Orville, left, and Wilbur Wright, courtesy of Google Images.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author David McCullough ended his biography, The Wright Brothers, stating that when Neil Armstrong went to the moon in the summer of 1969, he took along a swatch of fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer.
I teared up.
The magnitude of it all touches me. So does the entire story of the life, times, influences and sheer genius of Wilbur and Orville.
I finished the book earlier today. I didn’t want to leave the Wrights behind, having spent hours listening to the book, read by the author during time spent behind the wheel this February. More than once I sat in my car after arriving home, just to hear more.
I have a connection to the Wrights, based purely on place in a couple of different ways. Their mother, Susan, grew up on a farm on the same spot on the map as I did, in Union County. By all accounts, the sons of Bishop Milton and Susan Wright inherited their mechanical aptitude from their mother.
If the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio, are considered from nowhere, then Susan is from still deeper nowhere. Or at least that’s how some would see it. For me, it's a point of pride: special people come from anywhere and everywhere. Place need not be a limitation.
Milton and Susan got their marriage license in my home county and married in neighboring Fayette County. I didn’t know this until a dozen years ago when I read it while visiting the site that is my other link to the Wrights.
Older brother of the two, Wilbur was born in Henry County in 1867, far out into the countryside and because of this historical fact, the name Wilbur Wright comes up frequently at the newspaper where I work, in New Castle, Indiana.
There’s the Wilbur Wright Birthplace and Museum, financed and operated with donations procured by a band of faithful neighborhood volunteers (and some of the nicest people I know). I’m out at the site a few times a year when I do articles about what’s new each April when they open for the season, about their June festival, and again in the fall when the complex is adorned with beautifully and clever decorations for the annual Christmas Tree Walk. An exact replica of the Wright Flyer is the centerpiece of one area of the museum.
New Castle has an elementary school named for Wilbur, and various other references are plentiful.
But even if I had no personal interest, as a proud American and fan of history and awe-inspiring stories of many kinds, I’d still want to read or as it happens, listen to this book.
We learn of the boys’ early influences, a French helicopter toy that inspired their interest in flight, and of how if there was ever a case of two heads being better than one, this is it.
The two were passionate about figuring out flight and the book goes into detail about how they did what they did, methodically, painstakingly, with concentration, determination, and will. Their distractions were few as they had no wives or thought of getting wives, lived at the family homestead in town, and the two worked together to solve problems and test theories. Their day job was their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, where the family had settled. The shop produced the funds to pay for their life’s true work.
McCullough unfolds their stories using letters and other documents to detail how they accomplished what they did, achieving flight in 1903 with the Wright Flyer, the first successful powered aircraft in human history.
The boys from Dayton, Ohio changed the world.
The author speaks of the Wrights' fame and how it didn’t change them, but having to deal with jealous rivals did as they had to defend and initiate lawsuits when they clearly would rather be working on the science of flight.
I didn’t realize that Wilbur died so young, having achieved so much in so brief a time. He was just 45 in 1912 with typhoid fever. Orville lived on, ironically, having survived a crash that killed his passenger earlier. He lived to see planes in World War I, the sound barrier break, and even jet engines, passing in 1948.
Only 21 years later, Americans would walk on the moon. And that is why that scrap of fabric from the Flyer resonated with me so much.
I am undone by these humble men’s achievements, by their genius and their abilities to figure out so much while not being the least bit intimidated by the so-called great minds of their day. The brothers blew them away.
I’m touched by the Wright Brothers because of the contributions they made to the world, and not just the world but to me personally, such as swift, safe flights to and from far-away places. I think of them when I fly, with my nose plastered against the window if at all possible, all the better to look out over the beautiful, neatly organized, continuous quilt of land beneath the aircraft.
It’s a beautiful sight.
Flying still feels like a miracle.