“They’re crazy!” shouted my father, bursting through the door and coming in for dinner. Mother, careworn and ever patient, calmly laid the bowls for supper.
“Now, Jim,” she said practically, filling our bowls with warm soup. That was what she always said when Father got excited.
“I mean it Mabel!” he said, lifting his arms into the air. “If those men think they can get away with making a machine that can fly, well, I just think they’re craz- . . .”
“If the Good Lord had intended us to fly, we would have wings,” agreed Mother. “Supper’s ready.”
* * *
The next morning at breakfast, I gulped down my food. “Papa?” I asked, downing a spoonful of porridge.
“Yes, son?” said my father, busy doing something else.
“Papa,” I said, “tell me about the men who are making that flying machine.” Papa grumbled disapprovingly. “The fools. They’ve come here to Kitty Hawk to play with gliders and try to make the silly things fly without wind. Like birds. Ridiculous.”
“What are their names, Papa?”
“Wilbur and Orville Wright. A pair of daydreamers.”
“Maybe they’ll be famous someday, Papa.”
“Famous?” roared Father. “Famous? The whole business will amount to nothing! Nothing, I tell you!”
Mama, clearing the table, mildly interjected, “Now, Jim. You said the same thing about the horseless carriage.”
“And what became of it?” Father broke in, waving his hat.
“An automobile, like Uncle Bill’s,” I said dreamily.
“A cloud of smelly black smoke with a steering wheel, that’s what! Anyway, I am off to work. Good day!” He violently slammed the door.
Mother gave me a reproachful glance. “He’s right, Ben,” she said. “Now you got him all excited. He’s never been the same since that time with Uncle Bill . . . Ah! What am I doing? Children, you get along and do your chores. Frannie, scrub the dishes. Carolyn, you can help with lunch. Ben . . .”
I was out the door like a shot, racing to the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk. I wanted to see the men who were going to fly. My arms and legs pumped faster and faster. Perhaps they had figured out how to fly already I just had to get there in time.
Finally, I reached the barren windswept wastes of Kitty Hawk. Off to one side was Kill Devil Hill, a mountain of sand towering above me. To the other were two tents, which I had never seen before. Faintly, I detected dark objects moving around inside the tents. I crept closer and closer, my bare feet soundless on the sand. The black objects left the tent and became men, carrying something large. What were they doing now? They were letting it go . . . the breeze caught it up . . . it was flying! Gliding, rather. I moved closer. And closer. Even closer. It was like some kind of magnetic attraction. I continued to gravitate toward the kite until I was standing next to the man flying it. Startled at finding myself there, I gasped and hopped back. The man looked down at me with a cheerful smile. He had a small, black mustache and was dressed quite neatly “Hello,” he said, “I’m Orville Wright.”
My mouth went dry “Ben Thompson.”
“This is Wilbur, my brother.” A thin man leaned out from behind the first Mr. Wright and smiled, doffing his cap.
“Are you . . . ?” I started. “Are you the craz- . . . I mean . . . are you making the flying machine?”
Orville nodded. “We’re trying. Still in the experimentation stage. Want a try?”
He handed me the kite, gently steadying my hand. There was a fair breeze that day, blowing in from the ocean.
“You want to make this fly?” I asked.
Orville nodded. “We’ll have to find a way to make it fly without wind . . .”
Throughout the next hour, I learned almost as much on the subject of flight as the brothers knew. Then, Amelia, my big sister, came and called me home to lunch. “You better hurry,” she said in her prim, superior way. I waved to Orville as I trotted down the road, trying to catch up with Amelia. She was daintily stepping along, avoiding muddy patches and stopping briefly at puddles as if she expected me to be Sir Walter Raleigh and sweep off some velvet cloak for her to walk on.
“Ooh! What will Mama say when I tell her you were flying kites instead of doing your chores?” she said as I panted alongside her.
“Amelia!” I pleaded.
“Won’t you catch it!” she gloated.
I pulled her hair.
* * *
“What’s wrong with Ben?” asked 1VIama that evening as I stood motionless with a broom in one hand. I awoke with a start from my reverie and started sweeping again. I couldn’t seem to keep my mind off the Wright brothers. One thing was certain: I was going back tomorrow.
* * *
I kept visiting the Wright brothers all summer, and soon took to calling them by their first names. They didn’t seem to mind that much. One night, after dinner, I ran down to Kitty Hawk to see them. Orville played his mandolin, and Wilbur, his harmonica. We spent the evening singing, laughing, and talking about the long journey that lay before us on the road to flight. I liked the way that Orville said us, not just himself and his brother. It felt nice to be appreciated and part of a group doing something important.
Wilbur and Orville, although several years apart, made a great team. Yet there were so many differences between them. Wilbur, the elder of the two, was solemn and quiet. Orville took his job seriously, but he was merrier and more outgoing than his brother. Wilbur was also the frailer of the two.
Although both brothers became my friends, I was more inclined to share my thoughts and ideas with Orville. That first evening we spent together, he walked with me to Kill Devil Hill. We climbed up and sat at the very top, gazing at the stars. They were like little golden seeds, scattered along the dark field of the sky There were so many! As we gazed into the sky, Orville said softly, “Someday, man will soar through the skies, perhaps even to one of those stars, maybe to the moon, another planet, who knows? It will all be made possible through our work here.”
“What if it really isn’t possible to . . . to fly?”
Orville stared determinedly into the heavens. “I believe it is possible, that there is a way And I’m going to keep trying!” He gave me a light pat on the back. “When things look rough, Ben, the secret is this: always, always keep on believing and trying. There will be a way.”
I looked up at him and he smiled.
“What would have happened if Columbus hadn’t persevered in his search for a new trade route to the Indies? We might not even be here! Or if the founding fathers of this country had not struggled for our rights? Or if Abraham Lincoln had given up the South for lost? I tell you, Ben, no one ever accomplished anything by saying ‘what if’! So we’re going to try to solve this problem whether there is an answer or not!”
* * *
The brothers had to go back to Ohio at the end of autumn, but they promised to return next summer. Winter passed quickly, and melted away into spring. I took to watching birds and sketching bizarre flying machines when I had the time (and the paper!). Once, after a rain, I jumped spread-eagle off the porch steps. For one glorious moment, I was soaring in the air next to a flock of birds, uplifted on the wings of my imagination, and in the next, I lay face-flat in a pile of mud.
“You look funny, Ben!” giggled Dolly, Frannie, and Elizabeth, three of my four little sisters.
“Oooooh, Mama!” tattled Carolyn, the other one.
“Won’t you get it!” said Amelia.
* * *
True to their word, the brothers returned in July of 1901. Every morning, I rushed through my chores and made for Kitty Hawk to watch. Unfortunately, that summer seemed cursed and almost no work got done for a while. First came the heavy rains which poured out of the sky like God had opened the floodgates of heaven. Amelia got pneumonia and Papa had to drive her in the buggy to the nearest doctor swaddled in blankets, while I got stuck watching four little girls who all had colds and nearly went wild over the fact that they didn’t have to behave when Mama wasn’t home. Then, swarms of evil little mosquitoes attacked us. I had so many bites that I decided to wait until they loosened up to even attempt the journey to Kitty Hawk for fear of being eaten alive!
By now, Wilbur and Orville could use the gliders to fly (rather, glide) on days there was wind. Alas, the glider they had made often failed to cooperate, spinning out of control and defying all the plans. As Orville and I watched in horror, the obstinate glider performed the inevitable, crashing onto the ground and thrusting Wilbur forward onto the elevator. We rushed to the ruinous wreck and dug Wilbur out.
“Are you all right?” I inquired anxiously.
“How do I look?” he said in reply, staggering toward the tent.
He really did look awful. His trim suit was torn and dirty, his nose bleeding, and he had several large bruises on his face.
“Awful,” I said.
“That’s a nasty cut,” said Orville.
As we watched Wilbur limping back to the tents, Orville sighed in frustration and began to follow him, muttering angrily “We came here to solve problems! Now all we’ve done is create new ones. Man will never fly!”
I half ran to keep up. “But you said last summer you’d keep believing and trying!”
“Believing and trying, ha!” he snorted.
“You said you’d never give up! You said there was a way!”
He turned on me, almost yelling. “I don’t care what I said last summer! It’s never going to happen. I’m leaving this place, perhaps forever! Now go home!”
I couldn’t believe it! I was completely stunned, barely able to move. Tears of anger and hurt stung my eyes. For so many months I had hoped, wished, waited, wanted to fly so much and now, now, now . . . I turned and ran, leaving behind my hopes, dreams, and the two best friends I ever had. I was going home and I was going to do my best to forget Orville and Wilbur and their stupid flying machine! Forever!
The next day seemed strange and irregular. I did my chores as usual, but I wasn’t hurrying to go see Orville or Wilbur or the progress on their flying machine. For all I knew or cared, they could be back in Ohio along with the remains of that unfortunate glider. I purposely kept myself inside the house that day, knowing if I went outside I would be tempted to return to Kitty Hawk and patch it up with Orville.
Days turned into weeks, and every day I tried to go see my friends, but each time, something inside me held me back. Finally, I worked up the courage to go to Kitty Hawk. When I got there, I couldn’t see anybody around except Mr. Tate, the postmaster. Where were Orville and Wilbur? “Excuse me, Mr. Tate,” I said politely. “May I see the Wright brothers?”
“I’m afraid you can’t, sonny,” he said. “They packed up and went back to Dayton.”
I was shocked and disappointed. “For good?” I asked.
Mr. Tate smiled. “They said they’d be back.”
I leaned forward. “Soon? Maybe next summer?”
Again, he smiled and said, “We’ll have to wait and see.”
I trudged slowly back home. I just hoped Mr. Tate was right.
* * *
In August of 1902, they came back. I was so overjoyed that I began going back to see them daily I never mentioned our quarrel to Orville, figuring it was best to let old wounds heal, and we went back to being good friends. The days flew by, days full of testing the new glider, finding fault, improving it, and testing it again. Wings, wind tunnels, warping, why isn’t it working, words, always whirling around me. I was spending most of my time at Kitty Hawk, helping the brothers repair their shed and turn it into living quarters, making notes, running errands, flying kites, watching glider flights, and praying that each time would lead us closer to unlocking the secret of the air.
The glider really was improving. A steerable tail was added and the glider was working almost perfectly All they needed now was an engine lighter than 200 pounds with at least eight horsepower and propellers so that the flying machine could be controlled. However, not everyone was as enthusiastic about this project as we were. No engine-making company wanted to help us, so it was decided that the two would return to their Ohio home to construct their own engine. “Don’t worry,” reassured Orville as they departed once again. “We’ll come back!”
* * *
December 14, 1903, dawned bright and clear. Since they had returned in September of 1903 we had continued experimenting until it looked like we were ready I was immensely excited as I stood watching Wilbur climb onto the Flyer, as our beloved machine was now called, while the men from the nearby lifesaving station looked on, ready for any emergencies.
As Orville grabbed a wing to start it off, the machine began to hurtle forward, lifting up off the ground. Then, to my deep disappointment, it stalled, coughed, and smashed into the sand, damaging the left wing. My birthday was in three days, and more than anything, I wanted to know that it was possible to fly Wilbur, unharmed, announced that repairs would be necessary I didn’t know if I could bear to wait.
* * *
I ran down the road, pumping hard to keep myself warm against the cold. I was turning twelve years old that day, and I somehow knew that today would be the day that man learned to fly Shivering painfully, I staggered the last stretch of road. Kitty Hawk was almost the same as the first time I had seen it, but I knew something was different today.
Orville and Wilbur came out, toting a piece of starting track, which they proceeded to lay on a flat sand area. “Hi, Ben!” called Wilbur. “Hoist up the signal flag!” The lifesaving team would assemble at the raising of the flag. I did my job carefully. The longer it took them to come, the longer it would be until I knew if the Flyer could live up to its name.
Finally, all was ready Today was Orville’s turn to try. He set up his camera, instructing Mr. Daniels, one of the lifesavers, to take a picture when the Flyer lifted off from the ground. Then, he and Wilbur shook hands, gripping each other by the shoulder. Wilbur was lending his brother support for his flight. They really are sure it’s going to work, I thought. Then, he strode towards the machine. “Good luck, Orville,” I whispered. My heart was tying itself in knots. Please let it work, I prayed, clasping my hands. Orville hopped nimbly aboard, waved, lay down flat on his stomach, let the motor run for a few minutes, and finally released a connecting wire.
Wilbur took his place at the wing tip, keeping it steady as the Flyer slowly rose off the track. I began to run as Mr. Daniels tripped the shutter. I ran as I had never run before. Even though it wasn’t difficult to keep up, my heart soared in leaps and bounds. Strangely elated, I felt that I could fly, even without wings. “You did it!” I yelled. Then, the great machine dipped down to the ground. The flight was over. Wilbur ran up behind me and Orville jumped off the Flyer. The two collided, and began a frenzy of shaking hands and congratulating each other. Everyone hauled the Flyer back to the starting track and went inside to warm their hands. They had actually flown against the wind, proving that man can fly Orville had stayed out, gazing proudly at his invention. I stayed outside also, stroking the Flyer and working up the courage to ask Orville a big favor. I took a deep breath and approached him.
“Orville?” I said.
“Hmmmm?” He gave the Flyer a few loving pats.
“Orville,” I repeated, wanting his full attention.
“Yes?” he said, still preoccupied. “Orville?” My voice shrank to a whisper.
“Orville, will you take me flying?”
“Orville, will you take me flying?” I almost yelled. “Please?”
“Why would you want to fly? Don’t you know how dangerous it is?”
I nodded. It was too complicated to explain. I had been there when the Flyer was still in kite stage. I had flown its ancestor, for that matter. Now, more than anything else, I just had to see it through. I had to fly I thought of my family Papa would snort, Mama would sigh, Amelia would sneer, the little ones would giggle. “Give up, Ben.” No! I shouted to myself I’m not giving up.
“I have to see it through,” I told Orville brazenly. “I want to fly.”
Orville, weakening, said, “Now, you understand this is not a pleasure ride . . .”
“. . . and it’s not because it’s your birthday either. It’s because you believed. You cared about flying. It wasn’t just a big joke to you. You’re right, you do deserve to fly Wilbur’s having a go, then I’ll get another turn. You can come with me then, all right?”
I could hardly believe it. “Oh, Orville!” I shouted, giving him a big bear hug.
* * *
Some minutes later, I stood next to Orville. “You still want to do this?” he asked, looking down. I nodded wordlessly. Just moments before, Wilbur had made the second successful flight. My heart was beating wildly as Orville and I walked over to the Flyer. I hardly noticed climbing aboard. Orville started the motor.
Just then, a man from the lifesaving station began running and shouting and waving his arms. “Get that kid down from there!” he yelled above the roar of the engine. “What will happen if you crash?”
Wilbur was running too. “What’s gotten into you, Orv?” he asked. Orville was flat on his stomach. I was on his back, as flat as one can get.
“Help me get this thing started!” he called.
Wilbur stopped, one hand on the wing. “But the boy?”
Orville grinned. “Hurry up, before the engine dies out!”
Wilbur and the lifesaving man reluctantly grabbed a wing and began to run. I smiled. Good old Orville. The craft slowly began to move, and it shot down the starting track as they released it. Then, ever so slowly, it ascended into the air. It didn’t go very fast or high, but I didn’t care. The freezing wind cut into my face, reassuring me that I really was flying! I saw a seagull cry out and flap his wings as he flew home. We were actually flying! Flying . . . I once again was joyously happy, wishing the moment would never end. A thrill of joy shot through me. I was so completely satisfied that I didn’t even seem to realize that the exalting flight was coming to an end. As I climbed down from the Flyer, I looked into Orville’s eyes. “Thank you,” I said, but in those two words I included all my immense gratitude. “I knew you could do it.” Then, I turned and ran home.
* * *
MANY YEARS LATER
“Look, Grandpa!” cried Wil, pointing at the aircraft dangling from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. “That’s the ackcherul airplane that the Wright brothers flew in!” My grandson, as usual, was showing off his first-grade knowledge. I looked up. There I saw the Flyer, aged like myself, up in the air once again. Such a small plane brought back so many memories. “Grandma?” asked Wil. “Why is Grandpa crying?”
My wife turned to me. “Maybe it’s best we go now, dear,” she said.
As I walked into the bright sunshine, I noticed an airplane, like a giant silver bird, gracefully climbing into the clouds, and I paused to think. I had seen many memorials to my dear friends, but I realized that I had just witnessed their greatest legacy. How happy they would be if they could see it all today, I thought. Then, smiling, I added to myself, Perhaps they can!