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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Questions I Can’t Answer

For reasons I can’t explain, an outfit called “ConservativeInstitute.org” has taken to advertising on Daily Kos, an extremely un-conservative news source. I don’t know if this is just another example of how Republicans have enough money that they can waste a lot of it; or if they are sufficiently deluded to think they will convert Democrats with a picture featuring two perfectly straight arrows for civic good, Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer. I guess they hope we will confuse their somber faces with scary ones.

The interesting thing about this ad, however, is that it poses the question: “Should Congress Have Term Limits?” Then there is a big red button saying “Vote Yes.” There’s no “No.” What kind of totalitarianism is that? We can only vote if we agree? It’s the sort of ballot that conservatives used to decry in communist countries. Moreover, re term limits, Elizabeth Warren still is in her first one. To limit her with term limits would mean no elections at all – which actually might be what they have in mind.

And exactly what is conservative about their aim to change the Constitution that has served us well since 1789? Like “conservative” proposals for mandating a balanced budget in the Constitution or their campaigns for a line-item veto, they are introducing a new bit of jargon that they apparently think they will appeal to those who inhabit the world of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Mostly, I suspect, they just hope to change the subject and distract from the zoo that is the White House.

Another question I can’t answer: Just how smart are Patrick Murphy and David Jolly? The former congressmen, one Democratic and one Republican, have been doing a road show decrying partisanship. That’s fine – but then, just recently, they decided that none of the several candidates in both parties who are running for governor are good enough, and they sent a new idea up the flagpole to see who would salute.

Ignoring the fact that neither of these has-been Washingtonians has any experience in Tallahassee, they proposed running as a team on the Democratic gubernatorial ticket -- disregarding the fact that Florida law requires that Jolly, the presumable lieutenant governor, would have had to register as a Democrat ages ago. I don’t know if they didn’t bother to check out the law or if they thought they could ignore it. But I liked the response of one politico when asked if they would be running as Democrats or as independents: “They’ll be running as morons.”

Finally Flying High

It was pleasing to see the praise for Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults and the extraordinary job she did in handling her plane after an engine exploded and killed a passenger. USA Today said she showed “nerves of steel” when she calmly guided her Boeing 737 to an emergency landing with just one engine, thereby saving the lives of some 150 people onboard. You saw the coverage of the crash, so I needn’t go into any detail – but I do want to take the opportunity to put her achievement in its unfortunately long historical context. This is something you should know.

Women were there at the invention of aviation. In 1911, just five years after the Wright Brothers patented their “flying machine,” Harriet Quimby became the first American woman licensed to fly; she was the second in the world, following only a French baroness, and both were authorized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Quimby had been a San Francisco journalist, writing for well-respected papers, and she moved to New York to work for the magazine empire run by Miriam Leslie. (Look her up; you may have to use “Mrs. Frank Leslie.”)

Harriet Quimby’s first flight over Staten Island drew 20,000 people eager to see their first airplane. She went on to win $600 in a cross-country competition against men and then sailed for Europe, where she became the first female pilot to cross the English Channel. Celebrated in Paris and London, she returned to the US in May of 1912. On July 1, she was flying a large male passenger over Boston Harbor. Planes were entirely open at the time, and no one used seat belts for anything. He shifted his heavy weight, the plane turned over, and both he and she fell into the harbor and drowned. The plane itself glided in with little damage.

And Florida, Too

Similar publicity greeted Tampa’s Ruth Elder. She was not nearly as competent as other early female flyers, but with Lakeland’s George Haldeman, she set out to be the world’s first trans-Atlantic passenger. Calling their plane American Girl, they took off from Tampa just a few months after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight. An oil leak, however, caused them to deliberately crash on the ocean, where a nearby Dutch ship rescued them 250 miles short of the coast of Spain. The public nonetheless was impressed with their daring, and the Elder/Haldeman team was toasted in Paris and welcomed at the White House, where she was called the “Miss America of Aviation.”

You probably have noticed the TIA airside named for Bessie Coleman. In 1921, she became the first African American of either gender to be licensed as a pilot -- and had to earn her credentials in France, as no American aviation school would accept her. Promoted by the Chicago Defender, a nationally syndicated newspaper aimed at blacks, Coleman’s dare-devil aerial acrobatics made her shows an instant attraction. After just five years, though, she died in a crash over Jacksonville. Investigation showed that it was not caused by pilot error, but rather by a wrench left in the plane’s gearbox.

Miami was the departure point when Amelia Earhart began her last, fatal flight in 1937. A Kansan, she was a very well-qualified pilot and merits the attention given her, but you also should know that much of the publicity surrounding her was generated by her husband, publisher George Putnam. Meanwhile, numerous other women proved their credentials in the sky and have been forgotten.

Pensacola’s Jacqueline Cochran was another Floridian. Although born in extreme poverty in the Panhandle’s pinelands, she managed to save enough money to move to New York and begin flying lessons in 1932. She beat a field of men in a 1938 transcontinental race, and by 1940, held seventeen official national and international speed records. When World War II broke out, she worked via Eleanor Roosevelt to create the Women’s Air Service Pilots, or WASP.

The WASP was composed of women who had been flying for years and had paid for their training and often for their planes -- as opposed to the young men at MacDill, where the slogan was, “A plane a day in Tampa Bay.” The WASP flew dangerous missions – including towing targets so that gunnery cadets could shoot at them using live ammunition – but even though they had to obey orders, they were not officially part of the military. Decades later, Senator Barry Goldwater – who had been one of the trainees shooting at planes flown by WASPs -- pushed through legislation to reward them with military benefits. Long before that, though, WASPs took up collections to pay for the funerals of the dozens of their colleagues who died.

The WASP was disbanded late in 1944, before the war ended. This was primarily because of men who lobbied Congress for these non-combat assignments -- while at the same time, American women were lobbying to be allowed to fly in combat, just as Russian women did. The WASP disbandment did not mean that Jackie Cochran stopped flying, however, and she continued to set records in the postwar world, including being the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953 – when she was beyond middle-aged. The Air Force finally promoted her to the relatively low rank of colonel in 1969.

A Personal Memory

The Florida Women’s Hall of Fame began under Democratic Governor Bob Graham, but lapsed under Republican Governor Bob Martinez. Capitol plaques honoring women were taken down and literally lost for years before they finally were found in a broom closet. In 1990, Democrat Lawton Chiles campaigned on restoring the Hall and the affiliated Commission on the Status of Women – and moreover, writing them into law so that they could not again die of neglect.

I chaired the restored Hall, and I remember meeting Lawton for dinner at one of those West Tampa dives with delicious food. I brought a list of historically meritorious women for discussion -- and was so pleased that he immediately recognized Jackie Cochran. He chose her for the Hall at the first 1991 opportunity, and some of her Pensacola family came to the capitol ceremony. Let me suggest that you read her wonderfully titled autobiography, The Stars At Noon. Give it to a girl who wants to fly.

Last word: Do you think that if Tammie Jo Shults had been a white man wearing a MAGA cap, someone in the White House would have leaped to the phone with congratulations on the skill that it took to avoid more deaths? But that didn’t happen – and as far as I know, no one in the media questioned this sin of omission. Instead of lauding a heroic pilot, the current occupant was busy dishing with Kanye West, with whom he shares “dragon energy.” It’s just amazing. So sad, so slow, but ultimately…


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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