marlene Dietrich’s version of the German marching song, Lily Marlene. It’s my mother’s favorite, but if he ever knew it he doesn’t remember it any more. When Doris Day comes on, three frail old ladies sitting around the edges of the room begin smiling and swaying in time to the music, one clutching at an old teddy bear. The staff join in and it’s an impromptu song and dance party: Que sera, sera.

    Contributed By James Harkin James Harkin

    James Harkin is director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London, and writes for Harper’s Magazine, GQ, and the Guardian among others.

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