Julep decided to make her debut on a sweltering Southern summer day. Of course, that wasn’t Miss Julia Augusta Lee’s real name, more a consequence of being born with mint green eyes in Kentucky. The midwife and conventional wisdom agreed that such a scrawny wrinkled thing wasn’t long for this world, until she opened her mouth and made her presence known. Anyone who heard her lusty cries knew this girl was here to stay, and though her older brothers grumbled and brought their pillows outside to get some sleep, they were secretly pleased that their new sister had the strongest lungs in the county, no question about it.
Julep was the princess of the Lee horse farm, if princesses spent their days tromping around in too-big rubber boots and wrestling with their brothers. It was an idyllic life at first, days spent riding bareback through emerald fields and nights spent catching fireflies under the stars. Pretty soon though, Julip outgrew her kingdom. The feeling would hit her at the strangest times, when she rode to the boundary of the farm or after listening to Mr. Campbell’s account of “the War of Northern Aggression” for the umpteenth time, that there was more to the world then her little corner of Kentucky. She wasn’t like the other girls whose greatest wish was to find a nice boy and settle down. Julep needed more, she just didn’t know how to find it. She needed a role model to show her what life could be. The local cinema provided one, for it was there, on her third trip to see Steamboat Willie, nestled in the dark, that Julep met Amelia.
The pilot in the newsreel was everything that Julep hoped to be. Amelia Earhart was confident and independent. Heck, she wore pants in public, something Julep’s mama never let her do. Julep bet she didn’t have a bedtime, that Miss Earhart flew among the stars and slept
on a cloud when she grew tired. The eight-year-old now had a life plan that she shared with the family over fried chicken and cornbread: she, Miss Julep Lee, would become a pilot and be just like Amelia Earhart when she grew up.
At first, her family laughed and dismissed it as just another phase. After all, hadn’t she wanted to be a tightrope walker just last week? It didn’t take the Lee’s long to realize just how serious she was, as she started covering her walls with newspaper clippings of her idol and swaggering around in a leather jacket dug out from G-d knows where. Mama put her foot down at letting Julep bob her hair.
“Maybe that’s what they’re doin up North,” she declared, “but no daughter of mine is going to church looking like a wet dog!”
For her birthday, Julep’s brothers biked twenty miles each way to the next town over and spent a dusty afternoon in a junk shop, emerging victorious with second hand flight manuals, much to their mother’s chagrin. Eventually, the cheap bindings fell apart from being opened so often. Reading wasn’t enough though, she needed to fly. It soon became common knowledge throughout town that if you needed an odd job done, Miss Julep was your girl, as long as you were willing to contribute to her flying lesson fund. Though the town thought she was wilder than one of her father’s stallions, everyone loved the girl who dared to dream and everyone rallied behind Julep. Her classmates collected bottles for the deposit money and the church ladies held bake sales, the Presbyterians trying to raise more money than the Baptists down the street. Even with everyone’s help, the aspiring pilot might never have made it to the sky if her father’s prize thoroughbred hadn’t grown into the fastest horse this side of the Mississippi. Lightning’s stud fees made Julep’s dreams a reality. Before her first lesson the whole town came to wish Julep well before she began the twenty mile bicycle ride to the airfield. After ten years of years of hoping and scheming, Miss Julep Lee got her wings.
The winds of war might have been blowing across Europe, but Julep, who started a crop dusting service, was oblivious to it. She had her head in the clouds, quite literally, until Pearl Harbor. Julep, and the rest of America, came crashing down to earth. She wanted to do something, anything, to get the Japanese, the Nazis, everyone who was turning the world upside down, but there was nothing she could do. The air force didn’t want female pilots. Instead, she spent endless days rolling bandages for the Red Cross as her brother’s risked their lives in Europe and the Pacific. When she heard that women pilots were needed to ferry planes and supplies across the country, Julep knew her prayers had been answered.
The initial training was grueling, but Julep's WASP days were the best years of her life.
“The girls here feel like family,” Julep wrote back home from her base in Texas. “They share letters from their sweethearts and packages from home. They especially loved the molasses cookies you sent, Mama. I had to fight the girls off to get some for myself! It feels so good to finally have a purpose. I’m doing lifesaving work. Every jet or bomber I deliver could be the difference between us winning or losing the war.”
When the Lees first got the news that Julep had gone missing ferrying a Boeing P-26 to a base in Hawaii, they were surprised. She had such a wonderful sense of direction. Papa assured Mama it was probably a mix up, that these sorts of mistakes happened all the time during a war. Julep would turn up. After all, hadn’t she found her way back home after getting blown a hundred miles of course in a storm? Her radio had probably gone down and they’d hear from Julep in a couple days.
Well, those days turned into weeks turned into months and the town, despite keeping Julep in their prayers, began to lose hope as the war ended and their boys returned home. The Lees refused to believe it. A spark like Julip’s couldn’t be extinguished that easily. They would have known. The whole world would have felt her absence.
The war never really ended on that farm in Kentucky. Even as it filled with grandchildren and noise and Mama and Papa became older and frailer, their nightly ritual never changed. Before going up to bed, Papa would go out on the porch he built and stare up at the stars. Maybe one would be a bit brighter, a bit bigger, coming closer and closer until it took the shape of a plane. Maybe that chittering sound was his baby girl’s laugh instead of the crickets like every other evening. Eventually, Papa would shuffle back inside and shake his head slowly to Mama’s unasked question. Mama would sigh and go to the front window to light a candle. It took a while for her arthritic hands to light the match but it was worth it. The light might help her find the way back home.