Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Brief History of Flight

When you were young enough to think your life's work was something quite other than what it has now become, your primary interest was visiting the one store you knew in the small town where you lived, lay a handful of crumb-filled coins from your pocket on the counter, then purchase strips of balsa wood in quarter- and half-inch thicknesses, the lengths of each sheet depending on the amount of money you had.

The shop where you purchased the balsa wood offered an array of model kits ranging from airplanes and boats to trains and the accoutrement buildings associated with model train layouts. The store drew a wide demographic in age and ethnicity. Your impression from this remove is that the older the customer, the greater the likelihood he--for there were few women among them--preferred thing related to trains.

Such as yourself, perhaps ten or eleven, gravitated toward airplanes and the outliers seemed to prefer boats and sailing ships.  Mrs. O, for that was the name you knew to apply to the owner's wife, did her best to enlist your interest and thus those crumb-laced coins toward model trains. In the way of many small towns and certainly that one, Mrs. O, which you intended the O to mean Owner, knew and often asked after your mother's health.

She never in your memory said, "How is your mother?" or even, "Is your mother week?" but rather, "How is your mother's health?" or the evermore reductionist, "Your mother's health?" this with an upward inflection that seemed to swoop skyward.

From to time, Mr. O, which you continued to think related to Owner, often tsk-tsked at her, "Can't you see? He is airplanes, not trains."

And indeed your purpose with those strips of balsa wood was to make strange, stork-like contraptions of your design, was more gliders in your mind than in Reality. You could have secured actual, conventional-in appearance gliders, which tended to fly pretty well. But your dreams led you elsewhere, in the direction of other flight patterns and what you saw as the romance of things aloft.

The closest real life approximation for what you then thought to do with your life was a man named Earl, the boyfriend and, ultimately, husband of the family maid. Sometimes you repeated his occupation in those moments between approaching take-off velocity and sleep. Aeronautical engineer. Thanks to some directions from Earl, you'd even sent to a school in Pasadena, where you thought you might get proper guidance. The California Institute of Technology.

Soon, a thick, serious envelope arrived, bearing a catalog for California Institute of Technology. In its pages were the names of courses you'd have to take and, in some cases, the prerequisites for these courses. Shortly after, one night after you'd been asleep for an hour or so, you made your way down the hallway to the kitchen, in need of a glass of water. You overheard your parents discussing a subject of great interest to you.

"Do you know what he has his heart set on for his birthday?" your mother was asking.

Your sister, from whom you didn't think to keep secrets, mentioned a book.  "There's a book he has in mind. It's called Celestial Navigation."

"You're kidding, right?" Your father said.

"No," your mother said. "I heard him talking about that, too."

"Maybe we've got him wrong," your father said. "Maybe we should get him that book. Maybe he's--" His voice trailed off and you understood that you'd better make your way back to bed, as quietly as possible.

"No," your mother said, "we haven't got him wrong. That's just the way he is."

"Funny," your sister said.

"Well, that, too," your mother said.

If your goals about attending Cal Tech had persisted along with your attempts to acquire prerequisites for relevant courses, you'd have been one disappointed puppy as, in rapid succession, such things as long division, algebra, and geometry came your way and achieved, over time, the same fate as so many of the gliders you attempted to make air worthy.

You were given Celestial Navigation for the relevant birthday. Your memory of reading it includes a dogged determination to take in every word and make as much of them as possible. You'd not until that time given any thought to using stars and night skies as a means of charting a course from place to place.

Now, that time resonates in the memory of metaphor. You still attempt to launch creations of your own design into some kind of flight, watching warily as they begin to take on shapes you'd not been able to see at first, eager for some technique to help them on their way.

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