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tv   Keith O Brien Fly Girls  CSPAN  April 22, 2022 1:43am-3:04am EDT

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good evening, everybody and welcome to tonight's. lecture on the fly girls and what a pleasure it is to welcome a live audience once again to dot auditorium. for the first time in almost two years and of course to those of you who are streaming the program tonight, welcome to you as well. incidentally, i'll tell you it's
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our plan at this point subject to change. i need not say subject to change but our current plan is to offer the remaining programs this year both in person and via live streaming. and you can always consult our website for updates concerning the venue. now sponsor for this evening's program is one of our oldest chancellor's village. who have been with us for many years? and we are extremely grateful to them for their continuing generous support. this might be a good time to encourage any of you who may be so inclined to make a contribution to great lives. as the continuation of the program depends on this kind of individual and corporate support. and you can do this by once again going to our website for information on how you may contribute. now speak of this evening is keith o'brien author of fly girls subtitled.
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how five daring women defied all odds and made aviation history. keith was born in cincinnati and graduated from northwestern university. here's a former staff writer for both the boston globe and the new orleans times picayune. as a newspaper reporter who won multiple awards including the casey medal for meritorious journalism. he's also written for the new york times the new york times magazine the washington post politico slate and esquire among others. he has spoken on national public radio for more than a decade including on programs such as npr's all things considered morning edition and weekend edition. he has written two books the most recent of which is the four mentioned fly girls with a third scheduled for publications. this april. titled paradise falls the true story of an environmental catastrophe fly girls has received widespread a claim including two assessments that i
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will mentioned from authors who have spoken previously in great lives. and you remember may remember them one is jonathan ike who said of that book quote if you liked the boys and the boat or unbroken and i suspect most everybody who's rhythm did like them. you will love fly girls. this story carefully researched and expertly written offers and irresistible cast of characters and high octane drama. karen abbott who was also a speaker at great lives offered a similarly glowing evaluation writing quote. this is more than history. it is a powerful story for our times. it has it all adventure tragedy and heroes who overcame cruel prejudice. to roll the air fly girls reads like a heart-stopping novel. but this story is all true. and thoroughly inspiring. some of you may remember that
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keith was originally scheduled as part of the 2020 great live series, but that talk was canceled because of the pandemic. well, we've looked forward to having him for two years now. so it's a special pleasure tonight to finally welcome to the great lives podium keith o'brien. thank you, dr. crowley for that introduction. i really appreciate it. i mean he did have two years to work on it though. so and i want to say thank you to all of you for coming out tonight. thank you to the university of mary washington. thanks to the great lives lecture series and thanks to ali heber who works here at the university, you know for two years. we've been trying to make this night work. you know, it was it was on and then it was off and then it was on and it was off and and as recently for me anyways recently
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as yesterday, i thought this event was going to be live streamed. i was told. know we would not have a crowd tonight. and i would just be standing behind this podium in this beautiful room all by myself. and you know in these times we we've all had to how to adapt. and learn how to roll with the punches, you know, the store might close early the restaurant might not be open our cereal that we like might not be available. so, you know i was willing to do whatever it took to finally make this event happen, but of course it was a little upsetting a little depressing and disappointing that i was coming here to fredericksburg a city that i i've been before and do really enjoy and i was going to be in this empty room and i said to my wife i said yesterday before i got on the plane. should i even bring nice shoes? i mean should i even should i even plan to wear pants up there? and it's fortunate really for
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all of us. that my wife told me yes. so it's really great to be here and i'm going to be speaking tonight about my book and really excited to finally share it with you. but before we get into that i wanted to start with a confession of sorts. and that is i don't really like to fly. i don't like turbulence. i don't like the little sounds that a plane makes for seemingly inexplicable reasons in the middle of the flight. and i really don't like takeoff. you know that moment where you're barreling down the runway so fast that as you take off into the air, you can feel the weight of the air and the plane on your chest as you move further and further away from the ground. i really don't like that feeling at all. now i do like to travel for pleasure in normal times. and and i do travel for work,
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so, you know not flying for me is not an option. which means that from time to time you will find me. in the 29th row of coach white knuckling the armrests as if i alone am holding up the plane. a few years ago. i was on a flight like that. i was flying from new orleans to chicago on a hot summer night. and it was one of those flights where the pilot comes on before you even take off. and he said folks it's going to be a bad flight. and he was right. you know in the middle of that night in this summer storm there we were bouncing around in the sky and there i am, you know trying to curl up into a tiny ball in my seats but resisting the urge to do that because that would be an insane thing for a grown person to do on a plane. and the woman next to me she totally noticed. and she finally couldn't take it anymore.
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and she turned to me and she said honey, i think i can help you. i have xanax. that's a true story. you know that that's me as a flyer. and it's sort of begs the question why someone like this someone like me would spend two and a half years. researching and writing about planes at a time when playing travel was exponentially more dangerous than it is today. why would i do that to myself? why? and the answer is really. that it has nothing to do. with planes you know, i was drawn to the story that ultimately became fly girls. because it is the story of an epic quest. populated by characters who were willing to risk everything. for the thing they loved. who would face adversity after adversity?
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entrenched discrimination and the deaths of their friends and still they would keep flying still they would keep going only to triumph over the men in 1936 and one of the most epic. air races of the mall you know, that's a story. i would hope anyone would want to tell and it's certainly one. i'm excited to share with you here tonight. so you know whenever i'm writing whether it's for magazines or radio or for books. i like to think about my stories in terms of scenes in terms of moments. you identify early on what are the most important moments here and then build around those? and so i thought i'd begin tonight with with you. with a moment. i want you to imagine september 1933. the winning days of summer labor day weekend in chicago the city
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had been struggling in the grips of the great depression at that point for years. record unemployment bread lines down the street flop houses as they were known at the time so filled with people that you would sleep on your shoes so that someone else would not steal them. but that weekend labor day weekend chicago 1933 was going to be different. the city was preparing for a crush of visitors 500,000 people streaming in by railcar and automobile. they were coming for an exciting event. they were coming for the air races. we need to forget. about what we know about modern-day air shows, you know those scripted flying events with the world's. most modern planes erasing in the 1920s and 30s. this was a real sport. with winners and losers enormous
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crowds and jackpots of money for the victors. you know in this little window of time where my story takes place between 1927 and 1936 air racing was one of the most popular sports in america. it was baseball. was boxing it was horse racing and it was air racing. and it was just definitively also the most dangerous. inevitably pilots flying at a high rate of speed lower the ground. would crash and these pilots would sometimes die. right in front of the grandstands. and i want to make clear that it wasn't just erasing that was considered dangerous or dubious at that time. was it was flying itself? you know. for my book. i i did a ton of research of course and read a lot of news coverage from the 1920s and and
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in one of these stories it was an expose. in chicago tribune of what they termed wildcat flight schools these were flight schools in the chicago land area in 1927. where one could get a pilot's license in a matter of 90 minutes? and and that summer in chicago the the chicago tribune ran a series of stories about problem this obvious problem. and and there was one line in this story that really jumped out of me and i wanted to share it with you now. said officials feel such schools should furnish one or more coffins with each diploma. i mean, this is 1927. in chicago, this is how people felt about flying. so because of these risks because of these dangers because of the crowds at the air races
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because of the money involved because of the stakes. many men believe that air racing and indeed flying was no place for a woman. it's sexist of course. and obviously wrong. but at the time at the time women were banned from doing all sorts of things. from waiting tables after 10 pm from working in the factory from working night shifts on the east coast of the united states in the late 1920s women were banned from driving taxicabs in every single major american city. and if you were a married woman. in particular if you were a married teacher school teacher it was even harder for you.
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if you were a single female teacher in the late 1920s in america right here in virginia, perhaps even right here in fredericksburg. and you had the audacity to decide over the course of that school year to get married. at the end of the year your local school board or superintendent almost always men. would force you to resign from your job at the school? because it was believed by these men that a woman couldn't handle the rigors of teaching our children all day. only to go home to raise her own. so women are denied access to jobs. winner denied basic rights and they were denied other basic things, too. you know in in the late 1920s when my story begins there was a
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major tragedy in washington dc a theater roof collapsed under a heavy weight of a blizzard snowfall. and it was national news. it was a real calamity many people died. including a young boy and the boy's mother wished to sue the theater company for negligence. a case. she likely would have won. but laws denied her that right. only a father only a father had the right to sue in the wrongful death of a minor child. at that time in this boy's father was already dead. meaning the mother in question had no husband. no child, and no recourse. women hoping to fly planes in the late 1920s faced similar challenges you know in the presidential election of 1928.
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there were 29 million women. who were eligible to vote 29 million women of voting age? out of that number 29 million fewer than a dozen. fewer than 12 had a pilot's license on file at the us department of commerce, which was the regulating agency at the time the faa of its era. and that really made the few women who did fly planes real renegades true radicals. the kind of radical that's almost hard to imagine today. in september 1933 labor day weekend in chicago one of those women was about to do the most radical thing of all. she was going to race her plane against the men. whipping it around pylons placed in a triangular course around the airfield 50 foot towers. she was 29 years old this woman
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divorced and afraid of nothing. her plane that day called a gb was so fast as to be known to be dangerous this model of plain. in fact had killed many men before. but she knew what she was doing. she knew how to fly it. and as she reached the home pile on that labor day just at sundown right in front of the grandstand the crowd knew it too. screaming into that pile on a 220 miles an hour roughly 50 or 60 feet off the ground. she banked that plane so hard so perfectly around the tower that it stood up on its wing. just look at that girl the announcer said those were his words. just look at that girl. have you ever seen such a beautiful race? she was trailing the two leaders, but she was in third place. she was right there. and then on the eighth turn at
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the home pylon a problem. the right wing of her speedy gb began to disintegrate in mid-flight. this wing built out of spruce and linen. again to fall apart and flooded to the like so much confett. and with the wind now whistling through the holes and her wing the woman in the cockpit did exactly as she was supposed to do. she peeled off course away from her fellow competitors and the crowd south toward the city of chicago out over glenview road and lake avenue. she was trying to save the people on the ground and she was struggling to gain altitude to save herself. everyone now at the airfield in chicago was watching her little red plane in the sky knowing one of two things was about to happen. she was going to bail out. from a dangerously low altitude
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where she was going to crash? either way, it probably wasn't going to end well. that woman's name was florence klingensmith. you see her here pictured with amelia earhart one year earlier in 1932 after florence won the first ever all female speed air race the amelia earhart trophy. you know, you probably haven't heard of florence klingensmith. most people haven't. and when we think about women and aviation in the 1920s and 30s we tend to think about one or two women. bessie coleman the first black female aviator in this country and the only one who died in a plane crash in florida in 1926. or of course amelia earhart and when we think about amelia, we like to think of her all alone.
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you know alone in that plane over the ocean alone flying into those cultural headwinds. but at the time amelia was flying other women were flying with her. each of them was brave each of them was bold. some of them arguably objectively. we're perhaps more talented in a cockpit than amelia. today we have forgotten almost everything about them. their battles and their losses their friendships and their rivalries what they fought for how hard they fought we have forgotten to that seemingly impossible victory over the men in 1936. you know with this book with with fly girls. you know, i set out to change that. you know reminding readers of this time and these characters. women who stood up for themselves and each other again and again defiant in the face of
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rules that were intended to keep them in their place. and also confident in the knowledge of who they were. now i want to be very clear here. this is not intended to be a comprehensive history of women and aviation in the 1920s and 30s. the sort of textbook history where each woman gets her own chapter. this is not that kind of book at all. if you wanted to write that kind of textbook history of women in aviation at that time, you need 25 or 30 chapters. my story is really. a narrative about a group of friends amelia earhart and her friends and i'd like to introduce you to them now. ruth elder was 24 years old in the summer of 1927 already on her second marriage in living in lakeland, florida where she was answering phones at a dentist office.
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it was not the life that ruth that imagined for herself growing up and anniston, alabama. she was obviously a beautiful woman, but she also had an electric personality. certain charisma about her and to be frank. she was bored in the dentist office. and so in the summer of 1927 ruth elder crafted a bold plan. she knew how to fly a plane. and she decided she wanted to be the first woman to ever fly across the atlantic ocean. she was inspired of course by charles lindbergh. that spring may 1927 lindbergh had flown the ocean arriving and is now famous spirit of saint louis on long island at roosevelt field that may and and i want to be clear that lindbergh wasn't really flying exactly for the pioneering spirit of it all. he was flying for a jackpot of money.
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$25,000 about a quarter of a million dollars in today's money had been put up for the first man and it was believed. it would be a man. who would fly non-stop from new york to paris or paris to new york? many men had tried to win that prize and failed in spectacular fashion before lindbergh arrived in new york that may these men crashed on runways and planes loaded down with too much fuel. they burned up and infernos right there on the airfield. or they disappeared over the ocean never to be found or heard from again. lindberg himself nearly crashed on takeoff and may 1927. it had rained all night. in long island his fellow competitors who were also trying to win this prize decided not to fly that day lindbergh's plain,
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which was quite small sank into the clay runway as it eased out onto it that morning. they set up a flag about three quarters of the way down and told lindbergh if he wasn't off the ground by the time he reached that flag he needed to abort. lindbergh reached that flag still on the ground and kept going. flying straight into a crowd of about 500 people who inexplicably had gathered at the end of the runway. lindbergh's screaming toward that crowd barely gets off the ground just before he reaches them. he's so low to the ground at that moment that the people who were standing there could see his face through the cockpit glass. and we tell the new york times the next day that this young man was suddenly aged by worry. lindbergh was worried because he was flying directly into a wall of trees. which he narrowly missed. sort of flitting through a open
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hole in the canopy. and then disappearing into the morning mist not to be heard from again for 33 and a half hours. which is how long it took to fly across the ocean in 1927 in a single engine. i don't think i'm gonna ruin this story for you by telling you lindbergh will make it. he will and when he does he's going to win that $25,000 prize. he's going to win a book deal and all the fame that comes with it. he's gonna fly back to america and then take that spirit of saint louis around the country that summer and fall 92 cities and all a goodwill tour that stretched across america. and it was in this moment. this moment of the post lindbergh afterglow that air fever was born in america. that's what they call it at the time air fever. and it had a surprising side effect, or at least one that
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male aviation officials had not expected. women now wanted to fly across the ocean and unlike lindberg and the men they were willing to do it for free. ruth elder will leave five months later in this plane right here. in october 1927 it was a red plane bright red. with yellow lettering down the side and a curse of script that you can sort of make out there. the plane was aptly called the american girl. this plane was 32 feet from nose to tail. 46 feet across the wing and obviously a single engine airplane with a top speed of 105 miles an hour. just for reference when you're barreling down the runway at takeoff at reagan these days to take a flight. you're already going 105 miles an hour. and this plane had no radio.
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no way for ruth elder to contact the outside world. for this flight in october. she would earn headlines on two continents and become by the end of 1927 arguably the most famous woman in the world. before this flight with her co-pilot here, george haldeman ruth elder would also pay a really awful personal price. amelia earhart is a social worker from boston who comes next? you know in our quest to remember earhart or to solve the mystery of how she disappeared we seem to have forgotten almost everything about how she actually lived. and the fact of the matter is in 1927 and 1928 amelia earhart wasn't a famous pilot. she was a licensed pilot. but by her own admission, she wasn't doing much flying anymore. she was working at a settlement
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house. on tyler street in boston what people in boston now call chinatown? and she was helping new immigrants to this country. learn how to speak english. learn how to get a job. it was here at the settlement house in 1928 six months after ruth elders flight. the connected east coast businessmen would discover her including her future husband george putnam of putnam publishing and they would put amelia earhart on a seaplane sitting in boston harbor flown by men. plane that was going to be going across the atlantic. you know on this first flight amelia had no job but to sit behind the two men who were at the controls and take notes. for a book that she would write for george putnam if they made it if they survived. of course they do.
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see plane lands safely in the water off the coast of wales. june 1928 by the time they opened the door of that plane and amelia steps out. she's already become one of the most famous women in the world. but to her enduring credit amelia knew that what she had done in that flight was really nothing. as she would say that summer. i was just a sack of potatoes on that plane. i was cargo. and she would spend the rest of what would be a very short life. just nine years in the spotlight. making bold flights in an answer to her critics. it would surprise us to think about it now, but even amelia earhart. had critics ruth nichols was a daughter of wall street wealth born on the upper east side in new york and raised in tony, westchester county.
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and more than any other woman really, it's ruth nichols who will challenge amelia earhart for the title of most accomplished female aviator in this time in the 1920s and 30. and for ruth, it's it's a it's a journey that really begins when she's just a young girl. not much older really than the students right here on the campus at mary, washington. you know when she graduates from high school in 1918 her parents want her to get married? and they want her to marry well. so that the story of her marriage might appear in the new york times. but the first bold decision that ruth nichols makes for herself is that she's not going to do that. she defies her parents' wishes and instead she goes to college. this is a ruth nichols graduation photograph 1924 at college in massachusetts.
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school for women that of course still exists today? and it was here at wellesley the root nichols decided not only did she want to choose her own path. not only did she want to live her own life. she wanted to fly planes. and in 1930 she would acquire this plane here. this was a lockheed vega. undeniably the fastest most modern plane of its time. she named it the akita. and had borrowed it from a businessman that some of you may recognize his name was powell crosley the owner of the cincinnati reds. and within a matter of months ruth nichols was flying this plane into the record books. she quickly had the altitude record. the transcontinental speed record the short land speed record and in june 1931 she will attempt to fly this plane right here.
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over the ocean trying to be the first woman all alone at the controls of an aircraft flying over the atlantic. it's worth pointing out. this is one year a full year before amelia earhart would ever dare to make such a flight. and you know were it not for happenstance and bad luck? the kind of happens dance in bad luck that dogged flyers in these days. ruth nichols might have made it. and if she had it maybe she who we remember today. and not amelia. florence klingensmith who i mentioned before with the daughter of a farmer in northern minnesota raised on a plot of land just across the river from fargo, north dakota. and just like ruth elder in 1927 florence was not satisfied with her lot in life. she wasn't doing anything exciting.
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she was working at a dry cleaners in downtown fargo starching and pressing shirts. what she really wanted to do was fly planes. but like a lot of us in life, she had no clear and obvious path to her dreams. her parents had no money. no connections in this nascent world of aviation. and so florence did the only thing she could do. she enrolled at mechanic school at what is now modern day hector field the airport and fargo for those of you who have been there. she was one woman at a 400 men learning to build and fix airplane engines. and it was here at hector field that a young florence began to press her case to connected businessmen in fargo. she wanted one of them to help her learn how to fly and help her by her own plane. finally one man relented and he said if you're willing to risk your neck.
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i'm willing to risk my money. and he gave her $3,000 to buy a plane that florence 2 was quickly flying into the record books. you know she her special skill was air racing. that act of whipping a plane around pylons placed on a course in a city or at an airfield. it was an incredibly difficult thing to do. a skill that would require the use of both your left and your right hand. you're left and your right foot as you work the throttle and the flaps to get yourself around those pylons at a high rate of speed. and and the reason why she was invited to race the men in chicago at labor day 1933 is that she had proven herself to be one of the most talented air racers in america both men or or woman. and and for her flight day in chicago it would really change
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life for women both in the air and on the ground. and finally, there's louise stadium. you know louise to me is is the rarest kind of flyer in these days. she wasn't just a woman who flew and race planes louise was a mother. she had her first child. a son in 1930 and her second child a daughter in 1933. and at a time when culture and society and indeed many husbands expected their wives to stay home and raise children. louise did a very modern thing. she wanted to have it all. you know, she believed she could juggle her responsibilities at home and her love for her children. with her personal goals and ambitions and it really is only
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because of the sacrifices that louise made in this little window of time that we wrongly erased her from this picture. and this story so now that i've introduced you to them individually, i want to say a few things about them collectively. and then i'll be happy to take any questions you might have. i want to talk to you about. who they were? what they overcame? and why they still matter today? because they do. you simply cannot overstate. how dominated aviation was by men in particular white men in the 1920s and 30s? planes were built by men for men. these planes were often too large for most women. fact many of my characters in
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my book would have to modify the cockpits with padding and pillows just so that they could reach the pedals or the controls. and and when these women flew across the country transcontinental as they all did and stop to refuel in wichita or saint louis or kansas city. they would walk inside these primitive airfield buildings and find. there was only one kind of restroom. it was a men's room. and when the modern air races began in the summer of 1928 the women were not invited to compete. those first air races were put on by this man here. his name was cliff henderson. he was an incredible salesman a car salesman in los angeles. and he decided to stage the first modern national air races that summer in this bean and barley field just south of downtown, la.
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by the way, we know this bean and barley field today by three letters. that is lax. and you know for these air races cliff anderson wanted amelia earhart to come and louise stayed in to come and the others and indeed amelia and louise were there. but they were not invited to race. they were not invited to compete. indeed the only job for women at those first national air races was to hand out the trophies to the men if they so chose to do that. probably wouldn't surprise you to know that these conditions didn't sit well with the female aviators of this era. in particular these three here, you know amelia earhart and ruth nichols and louise thaden. they were really the triumvirate of this time. and and they quickly realized that they could compete against one another in the sky.
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they could try to fight one another across the ocean indeed amelia and ruth nichols lied to one another about their transatlantic plans. both of them didn't want the other one to know what they were hoping to do each of them understood that the first woman to cross the ocean and solo in a plane would have that key to the room of immortality. but on the ground they recognized right away that they had to stick together. and indeed they would become good friends. because who could understand ruth nichols better? then amelia earhart. or or louise hayden better than ruth nichols. you know i've often thought about louise. in the early 1930s and what it would have been like to drop your kids off at kindergarten and preschool. how little she would have had in common?
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with the other mothers there. and so they did become really close. and i found a lot of evidence of that in my research. you know in 1932 amelia of course will fly the atlantic solo and in 1935. she wants to add the match set to that record. she wants to fly the pacific solo flying from honolulu to oakland, california. now this is a flight some of you might have made of course a very common flight today. but at the time flying a single engine plane all alone across that stretch of ocean was very dangerous indeed many men had gone missing over that stretch never to be found again. and aviation officials gave amelia about a 50/50 chance of making it. she does of course, you know and and when she lands at oakland 10,000 people are waiting at the
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airfield having waited all night not knowing when she might arrive. not knowing, you know her timeline or her itinerary. no one was live tweeting anything at the time. and when she does land amelia receives accolades from around the world. but not from her friend louise stadium. that week louise who's back home in arkansas. writes amelia a letter and and louise had a very specific kind of way of speaking a sort of folksy charm about her. and and spoke with a little of a country twang. and she told a million this letter and i'm quoting here. she said dawn your hide i could spank your pants. someday, you have to tell me why you do things. this in this letter louise goes on to tell her friend amelia that she wished amelia would rest on her laurels.
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and then very prophetically louise tells her you're worth more alive than dead. this is of course two and a half years before amelia will go missing in another very dangerous ocean flight. and you know the same was true of amelia and ruth nichols. they had a bit more complicated friendship. maybe each of us has had this kind of friendship in our lives. where we understand someone and we appreciate them, but we're also sort of competing against them all the time. that was ruth and amelia. and yet, you know, i found evidence of their closeness, too. that summer 1935 after amelia has flown the pacific ocean. ruth nichols has a terrible crash in upstate, new york. not on an air race. not in anything fantastic just on a flight. kind of like that went down in
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those days. and in the next day's papers across the country front page news says that ruth nichols is in critical critical condition and might not survive. at that time amelia really is at the peak of her fame. and her husband then george putnam is keeping her out on the speaking trail day after day after day. and when ruth crashes amelia is on the road in, michigan. but she took time away from whatever speaking engagement. she had that day. amelia did and she went down to the western union office and she wrote ruth nichols a telegram. and it's not really. what she says in the telegram, but how she says it. for starters amelia doesn't refer to ruth by her name she calls her by her nickname. she calls her rufus. she says dear rufus. we can't bear to have you on the sidelines for long. get well soon.
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ae and it clearly meant a lot to ruth nichols. because she saved it her entire life. until i found that telegram in a windowless cinder block storage room filled with old dusty air race trophies at a regional airport in cleveland, ohio where that letter and all of ruth nichols papers had been sitting unnoticed for decades. so they overcome much. they are good friends. and they really will change the world. you know some of you have probably heard of the women's air service pilots. the wasps those 1,000 women who flew airplanes during world war two for the military not in combat, but from factory to basis.
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the wasps from time to time are in the news these days because the last of them sadly are dying off. were it not for these women here the wasps never come to be? if these women had accepted the rules that were stacked against them. if they had accepted their law in life if they had listened to what the men wanted them to do. there would have been no platform for which the women could have argued to fly in the military during world war two. and i really do believe that every female pilot that comes after really stands on their shoulders. and yet there are still challenges in great deficits today. you know in america today just seven percent of licensed. pilots are women. and when you go to airlines
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major airlines that number gets even lower it's just 2% in fact, some airlines have even fewer than that. now we could have a long conversation about why that might be. i do think there are many factors at play. but one undeniable factor. is the entrenched discrimination that women faced in aviation? not just in the 20s and 30s? but for the bulk of the 20th century. you know at the time my story takes place the first woman was hired at an airline. to fly as a pilot her name was helen ritchie. she was from mckeesport, pennsylvania. and it did not go well for helen. this airline now defunct was called central air. and and by rule, it's central air. you had to be a union pilot in order to fly. but the all men in that union
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would not admit her. so helen, ritchie is hired at central air. to do a job. because she's good at doing a job. and then told she can't do that job. and after about 10 months she quit. because she wasn't doing anything. and as a as a journalist and as an author as a historian, you're always asking yourself questions. and one of the questions i had when i learned the story of helen ritchie was when was the next woman hired as a pilot at an airline? and i was stunned to learn that it would be 39 more years. 1973 until women were hired at an airline again. that summer 1973 frontier air hired a woman. it was still a very small
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regional airline at that time. and american airlines hired this woman. she was 24 years old. and from florida a pilot's daughter. she had been struggling for years to get hired at any kind of flying outfit cargo or passenger. and she had failed. some airlines still in existence today denied her and told her don't bother applying again. we don't hire women. but she persistent. and in the summer of 1973 american airlines hired her to be a pilot and a grand ceremony that august the president of american airlines pinned the wings on the lapel of that jacket right there the first ever airline pilot jacket tailored specifically for a woman. and still she faced adversity.
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snide remarks from her colleagues insulting remarks from passengers at times in the 1970s when a man would get on a plane and see a woman in the cockpit he would refuse to fly. and instead of removing the male passenger from the plane the airlines sometimes removed the female pilot from the cockpit. and perhaps most surprising at least to me is she faced snide and insulting remarks from the press? the same press that at times had dogged my flyers back in the 1920s and 30s. you know, i mentioned that ceremony that summer where the president of american airlines pin the wings on the lapel of that jacket, you know american airlines made a big deal out of that event as they should have. they invited all the national media to come. and that weekend the los angeles
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times. the los angeles times one of our most prestigious papers both then and now ran a little feature story about this woman. and it ran under a very unfortunate headline. you know when i was told about this headline. i thought it couldn't be real. it had to be one of those things that had been embellished and exaggerated over time. that's the beautiful thing about microfilm. newspaper microfilm never goes away. and because i knew when the woman had been hired. and because i knew when the ceremony had taken place it took me all of about five minutes to find this headline. it's a headline that's memorable for all the wrong reasons.
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and you know who remembers it the most? the pilot herself for 20 years she flew at american. rising up the ranks of seniority year after year one pilot by one. until she was flying those coveted ocean routes that ruth nichols and amelia earhart had once long to fly. flying from new york to the bahamas, new york to paris her name is bonnie tiburzi caputo. still alive today? she's the grandmother and a mother in new york city. and i've obviously had the the pleasure and honor of meeting her since this book came out. indeed, you know, i've had the honor of meeting so many bold women and in fact pilots from the ages of nine to 92. and and this book, you know,
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really still inspires me in many ways. and want to close with a few reasons why? for starters in a sort of a backwards kind of way. fly girls and this story inspired my next book which dr. crowley mentioned is coming out this april. it's called paradise falls. and it has nothing to do with aviation. you know as i came out of the fly girls project one thing that really bothered me. was that some of those women including louise stayed in? lived long lives into the 1970s some of them into the 1980s. and no one had found them. no writer. no author. no journalists attract them down. to talk to them about their days flying in the early moments of aviation. it was really sort of crushing
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actually. to see that you know, there's a columbia university in new york. there's a very large trove of oral histories. it's an incredible resource for historians academics and others and there is a very large collection of aviation oral histories there. almost none of them were with the women who flew in this time. and and so as i came out of fly girls, i thought to myself. well, what are the stories that are around us right now? you know populated by people who had once done something great and are still with us, but may not be for so much longer and and that brought me in a roundabout way to a story some of you may remember the story of love canal. a chemical landfill in the city of niagara falls around which an
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entire desirable lower middle-class neighborhood of starter homes have been built in the 1950s and 60s and 70s. this was a desirable place to live at the time. it had a school and a playground right in the heart of it. but as some of you know, the chemicals inside that old canal just underneath that school and playground began to seep out in the late 1970s ultimately alarming people in the neighborhood and leading to fundamental changes in our environmental policy in this country. you know in in this window of time between 1978 and 1980, you know, everything would change about how we thought about our own backyards how we thought about the environment how he thought about the modern chemicals that we used inside our houses. and it's really a story of
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resistance primarily of ordinary everyday stay-at-home moms or or as they were were called at that time housewives. you know these women who were not act not really active or or radicalized in any way before this began to fight to escape their own homes. and in the matter of two years went from being ignored by the local officials in niagara falls to having the ear of jimmy carter and the white house and the national media. so that book is is coming out in april. i wrote it by the way in the thick of the lockdown pandemic with both of my kids inside my house. so it was of course the thing i've ever done. um and if you want, i'm sure you can pre-order it through the bookstore that's here this evening or through my website through any number of booksellers everywhere. so so fly girls really did in a
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great way inspire this story. i've also been inspired by the fact that we've adapted the story of fly girls into a young readers book. taking this story condensed its and by about half. and and then i wrote it for kids roughly 8 to 12 years old. and you know when i talk about this people often ask me well. what do you think young girls should take away from fly girls? and my my first answer to that question is i hope it's not just young girls reading it. you know, i hope boys are reading it too. and i see that as the father of boys. you know boys also need to understand that a woman can be just as bold just as brave just as strong as they are if not more so and it's had an incredible impact on kids that i've met, you know through the
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course of this book, you know kids turning their front sidewalks into chalk art for fly girls kids decorating their books with hearts, you know boys and girls reading it. and and once in the spring of 2019 in those gilded pre-pandemic days. i received an email from a mom in just outside of boston, massachusetts. and she had told me that she had a daughter who was a middle school girl. and her middle school like a lot of middle schools was doing a wax museum. where each child had to dress up as a real character from the past and write some kind of report about him or her. and you know, this is a very common activity at lots of middle schools and elementary schools. and usually there's a list of people that the kids can choose from often categorized by sports
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or politics or you know revolutionary war and when you get to women in aviation, they usually only offer one woman. amelia earhart but this girl had read my book. and she informed her teachers that she didn't want to dress up as amelia earhart. she wanted to go as ruth nichols. and this mother was reaching out to say do you have any photos or artifacts or letters that you could share with my daughter sarah so that she could do her report? and so of course, i was very excited. i sent her what i could and you know, i asked her when this this wax museum was going to be and she told me the dates. and by total luck i was doing an event that very day at wellesley college. which was a mere 15 minute drive from this girl's school. and so of course i had to i
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popped in just to say hello to the new ruth nichols. and i really do think about these women. a good bit actually and and always when i fly. and i think a lot about ruth nichols. you'll see here on her her pilots license from 1930. it's signed, of course by orville wright. um, and you know when this book first came out i was in new york for the launch. for the first day and i had a busy day, but that morning was unscheduled. and so i decided to do something that morning that i had never had a chance to do during the actual research for the book. and that is i left my hotel in manhattan. and i got on a train and i went
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to the bronx to visit ruth nichols grave. she's buried in a place called woodlawn cemetery. which is a massive and important cemetery in new york city. you know if you were of money or a fame in the 19th or 20th centuries and you lived in new york. chances are you're buried at woodlawn? and so i took the train up there and i got off and i went into the to the front office there at woodlawn. because when you do go there you are supposed to check in. and i i told him who was there to see. and they gave me a map and on this map. they're a little icons for all the famous people who are buried at woodlawn. and i looked at it and i quickly realized there was no icon for ruth nichols. so i told him who i was looking for and with the help of the associate there and an app that
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they had me download onto my phone. we triangulated where she was and off i went on foot on this hot summer morning into the cemetery. and when i got to the place where they told me ruth nichols grave would be it was clearly wrong. i couldn't find her. so using the app and the map i i sort of had to start over and walk 15 minutes in a different direction. and finally, i did find her grave. you know at woodlawn there are ornate tombs and mausoleums built by people who wanted us to know. they were important. but when i got to ruth nichols grave, it was just a simple tombstone. weighs high the kind of stone that maybe one day we might be buried under. and and there were just a few words on it. it had her date of birth. her date of death and then down
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there at the bottom. there was just three words. it said beloved by all. and it and it really stopped me. because she was beloved by all. and they were all the love by all. and i do hope that they will be again. and i want to thank you so much for listening to me tonight. thank you for your attention. thank you for coming out into the real world. i'd be happy to take any questions you all might have. like thank you keith. so we'll take some questions from the audience if you have some i feel raise your hand kelly will seek you out and guess who has a question if it's not bill mock. now one of our regular bill good see you back. all the rest of you as well bill.
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my question has to do with how the women aviators received support you entity. you had you had five over there 10 of them there. you said one lady? wanted to fly. and so she goes to this man who had money he gave her money by the airplane. so is that the way it worked for all the others did all the other women do that? go that to go to rich man to get money to do that and my question apart second part. what if they had been 24 or 36 or 48 women who wanted to fly would they have been able to receive support? so yeah. i mean almost everybody men and women who wanted to fly in the 1920s and 30s received support
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of some kind. remember, this is the great depression people couldn't just go down the street typically and and buy a plane some men built their planes themselves. in fact some of the great air racers of that time actually built their planes in their garage and then would fly them at 250 miles an hour. it was really the sort of the the wild west of aviation. and so yes every woman during this early time received some kind of support, you know, amelia received a ton of support. and starters from her husband george putnam, but also from many different investors who helped her by planes over the years louise thaden got her first break selling planes for for a man in in kansas by the name of beach beach craft and and every plane that she ever
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flew in the air races was a beach made plane. and so yes, they all did receive some kind of support but really it was it's not all that different from a nascar driver today receiving support from his or her sponsors. it was just like it'd be incredibly difficult to purchase and have your own nascar vehicle. it was incredibly difficult and expensive to have your own airplane in 1932. well, there were i mean, like i said there were so in 1928 as i said, there were fewer than a dozen license pilots, but by the end of the 1930s, there were about a hundred and seventeen. sorry end of 1920s by 1930 with about 117 women. who were licensed in this country and at the end of that year december 1929? these women in my book many of them louise and emilia included
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met on long island to discuss should they form some kind of group some kind of advocacy group for these 117 women. and they sent out letters to every single one of them across the country. and they received responses of yes from 99 of them. so they dubbed themselves the 99s and that organization for female flyers is still in existence today. other questions kelly back i was intrigued by your talking about finding the archive of one of the flyers in a small museum in ohio. so when you decide to write this book, did you have the five in mind at the beginning or did you say i want to write about female aviators in the early history of aviation and through your research find hey, these are the five that i was able to research and and get good information about so, how does the information versus the topic? play out as you write the book.
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so i actually discovered this story in a very accidental way. in the spring of 2016 i was flying from from boston to pittsburgh for a story i was doing at the time for political magazine about the unlikely possibility of donald trump carrying the state of pennsylvania that fall and for the flight, i grabbed a book that had been sitting on my bedside stand for some time, which is where my to be read pile typically piles up and this is a book some of you may have heard of it's called the astronaut wives club by lily koppel. it's it's a nonfiction narrative of the wives of the mercury 7 astronauts. so john glenn's wife alan shepard's wife and you know. one of my favorite books of all time is tom wolfe's the right stuff, which is of course that seminal work about the mercury
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7. and so i wanted to read lily koppel's book to see how she had done it, which is actually a thing that authors do i wanted to see how she had taken this story which we all know. and and flipped it around in reverse and told the sort of from the opposite perspective. and so i'm reading this book very closely on the plane. and i'm very early in the book and it mentioned that one of the wives was a private pilot. who had longed fly in an all-female airplane race that had started in the 1920s 1920s and had once featured amelia earhart. and that's the line that just stopped me. because like most of you i had never heard of air racing. i had never heard of in all female air race. i'd never heard of amelia racing anything. i only knew that story that most of us knew she flew across the ocean. she was the first one to do it. and so because it was 2016 i was
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able to open my computer get wi-fi off the plane and google it instantly. and i don't know what happens when you do that now, but in 2016 when you googled this race all i really found was a wikipedia page and it just listed the 20 women who had competed in that race. and as i glanced at the list, i quickly realized that i only knew two of the names. i knew amelia earhart, of course, and i knew a pilot by the name of pancho barnes. because as some of you might remember poncho is actually a character in the right stuff. she owns the bar by the late 1950s where the the fly boys the neil armstrongs would go and have drinks after they flew planes out there in the desert. and so, you know by the time i landed in pittsburgh, i knew there was something here, but i didn't really know much and for a little while. i i researched it on the internet and after a short time i started going to the library. i live in new hampshire in a
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university town. where at least back in those times the library was open until about 3:00 in the morning. and so after my kids would go to sleep. i would leave home and drive two miles and i would go to the library and i would live in the microfilm from august 1929. and you know. what i'm looking for a book idea or even a story idea. i'm looking for a few things i'm looking for. an interesting world i'm looking for characters. you can root for and root against and then i'm looking for some kind of arc some kind of journey. and it became pretty apparent to me even from those early nights in the library. that there was an interesting world here. and at that point it was just incumbent upon me to figure out who were those key characters who who did drive the story
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forward. and what was that ark and that did take a bit more time. but i i do remember specifically being in the library in the middle of the night. no students there. just me at the microfilm machine. and i remember stumbling on to that story of florence klingensmith in chicago. and i didn't find the exact news story for at first i found references to it, and i had to sort of figure out what had happened and go find what had happened and when i when i found that story of florence in chicago and what happened that day and the ramifications of it. i iii new what i had and i could really see that story at that moment, but it did take a few months. is that kelly is another question back there? because there's one day in front. go ahead. thank you. it was.
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interesting. i have really two questions one is did any of them have to leave their families their sacrifice their families for their their vision and their spouses must have been pretty special back then to. support them because it was probably against whatever was going on back then. you hit on something pretty important here. interestingly and maybe perhaps not surprisingly based on you know, what we discussed here tonight many of these women never married. and those that did like amelia did not have children. and i think it's plain to me that. these women would have been very intimidating. to a man in the early 1930s you know, they could fly a plane. they could fly a 225 miles an hour in a plane low to the ground. they could fly over the ocean.
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that would have been very intimidating to most men. now louise did marry and and and and her husband was named herb thaden, and he was a plain builder not not really a pilot. although he fly he built planes. and i do think herb is is a very interesting character because clearly he was was very modern even allowing his wife louise to race in 1936 with two children under the age of six right there in their house in arkansas. but but a lot of them never married and you know, i did wonder about that in particular with with ruth nichols, but it was only after i i sort of stumbled on to her her papers that i realized that she had actually longed to get married for years and simply could not find a man.
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hi. hi wonderful. thank you so much a friend of mine gave me your book about a year ago knowing that i was doing research on my mom. she got her pilots license in 1937. we're from chicago. she went from chicago to new york city and became a buyer which back then for a woman to do that was amazing. she got her pilots license at flushing meadows. he was a dollar sixty i have her whole fight flight love is a dollar sixty a lesson. when she's so loaded made it sounded like it was no big deal and we know it was right she flew for so long and my question is she met my dad she prior to meeting my dad she interviewed with jacqueline cochran's all female pilots. she was accepted to that. she started with them and then decided she really wanted. overseas because jacqueline cochran's strictly on the us flying the men around from base to base.
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my question is all these women came from all different parts. mom came from chicago and i never understood what in nor did i ask until it was too late to say what is it that drove you gave you the backbone? gave you the nerve to go and get your pilot's license. and be able to do things like we have said men certainly held women back back then. and yet she kept all mom could say is because i wanted to and so each of these women set their being from all over the united states. where did they get the word barnstorming in all these places? what was it that drove these women to have that love of the air? so, you know early on in my in my research before i had. really gone deep down the rabbit hole and before i'd ever really written a word. but after i knew i was going to do this book, i did try to
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answer that question for myself. what what did unite them because clearly demographics wasn't it? right? i mean ruth nichols comes from money florence klingensmith is a farmer's daughter, you know, you know amelia's comes from a broken home with an alcoholic father, you know, everything everybody had different kind of upbringing but there were a couple of key things that i think are important. the first is interestingly. in each of these women's cases their fathers supported them in this endeavor from a young age. indeed. it was often their fathers who had bought them their first flight, you know a $5 flight at a state fair or a beach on a saturday or or paid for their first flight lesson. so they had their fathers
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support. but i think more importantly and i think more telling for for parents and for me as a parent and for all of us as a parent today is from a young age and i mean from the time. these women were little girls. first grade second grade they knew at their core that they were different. you know amelia wanted to wear her hair short. which was not allowed in her house. and not really acceptable in society in the early 1920s. and so she would sort of sneak it by cutting off her hair one inch at a time. um, you know louise is mother was proper southern woman? and she wanted to dress louis up and in frilly white dresses and indeed.
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there are some photographs of louise as a young girl in these kind of dresses with a pearl necklace the kind of photo that you would have paid good money for around 1914. um, but louise wanted to wear overalls and she liked to get dirty and often when she left her house as a young girl in the dress that her mother had told her to wear. she would go to the barn behind her house change into the clothes that she had left there and then run off to play. so you know for me as a parent now, i just sort of think about my own kids and and kids in general and and look at them a little bit differently because these women didn't know when they were seven or eight or nine or ten years old that they wanted to fly planes exactly, but they did know they were different. they did know they were unlike the girls sitting next to them in school. and that was something that really drove them their whole lives.
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well before the final. thank you to keith for this riveting presentation in other word of thanks to our sponsor tonight chancellor's village, but for now many thanks again to o'brien and good night to everyone from great lives. thank you. thank you.
3:03 am ahoy, mate and welcome to tonight's great lives presentation on america's pirates. the talk is sponsored by the community bank of the chesapeake to whom we are grateful for their generous support over the past sever


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