‘Have you heard what they’re up to out there?’ people in town would say. ‘Oh, yes,’ would be the usual answer, and the conversation would move on. Few took any interest in the matter or in the two brothers who were to become Dayton’s greatest heroes ever. Even those riding the interurban line seem to have paid little or no attention to what could occasionally be seen in passing, or to the brothers themselves as they traveled back and forth from town on the same trolley looking little different from other commuters.’
—David McCullough, The Wright Brothers
We had a little chunk of a gift card left, a twenty per cent off coupon that was almost expired, and an interest in the men, the era, and the geographical connection, so Mark and I bought a copy of David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers just after New Years, 2015. We were breaking our long trip home from visiting family in western New York at our favorite Barnes and Noble in Erie, PA; we took the book and some magazines and sat in the attached Starbucks, savoring the after-holidays lassitude and a Reeses cup cookie while our son James gleefully spent Christmas cash on splendid choices from the Criterion collection.
Then we brought the book home, put it on the shelf, both of us excited about reading it…and there it sat, ignored, until just a week or two ago. I had just finished a fluffy summer read, and I was on the prowl for something good, something weighty, something with grit, and I saw The Wright Brothers waiting there for me.
My gosh, I thought: I forgot all about this.
Kind of like genius, which so often goes uncelebrated in its own backyard. My dad would have said something along the lines of, “You wouldn’t recognize genius if it jumped up and bit ya on the butt,”–a little rough-edged, maybe, but right on point.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Why is it so hard so see the potential, the giftedness, right before us?
These days, think of me as one of those cartoon people whose arms and legs are sticking out of a giant snowball hurtling faster and faster down a steep hill. I was lucky enough to be in on the ground-planning-floor of a community read initiative in our county; our soft little flakes of ideas have–well, snowballed into a wonderfully engaging thing.
Oh, it warms my old English teacher’s heart the way the program has taken off. We’ve given away over 500 books; we had an ‘Opening Pages’ outdoor concert last week with a vibrant young group of musicians. They take vintage music and morph it into something new and special. At the concert, hundreds of people shifted and ebbed, old, young, and inbetween, rainbow hued and gender-varied, economically strapped bouncing along to the beat next to neighbors considerably ‘well-er’ heeled.
Besides the obvious benefits to everyone of reading, we hoped to bring the community together with this program, and that one small event came so close to being a uniting microcosm that I get misty just thinking about it. But the whole shebang got off to a kind of reluctant start when it came to the reading material. We decided it behooved us to honor our native son, Zane Grey, in this first flight of a reading initiative.
Never mind that he wrote 90-some books and that umpteen movies have been based on his novels. Never mind that at one point, his work was the ultimate bestseller–only the Bible and the Boy Scout Handbook selling more lifetime copies than his books. He was so prolific that his books were published posthumously for several years, and his western tales had such strong female characters that he is credited with creating a whole new genre–the Western Romance.
Never mind that OTHER people, people not from here, get PhD’s studying his literature, or that an international society still celebrates his work. And we won’t even talk about his world-renowned fishing expertise.
He’s a local boy, Zane Grey, and we’re a little embarrassed by him. Well, he just cranked ’em out, didn’t he? Kind of a hack, wasn’t he?
The house where Grey grew up still stands; there’s a plaque out front, in fact, but the place is a saggy old rental. There is a museum fifteen miles or so down the road, but the focus on Zane Grey jostles with a focus on the national road.
There are still people here related to Grey, whose ancestors were famous settlers and wilderness folks; he wrote his first book, Betty Zane, about one of those ancestors, a hero in her own right, a female hero among flamboyant, pioneering, successful men.
So, anyway, it’s cool that people are excited, that the book clubs are reading Grey’s books and his bios, his films are being shown, and his impact is being discussed. There’s a gentle air of, “Hey, he wasn’t so BAD!” in the air; we’re hoping it turns into, “Well for heaven’s sake; the man was a GENIUS, wasn’t he?”
So I can understand how the Wright brothers got themselves ignored in 1906, home from Kitty Hawk, floating the third iteration of their flying machine out at the field they’d played ball in when they were high schoolers. Around the world, inventors and dreamers, schemers and scholars had seized on the idea of manned flight, and their experiments and forays were quite literally crashing and burning.
But the Wrights were FLYING. Laying flat in their delicate-looking machine, Orville or Wilbur would take off, zapped into the air by a kind of giant, stretched-taut rubber band, and they would soar for miles, circle about, zip over people’s head, dip a wing in greeting.
Ho-hum, went the people riding by in the trolley.
I try to imagine what kind of crazy this must have seemed in the day, how revolutionary the whole concept of flight–smart folks were still writing scathing articles about the impossibility of people flying. And the Wright brothers were quietly proving them wrong.
Perhaps it’s that people we’re used to are so….ordinary. They say stupid things, or they laugh like freakin’ hyenas. They have Dorito-breath and body odor, and they go on and on about things we just don’t care about. Shut up already! we want to tell them.
Or they’re so full of themselves already that puffing them up a little more just seems like overkill: Oh, we’ll never be able to live with them if this gets made into a big old deal…
But the saints and the Founding Fathers (and Mothers, mind you)—they all had neighborhoods and siblings and corns on their toes and annoying little habits that must have made someone want to scream. And they all came from somewhere.
Put enough time, distance, and patina between them and us and we’re fast to claim them–even claim them with scandal attached if their deeds were mighty enough, if they were Jeffersons or Washingtons, Annie Oakleys or Charles Lindberghs–people like that. And even still, maybe there are people from THEIR hometowns that sniff and say, “Oh, her? Well her family were no better than they had to be, were they?”
Doesn’t it make you wonder? Who are we ignoring right here, right now, that’s brewing up a pot of genius?
I remember a guy from high school, a drop-out-y kind of guy, discounted by teachers, cautioned against by parents, ignored by the Crowd of In. He went on to work in a factory that made a famous brand of men’s suits; he saw a problem with the industrial sewing machine, and he saw too, a clever, efficient, and economical way to fix it.
I hear that boy’s a rich man now; I hear he can buy and sell all of us. But if you mention his name around the old home place, you won’t hear about his accomplishments. You’ll hear about the trouble he had with the law before he even turned 18.
So anyway. McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is a great story, a wonderful read, about people who seem so ordinary doing extraordinary things. And it’s a reminder, too, to see–really see–those around us, the hometown heroes doing homely and wonderful things. Maybe sometimes we need to take a little step back and let the trees take shape as forest, create a little distance to see those familiar faces shine.