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Dawn Over Kitty Hawk
The Novel of the Wright Brothers
By Walter J. Boyne
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2003 Walter J. Boyne
All rights reserved.
She'd been dead these seven years, but the image of Susan Wright still loomed large in the Bishop's consciousness. She had been a good wife: docile, obedient, and handy around the house. And she knew how to take care of her husband's needs--she had given him pleasure in bed, decorous but spirited, able to take part in God's gift of marriage with a good will and even sometimes with a laugh. She'd delivered seven children and five had survived; he still regretted the loss of the twins and celebrated their birthday every year, just as he did for the other children.
Even at seventy, Milton Wright still had urges, and it was more than a decade since he had possessed Susan. She had been so vital in her youth, so strong, able to work hard all day and still welcome him at night. Sometimes when she was feeling reckless and he was tired, she would seek him out, boldly reaching for him beneath the nightshirt. He never knew how to feel about that, didn't know till this day. He always liked it at the time, but afterward would feel guilty for her. She, however, never seemed to feel guilty. Even later, when the consumption had her, she would sport with him on occasion. But the long years of illness wore her down--him too, when he was home, which was not often. The church took him away for weeks at a time, sometimes preaching, sometimes fighting to keep the doctrine pure and legal, free of the growing Masonic influence.
Susan had been an invalid for the last part of her life, and the children at home, Wilbur, Orville, and Katharine, had rallied around to take care of her. He was happy that they were such good children, so much alike in their ways that they might have been just one person. He thought about that for a minute--three people with just one personality. Was that a spiritual quality, sort of like there being three Spirits in the Lord? Now the question troubled him--maybe it was blasphemous to even think like that; they sure didn't show any spiritual qualities. He'd pray on it.
Milton moved around the Sunday parlor, glancing in the mirror over the dark walnut fireplace mantel. The fireplace was built of good wood he had selected and Susan had sanded and stained. Then she had polished it every week all those years so that the grain still gleamed. It was solid like he was solid; both could stand the knocks of time. He passed his hands over his gray-white hair, thinner now, and smoothed the beard that a parishioner had once called "Lincolnesque." He paused as he always did to gaze at the framed photographs of his family, all standing in perfectly straight lines on the mantel. No picture of the twins, of course, they were taken away too soon, but pictures of all the survivors, and of Susan and him. It gave him pleasure to look at the photographs, to see the meld of him and Susan in them, in their eyes, their brows, their noses. Finelooking children, not handsome nor pretty, but honest looking. Not pious, either, no good Lord, not pious, he'd done something wrong there for sure.
A thin patterned rug covered the pine floor of the parlor that was still, by far, the finest room in the little house. Susan had loved the place, and it still pleased him; it was meet and fitting for a bishop to have just such a home. He'd bought it back in 1870 for eighteen hundred dollars, stretching their budget, for that was twice his annual salary then as a preacher. But Orville had been born here the following year, and Katharine three years later. Then a few years ago, when he was away on church business, Wilbur and Orv had added the shutters and the long L-shaped covered porch. It was vanity, pure vanity; they should have known better. Putting in those curved columns and turned posts--it was like a Greek temple, not an honest minister's house. He picked at this old sore, looking for more to complain about, then came up with a new morsel as he realized that the porch roof cut down on the light coming into the house, made it dark inside. That's why he did not like it, that's why it bothered him: there was less light. And their workmanship was terrible, not like their mother's. He had pulled more than one splinter from his hand from the rough railings. One day he'd have them tear it down, maybe have somebody just put a little stoop by the door, let the light back in.
He picked up his favorite photo of his wife. She was staring fixedly at the camera, her left arm folded awkwardly across the waist, her right arm poised self-consciously on the chair arm. He remembered the dress very well, black silk and white lace and too expensive. The photo made her look prettier than she really was, but it told nothing of her confidence and her quiet capability, nor did it give any hint of her sweet dark scent that he loved and missed so much. He kissed the picture hard, pressing his lips and beard against it, then took out his large white handkerchief to polish the glass and the silver frame.
One more look and he turned to walk up the closed stairway to the second floor, murmuring, "Thank God for Wilbur." Like all the children, Wilbur needed a lot of direction and control, especially after his accident, when he was sick for so long. "Not really sick," he said aloud, "Sick in the head maybe, but not in the body." But when Susan had fallen really ill, then Wilbur had seemed to come out of it. He had been a godsend, nursing his mother for the last two years of her life, carrying her up and down these same stairs every day till the day she died. A good boy. Maybe too good. He worried about that sometimes, too. Sin was bad, but not having any sins at all, that wasn't right, not for a young man like Wilbur.
Despite his age, Bishop Wright still possessed a ferocious, combative energy and an awesome will that brooked no opposition. He'd spent his life fighting the wishy-washy compromisers in his beloved United Brethren Church, and it looked as if he would have to go on fighting them till the day he died. He'd held the upper hand for a while, but they had nibbled away at his position with their lying and their cheating, and now he was fighting back.
The Bishop paused on the stairway for a moment, his hand clasping the railing. Wilbur had surprised him in the church battle, studying his case and writing well-reasoned arguments that should have devastated the opposition, and would have too, if the blasted Masonlovers had not been so devious. The liberals in church had forced him to spend more time lawyering than preaching; sometimes he felt he'd had the wrong calling and that he should have studied law. Too late for that now for him, but maybe not too late for Wilbur. He had to get Wilbur going, get him started on something. His life was wasting away, and so was Orv's. Katharine, at least, had completed high school, and would get a degree from Oberlin in two years. It pained him to have her out of the house, but he had to have one college graduate in the family. All of the boys had disappointed him so far. The oldest, Reuchlin, "Roosh" they called him, had abandoned them, scarcely writing from time to time, and the second, Lorin, was a cipher, never going to be much. How could it be? How could all his energy, all his brains, all his prayers, have been so poorly rewarded? They were good children, respectful and obedient, he'd give them that, except maybe Reuchlin. But none of them could get going--they were not lazy, they just were not effective. Not as he understood being effective.
And worst of all, none of them were real believers. The two older boys, Roosh and Lorin, would put on a show for him, pretending at least to be honest churchgoers, but Wilbur and Orville and Katharine did not even go through the motions anymore. It was an embarrassment with his fellow ministers. They never mentioned it, but he knew they talked about it, and it probably hurt him in the church council.
Somewhere, somehow, with all his preaching and all his talking, he had failed all his children, but especially the youngest three. He'd spent his life trying to straighten out the United Brethren, and driven his own family from the faith. He'd have to pray about this; it was serious and sad.
At the top of the stairs he roared, "Wilbur!" and his son popped out of the tiny bedroom like a cork out of a bottle, his pale face expectant, hands trembling slightly. About five foot ten inches tall, with a muscular frame gone slightly soft, still not recovered from his wearisome illness, he was nonetheless an imposing figure. His face was long and narrow, the length accentuated by closely set eyes and a finely shaped nose. His mouth was little more than a slit, nervous tension keeping his lips tightly compressed against the bridge of false teeth, a souvenir of the field hockey accident many years ago, the one that had started his illness. He was, as his father had confided in him, "Not handsome, but acceptable looking. A good enough match for a serious young woman."
"Yes sir, what is it?" Wilbur knew what it was--it was the same thing every day.
Milton gave him his usual tight little smile. "You think you know what I'm going to say, don't you?"
"Something about getting serious about life, about stopping reading and thinking and working in the bicycle shop. Maybe something about getting a job with the railroad?" His tone was jocular, friendly, respectful--but his mouth was dry, ready for the daily formula of question and answer. Sometimes he got relief, when his father was called away on church work, but that happened less and less since the big blow-up. Bishop Wright had challenged the United Brethren council on matters of religious law, and had lost both times. Tired of his clamoring all the many years, they had stripped him of his work and his privileged place in the church leadership, left him with a title and a miserable little salary.
"Not the railroad, this time. How about reading for the bar? You could pick up some courses at Oberlin, and I could get you in to read at one of the firms in town. The good Lord knows I've spent enough money on lawyers--they owe me a little something. Then maybe you could save me some money later."
Wilbur was quiet; this old graybeard was planning lawsuits four and five years in the future as if he would never die, as if he would just go on running everybody's lives and suing everybody that disagreed with him. But he sensed this was different somehow. Normally his father just complained, without offering any kind of alternative. This time he at least was talking about some schooling--that meant spending some money, and that was rare for his father.
"Going back to school might be good. I don't think I have the stomach for being a lawyer. Maybe I could be a teacher. I'm not cut out for business, that's for certain."
"You just don't have any gumption, you don't stick to it. Do you think I liked my first years out preaching, starving to death? Do you think I liked traveling up in the Oregon backcountry, where there were still Indians out to kill me?" He warmed to the old story, one he'd told a hundred times, but one he liked, him against the Indians.
Wilbur shook his head, listening to the familiar cascade of words, feeling sympathy for the Indians, sensing his father's presence swelling, filling up the narrow hallway, shutting off any escape. Sometimes you could divert him if you could come up with something different, something outside the usual line. "Do you remember" was always a good start--his father remembered everything, every detail, every date.
"Father, do you remember once, when you came back from a trip, you brought Orv and me a little toy flying machine?"
"Of course I do. It was 1878; it cost me half a dollar, lots of money then and now. They called it a 'Penaud helicopter' and you boys played with it quite a while. You even tried to make some like it, didn't you? But what's that got to do with the law?"
"Nothing, really, but I was at the library, reading in the Scientific American about a flying machine built by a man at the Smithsonian a couple of years ago." It was a good ploy; his father's face shifted and lit up. He approved of all three--going to the library, the Scientific American, and the Smithsonian. Wilbur decided to go on.
"It was just a model, didn't carry a man or anything, but it flew for almost a mile, and came down without breaking. If you can make a model to do that, you should be able to make a machine that would carry a man."
His father stared at him, giving his best bishop look, the cold, wise stare that said, "The good Lord says I've got to be compassionate so I won't tell you how stupid I think you are."
"Anyway, I thought maybe I'd like to find out more about what he did, and maybe experiment a bit and try to make one."
"One what? A flying machine? You and Darius Green?" He knew it was one of Wilbur's favorite poems from his childhood.
"Well, I was thinking, maybe it would make life at the shop a little more interesting. We've done about as much as we can do with bicycles, making them, selling them. Competition is getting fierce, too."
The light died out of his father's face. "Ah Wilbur, you and Orv are just not steady. You had a printing business, you got it going, you gave it up. You started your bicycle business and you are doing pretty well--got a new store, and all. Now you want to give it up, not for a profession, but for a folly. What's Orv got to say about this?"
"Nothing. I haven't talked to him. He's pretty content with the shop, and maybe I could be too, if I could fiddle with this flying machine stuff on the side. A hobby, you know."
"Will, I know I'm about ready to give up on you. You are thirtyone years old, and I cannot tell you what to do. But you need a profession. If you don't want to lawyer, maybe you should think about being a teacher."
Wilbur felt his stomach relax. He'd eased through this one--there would be no tirade, no jeremiad on all the sacrifices his father had made, no fervent calls to his mother to look down from heaven and forgive him. It was important to stop his father's spiel early like this or there was no holding him. But once he proposed an alternative, his father was ready to stop the arguing. Wilbur knew he was getting free and they would only talk for a little while longer.
"I'll see, father. Let me look into it."
"You do that, and you get Orv to look into it with you. I'm not worried about him, he can do anything with his hands, but you are a dreamer. I need to get you started in something you can make a living in. I'm not going to be with you forever. I'll be joining your mother, sooner than you think."
The thought flashed, but not sooner than I want, but Wilbur suppressed it, saying only, "Now, Father, not for many years, you know that."
Milton turned into his bedroom, shutting the door quietly. Wilbur raced down the steps, headed for the library again. He resented the remark about Orville being good with his hands, but his father was right about Wilbur being a dreamer. He dreamed of getting away, of breaking out from his father's domination every moment of every day. So did Orv and Katharine too, but not so much as him. His father pushed down on him like a cider press, snuffing out the air, the weight gnawing at him inside and out.
Copyright Â? 2003 by Walter J. Boyne
Excerpted from Dawn Over Kitty Hawk by Walter J. Boyne. Copyright © 2003 Walter J. Boyne. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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