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Authors: Harry Haskell

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BOOK: Maiden Flight
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I was proud to have Will and Orv meet Harry and know that he was a friend of mine. They liked him right away. They liked most of my friends, if it comes to that—newspapermen excepted! And who can blame them? The way the papers mangled the story of the first flight was simply scandalous. When Lorin hand-carried Orv's telegram from Kitty Hawk to the city editor of the
Dayton Journal
, all Mr. High-and-Mighty had to say was, “Fifty-seven seconds, huh? If it'd been fifty-seven
it might have been a news item.” I wanted to scream! Harry wasn't like that at all. He didn't come on gangbusters or set himself up on a pedestal. The boys knew instinctively that they could trust him. And seeing how quickly Will and Orv took to Harry made me like him all the more.

Some way we hadn't had much to do with each other since Oberlin. It was Harry who let our correspondence drop after he and Isabel were married, but I would have stopped writing regardless. I just didn't feel comfortable keeping up a regular correspondence with a married man. I've always thought it is not right to make any wife even a little bit uneasy. Anyhow, the letters he wrote me in those years were all lost in the big Dayton flood of 1913. The fine edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's
Vailima Letters
that he gave me at commencement in 1898—that was spoiled too. I tried to replace it later but couldn't get it in the original binding. I wonder if Harry kept the book I gave
for graduation—someday I'll have to ask him. I doubt it meant half as much to him as the Stevenson did to me.

My college roommate told me about visiting Harry one time in Kansas City. Such pride he takes in showing off his library! I can just picture him pulling the books off the shelves, one by one, and reading his favorite passages to Margaret. Books are one of the things that brought us together—books and a sense of common values, the solid, old-fashioned values that Oberlin stood for in our day. Harry loved the old Oberlin as much as I did. We fussed and fussed about every subject under the sun: poetry, philosophy, religion, literature, history—even mathematics! I'll never forget winning that twenty-five-dollar prize for my essay on the Monroe Doctrine in my sophomore year. I was so proud and happy when Harry—a respected upperclassman, if you please—walked me home from chapel after the ceremony. His praise was the sweetest of all. Yes, I always cared a lot for Harry's opinion of me. I made no bones of that!

I'm the only one in our family with a college diploma—not that it does me any credit to crow about it. Reuch and Lorin attended a Brethren school in Indiana, but they weren't cut out for book learning, I guess, and soon drifted away. Will had a first-class head on his shoulders—he would have gone to Yale if it
hadn't been for his ice hockey accident. As for Orv, he was clever enough at brain work—when he wasn't working in his print shop, fixing bicycles, or just plain horsing around. A regular practical joker Little Brother was—and still is, from what I hear. One time his sixth-grade teacher sent him home for doing something wicked and told him not to come back without a written apology from our parents. Bubbo couldn't face telling them the truth, so he played hooky the rest of the year. I thought he'd catch it for sure, but to my amazement Pop didn't come down hard on him. As a matter of fact, I think he admired Orv's independent streak.

Father respected independence in us women as well—up to a point, anyway. He put me through Oberlin so I could earn my living as a schoolteacher and not have to depend on him in his old age. Then, after I came home and started teaching at the high school, he deeded the Hawthorn Street house over to me so I would never have to worry about having a roof over my head. All those years I spent living with him and the boys, as housekeeper, mother, sister, and daughter all rolled into one, I knew I could make my own way in the world if it ever came to that.

Considering he was born before the Civil War, Pop's views on the woman question were surprisingly advanced. He never for one minute doubted that women were entitled to the vote just the same as men. His convictions on that point were unshakable. One time, before the last war, he and Orv marched side by side
in a suffrage parade through downtown Dayton. Pop was eighty-six years old—and was I ever proud to be his “Tochter” that day! In other ways, though, he was no different from most men of his generation. When he went away from home on church business, he used to write practically every day, reminding me to do this, that, or the other thing. He was a regular fountain of advice about cultivating modest feminine manners, keeping my temper under control, and everything.

The fact is, I s'pose, Pop was well-nigh helpless without a woman by his side. Mother used to do everything for him. He told me once that he never published an important editorial in the church newspaper without reading it to her first. If it wasn't clear to Mother, he said, there was no use expecting anyone else to understand it. They were as devoted to each other as any two people I ever knew. Pop said the light of our home went out when Mother died. I was only a girl of fifteen, but no one had to tell me that I was expected to step into her shoes. One letter Pop wrote nearly did me in, it pulled my heartstrings so: “But for you, we should feel like we had no home. I often think of something or see or hear of something that Mother would know and care something about, but she is not here, and there is no one knows or cares anything about it.”

Mother was called Susan Catharine—such a beautiful name! Sometimes Pop got muddled and spelled my name with a
instead of a
—but I didn't take it to heart. It was his refusing to treat me like a grown woman that got my dander up. Even after I came home from college, he fussed and brooded over me like a mother hen. He insisted on knowing where I was going of an evening, who I was going out with, when I'd be home—and
! After
the boys went off to Europe in '07, every peculiarity he ever had came out in full blossom. I couldn't even leave the house in broad daylight without being lectured. I told Will and Orv that it was a pathetic state of affairs when going out for the cream was treasured up as the chief diversion of the evening.

Men! I've always lived with them and don't look on them as such a wonderful treat. Yet everyone knows the world has always been managed by men to promote that very idea. Women are dependent on the opinion of men in a way that men wouldn't tolerate for a second if our roles were reversed. Once in a great while a woman can break through and make a place for herself, but she has to be very exceptional. Even Pop had his blind spots when it came to dealing with my “sect.” I'll never forget the letter he sent me in Pau, warning about the danger of going up in a hot-air balloon. “It does not make so much difference about
, but
ought to keep out of all balloon rides.” Well sir, Orv and I went up in a balloon just the same, and we both lived to tell the tale. Nuff said!

It was a different story with the boys. From the time I was a little girl in flannel petticoats, they treated me as a reasonable human being and their equal in every way that mattered. They even paid me good wages to be their social manager and general dogsbody overseas. The one thing they just couldn't seem to get into their heads was how hard it was to give up my job after Bubbo had his accident.
I never did anything so well as the teaching I did at the high school. Some way, teaching Latin and history to those children made me feel useful and needed. What's more, I had grown accustomed to having my own money to spend as I liked—not as much as Will and Orv had, mind you, but enough to ensure I would never be a burden to them or Pop.

It's not as if I didn't feel lucky to be working with the boys. I loved every minute of it—the travel, the adventure, the interesting people we met. But the flying machine was their baby, as Will liked to say, not mine. After they started building airplanes and hired a regular secretary to look after the business, there was less and less real work to keep me occupied. It wasn't until Will died that it weighed in on me that I was horribly dissatisfied with my life. As far as I'm concerned, there is no excuse for doing nothing but fritter away my time. If a man did that, I'd have my own opinion of him, you can be sure! But nobody would have understood if I hadn't played nurse to Orv in Virginia or stayed home to take care of him and Pop after Will was gone.

Little Brother positively refused to hear of my going back to teaching, no matter how hard I tried to make him see what it meant to me. When you come right down to it, he depended on me just as much as Father ever did—maybe more. I was the only one who could assure him that everything was being done for him. Some way, he was more like a lover than a brother to me. One of the girls in Dayton told Orv that I was the only woman who could ever suit him—and I 'spect she was right!


The day Kate came into this world was the day my problems all began. It was my third birthday, and they brought me upstairs in the old house to take a gander at my new baby sister. I saw then that I was getting into a peck of trouble, and I've never got out since.

As far back as I can remember, Kate and I were as close as hand and glove. The time I came down with typhoid fever, she insisted on staying home from college and nursing me back to health. And after the accident at Fort Myer, she was the only person I could bear to have near me. The moment she walked into my hospital room, smiling as if nothing much was the matter, I knew my injuries couldn't be so bad after all. The army doctors had dreaded her coming and were relieved that she wasn't hysterical. Little did they know
was the one would have gone off my head if it hadn't been for Swes. For weeks she stayed by my bedside from the middle of the afternoon until seven in the morning. Yes, Kate was the most loyal sister a man could ask for.

It was the same with Will. Pop always said he and I were as inseparable as twins. From the time we were little we lived together, played together, worked together, even thought together. Practically everything we achieved was the result of conversations, suggestions, and arguments between us. It made no difference which one of us invented what, we always took credit jointly. Why, Ullam even blamed himself for the smashup at Fort Myer. He claimed it never would have happened if he had been there to keep visitors from distracting me while I worked. We had an unspoken pact, Will and I—and Kate too—that we would always look out for one another, come hell or high water.

We'd still be looking out for one another too, if it hadn't been for the rotten seafood my brother ate in Boston. Will was so worn down by the pressures of work that when the fever grabbed hold of him, his body plumb gave out. May 30, 1912, it was—the darkest day of my life. It felt as if part of me had died with him. I had just purchased a new family car, and for weeks on end Pop, Kate, and I
drove around in a fog, hardly exchanging a word. The worst thing of all was coming out here to Oakwood to check up on the new house. Will and I had bought the lot in February, and the workmen had started to lay the foundation. When I stood over the cellar hole and thought of Will lying in his grave up on the hill, I about gave up the ghost right then and there.

Like everything we did, Hawthorn Hill was meant to be a family project. But Will had too many other fish to fry to give it his full attention, so Swes and I ended up planning the house together, inside and out. We told the architect what we wanted in each room and even made a special expedition to Grand Rapids to shop for furniture. Naturally, it made no difference that my signature was on all the checks; the new place was always going to be more Kate's than mine. Matter of fact, the first set of drawings the architect showed us was labeled “Residence for Miss Katharine Wright.” I had a good laugh when I showed them to Father. “We can't fool anybody,” I said. “Everyone knows who will own the house.”

It was Kate who insisted that we had outgrown the house on Hawthorn Street and needed a bigger place. Now that Will and I were respectable businessmen, she said, we had to have a home fit for entertaining—so there was nothing for it but to pull up stakes and move. Not that there was a whole lot left to move after the Miami River got through with us in the spring of '13. About all we managed to salvage from the old house were a few books and several small pieces of furniture. We might have saved almost everything had we had more notice of the flood, but Kate and I overslept and had to be out of the house within half an hour.

When the three of us finally moved out here to Oakwood a year or so later, we felt we had landed in the lap of luxury. We had lived
practically on top of each other in the old house, so having room to spare took some getting used to. Father had the entire east wing pretty much to himself, except on rare occasions when the corner guest room was occupied. Kate took the bedroom across the hallway from his, overlooking the front drive, between my room and Will's.
She called Will's room the “blue room,” on account of the blue wallpaper, but to me it will always be Will's room, for all that he never slept in it. It's almost as if he were still with us.


Shortly after the war broke out in Europe, in the fall of 1914, I was pleasantly surprised to find a letter from Katharine in my mailbox, written on her new Hawthorn Hill stationery. She was up in arms over news reports that Wilbur and Orville had modeled their original flyer on a machine built by Samuel P. Langley, the former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The source of this preposterous claim was Glenn Curtiss, one of the Wrights' principal competitors in the airplane industry. Sometime before Wilbur died, Curtiss had gotten hold of a Wright flyer, purportedly “for scientific purposes,” built his own airplane based upon it, and begun giving exhibition flights.

Langley had conducted his last experiment a mere nine days before the Wrights made their first flight at Kitty Hawk. The aerodrome, as the Langley machine was called, was an ignominious flop. No sooner did it leave the houseboat from which it had been launched than it plunged straight into the Potomac River. Langley, being a reputable scientist, was quick to congratulate the Wrights for succeeding where he had failed. Curtiss, however, had no such
scruples. Ten years later he saw an opportunity to get around the patent restrictions that Orville was fighting to enforce in the courts. If he could prove that a machine that could fly had been built
the Wrights made their first flight, he hoped for a construction of the laws that would invalidate their patents.

With that goal in mind, Curtiss persuaded one of his friends at the Smithsonian to lend him the original aerodrome, an odd, bat-like affair that had been put on exhibition as a curiosity. Early in 1914 he transported it to Hammondsport, New York, where he rebuilt it, saving only about 20 percent of the original machine, and installed a new motor. With the reconstructed plane he was able to make some short hops, though not to stay in the air for any length of time. To any unbiased observer, it was obvious that the exercise was a publicity stunt, pure and simple. Ultimately, Curtiss's ploy failed and the Wright patents were upheld by the courts.

But the controversy didn't stop there. Certain high-ranking
Smithsonian officials pursued Curtiss's campaign of misrepresentation for their own ends. For years afterward the institution's annual reports perpetuated the myth that the rebuilt Langley aerodrome had flown “without change.” The officials undoubtedly hoped that the glory of sponsoring the first successful flight would bolster the Smithsonian's applications to Congress for larger appropriations. Katharine was so outraged by their unprincipled behavior that she was unable to sleep for weeks. At last, out of sheer exasperation, she enlisted me and one or two other trusted friends to help set the record straight.

Orville's impulse, characteristically, was to let the cosmic process take its course and settle things. He calmly observed that the Langley machine had
flown and that no sensible person would
believe it had. At length, however, he gave in to Katharine's pleas and allowed her to distribute the statement we had drafted to various periodicals. The response was disappointingly predictable. To a man, the editors courteously apologized for any seeming implication that the Wrights were not the real inventors of the airplane. All felt that the outbreak of war in Europe made it an unsuitable time to print anything on the subject, especially so long after the events in question, but they promised to keep the statement on file for future use.

So that was that. Little did the Wrights know that their battle with the Smithsonian was only beginning.

In the summer of 1917, shortly after America entered the war, I contacted Orville in the course of my work as chief editorial writer for the
. I wanted his help in getting the lowdown on the Wilson administration's ham-fisted war preparedness program, which our editorial page had been criticizing pretty vigorously. Knowing that Orville was serving as an advisor to the government on aeronautical matters, I requested an introduction to his friend Edward Deeds, the Dayton industrialist who had been put in charge of wartime aircraft procurement. Orville wrote back at once, enclosing a note to Colonel Deeds in which he described me as “a very good friend of Katharine and myself” and advised that he shouldn't hesitate to talk to me in confidence.

On my way back from seeing Deeds in Washington, I stopped off in Dayton to interview Orville for the paper. The opportunity to observe the world's foremost aeronautical engineer at work was too good to pass up. Katharine's “little brother” had changed hardly at all since our first meeting in Washington eight years earlier. His dress and appearance were as fastidious as ever, his manner modest
and welcoming. Deliberate, well organized, and clear-thinking, he gave the impression of complete independence in thought and action. It was plain to see why his counsel was so eagerly sought by his fellow scientists and government officials alike.

At his scientific laboratory on Dayton's old West Side, Orville explained that he was conducting two lines of research, both potentially important to the war effort. One was the measurement of the air resistance of curved surfaces, a continuation of the pioneering work that he and Wilbur had done on the tables developed by the great German engineer Otto Lilienthal. The other was the development of a stabilizer to make the control of the airplane more nearly automatic. Listening to Orville expound on these arcane technical subjects, as patiently and methodically as he could to a layman, I began to grasp why he had proven such a formidable witness for the prosecution in the patent lawsuits against Curtiss.

That evening, Orville, Katharine, and I were conversing on the veranda at Hawthorn Hill, passing the time before dinner, when suddenly it came to me that I was sitting in their late father's favorite rocking chair. Bishop Wright had died upstairs in his sleep a few weeks earlier, at the ripe old age of eighty-eight. His spirit lived on in each of his offspring, but it was Orville who most clearly bore the stamp of his upright and steadfast character. I recognized the type from my own missionary father, who died in 1914 after decades of service in the Balkans. My brother Ed said that Father would as calmly have gone to the stake for his convictions as any martyr who ever burned. The words we had inscribed on his gravestone in Oberlin, S
, seemed equally apt for
the Bishop, whose lonely crusade against the forces of darkness in the church had consumed so much of his and his children's lives.

Like the Bishop, my father was a man of stern and unquestioning faith. This was borne home to me as a student at Oberlin, when religious difficulties began to pile up on me and give me distress. I wrote to Father in Bulgaria about some of these difficulties, including my questioning of miracles and my doubt of the doctrine of atonement, which was one of the foundations of the theology of the day. He wrote back a rather curt letter telling me that I should pay no attention to such things, as the faith as delivered to the saints was quite adequate and it was rather wicked to question it. Needless to say, I never took up the matter of religion with him again.

Katharine and Orville dutifully kept the Sabbath out of respect for the Bishop's memory. But they had not been regular churchgoers for years, and religion played little apparent part in their daily lives. Although they had never openly turned their backs on their father's Old Testament creed, I sensed that deep down neither of them had any more use for the old-time religion than I did. Katharine's self-sacrificing devotion to the Bishop was one of her most estimable virtues. Plainly, her loyalty to Orville ran no less deep. As we sat together on that balmy summer evening, rocking and talking, it struck me that they looked and acted for all the world like a contented married couple.

From then to the end of the war, Orville furnished me with a steady stream of valuable intelligence. He was convinced that the government's forty-million-dollar aircraft production program had been badly mismanaged and that the country would have to depend upon men from civilian life, such as Colonel Deeds, to push it through. As fate would have it,
a special Justice Department investigation issued a report that came down hard on Orville's friend. Charles Evans Hughes, the chief investigator, went so far
as to recommend that Deeds be court-martialed for giving out misleading statements concerning the early shipments of airplanes and disclosing sensitive information to his former business associates in Dayton.

Confidentially, Orville allowed that there might be something to the first charge, although he was disposed to believe that Deeds had acted innocently and not from any criminal intent. He surmised that his friend had been misled through his own enthusiasm and the overenthusiastic reports of his subordinates. As to the second allegation, I had a hunch that Deeds had awarded a contract to his friends not only because he felt they could handle it but also because he saw no reason why they shouldn't get rich out of government contracts at the same time everybody else was. Businessmen generally seemed to regard the war as an opportunity to get theirs—and they got.

The sordid spectacle of wartime profiteering and incompetence left a sour taste in my mouth. But I will always be grateful to the government's aircraft program for one thing: it gave me an opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the Wrights.

BOOK: Maiden Flight
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