The Flyers: In Search of Wilber & Orville Wrightby Noah Adams
Acclaimed New York Times bestselling author and National Public Radio correspondent Noah Adams follows in the footsteps of the Wright brothers to understand them more deeply, not just as inventors and pilots but as individuals as well. The Flyers is a rich and personal narrative that brings an unprecedented spirit of immediacy to one of history's most dramatic stories.
- Random House Audio Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Unabridged, 5 CDs, 5 hrs.
- Product dimensions:
- 5.64(w) x 4.90(h) x 0.95(d)
Read an Excerpt
I know where all the bodies are buried," Jim Sandegren tells me, laughing, as we walk up one of the cemetery roads. He also knows the names of all the trees. This was a rural cemetery, laid out over a farmer's uncut hillsides a mile from downtown Dayton. Sandegren is the staff horticulturist. He has thirty thousand trees and a hundred thousand souls to look after.
"Here's where the Wright brothers are." He points to a granite monument with the carved family name, overlooking five graves. "People on tours especially are amazed. They expect to see something much more grand and glorious than this, and I always say that the Wrights probably felt what they did was monument enough. No two people ever lived, I mean short of Jesus, would have had a greater impact on the numbers of people than Wilbur and Orville did."
Sandegren wears work boots and a blue-and-white striped shirt with jim over a pocket that contains reading glasses, pen, a plastic calendar. Every day he takes a diagnostic walk through the cemetery woods, touching limbs, feathering leaves through his fingers. He says his biggest problem is keeping the trees safe from the mowers and string trimmers. The tricolor beech is a favorite-he shows me one that's a century old. Now, in midsummer, the variegated leaves have a reddish tint, soon to change to creamy pink and white, then green in the fall. And sassafras trees-one of them is an Ohio State Champion. "I have never seen the big sassafras to the extent that we have here," Sandegren says. "I love the tree. You know it was the original material for root beer? The flavoring?" He cracks off a piece ofbark and a clean, lemony aroma floats out. "When we dig a grave close to a sassafras tree, invariably we'll get into the roots and they're very pungent. A lot of the guys will take them and wash them and make tea, like a spring tonic."
I ask about the gravedigger's work, how it's done these days. "We have a thirty-six-inch backhoe. Sometimes it'll be gravelly, which causes cave-ins, and you have to get down in the hole, which represents a certain amount of hazard, but nobody's going to be working by themselves."
"You put thirty inches of material on top and the casket's about thirty-two inches, so roughly between five and six feet. But you've noticed these hills we've got here-sometimes you'll get eighteen inches of dirt on one end of a casket and six foot on the other."
The Wright family plot is on a slight downslope, fifty yards below a road that runs along Woodland Cemetery's top ridge. The grave markers sit together in a modest-sized rectangular space, and it would be reasonable to think of Orville standing here with a pencil and graph paper, deciding who would end up where. An engineer, drawing an airplane, sketching a gravesite-the aim is for the elegant, economical line. The family monument, shoulder-high and four feet wide, stands at the high end of the plot. The letters wright emerge from the granite front. The parents' headstones are centered in the grass below: Susan C. Wright and Milton Wright. And in a row farther on, the three children: Wilbur Wright, Katharine Wright Haskell, and Orville Wright. All the stones are small, low, and rounded-"pillow markers" they're called by cemetarians-and bear the same style of raised letters and numbers.
I'm confused about where to stand. "Where are the graves, actually?" I ask Jim. "I don't want to be standing on top of Wilbur here."
"The bodies are behind the headstones," he said. "You view the body over the headstone, so it's really a footstone."
There were two older Wright brothers, Reuchlin, buried in Kansas City, and Lorin, who's with his own family here at Woodland. And two other siblings, twins, who died in infancy. They had long lain under a single marker in another Dayton cemetery, and when the Wright descendants learned that grave was being neglected, Jim Sandegren volunteered to go dig up the remains and bring them to Woodland. He did so alone, without ceremony or publicity. He said what he found wouldn't fill a coffee can, just some discolored earth. He reburied the twins at the base of the family monument, and propped up their tombstone:
OTIS & IDA
Milton & Susan C.
13 & 18 days
People often leave money on the Wrights' headstones. On this day, on Wilbur's, I count five dimes, twenty-three pennies, and a precisely placed acorn. Jim says he picks up the coins, saving them in his desk to buy flowers for the Wrights.
The grave of Paul Laurence Dunbar is in this same cemetery section, under a shimmering golden willow. Both of Dunbar's parents had been slaves in Kentucky. He was raised by his mother, Mrs. Matilda Dunbar, on Dayton's West Side, and he went to high school with Orville. The Wrights published Dunbar's earliest poetry in the weekly neighborhood newspaper they'd started in 1889, as part of their home-based printing business. Paul Dunbar became famous for his use of African-American dialect-he read for Queen Victoria in London-but felt he had more to offer in classic poetry and fiction. He died of tuberculosis, unhappy, a drinker, at thirty-three.
The Dunbar monument is a rough granite boulder, with a Tiffany-made bronze plaque now softened by verdigris, which carries a stanza of his poetry:
Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
Whah de branch'll go a-singing as it pass;
An' w'en I's a-layin' low
I kin hyeah it as it go
Singin' "Sleep, my honey, tek' yo' res' at las'."
The most visited grave at Woodland Cemetery belongs not to the Wright Brothers, or Paul Dunbar, or the beloved hometown humor columnist Erma Bombeck, but to a young boy named Johnny Morehouse. When people stop at the cemetery's main gate they most often ask-especially if they have children in the car-"Where's the Boy and his Dog?"
The answer could be "Take the first right and then the first left and when you start laughing you're there." Those directions will lead you to the statue of a dog, which happens on this day to be wearing surfer sunglasses. Then you notice: an American flag, an angel, a blue pinwheel, a baseball, a yellow toy dump truck, a teddy bear with a green hat, golden and purple and red plastic flowers, an assortment of big-eyed Beanie Babies-all but covering up a sleeping stone boy wearing a blue-and-white plaid tam o'shanter.
Jim says, "Kids will come and leave a toy or a bag of pebbles, special things. Sometimes they'll trade, and take something home to play with for a while."
The dog is poised in vigil, his left foreleg arched over the body of the child. The name johnny morehouse is on the pedestal. Jim tells me the story: "Johnny Morehouse was a five-year-old boy in 1860 and he ran the neighborhoods freely. I've never heard anybody say what his dog's name was. Johnny was playing around the canal and got too close and got into the water and into trouble and his dog jumped in and pulled him out, but not in time to save his life. But the dog laid the boy on the ground and was so protective that he crouched over the body just like you see it in the statue and wouldn't even let the authorities touch it."
I ask, "Johnny Morehouse is really buried here?"
"Oh yes. And it was even said that later the dog would come to the cemetery and lay down beside the grave."
The City Vault is next on Jim's tour. He'll take schoolkids inside and recite poems about bats, watching the youngsters' eyes widen and gleam. He unlocks the building for me with a clank and wheeeek of the steel door.
"This vault is made of Dayton Formation limestone," he says. "It was built by James Wuichet in 1847 for twenty dollars, and he took that in the form of a twelve-grave lot."
The style is vaguely Egyptian, with two columns in front presuming to hold up the roof. The limestone is streaked with rain and age, returning to the earth.
We step inside. The air is dark-dusty and heavy.
"They used to keep bodies in here, you can see the brackets and beams and cleats along the side? Maybe twenty-four caskets at a time."
In the nineteenth century the winters were colder, Jim maintains, and sometimes you had to wait for a thaw so you could dig the grave. Then he pauses: "The not-so-nice explanation involves the body snatchers." People called the grave robbers "resurrectionists." They sold bodies to medical schools for study-by one physician's estimate, five thousand bodies in Ohio between 1811 and 1881. They opened the coffin, then dragged the corpse out, leaving the clothes behind, and replaced the earth and sod.
Jim says, "So what they decided was to put the deceased in this vault for two or three weeks and give the body time to deteriorate to the point where it wouldn't be of any value and then take it out and bury it."
A Gypsy gravesite stands atop one of the small hills in the cemetery. There are many caskets in an underground vault, below a monument to King Levi and Queen Matilda Stanley. Levi's father, Owen Stanley, had been a Gypsy leader in England before settling in Dayton. When Queen Matilda was buried at Woodland in 1878, one newspaper counted a thousand carriages in the procession from downtown; she'd been Gypsy Queen of the United States and it was a gathering of the tribe.
"The Stanley tribe had camps and farms north of town," says Jim. "In fact, there's two streets out there, one is Gypsy Street and one is Nomad Street, and they stayed there in cold weather. In the summertime they traveled, went around door to door sharpening kitchen knives; they were tinsmiths and coopers and horse traders. The women dressed very well. They had jewelry and lots of it, and when they went out they put it all on."
Some of the older people of Dayton might steer you toward Elizabeth Richter's monument. Professionally she was known as "Lib Hedges." She owned the Bon Ton Hotel, one of twenty maisons de joie in Dayton in the 1890s-the names of the madams would be painted on red glass over the front doors: Cleo LaBelle, Ferne DeMarr, Flo Dowdie . . . It is said that Lib Hedges-generous with charities and flood relief-was worth half a million dollars when she died. She invested in real estate and took pride in finding houses for her girls when they left to be married. She also provided burial benefits when there was no known family, and now alongside Ms. Hedges's monument at Woodland are two small headstones bearing only the names Lora and Maud.
Jim and I walk on, past the graves of nineteen Revolutionary War veterans, past the curving ranks of Civil War headstones, past the old potter's field, called the Dayton City Lot. On every hillside can be found victims of the Great Flood of 1913, and the influenza epidemic in 1918. And you'll recognize the prominent Dayton names: Charles Kettering invented the automobile self-starter, for Cadillac. John Patterson perfected the selling of cash registers and led NCR into a data-processing future. Former Ohio governor James Cox founded a chain of newspapers and radio and TV stations. George Huffman made sewing machines, then Huffy bicycles. In the community of spirit that is Woodland Cemetery, the Wright brothers are among their peers. Dayton, Ohio, in 1900, led the nation in per capita patent grants.
As I walk the narrow cemetery roadways in the afternoon's slanting light, I am reminded of the tragedy of Wilbur's death. His hearse, drawn by white horses, passed along this way, after an open-casket viewing in a downtown church. The Dayton Daily News reported, "Thousands Follow Sad Cortege." His brother Orville said that day, "Wilbur had plans that no one will be able to carry into execution."
Of the three youngest Wrights, Wilbur was the first to die, at forty-five. And his life had been just about to change-the difficult, often dangerous years of developing and testing and selling airplanes would be coming to an end.
In the spring of 1911, the year before his death, Wilbur traveled to England, France, then Germany, fulfilling the Wrights' contracts to train pilots, and watching after several patent-infringement lawsuits. He was angered by "scoundrels and thieves" who would attempt to steal the brothers' ideas, and he wrote Orville in June to say that if it weren't for the patent fights and their obligation to investors, he'd be ready to quit. "If I could get free from business with the money we already have in hand I would rather do it than continue in business at a considerable profit."
Wilbur was tired of traveling, and he missed his family. In 1911 he wrote from Berlin to his sister Katharine: "The papers report temperatures ranging from 105 to 110 degrees in America. I hope you have got poor old daddy's fan going for him all night. . . . Don't let him shut off the fan during the nights to save money. . . ."
I found a sparse but moving narrative of Wilbur's final months in Bishop Wright's Diaries: 1857-1917, a volume that runs to 850 pages. The bishop kept notes in a long succession of small, leatherbound journals. He'd remark on his travels and his preaching, his sons' aviation endeavors, Katharine's teaching career, and who came to dinner and what they talked about. These are among the entries that lead up to and culminate with his son's death:
Monday, January 1, 1912: "It is a bright cool-like day. This is the eighty-fourth First Day of the Year I have seen. They have been years of toil, but little physical pain. Not a year has been devoid of much happiness."
Thursday, January 11: "Wilbur went in the afternoon to New York City."
Saturday, January 13: "I was cleaning up my closet. Katharine went to Columbus, to visit the College Club. She reached home at midnight. I sat up till she came home. The mercury ran down to about zero."
Thursday, April 18: ". . . the number lost on the Titanic seems larger than before. Wilbur started to New York to make a contract with the Aero Club."
Thursday, May 2: "Wilbur began to have typhoid fever; first diagnosed, by Dr. D. B. Conklin, as probably malarial fever, and later as a typhoidal fever."
Tuesday, May 7: "Wilbur is better. But still has considerable fever."
Friday, May 10: "I took Lorin . . . we staid to see the Ringling parade. . . . Many wagons and nice horses, several open carriages with bears, wild cats, hyenas, leopards, tigers, lions and lionesses. A dozen camels, twenty odd elephants, a steam whistle. Wilbur still has high fever."
Meet the Author
Noah Adams, the longtime host of All Things Considered, is a correspondent for National Public Radio. He is the author of Piano Lessons, Far Appalachia, and Saint Croix Notes. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area with his wife, Neenah Ellis.
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