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Authors: Harry Haskell

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BOOK: Maiden Flight
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The Wrights had sung Stef's praises so loudly that Isabel and I jumped at the chance to meet him when he breezed through Kansas City in the fall of 1920. We got in our invitation just ahead of the Honorable Richard Sutton, my safari-loving dermatologist friend. In some ways, Stef could be Doctor Dick's twin brother. No doubt Arctic explorers and big-game hunters are cast in the same mold—aviators too, from what I've seen. Certainly Stef made no secret of his high regard for Orville. At one time, there was talk of his collaborating with Griff Brewer on a general history of flight, or even with Orville himself on “the book.” But the idea was quietly shelved after Katharine pointed out that Stef was hardly qualified to voice an opinion on aeronautical subjects.

Stef is a vivid and engaging writer, and Orville evidently respects his competence in scientific matters. If anyone could have gotten Katharine's brother to stop procrastinating and get on with the job that needed to be done, it was Stef. On the other hand, the
Wrights are hardly wild about the racy Greenwich Village crowd that Stef runs with in New York. A cheap bunch of self-styled intellectuals, Katharine calls them—and that's just for starters. As a matter of fact, I was surprised that she took such a shine to Stef. As a rule, she has no time for the East Coast smart set. Whenever its baleful influence slips into my writing, she accuses me of aping Henry Mencken and Sinclair Lewis.

I must admit there is some truth to the charge. Sometimes I do wish I were as clever as the “Sage of Baltimore.” My old chief at the
, William Rockhill Nelson, would have snapped Mencken up in a trice and set him loose on our fair city, Kiwanized, Chamber-of-Commerced, Heart-of-Americaed as it is. The Old Man was no mean hell-raiser in his own right. Some of the sparkle went out of the
after Colonel Nelson died in 1915. For a time I was tempted to pull up stakes and try my luck in Washington or New York. Katharine was all in favor. She thought a change of scene would do me good. But that was before the staff bought the paper and made me editor. Now I feel about Kansas City the way Katharine feels about Dayton: it will always be my home, the place I was meant to be.

On the whole, I've been happy at the
, and the paper has been good to me. Yet one can't help having second thoughts. Things might have worked out quite differently, after all. What if I hadn't happened to show up at the
on the very day the assistant telegraph editor resigned? What if I had taken one of the other jobs on offer in St. Louis, Denver, or New York? For that matter, what if Isabel and I hadn't become engaged in my senior year at Oberlin? What if I had been free to ask Katharine for her
hand instead? I know now that she was always in my heart, “airy and true,” like her namesake in the Stevenson poem:

We see you as we see a face

That trembles in a forest place

Upon the mirror of a pool

For ever quiet, clear and cool.

Stevenson is a special bond between Katharine and me. I was so taken with his descriptions of the South Seas in the
Vailima Letters
when it first came out that I sent her a copy for graduation. And when I finally got up the courage to say I loved her, it was Stevenson's words that came out of my mouth: “Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill.” That's just how we felt—that our real home was in each other's hearts, no matter how far we roamed.

But what am I saying? After all, my feelings for Isabel were no less real and sincere. When I first got to know her at Oberlin, she was so bright and cheerful and quick as a flash about seeing things. She was the very soul of sympathy. What young man could resist falling in love with such a charmer? Isabel was my idea of a thoroughly modern woman. She reminded me of Shaw's Candida or Ibsen's Nora. It was she who introduced me to plays, dancing, card playing—all the guilty pleasures that my parents had forbidden under their roof. I recall Father's indignation when some limb of Satan left a deck of cards lying on our front porch. Undoubtedly it was intended as a personal affront, and it went to the mark. Father took satisfaction in tearing up the cards into little bits to show what he thought of them.

I guess I was pretty much “all head” in those days, as Katharine often reminds me. Isabel was just the opposite—full of laughter and the sheer joy of living. She had the great gift of making routine household tasks seem fun. We used to gather in the kitchen after dinner, singing at the top of our lungs while she washed the dishes and Henry and I dried them. It was on her account that I joined the Unitarian Church after Father died. Isabel understood why I had lost faith in the stern Old Testament God my parents worshipped. She had the patience and fortitude of a saint. All through her long illness, even when she could barely raise herself out of bed, she never uttered a word of complaint or reproach.

Watching Isabel waste away year after year, helpless to relieve her suffering, was enough to crush any man's faith. In Charles Darwin's letters, I came across his suggestion that there was so much cruelty and evil in the world as to militate against the probability of any beneficent personality behind it. That had long been my opinion, but I hadn't had the realization of it until my own experience with Isabel. Certainly I would hate to be responsible for a universe so full of capricious cruelty as ours. It must be the weight of inherited fear come down from the stone-ax days that makes us assume a beneficent first cause is engaged in the torture we see around us and bids us kiss his hand.

Take Katharine's “little brother,” for instance. If there were an ounce of justice in the world, Orville wouldn't have been forced to spend the best years of his life fighting to vindicate himself and Wilbur. The Smithsonian long ago would have admitted that the Langley business was a fraud and a cheat. The Wright flyer would be hanging in Washington today instead of London. But it seems to be human nature to hate to admit we have been wrong. Not even
Darwin was immune to envy. At one time it looked as if Alfred Russel Wallace's sketch on natural selection might take from him the credit of years of hard work. Somewhere in his letters Darwin writes, “I thought I had sufficient greatness of soul not to mind about priority. But I am ashamed to say I was mistaken.”

I have often recalled Darwin's words in connection with Orville's ordeal. There is one crucial difference, though: Wallace was on the square; Curtiss and the Smithsonian were not.


“We learn much by tribulation,” Father once wrote, “and by adversity our hearts are made better.” By those lights, my heart must be as stout as an ox's by now. Fifteen long years of scrapping with Curtiss and the Smithsonian have taught me how Father felt when he locked horns with his fellow Brethren. He had right on his side, the same as I do. Yet it took years to reclaim his good name after Reverend Keiter and those other bandits hounded him out of the church. We were at Kitty Hawk when he lost his case in 1902. An infamous outrage, Will called it. He vowed then and there to make the members of the committee who had convicted Father sign a written retraction.

Father never could have won that fight on his own. It was Will who pored over the ledger books, week after week, and showed how Keiter had fiddled the accounts. My brother could outsmart and outlawyer the best of them. I remember one of our patent hearings when the judge asked him to explain how something or other worked. Will calmly strode over to the blackboard and drew a simple figure that anyone could understand. After the trial,
Curtiss's lawyer complained that if it hadn't been for Will and his “damned string and chalk,” they would have won the case. Ullam had more brains in his little finger than most men do in their heads. But it was Curtiss and his diabolical scheming that did him in, as sure as the typhoid.

My fondest wish after Will and Father passed away was to live in peace and quiet at Hawthorn Hill. With the profits from the sale of the Wright Company, and Carrie to keep house for us, Kate and I had everything we needed. If only those two women weren't so darned headstrong. Even this place was scarcely big enough to hold them both.
And neither Carrie nor Kate has ever had a good word to say about Miss Beck. So my secretary is bossy and high-handed, is she? I daresay she is. But I never knew a woman to be more competent, efficient, and dedicated to her work. I hardly see how I could have managed without her these past few years. Just knowing she's sitting outside the laboratory door gives me the peace of mind I need to concentrate on my work.

And another thing: Miss Beck never badgers me about the book. Everyone else harps on about it every chance they get. To hear them tell it, you'd think I had a sacred duty to write the blasted thing. For pity's sake, can't they see I'm not a writer? Thank goodness for Georgian Bay. There, at least, I can put their infernal nagging behind me.
Kate and I used to hole up on Lambert Island for weeks on end, just the two of us, without a care in the world. People up there take us as they find us. It's a simple life—no dressing up, no dinner parties, no worrying about appearances. Something always needs fixing—the boathouse, the dock, the water pump, the outboard motor. Yes sir, tinkering is the life for me. When
you come right down to it, machines are a whole lot simpler than human beings. More reliable too.

Swes looked forward to going up to the bay as much as I did. Yet even when we had the island all to ourselves, there she would sit hour after hour at the big table in the main cabin, writing those interminable letters to her friends. If you ask me, she might just as well have stayed home in Dayton and saved herself the postage. Hawthorn Hill is a regular open house. Family, friends, tradesmen, reporters, even total strangers—everyone seems to feel they can drop in unannounced practically any day of the week. Sometimes my home feels more like a hotel than a man's castle. I ask you, why did we go to the trouble of moving out of the city in the first place if it wasn't to get away from all that?

It was Kate that visitors generally came to see, of course. She was the gregarious one. I was just the man of the house, doing my best to keep my head down and stay out of trouble. You might say we complemented each other in that way. No wonder people used to take us for husband and wife. It was a good life we had too, a comfortable life. How was I to know that Kate wasn't as contented as I was? Oh, she talked about becoming a schoolteacher again, but she had no reason to go back to work. With the money Will left her, she had an income of her own and could do whatever she set her mind to. Anyhow, running this house is a big enough job. I gave her a liberal allowance, a housekeeper, a cook. What more could any reasonable woman ask for?

As for marriage, I took it for granted it was out of the question for both of us at our time of life. A few years ago, mind you, I might have allowed my head to be turned. I met some mighty attractive young ladies when I was a frisky pup. There was no lack
of temptation—or opportunity either—in Washington and Paris. Ullam and Swes got pretty worked up about that, as I recall. They made up their minds that I was easy prey for female predators and needed their protection. But they had no call to worry. Whenever the reporters tried to catch me out by inquiring why there was no Mrs. Wright, I would firmly set them straight. “You can't have a wife and a flying machine too,” I said. That generally satisfied their curiosity.

Not all of us are cut out for the married life, after all. Stef, for instance—you can hardly imagine
being tied down to a wife and home, now can you? With Harry it's a different story. I saw right off the bat that he was the kind of man who needed a wife to come home to at night. Kate and I often observed that Isabel and he seemed to be made for each other. A sad, sad business that was, to be sure. There is no getting over the loss of someone you love more than life itself. I learned that lesson when Will died. At least he didn't suffer long before he passed away. Isabel and Harry weren't so fortunate. The way he looked for a while during her final illness, it was nip and tuck which of them would wear out first.


The last time we saw Isabel was a few months before she died, in the late winter of 1923. She was pretty much skin and bones by that time, and all but blind. Orv and I had given her Stef's new book,
Hunters of the Great North
, for Christmas, and Harry had been reading it aloud to her. They both seemed wonderfully courageous to me—but Harry has never gone in for heroics. Isabel and he were simply trying to do the best they could, he told me. Beneath his
brave exterior, I could see that he was taking it very, very hard. In fact, I thought he might be on the edge of a breakdown. For the first time he couldn't keep the tears out of his eyes when he was alone with me. As the Bible says, “The heart knoweth its own bitterness.” Was there ever anything truer? I have thought about that a good deal since I left my family and friends behind in Ohio and Little Brother shut me out of his life. We do, all of us, have to live alone, mostly.

Since Isabel had always been interested in Stef, I took the opportunity to tell her about the time I met Fannie Hurst at one of his artistic shindigs in New York. Such a clever woman Miss Hurst is. I don't care for her novels myself—if you ask me, she can't hold a candle to Dorothy Canfield or Hamlin Garland—but I can understand why Stef finds them amusing. He has decidedly unconventional tastes—in both books
people! Orv and I hadn't had the pleasure of his company much since he retired from active exploration. Bubbo hated to see Stef become a full-time lecturer—he said it would inevitably lead him into the use of professional tricks for creating interest. If only Stef weren't such an incorrigible go-getter. In my opinion, he would be well advised to stop talking and writing and

I had no idea how reckless Stef's ambition was until the Wrangel Island episode flared up in the newspapers that fall. That was a real eye-opener, for Orv and me both. The worst of it was, the tragedy could easily have been avoided if Stef hadn't been so irresponsible. It was entirely as a result of his negligence that four men perished in a misguided attempt to claim that godforsaken island for Great Britain. By the time the rescue ship finally cut through the ice, only the crew's Eskimo seamstress and her cat
were left to tell the tale. Although Stef didn't actually accompany the expedition, he came in for a stiff dose of criticism—every ounce of it thoroughly deserved, in my opinion! Little Brother thought his behavior was unforgivable. One half of me did too—the other half couldn't help sympathizing with Stef and wishing I could be something to him in his predicament.

Orv and I had just gotten home from the bay that September when a telegram arrived from Harry telling of Isabel's death. Naturally, we set out for Kansas City at once. Without giving it a second thought, I tucked into my bag a special copy of
The Friendly Arctic
that Stef had given me to use as a guest book. Owing to a typesetter's error, only the first few pages were printed; the rest were blank. Stef had written a personal message on the flyleaf: “I hope many good friends will write their names in this book, and that you will always value mine as somewhere near the top.” Dear Stef—so many vain wishes I had about him! Some way that blank book is a perfect picture of our friendship, with all its promise and all its disappointment.

I finally got around to asking Harry to sign his name when he came to Dayton on his way to Europe, a week or two after Isabel's funeral. My heart fairly skipped a beat as he leafed through the book, page by page, looking for a space to write in. I was on tenterhooks for fear that his eyes would fall on Stef's inscription and he would suspect something. Doesn't that beat all? There was nothing to suspect, nothing whatsoever. Stef and I were never more than good friends—were we?

BOOK: Maiden Flight
11.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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