There were two special visitors – or were there four? – Friday at Riley Elementary School.
Amelia Earhart and Calamity Jane regaled children and adults with first-person accounts of their lives. Then, the portrayers of these well known characters assumed their identifies as historians Ann Birney and Joyce Thierer so they could tell the rest of the story.
Amelia Earhart revealed her discomfort with the fame she gained in 1928 as the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air. “I didn’t even fly the plane,” she said. She thought she would get to do some of the flying, only kept the flight log. Although people who greeted the transoceanic flight were cheering her name, she was really just a passenger. “I’d been a sack of potatoes in the back of the plane.”
People didn’t think a woman could actually fly a plane across the ocean, but four years later Earhart was ready to make that solo flight.
Friday, she showed her audience her intended route on a globe. But although she planned to fly to France, the plane landed in a cow pasture in Ireland.
“You may have heard that I killed a cow when I landed. I did not,” she said.
“This time I felt I had done something worth cheering about,” she said. “That’s how I feel about this upcoming flight around the equator.”
That’s where Amelia Earhart’s program ended. The speaker removed her flight jacket and told the children, “Now I’m Ann, a historian.”
Amelia Earhart’s plane went down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937. Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared with it.
Earhart spoke to the all-school assembly, but Birney the historian visited the classrooms, answering questions about flight in general and the unsolved mystery of what happened to the missing plane.
Joyce Thierer spoke in classrooms Friday morning, talking about the woman she portrays, Martha Jane Cannary, who became known as Calamity Jane. She explained some of the clothing and equipment that a cowhand might have in the 1800s, compared to today.
Thierer and the students quickly became friends, almost like family, she said as she passed around photos and other items.
“You met me as Joyce,” Thierer told the children. “But this afternoon you can’t be my family.”
In the all-school assembly as Calamity Jane, she was a woman from the frontier who would tell a story for a cup of coffee.
“Buy her a meal and a drink, and she’ll tell you a story, a tall tale, and a downright lie – and if you have the misfortune to be a reporter, well, it’s up to you to determine which is the truth and how to use it,” according to Thierer.
Calamity Jane told the children that reporters took her own exaggerated stories about herself and turned them into even bigger tall tales. She didn’t really shoot 100 buffalo while riding a horse at a full gallop, never stopping to reload her pistol. But she did learn to ride horses, hunt, farm, and drive a team. And in real life, she did claim that she was “the only woman scout the U.S. cavalry ever had,” and was given the nickname “Calamity Jane” after being in an Indian fight and saving the captain, who was shot.
In her own account of that story, Cannary wrote, “(Capt.) Egan on recovering, laughingly said: ‘I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.’ I have borne that name up to the present time.”
Birney told students that her job – a historian who gets to become Amelia Earhart – is the best job in the world. Thierer may feel the same about Calamity Jane. Her advice to children at Riley School was, “Grow up to be a person out of the past.”