C R O S S
from The Collected Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne
edited by Michael Martone
In Nara, Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, was introduced to aviatrix Katherine Stinson, The Flying School Girl, by General Nagaoka, the imperial impresario who had organized the visits, when their separate demonstration tours of Japan intersected in the soggy city south and west of Tokyo. The citizens of Nara had built a temporary open-sided hangar where the pilots and their aeroplanes took shelter during a steady downpour. Smith returned to Japan with the 1915 model biplane he flew during his first visit. He was very interested in Stinson’s craft, a Sopwith biplane, especially its power plant, the Gnome rotary engine salvaged from the wreckage of Lincoln Beachey’s fatal crash into San Francisco Bay. The motor had been recovered along with the body. Art recalled witnessing the dead spin into the bay during the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Beachey’s monoplane disintegrated, flung hundreds of fractured pieces, flying components, gear, wings all around him. Now here was the very Gnome engine powering Stinson’s Pup. What must that somber tableau of the two grounded American flyers have inspired in the throng of curious Japanese citizens huddling there, the rain rattling the canvas roof of the hangar? They were the two survivors of the club, including Beachey, that had originated the loop-the-loop. Later, when the weather lifted, the show went on. The two agreed to perform together. Smith rigged a floor oil feed through Stinson’s exhaust, allowing her to sky write with him. They took off together, splashing through the rain soaked field, startling the scattering herds of the heavenly sika deer of Nara as they gained speed. Their coordinated aerial acrobatic maneuvers mirrored the “dog fighting” taking place worlds away. On the ship passage to the East this time, Art Smith had been distracted by the back issues of the New York World newspaper in the ship’s stateroom and the new puzzle it featured called “Word-Cross,” where clues led the contestant to enter letters into blank squares of a diamond-shaped template. He was frustrated, however, discovering that most of the puzzles had been solved, the letters left in their spaces by the thoughtlessness of previous readers. Katherine Stinson was also familiar with the new puzzle craze and was eager to contribute to the simultaneous composition. The “O” hinge, created as the two circled each other elegantly over and over, confused the gaping crowd gazing up from below. Who was the pursued and who the pursuer?
Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he learned at a very early age, about flight. His mother, a high school English teacher, read to him of the adventures of Daedalus and Icarus from the book Mythology written by Edith Hamilton, who was born in Dresden, Germany, but who also grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Martone remembers being taken by his father to Baer Field, the commercial airport and Air National Guard base, to watch the air traffic there. He was blown backward on the observation deck by the prop-wash of the four-engine, aluminum-skinned Lockheed Constellation with its elegant three-tailed rudder turning away from the gates. At the same time, the jungle-camouflaged Phantom F-4s did touch-and-goes on the long runway, the ignition of their after-burners sounding as if the sky was being torn like blue silk. As a child growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Martone heard many stories about Art Smith, “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne,” and the adventures of this early aviation pioneer. In the air above the city, Martone, as a boy, imagined, “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne” accomplishing, for the first time, the nearly impossible outside loop and then a barrel-roll back into a loop-to-loop in his fragile cotton canvas and baling wire flying machine he built in his own backyard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose sky above was the first sky, anywhere, to be written on, written on by Art Smith, “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne,” the letters hanging there long enough to be read but then smeared, erased by the high altitude wind, turning into a dissipating front of fogged memories, cloudy recollection.
MICHAEL MARTONE was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He has taught at several universities including Johns Hopkins, Iowa State, Harvard, Alabama, and Syracuse. He participated in the last major memo war fought with actual paper memoranda before the advent of electronic email. Staples were deployed. The paper generated in that war stacks several inches deep, thick enough to stop a bullet. Martone learned that the “cc:” is the most strategic field of the memo’s template, and he is sad to realize that fewer and fewer readers know what the “cc:” stands for let alone have ever held a piece of the delicate and duplicating artifact in their ink stained and smudge smudged fingers. It, like everything else, is history.