LEARNING TO FLY
by Larkin Vonalt
Like many of the best things in my life, this story begins with a dog. Except that I never knew this dog and for that matter, he’s been gone 85 years. The dog was a beautifully bred St.Bernard from Nina Dodd’s White Star Kennels in Long Branch, New Jersey. He was sold as a puppy in 1917 for $75, which works out to somewhere in the neighborhood of $1400 in today’s figures. Apparently the puppy’s new owner went to the train station to pick up the puppy with his nephew– telling the boy they were going to the train station to meet “Mr. Bernard.” It took me awhile to piece together this tale of a St. Bernard from the faded photograph of Orville Wright walking his dog, Scipio. As it turns out, there are dozens of photographs of Scipio, romping among the hawthorn trees, lounging on the front porch, riding in a canoe on Lake Huron, stretched out across a Persian carpet. When Orville Wright died, decades after his beloved dog, there were pictures of Scipio still tucked in his wallet.
Before Scipio, the Wright Brothers didn’t foster much interest for me. Yes, I knew they invented the airplane, just as I knew Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Important things, sure, but not the stuff that keeps me up at night. But because we live just a few blocks from the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park (Honestly, the name! It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like “Yellowstone” does it?) we decided to take some visitors there one spring afternoon. It was engaging, and I did learn how to tell one Wright Brother from another (Orville had a mustache all his adult life, Wilbur never had one) and I was impressed with their sticktoitiveness. We knew about their bicycles, but not the printing business, and we thought the sidebar about Orville’s friend Paul Laurence Dunbar was kind of interesting. Other than feeling a little piqued every time we saw a North Carolina license plate (First in Flight, indeed) we still didn’t give much thought to the Wright Brothers.
When another project brought me to Scipio and I discovered the collection of photos in the Library of Congress, I began to be more curious about these men that were the first to fly. As it turns out, Wilbur had been dead for five years before Scipio came along, and though he helped his brother design their fine house in Oakwood, he died of typhoid fever before it was completed. Like many of us, the image I have of the Wright Brothers is that of young men in bowler hats and bow ties at the turn of the century, so I was surprised to learn that Orville had lived until 1948.
At the time of his death, we had airplanes “skywriting,” regularly scheduled airmail, planes had flown over the north and south poles and across every ocean and continent. There were crop dusters, paratroopers and aerial traffic reports. You could catch a regularly scheduled flight on PanAm from New York to San Francisco, or a Northwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Asia, and there were in-flight movies, with sound. Even Saudi Arabia had their own airline. The September before Orville died, the United States Air Force separated from the US Army, jet bombers were in regular use and a fighter jet had been clocked at 300 mph. That’s a lot of progress from those windy winter mornings on the dunes of the Outer Banks. If anyone ever asked him what his thoughts were about the use of the airplane to annihilate millions of people, I haven’t found the answer.
There have been scores of books written about the Wright Brothers and their quest for flight. Trying to find out something about the nature of the men themselves in those books is often like looking for a pearl in the sand. Mostly the books end with the success at Kitty Hawk (even though they truly did not hammer down the problems of powered flight until they were back in Dayton) or they end with Wilbur’s death in 1912. When the personalities of the brothers are described, it is in the broadest terms: Wilbur was “formal,” or “studious,” Orville was a “prankster” or (conversely) “pathologically shy.” Wilbur had to be dressed by his sister to be appropriately attired, Orville was a dandy. Wilbur was the brains, Orville was the enthusiasm. Like many generalizations, there may be a kernel of truth there, or it may just be that a yarn repeated often enough takes on a ring of authenticity.
Take for instance, the notion that Orville Wright was “pathologically shy.” (And yes, that’s the very phrase one sees over and over and over.) Think about this for a minute. Pathologically shy people do not stop to visit with school children on the street. They do not enlist the help of strangers in far off coastal towns to help them with gliders and later, powered aircraft. They do not entertain guests from all over the world. They do not play practical jokes. Orville Wright eschewed public speaking, but there are documented instances where he did it anyway. He did not suffer journalists very well– and who can blame him? Journalists screw up the simplest things– imagine trying to get them to understand something as complicated as powered flight. These things do not confer on him even genuine shyness, let alone some kind of clinical state of dis-ease.
Continuing to sift through the sand, the dry, dry sand will turn up one little gem after another though, tiny landmarks in an amazing life. For instance, Orville Wright’s march to a different drummer started early– in kindergarten. Every morning, he’d start off — and never get there, preferring to spend the day playing with his friend, Ed Sines. At the appropriate time, he went home. This continued for several weeks, until Susan Wright stopped in at the school to see how her youngest son was getting along. They’d never seen him. Orville was then home-schooled by his mother (who turns out to be the source of real mechanical ability and curiosity in the family) until the second grade.
In the second grade, he was given opportunity to advance directly to the third grade, provided he could pass a reading test. The teacher chose a passage in the primer for Orville to read, and read it Orville did, holding the book upside down. More in the realm of the prankster, he once dumped a packet of red pepper into the heating registers to see if that wouldn’t result in school closing for the day. This one kind of backfired, though. For three days, nothing happened. On the fourth day, the pepper was suddenly activated, making all the students sneeze. But the teacher just apologized, opened the windows and went on teaching to her roomful of students, their eyes streaming from the red pepper in the atmosphere.
By the time he was at Central High School, at Fourth and Wilkinson Streets in Dayton, Orville had abandoned a regular course of study to take instead advanced academic classes in subjects that interested him, particularly Latin. (There is a photo here. Orville stands in the middle of the doorway in the top row. His friend Paul Laurence Dunbar is all the way to the left.) When he realized that his self-designed program made him ineligible for graduation he quit.
Interested in printing, Orville designed a press and his older brother, Wilbur helped him build it. By March of 1889, at the age of 17, he was printing a weekly newspaper, The West Side News. On the masthead, he is listed as publisher and Wilbur as editor. The paper is an amusing amalgam of “news.” For instance “Mrs. Harrison is sick and is obliged to refuse visitors. She will probably be out again in a few days” runs alongside an account of former president Grover Cleveland visiting St. Augustine, Florida en route to Cuba. There are many “one-liner” stories, like “L.M. Brown wore the first straw hat of the season,” or “Miller’s slaughterhouse on South Williams Street was consumed by fire Friday morning.” (Yes, that’s the whole story.) However five column inches was devoted to “The Sand Blast,” a rhapsodic piece about, well, sand-blasting.
In April 1890, the West Side News became an evening daily, but the boys couldn’t sustain the pace, and in August, the paper closed. They did go on running the presses though, producing handbills, tickets, broadsheets, and booklets as a commercial press, including Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Tattler, beginning in 1892. In December 1892, they opened the bicycle shop, and in the fall of 1893 attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago where Octave Chanute’s aeronautical exhibit rekindled their childhood interest in machines that fly.
I’m not going to talk about the flying. The innumerable accounts of the Wrights’ efforts to make possible powered flight have ground that topic into dust. We know they did it. Let’s move on. Well, there’s one thing to consider though. In 1901, Wilbur Wright quit. He decided that man would never fly in his lifetime and he refused to waste anymore time on the endeavor. Orville, the clown, the tinkerer, the dreamer would not let go. He gave his brother reasonable arguments to continue. He wheedled. He cajoled. He stormed. Though it’s not recorded, he probably stamped his feet and slammed the door. Whatever he did, Wilbur reconsidered and the experiments in flying continued.
In 1900, Orville had taken up the mandolin. His sister Katharine wrote “Orv has begun lessons on his mandolin and we are getting even with the neighborhood for all the noise they have made on pianos. He sits around and picks that thing until I can hardly stay in the house.” Orville’s 1900 Washburn mandolin is in the Smithsonian, along with report cards of both Wright brothers, the stopwatch they used at Kitty Hawk and scraps of fabric and wood from the 1903 Flyer than went with the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969.
It horrifies me to read of the September 1908 accident in which Orville Wright crashed during a demonstration for the U.S. Army. The right propeller broke, catching on a guy wire that braced the rear vertical rudder. The wire in turn tore out the rudder and the plane nose-dived.
“Our course for 50 feet,” Orville wrote to his brother, “was within a very few degrees from the perpendicular . Lt. Selfridge to this point had not uttered a word, though he took a hasty glance behind when the propeller broke and turned once or twice to look into my face, evidently to see what I thought of the situation. But when the machine turned for the ground, he exclaimed ‘Oh! Oh!’ in an almost inaudible voice.”
Orville and the Lieutenant were thrown against the ground, and Lieutenant Selfridge hit his head on a wooden upright that supported the framework of the wing, fracturing his skull. He underwent surgery, but died during the night without regaining consciousness. Orville suffered a broken femur, broken hip, and several broken ribs and was hospitalized for seven weeks in traction. He never quite recovered from the effects of the accident. It left him with ongoing back pain and sciatica for the rest of his life, as well as a lingering sense of guilt and sadness over the first passenger death in aviation history.
As soon as Orville was well enough to travel, he and his sister Katharine sailed to Europe to join Wilbur there in promoting the aircraft, training pilots in Italy and demonstrating flight in Germany. When they returned home in May 1909, they were greeted by a crowd of 10,000 people at the Dayton train station. Their father and their brother, Lorin and Lorin’s family were there to greet them, and a special livery of eleven carriages had been arranged to carry the Wright party home. The crowds followed them on foot and when they crossed the bridge to the West Side they found the streets festooned with paper lanterns and flags. Across the street from their home, a bandstand had been set up and the band began playing “Home Sweet Home” as they arrived.
I love that when the brothers Wright were finally (and very belatedly) officially honored by the City of Dayton (okay, boys, we’ll claim you now) a month later in June, 1909 that they rode in carriage with lifetime friends Ed Sines (remember him, from kindergarten) and Edward Ellis, and that the two Eds spent as much time leaning out of the carriage shaking hands as Orville and Wilbur did.
It wasn’t all wine and roses though. With success came issues with patents, and vigorously defending those patents in a court of law. In 1912, Wilbur died from Typhoid fever. Orville believed that the stress of the patent issues had weakened his brother and made his susceptible to the typhus, and he vowed to finish out the patent fights to honor Wilbur’s memory. The house that Orville and Wilbur and Katharine designed together on Hawthorn Hill, across the river in Oakwood, is completed, and they move their with their father.
When I read Milton Wright’s diary entry in 1913 that his son Orville had narrowly escaped arrest for “rapid driving”– I wrote it down mistakenly as “rabid driving” and I smile when I think of Orville careening down Harman Avenue and rounding the corner onto Far Hills in front of the high school, people scattering in all directions and the Oakwood Police turning a blind eye, because they don’t really want to arrest their most prominent citizen.
No doubt he could be insufferable too. His sister’s nickname for him was “His Criticalness.” As Orville didn’t like the taste of refrigerated food, the Wrights went on with an ice box long after their neighbors had moved on to electric refrigerators. He did design a special door in the pantry so that the ice could be delivered without water being tracked across the kitchen floor. Workmen could not get the reddish color stain that Orville wanted right on the woodwork of the Hawthorn Hill house, so he re-did it all himself. (Did he roll over in his grave when NCR -who bought the house after his death- painted all the woodwork white? It’s all right, Bubbo, the white looks good.) He was working on developing an automatic record changer, with a mechanical arm that reached for records, ordered in specific slots, and placed them on the turntable. Unfortunately, it didn’t work as expected, instead breaking most of Orville’s records by flinging them on the floor. In need of more records, he went to visit all of his relatives asking for their records in order to fine tune the machine.
One of Orville’s nephews was inordinately fond of mashed potatoes, and in family memoirs, “Uncle Orv” was remembered to have fastened a thread to the bottom of his nephew’s plate. He noted at the dinner table that the boy’s plate just seemed to gravitate towards the potatoes, while surreptitiously pulling the thread to make the plate move across the table. The same method was employed at Thanksgiving to simulate a tin “cockroach” racing across the dining room table which caused the housekeeper to drop the turkey.
Ivonette Wright Miller, the daughter of Orville’s older brother Lorin, recalled for reporters the Christmas dinner of 1919, when her new husband Harold was the butt of one of her uncle’s jokes. The place cards that year were a card from Orville with a $20 bill tucked inside. ($20 in those days was the equivalent of about $250.) Except at Harold Miller’s spot, where instead of a card there was a small box of candy. Harold thanked Orville for the candy and set it aside. Others at the table encouraged him to open the candy, saying that the $20 must be inside the box. Orville chuckled away at the head of the table. The box was opened, but there was no money inside. Harold set the box aside, quite embarrassed now. But the family urged him forward , and he removed all of the chocolates to see if the money was hidden underneath. No. Again, he tried to stop, and again he was encouraged to continue to search. Finally, when he unfolded the lid of the box, there was the $20 bill peeking out. Fiendish, in its own way.
As I sift through these dusty books and snippets of information, trying to winnow fact from fiction, I realize what is happening here and I can no more stop it than I could hold out my hand and stop a train from coming down the tracks. A simple essay takes days because it’s like falling down a rabbit hole. I wander down this path, and then that one. I stop to drive out to Huffman Prairie and let the wind blow across my face. I check and cross-check, and check again. I drag my relatives to look at the 1905 Wright Flyer III here in Dayton at Carillon Park. I suggest to the docents there that the pronunciation of the dog’s name is “Skipio” like the Roman general, rather than “Sipio” like the town in Ohio. I search for a Washburn bowlback Cremonatone Mandolin on eBay.
Falling in love changes everything. No, no, not that I’ve fallen in love with a man dead 14 years before I was even born. (And even if not dead then, he would have been, let’s see, 91 years my senior.) Well, maybe a little bit in love with Orville, but more so in love with Orville’s story, with discovering the real stuff of the men who gave us wings. (And in the parlor game of who would you invite to dinner, living or dead, if it could be anyone– he’s zoomed right to the top of my list, way ahead of George Washington or T.S. Eliot or Jesus Christ.)
Tom Crouch, the author of The Bishop’s Boys, to date one of the few books that stops to actually look at the Wright brothers, rather than just the race to powered flight, describes them as “warm, interesting, witty and articulate.” Yes, well, all that and so much more. The thing is, it’s difficult to write about a group of people– whether it’s Little Women, or the Barn Gang, or Poets in Their Youth, there’s so little focus on the individual that they are not much more than cardboard cut-outs to the reader; two-dimensional and flat. Combine that with the highly technical aspects of the invention of flight and you have something dry, dry as the sand blowing across the hills at Kitty Hawk.
Driving home alone one evening in the Saab, nimbly moving along the curves of Far Hills Boulevard, coming down out of Oakwood into Dayton, I have a kind of epiphany. It is momentous enough for me that the hair rises on the back of my neck. I realize in that instant that I know what I have to do, and how I’m going to do it. There are many more stories to tell.
The next morning I am browsing online through something entirely unrelated, and I run across a little tiny article, written by Leonard K. Henry, someone I’ve never heard of. As part of the Federal Writers Project, he had interviewed Orville Wright on the third floor of Wright’s laboratory. They are leaving together and Orville asks Leonard Henry if would be so kind as to look down the elevator shaft and see where the elevator is. “It always makes me dizzy and nervous to look down from any place higher than the second floor,” the aviator explains. Orville Wright was afraid of heights. He explains that while learning to fly he was too busy thinking to feel afraid. “It had all the exhilaration of a great adventure,” he said.
There are literally thousands of documents online and in special collections having to do with Orville Wright, and his family. There are diaries and letters and photographs and interviews and ledgers and blueprints and patent applications. I could spend the rest of my natural life reading about Orville Wright and not only not know everything there is to know about him, but not know everything that’s documented about him. I know now what I have to do to really begin to understand, and I am going to learn to fly.
I can get on an airplane as a passenger and I can fly. I don’t like it much. For nearly a decade, I couldn’t even do that, and would drive or take trains or simply stay home. Then I realized that I needed to overcome that fear to prevent my life from becoming circumscribed by distance. So I worked out a means to stop being afraid, and those first few flights, beating back that fear– I was giddy with euphoria afterwards. Now it’s dull and ordinary again, and a tablet of Valium makes the anxiety manageable. That’s commercial travel, and that’s not the kind of flying I mean.
I am going to go out to the airport and take lessons in a little tiny plane and learn how to race up the runway into the wild blue skies. I am going to learn how to soar and bank and climb. My family is absolutely speechless every time I mention this. That matters not. I know I will be afraid, but I’m going to do it anyway. Maybe I will be too busy thinking to be afraid. I hope to find there all the exhilaration of a great adventure, and in the exhilaration of learning to fly, I’ll be looking for Orville.