Saturday

Dec. 17, 2005

Coming Home

by Elizabeth Tibbetts

SATURDAY, 17 DECEMBER, 2005
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Poem: "Coming Home" by Elizabeth Tibbetts. Used with permission from the poet.

Coming Home

Oh, God, the full-faced moon is smiling at me
in his pink sky, and I'm alive, alive (!)
and driving home to you and our new refrigerator.
A skin of snow shines on the mountain beyond Burger King
and this garden of wires and poles and lighted signs.
Oh, I want to be new: I want to be the girl I saw
last night at the mike, sex leaking from her fingertips
as they traveled down to pick at her hem.
She was younger than I've ever been, with hair cropped,
ragged clothes, and face as clear as a child's.
She read as though she were in bed, eyes half closed,
teeth glistening, her shimmering body written
beneath her dress. She held every man in the audience
taut, and I thought of you. Now I'm coming home
dressed in my sensible coat and shoes, my purse
and a bundle of groceries beside me. When I arrive
we'll open the door of our Frigidaire
to its shining white interior, fill the butter's
little box, set eggs in their hollows, slip meats
and greens into separate drawers, and pause
in the newness of the refrigerator's light
while beside us, through the window,
the moon will lay a sheet on the kitchen floor.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of William Safire, born in New York City (1929). In 1979 he began writing his "On Language" column, which laid out the dos and don'ts of grammar and usage. He retired from the column earlier this year. He once wrote a list called "William Safire's Rules for Writers" as an aid for the use of correct English. The rules included, "Remember to never split an infinitive"; "The passive voice should never be used"; and "Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague."

William Safire said, "Never assume the obvious is true."


On this day in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took off on the world's first airplane flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They were just two of the many scientists and inventors around the world trying to solve the problem of motor-powered flight. The most prominent man attempting to build an airplane at the time was the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Samuel Langley. He had been studying aeronautics since 1886, and by 1899 he had a large endowment from the U.S. War Department and an entire staff of workers building his design.

One of the problems with Langley's design, however, was that his plane lacked an ability to steer. He made two test flights in the fall of 1903, and in both cases his plane went straight up and then crashed straight back down. His test flights were covered by all the major newspapers of the day, and such disastrous failure made it seem that motor-powered flight might never be achieved.

The Wright Brothers, by contrast, had believed from the start that steering and balance were the most important aspects of flight. They ran a bicycle shop, so they understood the importance of balance, and they designed their plane to be steered by the pilot shifting his own weight. They began testing gliders with their steering system in 1900, and it was almost as an afterthought that they decided to add an engine.

The Wright Brothers were from Ohio, but they picked Kitty Hawk, North Carolina as their testing ground because it was one of the windiest places in the country. The villagers of Kitty Hawk thought they were crazy, but after spending three summers there in a row, they became well known in the town, and local children began to watch them work.

This day in 1903 began with gray skies and sharp winds, and the brothers huddled in a shed to warm themselves. Orville said years later that he should have realized it was much too dangerous to fly in that weather. But they had already waited several days for the right flying conditions, and they wanted to get home before Christmas. Around mid-morning, they decided to give their machine a try. Orville shook hands with his brother and climbed into the pilot's seat.

The machine built up a speed of about 10 miles an hour, rose about ten feet off the ground, and landed almost immediately. The brothers made two more attempts, and still they barely got anywhere. Then Wilbur tried again, and suddenly, he took off into the air. He flew straight into the wind for nearly a full minute, covering 852 feet. When he landed, the rudder frame was cracked, which would take months to repair, but they had made their first successful flight.

Orville Wright later wrote of their first flight, "It was a flight very modest compared with that of birds, but it was nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started."

No journalists attended the event. The Wright Brothers hired an amateur photographer to take a single photograph that day, which he did while the plane was only ten feet off the ground. When it leaked to the press, most major newspapers refused to run the story, assuming that it was some kind of hoax. It wasn't until Wilbur flew a plane over Manhattan six years later that most people finally accepted the fact that the Wright Brothers had invented the first airplane.


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