Amelia Abandoned

[This originally appeared, in a slightly different version, as my column in the local paper.]

Now you have heard my story of that awful tragedy;

We pray that she might fly home safe again.

Oh, in years to come though others blaze a trail across the seas,

We’ll ne’er forget Amelia and her plane.

—Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight

—by Red River Dave McEnery

It certainly seems that Red River Dave was right about America remembering Amelia.

It’s been eighty years since the July 2, 1937 disappearance of “America’s Sweetheart” Amelia Earhart, and the debate over her fate goes on. A History (formerly The History Channel) docudrama a few weeks ago and a current expedition sponsored by National Geographic testify to the continuing interest in the story.

July 7 articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post discussed the controversial subject. The internet is rife with competing theories, most of which can be boiled down to three primary ending points: 1. the Pacific Ocean, 2. the Marshall Islands/Saipan and 3. the island of Nikumuroro.

It’s been a subject of interest to me ever since I learned the song from college friends who formed “The Amelia Earhart Memorial Bluegrass Band.” Oddly enough, on this last July 2, I was flipping through my old song sheets looking for things I might learn to play on the mandolin, which I have lately taken up, when I came across McEnery’s 1939 song about Amelia. I was just into the first verse when I realized that as I sang “onthe second of July” it was the second of July! Then I looked at the year and realized I was singing this song on exactly the 80th anniversary of her disappearance. I was so moved that I noted this on social media with a first-ever recording of myself singing and playing. ( I won’t go into how that went.)

And then all the media hype about Amelia began to pop up. It felt like the universe was speaking to me about her. I got more interested; I watched the History program; I read articles; I did a salon presentation on her.

I now know more about Amelia Earhart than I ever imagined there was to know.

The official story, the one produced by the U.S. Navy about a week after her disappearance, is that she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crashed in the ocean. No evidence, other than a lack of any evidence to the contrary, has ever been found to support that theory. It was widely disbelieved at the time, as Dave’s line “we pray that she might fly home safe again” shows, and has been labeled everything from convenient to coverup.

Possibly the most-favored theory, the one propounded by the History docudrama and the one that seems to me to have the most evidence, is that she landed on an atoll in the Marshall Islands and was taken to Saipan where she died a prisoner.

The third major strain of investigation is the one currently being followed by a National Geographic-supported team, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). This theory holds that she wandered far to the south and crashed on or near Gardner Island, now called Nikumuroro, where she lived for some time and died a castaway.

The details of all these notions fill countless volumes. Books, articles, movies, documentaries, websites, talk shows and more recount the stories of supposed eyewitnesses, the material evidence —including, perhaps most intriguingly, a jar of freckle cream!—and maps and charts depicting how the plane managed to miss Howland Island and arrive somewhere else.

The whole affair is certainly an extreme exercise in historical epistemology: How do we know what we know?

Of course, history is nothing more than what historians say it is, and our best efforts will always be only rough approximations, but this one is intriguing.

It also has some deep social and political implications, especially the theory I favor: that Amelia ended up in a Japanese prison on Saipan, via Milli Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

THE MARSHALL ISLANDS

The thing I like about the Marshall Islands/Saipan version is that it offers a pretty good rationale for the persistent claims around the fringes that this whole thing was a huge government coverup from early on. The thing that makes me tend to believe it is that there are at least five eyewitnesses whose independently recorded stories mesh with this version. The History program includes video, some of it original, some recorded by the researchers, of witnesses and second-hand reports of witnesses accounts. These recordings all have that ring of truth that is hard to falsify.

The photograph that History claims is new evidence has already been pretty well discredited, but in fact did not add anything of substance to the theory. Just drama. The story works just as well without it.

While I readily admit that much of this would not likely meet the standards of evidence, here’s the version of what happened that, to me, makes the most sense and seems to have the most corroborating evidence:

On account of navigational errors (possibly because of faulty or poorly understood equipment installed just before takeoff from Lae headed for Howland) Earhart and her Electra angled slightly to the north, ending up quite far north of Howland. Realizing that they should be at Howland, she and Noonan turned back, thinking to either cross Howland or return to Lae.

Instead, on account of the more northerly position, she came across the Marshalls, and either decided it looked like a suitable place to land or was forced down by the Japanese. Realize, this was just months before the outbreak of World War II and the Japanese were already in a highly militarized posture in the Pacific.

It’s also possible that Earhart, who was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and other high officials in the U.S., had agreed to do some low-level spy work under the cover of her ‘round-the-world flight attempt. So the Japanese may well have been suspicious, and the deviation in course over the Marshalls could have been intentional.

Both physical evidence and accounts from Marshall Islanders indicate a plane similar to the Lockheed Electra was dragged to a port on Milli Atoll and loaded onto a barge, which theoretically could have taken plane and crew to nearby Saipan.

Several witnesses attest to the presence of a short-haired American woman wearing pants (which was notable in 1937) who was held prisoner in a Japanese facility on Saipan, and two U.S. Marines have said they were sent to Saipan to recover her remains from a graveyard near the prison.

The level of detail one would need to sort through to ascertain the truth about all this is pretty daunting, but this evidence fits well with another long-touted piece of the story: the U.S. Navy intercepted Japanese transmissions stating that Amelia had been captured, and thus U.S. military officials knew that she was being held prisoner, but refused to admit it because they didn’t want the Japanese to know that they could de-code their messages.

In addition, with the war looming, U.S. leaders would not risk sparking conflicts with the Japanese to actually search for or even request return of the Americans. And of course, it even fits the scenario that the massive search for Amelia and her plane gave the entire U.S. Pacific fleet good reason to wander all over the Japanese-controlled areas, unobtrusively gathering military intelligence.

Amelia and Fred it seems, like many Americans before and since, were abandoned by their country because their lives were an inconvenient obstacle to the pursuit of a global war.

A new site for posts…

I have recently moved the hosting for my other website, “A War Journal“, to WordPress and am trying to make it a more active site.

It has been primarily a vehicle for generating and making public my book by the same title, but I think it could also be a better place for my social/political blogging, leaving this site to what it was originally designed to be, a meditation guide. I have begun by re-posting a few essays from this site to that one, in the hopes of connecting readers of the two in some way. I’ve created a new category on the War Journal site, “Over the edge…” — which in many ways is how I feel about things these days — and I plan to post new social and political commentary there.

Some things may end up getting posted both places, at least in the beginning, as I feel out this new environment. Thanks for reading any of it! Would love to have a few comments here, and I welcome feedback on the whole process.

Another idea I am floating as a trial balloon is having multiple writers. I’m not very regular at blogging, so it might help to have others interested in writing who don’t want the hassle of managing a website join in the fun, as that seems to work well for other sites that I visit. So, if you’re interested, let me know!

My email is somewhere here I think, but I’ll repost it for simplicity: john.feden@gmail.com

Peace!

Zen Center

It was the Fall of 1994 and Claire had just returned from a visit to Atlanta where she had been reintroduced to old friends in the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and had spent a few hours meditating there over the weekend. Her description of and enthusiasm for the newly-discovered Zen Center dropped like a hot coal in my mind.
Giana and I had been living in Jesup, Georgia for some five years then, and we had been friends with Claire since she and her husband Neill had moved to Jesup about a year after we did. We had hit it off immediately and become best friends, especially as Claire became our doctor and delivered our daughter, Liana.

We shared lots of interests and values with Claire and Neill, but somehow the topic of Buddhism had never come up –we didn’t talk about religion or spirituality at all as I recall. We were all pretty much socialist and materialist in our life philosophies — one reason we hit it off so well in a small south Georgia town where to express such ideas was a sure path to social ostracism. In fact, in Jesup, the first question you’re most likely to be asked upon being introduced to someone is: Where do you go to church?

So we had become fast friends with Claire and Neill, and no one had ever noticed my half-carved Buddha statue sitting in the living room, nor had my quiet interest in Buddhism ever come up in conversation.
But when Claire told me about re-connecting with a friend from Emory University days who had for several years been leading a Zen meditation center in the Candler Park area of Atlanta, I pointed out my rude sculpture to her and told her of my early Buddhist experiences in Thailand, and my continuing interest in Zen. I think I was in the midst of reading Suzuki Roshi’s little book at the time, and was still trying to sit every now and then, so I was ready for the news that there was somewhere I could go for serious Zen.

And more than ready for someone to share it with. Claire had brought home chant sheets from Zen Center, and she and I began doing little meditation sessions in the under-construction second floor of their house, which I was helping Neill build. Of course, I didn’t journal during much of this, so the details and sequence are pretty cloudy for me now 24 years later. I did write in August of 1993: “…I know clearly that I am on the Path now. Consistent sitting (inspired by Claire’s jump into Zen and the legitimization in Giana’s eyes that Claire gives it) has made me sure of the Buddhism that I embraced those years ago when my Thai friend said, ‘Buddha say, just enough!’”

And it wasn’t long before I went with Claire to Atlanta for a weekend sesshin. That first day in the little Candler Park zendo, October 2, 1993, sitting on those black cushions facing the old granite walls of the converted gas station, is very clear in my memory. I remember the slight apprehension as I removed my shoes in the tiny, quiet foyer formed by old windows with white panes, the smell of the incense, and the black backs of the motionless meditators around the walls as I followed Claire to a vacant cushion.
Settling in to my cushion I remember a deep sense of gratitude and wonder at the opportunity to be there, actually sitting with a group of people doing Zen meditation.

For years, I had assumed that such things only happened in faraway places, and that seven years in a monastery in Japan was pretty much the only model for finding enlightenment. Now here I was in the midst of clearly serious Zen practice, only a few hours from home.
I spent most of that first day with tears rolling down my cheeks as I sat and breathed, walked and chanted. In my journal that night, I wrote: “I have wanted to do this for so long, and despaired of ever having the opportunity, so the reality is very sweet.”

I also discovered the Heart Sutra and quickly came to love it. The group chanting, and later my own chanting of it, seemed to open up meaning in the ancient words that a simple reading of it might not reveal. I had long loved the Buddhist sutras, since my introduction to them in the university class in Kansas City, but this was my first experience with how their use in meditative chanting revealed deeper meanings.

So the Heart Sutra and other chants became a part of my regular practice, one that has held up through the years since as a profound comfort through the difficult times of my life.

I think the most important effect from finding Zen Center and a zen buddy was that I began, really for the first time, consistent sitting. I began sitting on our screen porch, because there I could set up my cushion and a little altar and it wasn’t in anyone’s way — or in anyone’s face. I could pop in, sit for a few minutes, and move on with little wasted time. I was teaching school then, so I had a regular daily schedule and could work in one or two sittings each day fairly easily. I found that even a few minutes in the morning helped my school day — engaging with middle schoolers is not easy — go much more smoothly and I was much less affected by the stress of the job.

Surprisingly, my entry into open Zen practice also proved to be a very positive influence in the development of a better spiritual relationship with my mother.

As I mentioned in the chapter on Daddy and the problems we had surrounding my resistance to the Vietnam War, my mother and I had long been on a close spiritual path in many ways, and she understood my pacifism and the need to part ways with the Air Force. But she never had been able to accept my negative ideas about Christianity and my refusal through the years — despite the brief flirtation with the church in Missouri — to find an adult acceptance of “Jesus as my savior”. My mother’s personal faith was a profoundly spiritual version of Christianity, one that I deeply respected, and she was never a “hide-bound” Christian, to use a term she employed. She would have likely been run out of the southern Baptist church she attended had the folks there known the depth to which her differences with their theology extended, but her faith and love were so strong, shone out so clearly from her great, great soul, that no one ever suspected her heresies.
Because she was able to transcend what she saw as the human limitations in the Christian religion, she thought I should be able to do the same, and we had never quite seen eye-to-eye on any of it, especially as she was so acutely aware of the suffering I experienced without a truly liberating spiritual life.

My formal, open entry into Buddhism, while not what she would have preferred for me, was positive for Mother because it made me a happier and more balanced person. She could see that, and for her that was strong evidence in its favor, despite her differences with the beliefs and practices. So our relationship steadily began to improve and we began to be able to have meaningful discussion about spiritual matters.
Though I didn’t really talk about it a lot, I did “come out” as Buddhist to my family — and eventually to my students — with no negative responses. I even made it through that first Christmas with my siblings at Mom’s house smoothly, despite the fact that some of my siblings are toward the fundamentalist side of the Christian religion.

My wife, Giana, was supportive of all these changes, though she wasn’t too sure about it all, and didn’t have any interest at the time in Buddhism or in taking up the practice of meditation. She was, to my great relief, fine with my going off on weekends with our friend Claire for retreats, and fine with holding meditations in the loft of her pottery shop, even supportive of my setting up meditation areas in the bedroom when it got too cold out on the screen porch for sitting.

The next summer, I went off for a week-long retreat at Southern Dharma, this time by myself, and she was very supportive of that as well.

She was fine with most of it because she too could see that it was good for me. I was easier to get along with and less prone to the depression and anger that plagued me after beginning the regular practice.
But it didn’t fix everything.

 

(This post also appears here as a Page in the sequential section as 17.)

Continuing the story…

As part of a commitment I made to myself during a recent meditation retreat, I’m planning to continue the story of my way-finding, which was the original impetus for beginning this blog some years ago.

The story is in the section WordPress calls “Pages” and is sequential rather than most-recent-first, as the blog posts are presented. That works well, as the way-finding is a sequential story… traditionally a thing that describes how one got onto the Way of the Buddha and what it has led one to… or something like that.

I am working on the next installment, and hope to get it posted in the next day or so. The working title of this chapter is “Zen Center”. I hope I have enough distance on all that now to write about it clearly and honestly. It’s not easy to write about things so close at hand and so fraught with personal stuff… but I hope it will be helpful to those for whom the path ahead seems dark. If only by showing that usually, that’s how it is… there’s very little light on the path ahead at any point along the way, we just keep walking, looking for the openings and confirmations.

 

 

The backward step…

Maia Duerr, who does the online sangha — Waking Up to Your Life — I’m associated with, sends out a message each full moon, sharing Zen insights and life advice. This month’s message is particularly helpful and wonderful to me, so am sharing here. Hope others find it helpful also.

This is her message for the Full Pink Moon (which isn’t pink, by the way — its name comes from the herb “moss pink” which is coming out this time of year):

Full moon / April 2017

Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.
– Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
In the Zen tradition I practice in, the phrase “taking the backward step” is often invoked as a way to affirm the importance of zazen (sitting meditation) in a fully engaged life. That may sound contradictory – isn’t meditation about withdrawing from life?
Not at all, at least not how I understand it. To me, “taking the backward step” is a revolutionary act, one we must do if we are to have a deep understanding of how the world works, and how we work within it. It’s only through that kind of understanding that we can then take skillful action that does not create further harm, and may perhaps even contribute some good.
When I started writing this letter last week, the U.S. had just bombed Syria, in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people. Both of these acts set off a wave of reactions across the globe, and within my own heart. I imagine you, too, may have felt an urgency about responding. When the intensity of world events is that amplified, the notion of “taking a backward step” may seem impossible, and out of step. We have to do something, don’t we? Or at least that’s how it feels.
And then I think of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s stories of being in Vietnam during the war. Even as bombs dropped on nearby villages, he and his sangha continued to practice meditation, but they also went out to help those who were suffering. In his classic book Peace is Every Step, he writes about this decision:
When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?
We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
So as you hear the local and global news each day and perhaps struggle with how to respond, I encourage you to find ways to take your own backward step: a moment to re-connect with your breathing; a morning to take a long, quiet walk; a long weekend to go deeply into your practice. There is no better way to spend your time, for the benefit of all beings.
blessings,
Maia
(Maia offers lots of ways to expand and deepen one’s practice, so drop in on her website and check out all the wonderful stuff there! She’s also doing a beautiful retreat in New Hampshire in July which looks wonderful! — John)