Several years ago, I took a creative writing class with Percival Everett when he was still teaching at the University of Kentucky. One of our class assignments was a challenge from Percival to retell the Icarus myth.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Grecian myth, it is about Icarus and his father Daedalus who, having angered Minos the king of Crete tries to escape the city by flying away on wings that Daedalus made from feathers and wax that he had gathered for that purpose. Ignoring his father’s warnings, Icarus flies too close to the sun, the wax melts and he falls into the sea and drowns.
There were several takes on the story from other members of the class, but I was most interested in a young boy’s desire to fly. Combining that with a story my mother told me about her cousin who wondered if the motor off a washing machine would power an airplane. I set the story in my imagined Timber County, West Virginia. It was/is a county much like the one where many of my ancestors and contemporaries lived.
For those who read my earlier story “Dancin’ Fool,” you will likely identify this younger Henry with the older dancing Henry. Here then is how I met Percival’s (the man) challenge with a story of a young “man” who had a challenge of his own.
The Flying Machine
Henry liked lazy summer evenings. After finishing his chores he could steal away to his special hideout before Ma or Pa found something more for him to do. Lying back on the soft sweet hay in the barn loft, he would think and wonder and puzzle over people and the nature of things. Sometimes he would open the loft door only a little so he could spy on the goings on outside, but he never opened it enough to give himself away. Up there in the loft he felt nearer to the sky. Watching the birds, he marveled at their flight. He wondered how it must feel to touch nothing–not sky or ground–but feel the wind on his face and body. To travel through the air at greater speed than he could ever run on the ground. Or be like the hawks, the air holding them up in the sky while they lazily drifted.
One time, he had mentioned it at the supper table. He came right out and said he’d like to fly.
“Only way you’ll ever fly, son, is in one of them flyin machines.” Pa said.
“If the good lord had meant you to fly, he’d have give you wings.” Grandma grumbled as she saucered and blew her coffee.
“Eat your supper, Henry,” Ma said, and he knew the subject was closed.
After that his sisters, Jenny Lou and Hazel, taunted him. “Henry wants to fly. Henry wants to fly.”
Henry had seen pictures of airplanes and once one had flown right over the farm. The family did not talk about that time Ð at least not when Grandma was within hearing distance.
It happened one evening after supper when Henry had stolen away to the hayloft. He saw Grandma with the slop bucket heading for the pig pen, then he heard the roar of an engine. Far away at first; it got louder and louder. It didn’t sound like any car engine he’d ever heard. Then he heard Grandma scream.
“Lord save us! Hazel! Git your little sister to the house.” Leaning out for a better look, Henry saw Grandma running through the yard with her arms protectively over her head. The slop bucket lay on its side behind her. Above her in the sky was a biplane, dipping and bobbing and flying in circles. Wherever Grandma ran the airplane stayed above her. She was trapped in its shadow. “Hurry, girls! It might fall on us!”
Henry laughed. Grandma had been flying that day even without wings. That airplane made her fly.
An airplane. Why not? He rolled over and sat up in the hay. He could build an airplane same as anybody else. All he needed was something for the body and wings and some kind of engine. That’s the very thing he would do. He got the best ideas in the hayloft.
The next afternoon when Henry found a spare moment he slipped off to the woods. He’d been thinking the better part of the night and decided a tree trunk would be the right body for his airplane. He knew just where to find the perfect tree that had been felled by lightning last spring. It would be big enough for him. He could easily hollow out the soft wood then he’d nearly have an airplane.
Every day that he possibly could he went to the woods to work on his airplane. He began whistling “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” It was the only song he knew about flying so it became his song. He would pause from his work to watch any bird that flew by. He no longer envied them. One day soon he’d come close to being as free as they were.
“O, he flies through the air!” came out of Henry in a robust melody.
“Hey, tow head, what you doin?”
Henry turned to see Junior Hill coming out of the woods behind him. Junior carried a fishing pole. “Don’t call me tow head.”
“Why not? That’s what you are, ain’t it?”
“Hair ain’t that light.”
“Sure it is.”
There was no winning an argument with Junior. At fifteen he belonged to the older group of boys who liked to pick on little kids like Henry.
“What you makin there, a canoe?”
“Airplane? Deed, Henry?”
“I want to fly.”
“Imagine a little feller like you with a big idee like that.”
“I reckon I can make an airplane good as anyone.”
“But, Henry, that’s just an old lightnin struck tree.”
“It’s what I got to work with.” Henry went back to the trunk with his awl and mallet.
“Well, you got to have more than a body. What about wings? How you gonna get it to fly.”
Henry shrugged. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. “Well, I could put on cross beams of some kinda light-weight wood. I guess I could hinge ’em some way so I could tie ropes on ’em and make ’em flap a little.”
“Airplane wings don’t flap, Henry.”
“So my airplane will be an improvement.”
“Some airplanes I’ve seen in pictures got two sets a wings. You know, one above the other.”
“Well I ain’t plannin to fly very high or very far the first time. If it works, I’ll add a second set.”
Junior inspected the hollowed-out tree body while Henry put on the last few licks.
“How about some kind of engine?”
“I been thinkin on that. Junior, do you think that gasoline engine on Ma’s warsher would do the job?”
“It’s not very powerful. Flyin’s a heap harder, I guess, than warshin dirty clothes.”
“Well, just for a little flight.”
“I don’t know, Henry. Maybe.”
“There it is all hollowed out. I don’t guess I’ll put any seat in. Got to keep her light. You know, kinda like a kite.”
“When you plannin to try her out?”
“Thought maybe Saturday when everybody goes shoppin in Crossville.”
“You plannin to just take off here in the woods with all these trees in the way?”
“Don’t figure I can. Ought to take her up to the high flat rock and take off from there.”
“How you gonna git her up there?”
“Shucks. I ain’t never made an airplane before. I was gonna take it little by little.”
“Aw, Henry, you got to have a plan. Look, I got some time right now. We could maybe get her up there.”
The two boys lifted the empty tree trunk. It was heavy but not impossible to carry. The high flat rock wasn’t far, but the hill rose up steeply before them.
Some time later, grunting and sweating and dirty, Henry and Junior neared the top. “I got to rest a minute, Henry.” Junior panted.
“Heck, yeah, boy. This last little bit is the steepest part.” Junior pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his grimy face. “How bout I come over Saturday ‘n’ give you a hand.”
Henry thought this over. Junior did have a way with engines. He tinkered on his cousin’s car all the time. Then, too, Henry realized that he’d have to get the engine off the washing machine, make his flight and get the engine back all in the space of the few hours his family was in town.
“Well, Junior, I guess it might be all right, if you’d promise not to tell anyone.”
“I’d promise for sure. Here, I’ll shake you on it.” Junior offered his hand.
When both boys let go of the tree, it had no support to hold it on the steep hillside. It began to roll back down to the stand of trees at the bottom of the hill.
“Wait! Stop!” Henry ran after the airplane body and caught up with it just in time to see his dreams smash into a large oak. He stood and stared at it. He couldn’t move. Crows in nearby trees, began to swoop and, “CAW! CAW! CAW!”
“Gee, Henry, that’s too bad.” Junior laid a hand on Henry’s shoulder. “That was a lot of work for a little feller like yourself. But to tell the truth, I had my doubts right along.”
“All I wanted to do was fly just a little bit.” Henry blinked his stinging eyes. “Just one short flight.”
“Well, maybe some other time.” Junior picked up his fishing pole. “Hey, Henry, you wanta come fishin with me?”
“Naw, I think I’ll set here awhile.”
“Suit yourself.” Junior said over his shoulder.
Henry sat on the ground, his hand resting on the splintered airplane body. Above him the “Caw, Caw,” of the crows turned to mocking laughter.