The summer of 1878 in Iowa was more oppressive than usual, and Milton Wright longed for an evening breeze to waft through his upstairs window. He had been working all night. His wife tiptoed into his study. The flickering oil lamp revealed her presence before her free hand lightly tapped his shoulder. “Milton, can the labor of God not wait until morning? It’s late, even the crickets are hushed.”
Milton turned from his feverish sketching, and explained, “Susan, I met the most amazing Frenchman today at Church. Alphonse Penaud. An inventor, a man that would see humanity become as birds in flight. He gave me this toy.” Milton pointed to his desktop. The toy, about a foot in length, was crafted of cork, bamboo and paper, with a rotor that spun using rubber bands. “I am going to give it to the boys in the morning. Can you imagine, people using a machine to simply soar into the sky?”
Susan leaned closer and peered at his pencil marks. Her husband had a keen mind. That was how he had risen to Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. She asked, “What’s that you’ve drawn?”
Milton adjusted his spectacles and proudly announced, “Well, there are details to refine, but it’s a flying machine.”
Susan giggled quietly, not wanting to wake the children, and then said, “Oh really? How does it work?”
Milton was tired, but rode the wave of excitement that had inspired him after meeting the Frenchman. He blurted, “Alphonse had spoken about propellers and engines, and I got to thinking about how birds move. I’ll need the right wing shape and span to generate lift, and I must control the direction, rudders and, I mean… the ideas just kept flowing.”
Susan was as practical as she was spiritual, and asked, “To what end? If God had wanted us to fly, would He not have given us wings?”
Milton nodded. “Yes, you have a point, but God also gave us intellect and the will to use it. This might take years and I’ll need funds, but I think it can work. Why, my dear, someday humanity might sail through the clouds on immense machines carrying hundreds of people. They’ll be like a flock of giant birds overhead, day and night, rushing from one place to the next. You could visit your relatives in Germany in a matter of hours, maybe minutes if powerful engines could be built.”
Susan’s eyes sank to the floor, “Engines. Will they be very loud and smoky?” She thought about the steam traction engines that belched and spit as the fields were plowed near the Church.
After nearly twenty years of marriage and bell ringing at the churches, Milton understood Susan’s aversion to booming noise. She preferred the gentle hum of God’s creatures. “The machines might rumble and roar a bit, but if they travel high enough, you might not hear them. Not too much. And there’s bound to be exhaust of some sort, but the vapors should dissipate before causing any mischief on the ground.”
Susan shifted to the open window nearby and gazed at the stars. The heavens were glorious in their beauty and peace. She whispered as if in a dream, “Would you see these machines in the night sky?”
“Yes dear, I think they would need bright lights to keep from hitting objects and one another."
Susan mused aloud, “Will they be like trains or boats? I mean will everyone be crowded into compartments, with soot pouring in from the engines? Will the wealthy have their own quarters, while those less fortunate suffer?”
Milton rubbed his bearded chin. “There’s always an issue with weight. Birds bones are less dense than ours, and their wings, well… they don’t say light as a feather as an idle boast. So, I guess space would be at a premium. It might be like Sunday Worship when the pews are packed elbow to elbow.”
Susan issued a long sigh and then urged, “Come to the window.” Milton rose and joined his wife.
She asked determinedly, “Do you not see the miracle around and above us?”
Milton looked onward, and thought, it’s a jubilee of stars tonight. Mother Moon’s waning crescent would be a cozy spot from which to cast a fishing line into the sea of stars. And there’s Sirius at the horizon. With his faithful hound at ease, Orion is done hunting this eve. Indeed, everything with sense is resting in this heat. He removed a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and dabbed his forehead. Just then, a fluttering gust combed the tall grass below, and as the breeze caressed his cheeks, he caught the scent of lavender on Susan from the flowers she had gathered before dinner.
Susan brushed her lips to his ear, taking advantage while she had him, “Now close your eyes. Think about what you’ve described. Blaring, malodorous machines at all hours of decency, cutting the evening majesty apart with their lights… jammed tight with people hurtling across the world so fast as to miss the splendor of life. And do you suppose those machines might fail every so often, the way the trains do when they leave the tracks?”
Milton’s eyes snapped open, “But people will be able to cross the globe without taking days or weeks…”
Milton paused, deep in reflection. His arm slipped around Susan’s waist as he nuzzled against her. After a time of silence, he spoke softly, “I wouldn’t be the first to open Pandora’s Box, but have it your way, dear.”
She kissed him, and said, “You need your sleep.” Susan held her hand out waiting, as Milton folded the sketches and tucked them into a desk drawer. He couldn’t quite bring himself to burn them. He thought, human technology must go forward… we have the right, don’t we, don’t we?
As he slipped into bed, he wondered what his sons would do when he showed them the toy. Wilbur and Orville were sharp for their age.
Author’s Note: As a Fantasy & Sci-Fi author (www.SoulstealerWar.com), writing is my preferred method of activism. Thus, I offer you this original short story with a science-fiction twist as a means to highlight a local NJ issue. As my family walks around the neighborhood, and tries to settle down at night, we cannot help but observe that the flight paths above Princeton evidence a sky overburdened with low-flying, crisscrossing planes, excessive noise and air pollution.
Causes W.L. Hoffman Supports
Preservation New Jersey - Trenton, NJ The Waldorf School of Princeton - Princeton, NJ Resource Center for Women and Their Families - Hillsborough, NJ