Courage wears many different faces, as shown in the varied stories I've sent you, as well as in my books.
This week, one woman's story moves a step beyond, showing how courage can lead to transformation.
Patty Bear grew up in the Mennonite faith which holds pacificism as a foundational belief, but the cruel truth? Violence ruled her home and family.
In retrospect, she called her father a "domestic terrorist" who abused her mother for years. But when he questioned Mennonite leaders and was excommunicated, the media portrayed him as the victim, a man shunned by his wife and children.
Patty went from her sheltered, rural life where her father regarded her mother as property, like another animal on his farm, to becoming a pioneering woman pilot in the United States Air Force.
Patty agreed to tell her story for us this week.
Patricia Bear: Soaring to Freedom
Transformation is a lovely concept, but someone should warn us it won’t just change our circumstances, it will change who we are. And that will be a terrifying journey into the unknown.
The high school loudspeaker blared an announcement that a cadet from the US Air Force Academy would make a presentation. I did not know what this place was. My best guess was, maybe it had something to do with flying?
Out of dire necessity, we had migrated from our small, rural school to this much larger school, where I still felt wildly out of place in this “worldly” world where people took for granted things I had never heard of and where I was acutely aware of my family’s differentness.
Growing up among the insular Plain People in an Old Order Mennonite community where voting, “going to the law”, and serving in the military were strictly forbidden. Where “worldly” jobs like pilot or real estate agent were prohibited for men who might get corrupted by exposure to the temptations of the outside world. Where women’s highest allowed ambition was to mother a large brood of children or perhaps run a business with their husband.
Excommunication and shunning had suddenly and dramatically upended our isolated but mostly bucolic farm life. It had ignited a decade of living on the run from violence while dodging local and national reporters and the searing publicity that accompanied our story and its court cases, one of which went to the PA Supreme Court.
Years passed, I felt trapped in a nightmare with no ending. But I was trying to wake up. Trying to escape the gravity I had been born into.
On the morning of the mysterious announcement, uncharacteristically having nothing to do in the next period study hall, I shrugged my shoulders and thought, “why not check this out?” Forty-five minutes later, I emerged dazed, but utterly sure that this wildly unforeseen possibility was my answer.
Flying would become my ticket to liberation, and the military, as it has been for so many, would be my transportation to the entire world.
Though I had been taking concrete steps forward, I wouldn’t realize until years later the importance of dreaming, planning, and thinking. These subtle, internal efforts were slowly chipping away at my old self. Chipping away at the heavy indoctrinations I carried. And when I became just barely light enough, a door opened, and I flew out into a new world.
In some ways, this new world was all too familiar: overtly male centered, heavy indoctrination, highly regimented, and rigid.
After years of the publicity frenzy surrounding our family along with my mother’s distinctive Plain clothes and black bonnet relentlessly exposing our presence, I craved the anonymity of being sixteen hundred miles away. I had not digested the reality that girls, being only ten percent of the school, meant automatically sticking out in the same unwanted way as it had before.
But in so many other ways, it was vastly different. Nothing was familiar. Not military life, not the food, not even the climate. My mother sent me dried pressed leaves because I missed deciduous trees so much.
Encountering foreign concepts like networking that seemed normal to others left me bewildered. Why would someone make friends to get something? And I felt profoundly lonely so far from my family, given only one five-minute phone call per week. They ordered me to eat mounds of ice cream because I lost so much weight. I got severely sick. I wanted to quit.
Much later, I would come to understand two things. Doors open when we become light enough to fly through the opening. And a door opening is not the end of our transformation, it’s the beginning. It signals that we are just barely capable of surviving in a new world.
My friends, transformation is not for the timid. And it’s not for those more committed to confidence than growth.
Eventually, my experience at the Academy would make me different. It would chip away at old beliefs while creating new thought patterns and new habits. And those developments would pave the way for me to fly through more open doors and to be just barely ready to become an Air Force pilot, then an aircraft commander, an international airline captain, and an author.
Most people who saw my achievements or the uniforms I wore assumed I felt as confident as I apparently looked. Internally though, each new stage brought uncertainty and sometimes paralyzing fear and self-doubt. I used to think this was unique to me. Now I know it’s just a stage in the journey of growth.
Change doesn’t require courage because change happens outside of us, with or without our agreement. But transformation is different. Transformation only takes place with our permission.
No matter how old we are or how many times we have reinvented ourselves, it’s still a pioneering walk into the unknown. Like the caterpillar, we literally must shed an old self to access higher planes of freedom and more expansive, colorful lives.
It takes courage to make the terrifying passage through the liminal space between who we were and who we have not yet become, but it’s worth it.
Life’s an adventure. Live it!
Thank you for sharing your story today, Patty!
After graduating from the USAF Academy, in the seventh class of women admitted, Patty became a KC-135 pilot deployed to the Middle East during Desert Storm. Later, she deployed to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on a peace keeping mission refueling air force planes over postwar Iraq.
You can read Patty's full story in her award-winning memoir From Plain to Plane: My Mennonite Childhood, A National Scandal, and an Unconventional Soar to Freedom
I'm fascinated to discover little-known history, stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
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