Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Father's News

The Oklahoma farm boy is standing barefoot in a field of cotton and looking up at the sky. During days like these, every man, woman, child hopes to see clouds which amount to almost everything since upon them depends each family's success in trying to extract a living from the dry, red, crumbling clay.

It is the Great Depression and the boy is sunk toe deep in the heart of the Dust Bowl.

This is not to say that droughts have never happened before. It's a simple fact of existence. All agrarians must live beside the severe and ancient formula:

No clouds, no rain. No rain, no life.

Today it's no clouds. Again. The cotton plants, months away from producing their soft stickery fruit, stir in the hot, dry breeze at his feet. Above him a pair of hawks circle like thrown coins in an updraft.

But the boy has received word that something new is coming. That's why he stands here looking up. Sometimes when he positions himself ankle deep in the green rows, with a piece of straw tensed between his teeth, he hears a loud buzzing in the distance. It's not the railroad, which rolls past at dusk and dawn. This sound comes from the vaults of heaven and he tunes his ears to it. The buzzing grows louder.

He stops chewing on the straw. He tips the brim of his hat which is shading his eyes and searches the blue canvas until he sees what is making the sound and splitting open the sky.

An airplane.

He was searching for something in the sky...
As it passes overhead from north to south, ruler straight, glinting wings out thrown, and moving in a fashion that is manifestly man-determined, he is rotating his body so he can keep it in sight until it becomes a speck in the distance and finally vanishes, as thoroughly gone as an ant returning to its hole. Then he runs to the farmhouse, bangs through the screen door, and climbs the stairs to his attic room.

This farm boy obsessed with aviation is my future father.

Years of Crash and Burn
Seventy-three years later I find myself paging through the two packed scrapbooks my father assembled between the ages of 12 and 14.

He's carefully cut out every article that appeared in the Daily Oklahoman that had anything to do with airplanes and, using paste glue that has over time puckered and wrinkled the fragile paper, he arranged the text and photos so they fit on the pages of each scrapbook.

I can't help noticing. Most of the articles are about the modern equivalent of Icarus flying too close to the sun.

On page after page, Icarus's wings melt. Icarus pauses, flutters, falls out of the sky. His demise is reported in large font type.

One ought not to think that it is only aerial daredevils or the military that meet such fates. The cut and paste record shows otherwise.

Civilians who trustingly purchase tickets and board commercial flights and are served at altitude by nattily attired stewardesses prove vulnerable as well.

To offset such carnage there are moments of triumph. My fingers pause to touch Howard Hughes and his team who circumnavigate the globe, for example, and end up in a ticker tape parade in New York City.

Willy Post sets a new high altitude record.

Emelia Earhart survives a crash upon take-off in Hawaii, then heads confidently into the next leg of her what she hopes will be a record setting flight.

Of course, the successes of Post and Earhart are tainted by what I know will happen to them in the end.The fact is that the Golden Age of Aviation is also the Golden Age of the Airplane Crash. It's not for nothing that the verbs that turn up most frequently in the headlines my father has preserved are "killed" and "die." It turns out that this brilliantly conceived means of transporting people over distances, a technology that I grew up taking for granted, was paid for in mangled metal, broken bones, and charred flesh. These men and women in my father's scrapbooks were the early martyrs of aviation.

The Luck of an Irishman
There's one story that's not grim. I remember my father telling us about Wrong Way Corrigan. How, like Charles Lindbergh, he captured the nature's attention and its heart.

Corrigan had what in those days was called "pluck" and "nerve." Without permission to make his own Atlantic crossing, Corrigan took off in a nine-year-old airplane and landed in Ireland with $15 in his pocket and no passport or permit or even a map. To the authorities who demanded that he give an account of himself, Corrigan explained that he had set out to fly from New York to California and must have "accidentally" flown the wrong direction. With this disingenuous explanation he defied all the bureaucrats and became an overnight hero.

I remember trying to work all this out in my mind. Corrigan was lying. So why was he a hero? Didn't my parents tell me to never lie? Finally, one day I understood. Corrigan wasn't so much lying as he was telling a story. And it was a great story even if it wasn't literally true. The quality of the story and our desire to believe it was what mattered, not its factual veracity. From such realizations future fiction writers are born.

Lost in the Space Race
My father did not grow up to become an aviator. World War II came along and he kept his boots on the ground and became a mortar man in General George Patton's Third Army in Europe.

What persisted in my father was a sense that current events often amounted to history in the making. He had come to realize that one might be reading in the newspaper today about things people centuries from now would still take note of.

When the era of astronauts and rockets arrived my father made sure that his sons were as aware of each suborbital and orbital launch just as he once linked himself to the fliers settling into cockpits and waiting for their mechanic to give the propeller a spin to start it.

We must have seen this launch on TV.
In the early years of Project Mercury and Gemini he fanned the enthusiasm of my brothers and me for awaking before dawn and turning on the TV set so we could see a grainy black and white live image of a Redstone or Atlas rocket on the launch pad in Florida.

We patiently awaited the countdown. Ten, nine, eight... 

Sometimes the mission was scrubbed at the last minute and we went back to bed and laid heads on pillows, disappointed.

I hadn't yet seen my father's scrapbooks, so I didn't know. Already I was emulating him. I was reading the newspaper and Time magazine and writing away to NASA for glossy photos of the astronauts. I was building memories out of what was happening far away from my parents and home.

Grim Months
The crown jewels of my father's scrapbooks are tucked into the back of the last volume and must be extracted and unfolded with great care or they'll fall apart in one's hands.

There are two front pages of newspapers.

It's important to take a look at the dates. The Hindenburg burned in May1937. Miss Earhart was declared lost at sea in July 1937. It was a time when Icarus fell again and again.

Pasting Down History
I have lived through some years when I had the strong sense that history was being made. I think not only of the space adventures that culminated in the moon landing in 1969, but also of the protests and political assassinations of the 1960s. I think also of the Fall of 2001 and I believe it changed the way Americans live and feel.

But what about the historicity of more recent years? I'm not so sure. I certainly can't diminish the significance of our invading two different countries or going through the global financial upheaval of two years ago, yet it may be mostly subjective what each person thinks of as "historical" and preserves in their mind like a framed photo that they take out and ponder the way I do that image of Emelia Earhart waving at the crowd from the wing of her airplane or Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or the Twin Towers burning.

All I can say is that I wouldn't want to be Van Winkled in a year when history at such a level is being made.

When I wake up  next fall it's true I will have my newspapers to go through and I will get "caught up." But the facts I learn from a distant remove won't be the same as feeling the sudden impact and the intense psychological vibrations when the event happens and is reported to me in real time.

I could miss out on something pretty big. Historical even.

This bothers me because my father bequeathed to me curiosity and a sense of the momentous. I have many of the same impulses as that young boy who put scissors to paper while the ink was still barely dry and then waited for the next riveted marvel to pass overhead.

So anyone who still thinks the object of The Van Winkle Project is to prove that "the news doesn't matter" hasn't understood. By taking a year off from the news, I'm not trying to learn to live forever without it. What I'm trying to do is learn how to better to discriminate grades of quality in the overabundance of images and sounds and words that are broadcast to me through different media.

Of all the things we hear about in a given day, how much of it is simply new or novel vs. actually news, i.e., how much is truly worthy of notice and our remembrance?  Compare the Hindenburg disaster to the iPhone 4 antenna problems last year. Emelia Earhart's accomplishments to Justin Bieber's celebrityhood. Dr. King giving a speech to Dr. Ruth using the "n" word multiple times on the air.

I'm coming to understand that there is a difference between the historic and the trivial. I'll let you guess which kind of news I'm determined to paste into my memory when I wake up next Sept. 11.  - V.W.


1 comment:

  1. Powerful takeaway! And surely it will be more cemented than ever after nine more months.