Regards to the Father of Aviation
by W.L. Hoffman
The summer of 1878 in Iowa was more oppressive than usual, and Milton Wright longed for an evening breeze to waft through his upstairs window. He had been working all night. His absence from the bedroom, and the simmering air, had finally roused his wife. Susan tiptoed into his study. Had Milton not been so focused, the flickering oil lamp would have revealed his wife’s presence long before a dainty hand tapped his shoulder.
“Milton, can the labor of God not wait until morning? It’s late, even the crickets are hushed.” Susan’s nose twitched; the cramped space exuded a manly aroma of sweat, burnt tallow and aging theology books. She made a note to scrub his shirt after breakfast, but the suit would do just fine over the porch rail in the sunlight.
Milton turned from his feverish sketching, and explained, “I met the most amazing Frenchman today at Church. Alphonse Penaud. An inventor, a man that would see humanity become as birds in flight. He gave me this toy.” Milton pointed to his desktop. The toy, about a foot in length, was crafted of cork, bamboo and paper, with a rotor that spun using two vulcanized bands. “I am going to give it to the boys in the morning. Can you imagine, people using a machine to simply soar into the sky?”
Susan leaned closer and peered at his pencil marks. Her husband had a keen mind. That was how he had risen to Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. She asked, “What’s that you’ve drawn?”
Milton adjusted his spectacles and proudly announced, “Well, there are details to refine, but it’s a flying machine.”
Susan giggled quietly, not wanting to wake the children, and then said, “Oh, really? How does it work?”
Milton was tired, but rode the wave of excitement that had inspired him after meeting the Frenchman. He blurted, “Alphonse had spoken about vertical propellers and engines, and I got to thinking about how birds move. I’ll need the right wing shape and span to generate lift, and I must control the direction, rudders and materials, and…,” he inhaled briefly and stretched his arms over his head, “well, the ideas just kept flowing.”
Susan was as practical as she was spiritual, and asked, “To what end? If God had wanted us to fly, would He not have given us wings?”
Milton nodded. “Yes, you have a point, but God also gave us intellect and the will to use it.” His fingers reached for a text in the hutch above his desk – The Old Testament. He flipped the pages, and handed it to his wife. “Ecclesiastes 1:13… I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things done under Heaven. This might take years and I’ll need funds, but I think it can work. Why, my dear, someday humanity might sail through the clouds on immense machines carrying hundreds of people. They’ll be like flocks of giant geese overhead, day and night, rushing from one place to the next. You could visit your relatives in Germany in a matter of hours, maybe minutes if powerful engines could be built.”
Susan read the verse, and then countered, “Such discovery is not without consequences. The rest of 1:13 advises us that this sore travail hath God given to the sons of Man to be exercised therewith.”
“True,” Milton agreed, “still, are not the steps of a good man ordered by the Lord?”
Susan knew her husband, and realized that scripture alone would be to no avail. Her eyes sank to the floor, “Engines. Will they be very loud and smoky?” She thought about the steam traction engines that belched and spit as the farm fields were plowed near the Church.
After nearly twenty years of marriage and ringing bells at the churches, Milton understood Susan’s aversion to noise. She preferred the gentle hum of God’s creatures. His brow wrinkled in contemplation, then he answered, “The machines might rumble and roar a bit, but if they travel high, you might not hear them. Not too much. And there’s bound to be exhaust, but the vapors should dissipate before causing any mischief on the ground.”
Susan shifted to the open window nearby and gazed at the stars. The heavens were glorious in their beauty and peace. She whispered as if in a dream, “Would you see these machines in the night sky?”
“Yes dear, I think they would need bright lights to keep from hitting objects and one another.”
Susan mused aloud, “Will they be like trains or boats? I mean, will everyone be crowded into compartments, with soot pouring in from the engines? Will the wealthy have separate quarters, while the less fortunate make do?”
Milton rubbed his bearded chin. “There’s always an issue with weight. Birds bones are less dense than ours, and their wings, well…they don’t say light as a feather as an idle boast. So, I guess space would be at a premium. It might be like Sunday Worship when the pews are elbow to elbow.”
Susan issued a long sigh and then urged, “Come to the window.”
Milton put his spectacles on the desk, rose and joined his wife.
She asked determinedly, “Do you not see the miracle around and above us? Do the Psalms not say, Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them?”
Milton looked onward, and thought, it’s a jubilee of stars tonight. Mother Moon’s waning crescent would be a cozy spot from which to cast a fishing line into the Almighty sea. And there’s the dog star Sirius at the horizon. Orion is done hunting this eve with his faithful hound at ease. Indeed, everything with sense is resting in this stubborn heat. He removed a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and dabbed his forehead. Just then, a fluttering gust combed the tall grass below. As Zephyr’s breath caressed his cheeks, he detected sweet lavender on Susan from the flowers she had gathered before dinner.
Susan brushed her lips to his ear, taking advantage while she had him, “Now close your eyes. Think about what you’ve described. Blaring, malodorous machines at all hours of decency, cutting the evening majesty apart with piercing lights…jammed tight with people hurtling across the world so fast as to miss the splendor of life. And do you suppose those machines might fail every so often, the way the trains do when they leave the tracks?”
Milton’s eyes snapped open, “People will be able to cross the globe without taking weeks or months. Human science must go forward. We have the right, don’t we? Don’t we?”
Susan frowned, “And what follows from tasting the forbidden fruit?
Milton paused, deep in reflection. His arm slipped around Susan’s waist as he nuzzled against her. After a time of silence, he spoke softly, “It may be our destiny to climb the tree of knowledge, and whether sin or savior in the end I cannot say, but have it your way dear.”
She kissed him, and said, “You need your sleep.” She then eased into the hallway, without so much as a board creaking, and held her hand out… waiting. In the gentle glow of the lamp, Milton stared at his wife, and once again thanked providence. Then the flying machine sketches were folded and tucked into a bottom drawer, amidst a jumble of discarded papers and armchair meditations. He couldn’t quite bring himself to burn them. He licked his index finger, snubbed the candle on his desk, and put his hand within Susan’s.
Later, as the brightening dawn scattered blazing rays across the horizon, a restless Bishop Wright pondered God’s will, Man’s hubris, and a much simpler question…
Should I give Alphonse’s rotor toy to Wilbur and Orville?