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In Taking Off, the first installment of Eric Kraft's beguiling trilogy, Peter Leroy built an aerocycle in his parents' garage, working from designs he found in Impractical Craftsman magazine. Cheered on by the gathered residents of his small Long Island beach community, Peter readied his contraption for the adventure of a lifetime: a solo cross-country flight to New Mexico and back.
Now Peter is ready to fly-and in On the Wing, he tells the hilarious tale of his journey across a mid-century America populated by eccentrics, crackerbarrel philosophers, and figments of the national imagination. In small hops, mostly consisting of "taxiing" and "landing," he visits roadside attractions and unusual towns: one where every casual expression and idiom is questioned (hence a diner offering "Real Diner Cooking" rather than real home cooking); another where he is chased with pitchforks and shotguns by citizens still traumatized by Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds"; a remote crossroads where he finds himself under attack by a low-flying plane; and finally a town near Roswell, New Mexico, where Peter becomes a phenomenon to rival Roswell's reputation for alien invasion. Along the way, Peter encounters other on-the-roaders, and finds himself pursued by a mysterious dark-haired girl, who continues to appear in different guises and seems strangely familiar, though he can't quite place her face.
And, in a parallel contemporary journey undertaken with his wife, Albertine, the adult Peter revisits his long-ago journey, navigating as Albertine drives a vintage automobile through a much-changed America, and misremembering every step of the way.
On the Wing is a playful but profound novel about an Icarus who does not crash and burn, but grows older, wiser, and productively forgetful as he reimagines his boyhood to create the story of his life.
About the Author
Eric Kraft grew up in Babylon, New York, graduated from Harvard College, and holds a master's degree in teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has taught school and written textbooks, and he was for a time co-owner and co-captain of a clam boat, which sank. He has been the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, was chairman of PEN New England, and has been awarded the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. He and his wife, Madeline, live in New Rochelle, New York. Visit www.erickraft.com.
Read an Excerpt
On The Wing
By Eric Kraft
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Eric Kraft
All rights reserved.
Without a Map
Traveling ought [...] to teach [the traveler] distrust; but at the same time he will discover how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance.
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle
LO! THE BIRDBOY WAS ON THE WING, figuratively speaking. I was on my way, taxiing westward, urging Spirit of Babbington up, up, and away, but not managing to get the thing off the ground. Had I been my present age, I might have blamed the flightlessness of Spirit on its weighty freight of metaphorical implications, its heavy burden — in the old sense of "meaning." It stood for the contrast of lofty goals with leaden deeds, of grand urges with petty talents, of soaring ambitions with earthbound achievements, but at the time I wasn't thinking of the weight of Spirit's significance, or even of the reason that it wouldn't fly; I was simply frustrated and annoyed and embarrassed. I believed that the well-wishers along the roadside were beginning to consider me a hoax or, what seemed worse, a failure. Actually — as I learned from their testimony years later — they thought that I was being generous to them, staying on the ground as I passed to allow them a good look at me and my machine, to allow them to hoist their babies onto their shoulders and afford them the inspiration of a good view of the bold Birdboy. In a letter to the Babbington Reporter on the twenty-fifth anniversary of my flight, one of them recalled the experience:
I'll never forget that day. I watched him as he passed by, and you could just see the determination in his face, the keen gaze in his eyes, the way he looked straight ahead, toward the west, and you said to yourself, "This is a boy who knows where he's going." It was inspiring, I tell you. It was inspiring, and it was a little daunting, too. Seeing him go by, on his way, made you ask yourself, "Do I know where I'mgoing?" It is no exaggeration, no exaggeration at all, to say that his example, and the introspection it inspired, made me what I am today.
* * *
I HAD PLANNED MY TRIP to New Mexico as a series of short hops, because when I was in the fourth grade my teacher used to begin every school day by writing on the chalkboard a few of what she called Pearls of Wisdom, requiring us to copy them into notebooks with black-and-white mottled covers, and among her pearls was Lao-Tzu's famous statement of the obvious, that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and also because I had been required, in fourth-grade arithmetic, to calculate how many steps my fourth-grade self would have to take to complete that journey of a thousand miles. (I've forgotten the answer; but my adult self has just measured his ambling stride and calculated that it would take him 1,649,831 steps.) In advance of the journey to New Mexico, I tried to calculate the number of hops that would be required. At first, I imagined that I might cover 300 miles per hop, 300 miles per day. At that rate, the trip out, which I estimated at 1,800 miles, would require just six hops, six days. However, when I daydreamed that trip, it felt rushed. I didn't seem to have enough time to look around, explore the exotic sights, sample the local cuisine, meet the people, talk to them, fall in love with their daughters, get gas, or check the oil. So I decided to cover only 100 miles per daily hop. At that rate, the trip would require eighteen hops, eighteen days. (That was my calculation. It would have worked for a crow; it didn't work for me, as you will see.) My friend Matthew Barber would be making the trip to New Mexico by commercial airliner, in a single hop, which seemed to me pathetically hasty.
When I had decided on eighteen hops, I phoned my French teacher, Angus MacPherson, who was one of the sponsors of my trip, and said, as casually as I could. "I figure I can do it in eighteen hops."
"Get to New Mexico."
"'Eighteen hops'? Why do you say 'hops'?"
"That's the way I see it," I said. "I take off, fly a hundred miles, and land. It's just a short hop."
"I wouldn't call it a hop."
"'Hop' makes it sound too easy, Peter. It makes it sound as if any boy could do it, as if not even a boy were required. A rabbit, for example, might make the journey in a certain number of hops, given enough time and carrots."
"Say 'stages,'" he said, suddenly inspired, "like pieces of the incremental journey of a stagecoach. That has some dignity, given the weight of its historical association with western movies, settler sagas, and the lonely yodeling of cowpokes on the vast prairies. As a traveler by stages, you will be putting yourself in the long line of westward voyagers, making yourself a part of America's restless yearning for what I think we might call westness. And stage has a nice ring to it. Hop does not ring at all. It sounds like a dull thud on a wet drum. Take it from me: go by stages, not by hops."
So I went by stages, though I had planned to go by hops. I think that I would have reported here that I had gone by hops, despite Mr. MacPherson's counsel, if it were not for the fact that hops suggests too much time spent in the air. Because being in the air is what makes a hop a hop, hop suggests, it seems to me, that the hopper is in the air for the entire length of each hop. "The entire length of each hop" would be more time in the air than I actually did spend in the air, and I am firmly committed to total honesty in this account. I went by stages, on the ground, along roads, with a great deal of divagation and an occasional hop when I was for a moment a few inches, sometimes a foot, in the air.
Making the trip in stages confirmed in me a tendency that had been growing for some time: the preference for working in small steps, for making life's journey little by little. I think that this tendency may have been born on the earliest clamming trips I made with my grandfather, when I watched him clamming, treading for clams by feeling for them with his toes, and I learned, without giving it any thought, that a clammer acquires a peck of clams one clam at a time, that the filling of a peck basket is a kind of journey. Whether Lao-Tzu had anything to say about the connection between clamming and life's journey, I do not know, but I do know that there came a time, sometime after my youth, when I turned my step-by-small-step tendency into a guiding principle, and I began deliberately to live one small step at a time. Living according to this principle has meant that many of life's jobs have taken me longer than they might have been expected to take. Many of them are still in the process of completion, and I know people who would count "growing up" among those, but I swear to you that I do work at them all, a little bit at a time. So, for example, I write my memoirs as I've lived my life, a little bit each day, hop by hop.
* * *
I TRAVELED WITHOUT A MAP, though that was not my original intention. I had intended to travel with a map, because I had thought that I needed a map, and I was convinced that I needed a special map, a superior map, that "just any map" would never do. I already had maps of the United States, of course — several in an atlas, more in an encyclopedia, and others in a gazetteer that showed the typical products of various regions — but I felt that none of those would do. They were maps, but they weren't aviators' maps. I supposed that I needed maps like — but superior to — those that automobile navigators used, the sort of map that my grandmother wrestled with every summer when my parents and I traveled with my grandparents to West Burke, Vermont — and, later, West Burke, New Hampshire — my grandfather at the wheel of their Studebaker, as pilot, and my grandmother beside him, as navigator.
I should explain the two West Burkes. In 1854, fugitive transcendentalists from Burke, Vermont, established West Burke, Vermont, as a utopian community. When, in time, some of West Burke's residents came to feel that the town had, like Burke before it, fallen toward an earthbound state, that commerce and government had become the preoccupations of the majority of their fellow citizens, that the community's increasing materialism was no longer hospitable to their pursuit of spiritual truth, no longer conducive to their everyday effort to see the world globed in a drop of dew, they left the town, headed in an easterly direction (rejecting, resisting, or reversing that restless American yearning for westness), passed through the town of Burke, and moved to New Hampshire, just a short eastward hike away. There they established a new settlement of their own. Logically, this new town might have been named East Burke; defiantly, however, the erstwhile residents of West Burke, Vermont, named this new town West Burke, as an assertion that it was the true West Burke, and that the Vermont version had become a travesty of everything that it ought to have been. (Later still, New Hampshirites disturbed by the presence of a West Burke in their state where one did not logically belong, incorporated their own town of Burke, just east of West Burke, thereby legitimizing the name geographically.)
On our trips to West Burke, whether we were on our way to Vermont or New Hampshire, my grandmother did the navigating, and I remember well how she struggled to control a huge, ungainly map, on which the routes were laid out in a code of width and weight and color that indicated their place in the hierarchy of roadways. That, I thought, was the kind of map I needed.
In those days, one could have maps for free from local gas stations (which were not yet billed as service stations, though that appellation and the diminishing level of service that it was meant to mask were just around the corner). Since my father worked at a gas station, I could get maps there, of course, but the station stocked only maps of New York and contiguous states. Those would not be enough. I wrote to the company that owned my father's station and supplied him with gas, and I received maps of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. I stapled them to the walls of my room, along with my maps of New York and New Jersey.
While I was studying them, the thought occurred to me that wind and weather might drive me off course, make me drift. I would need maps of the states north and south of my route. I wrote for those, and when they came I added them to the walls of my room, and when I had filled the walls I tried taping some to the ceiling. The ones on the ceiling sagged and billowed, and their corners came unstuck and curled downward. After struggling to keep them flat and fixed, I persuaded myself that I liked the billowing and curling, and I allowed them to billow and curl as they would.
Studying these maps as I did, whether standing at the wall and leaning in at them or regarding them from my bed with my hands clasped behind my head, I made my trip to New Mexico many times before I ever left the family driveway. I felt in imagination the surge and lift of my winged mount beneath me. I saw my flightless coevals, the nation's little groundlings, below me, watching and waving, wishing that they could be me. I saw America's yards and farms laid out like patches in a quilt. I saw it all as others said they had seen it. I was seeing it at second hand, but still something of it came from me — all the pretty girls, to name just one example, sunbathing in their yards, waving at me, beckoning to me, blowing kisses. After a while, I began to fear, as I suppose all armchair travelers do, that the actual journey would be a disappointment, and, little by little, the thought occurred to me that the maps might not be accurate.
"I got these maps from the company that owns my father's gas station," I said to my friend Spike, "but I'm worried about them."
"You're afraid that they'll fall on you while you're asleep and smother you?" she suggested.
"No," I said. "It's not that. It's — look at the way the mapmakers vary the thickness of the lines that represent roads and highways, and the way they use different colors."
"Very nice," she said.
"But — suppose they make these maps in such a way that they tend to lead the traveler astray?"
"I mean, what if they lead people to their gas stations?"
"What?" she asked.
"All the gas companies make maps like these and give them out at their stations, right?"
"Suppose they make the roads going past their stations look more attractive or more interesting, so that people will choose those routes and won't choose other routes, where the gas stations that sell other kinds of gas are located."
"You're nuts," she told me.
"Maybe," I admitted.
To test my theory — and Spike's, I suppose — I wrote to other gas companies. I compared their maps' depictions of the roads along the route that I intended to follow with the version offered by the company that owned the station where my father worked. I imagined traveling the routes that the maps depicted, and tried to decide whether I was being steered toward each company's gas stations. After many long hours of thought experimentation, I came to the conclusion that the maps could not be trusted — and, simultaneously, I discovered that the trip so often taken in my imagination had grown stale.
So I refreshed the trip that had grown stale by deciding to travel without a map. Why travel with a map that you've decided you can't trust anyway? I took all the maps down from my walls and ceiling, folded them up, and put them away in my closet.
Having no map forced me to ask directions of strangers, and along the way I learned that doing so leads to fascinating exchanges, exchanges that are, more often than not, useless, but fascinating nonetheless. If I had it to do over again (in actuality, not in memory, as I am doing it now), I think I might travel with a map. I've decided that they're more trustworthy than I thought — and they are much more trustworthy than the advice of strangers.CHAPTER 2
Our Little Secret
I AM SOMETIMES asked to explain the secret of the happiness that Albertine and I have found in each other's company over all the years that we have been together, through thick and thin and through thin and thinner, and when asked I admit quite frankly that the secret is our nearly perfect balance of induced and dynamic lift.
Lift, on a wing, on an airplane, is a matter of relative pressure: less pressure above, pressing down; more pressure below, pushing up. When the pressure's off above and on below, we rise. I am a great believer in lift, unlike Wolfgang Langewiesche, who, in his Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying, disparaged lift. It might be fair to say that Langewiesche pooh-poohed the whole idea of lift, coming very close to calling it an illusion, as close as Kurt Gödel came to calling time an illusion in "A Remark About the Relationship Between Relativity Theory and Idealistic Philosophy," his contribution to the 1949 Festschrift volume, Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist. For Langewiesche, the upward mobility of a forward-moving airplane is the result of the reaction of the undersurface of the wing to the force of the air below the wing when the airplane's engine pushes the wing against the air below it at a sufficient angle of attack — that is, with a sufficient upward slant. The air pushes the wing up, in Langewiesche's view, and the wing needn't be an airfoil; it might as well be a sheet of plywood; it could be any plane surface at all. Hence, Langewiesche points out, the name of the vehicle itself, an air(borne) plane. So, which is it: the lowered pressure on the upside of an airfoil or the greater pressure on the underside of a plane at the proper angle of attack? (In certain circles, this is still the subject of lively debate.) For the answer, I turn to Pope and Otis, my quondam mentors Frank and Art:
When an airfoil is presented to the wind at a positive angle of attack, the impact of the air on the under surface of the airfoil produces lift. This kind of lift is called dynamic lift. [The] lift which comes from the reduced pressure of the air above an airfoil is called induced lift. The total lift is the sum of these values, which is merely the difference between the increased pressure below and the diminished pressure above the airfoil.
For Frank and Art, it's not a case of either-or. Both the dynamic and induced forms of lift play their parts.
As it is in flight, so it is in life — my life with Albertine, at any rate.
When Albertine commences an undertaking, she assumes a positive angle of attack and thrusts herself forward, attacking that undertaking head-on, with power and purpose and a plan. The undertaking could be something as simple as a cross-country drive or as complex as "taking Peter out for an airing so that his outlook on life will be refreshed." The result is the same: the woman produces lift. Her kind of lift is called dynamic lift.
Excerpted from On The Wing by Eric Kraft. Copyright © 2007 Eric Kraft. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface: Albertine Gets the Urge for Going,
Chapter 1: Without a Map,
Chapter 2: Our Little Secret,
Chapter 3: West Bayborough,
Chapter 4: Riding Shotgun,
Chapter 5: Once Bitten,
Chapter 6: The New Sheboygan,
Chapter 7: A Banner Day,
Chapter 8: Egoists and Egotists,
Chapter 9: Frontier Justice,
Chapter 10: Caught,
Chapter 11: Real Diner Cooking,
Chapter 12: Surprised and Delighted,
Chapter 13: Wireless,
Chapter 14: Retrospective Manifestations,
Chapter 15: Held for Ransom,
Chapter 16: Dreams of a Professional Fool,
Chapter 17: Poppy's Pockets,
Chapter 18: Tomorrow's News Today,
Chapter 19: Homesick and Blue,
Chapter 20: Sound Effects,
Chapter 21: The Ideal Audience,
Chapter 22: Eldritch, Redefined,
Chapter 23: A Muddleheaded Dreamer,
Chapter 24: Pre-Traumatic Stress,
Chapter 25: The Second Most Remarkable Thing in the Life of Curtis Barnstable,
Chapter 26: Everything Olivia,
Chapter 27: Advice from Afar,
Chapter 28: On the Street of Dreams,
By Eric Kraft,