WOWO E

The Iowa Review - - THE IOWA REVIEW - Michael Mar­tone

For hours, Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, in his ca­pac­ity as a test pi­lot, cir­cled Lan­g­ley Field in a mod­i­fied DH-4 daylight bomber. Read­ing over and over from a list of sin­gle-syl­la­ble words into a ra­dio mi­cro­phone, he trans­mit­ted the sig­nal to the re­ceiv­ing ground sta­tion be­low. The an­tenna, a hun­dred-foot length of wire made of fine phos­phor-bronze strands, like gos­samer, weigh­ing just an ounce and a half, had been spooled out be­yond the tail upon take­off. The ex­per­i­ment was to as­cer­tain what words would broad­cast well from aloft. He re­peated, “Maim, maim, main, main, make, make, man, man, map, map, mar, mar, mask, mask, match, match, mate, mate, maul, maul, maze, maze, mean, mean.. . ” Smith did not have a re­ceiver. The en­gine’s roar and the wind swad­dling the open cock­pit made hear­ing any­thing in re­turn im­pos­si­ble. In the static be­tween the words’ echo­ing, both the small siz­zle pro­duced by the ra­dio and the larger am­bi­ent howl­ing swirling around him, he pic­tured the in­jec­tion of his stut­ter­ing speech into the invisible stream of the space be­tween space. Of course, he had no way of know­ing then of elec­tro­mag­netic troughs and waves, that his broad­cast was and would be­come a com­po­nent of the lead­ing edge of that ini­tial ra­dio pulse, puls­ing still and still ex­pand­ing out­ward into the greater galaxy. No, lulled by his re­cited litany, he imag­ined some­thing more along the lines of a leaf fall­ing, switch­ing back and forth on some un­seen cur­rent, still a crea­ture con­nected to grav­ity, as he was, and not fly­ing off weight­lessly, in all di­rec­tions, out into empty space.

In April of 1925, Art Smith re­turned home to Fort Wayne, con­tracted to ad­ver­tise the new com­mer­cial ra­dio sta­tion, WOWO, broad­cast­ing then on 1320 khz. Ch­ester Keen, who also owned the Main Auto Sup­ply Com­pany, owned the sta­tion, and Smith was paid for the job with parts he would use to cus­tom­ize his air­mail Cur­tiss and his own air­plane. He em­ployed as an ori­ent­ing land­mark the down­town in­ter­sec­tions of the city’s rail lines where the yards of the Penn­syl­va­nia and Wabash meshed. There, Smith stitched to­gether the call let­ters, the Ws’ un­du­la­tions mim­ick­ing the am­pli­tude of ra­dio waves. Be­low him, he could see the many steam en­gines shunt­ing back and forth on the tracks, making their own vis­i­ble smoke and steam, more tele­graphic than sonic, the dots and dashes blooming along the lines as if their semaphor­ing was a kind of re­sponse to his own. But silent, all of this in si­lence, as his al­ti­tude and the con­stant crash of wind muted the re­ports of the whis­tles blow­ing when the en­gines picked up speed or changed di­rec­tions. See­ing the bursts of smoke be­low him, Art Smith sum­moned up that sound—that fa­mil­iar wail of it, its pant­ing ex­haus­tion, its de­pressed mi­nor key, that ac­cu­mu­lat­ing and crash­ing of the sound, wave af­ter wave af­ter wave.

In 1911, Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, cre­ated, with his new sky­writ­ing ap­pa­ra­tus, this let­ter E over Driv­ing Park (later to be re­named Me­mo­rial Park, the site of Smith’s own me­mo­rial af­ter his fa­tal crash in 1926) dur­ing a cel­e­bra­tory ex­hi­bi­tion of his fly­ing skills, con­clud­ing his first suc­cess­ful tour of the Mid­west. Only days be­fore, in Beres­ford, South Dakota, his prow­ess in his home­built craft had gar­nered him $750, enough money for Smith to take a Pull­man sleeper home to Fort Wayne. There was more than enough left over to sched­ule an ap­point­ment with the world-fa­mous oculist in Chicago. Art Smith’s fa­ther, James, had been, for years, go­ing blind, and Art had promised him a visit to the highly re­garded spe­cial­ist in hopes of slow­ing, if not re­vers­ing, his fa­ther’s de­gen­er­at­ing vi­sion the mo­ment af­ter his fly­ing pro­vided suf­fi­cient funds to do so. And now that time had come. But first, Art Smith led his fa­ther out into the meadow of Driv­ing Park and in­vited him to lie down and gaze with clouded eyes upon the cloud­less skies over Fort Wayne. The crowd that had gath­ered to wit­ness the full pro­gram of aerial ac­ro­bat­ics Smith demon­strated now also gazed aloft as the bold let­ter took shape over­head. Mr. Smith, supine, when asked by a re­porter from the Jour­nal Gazette if he could read the writ­ing in the sky that his son in his dis­tant fly­ing ma­chine was still la­bor­ing to com­plete, replied, “No. No. It is all blank, empty, a sheet of white pa­per.”

The crowd gath­ered that day on the east side of Fort Wayne eas­ily saw the panoramic E, rec­og­nized in­stantly the ini­tial let­ter of vis­ual acu­ity float­ing above them in the way it was also sus­pended, gi­gan­tic, over the ta­per­ing col­umn of other de­clin­ing let­ters ( C, D, F, L, N, O, P, T, Z) found upon the eye charts in the of­fices of their own, less fa­mous, oculists of the city. The Dutch oph­thal­mol­o­gist Her­mann Snellen de­vised his op­to­types in 1862, and eye-care pro­fes­sion­als state­side had long uti­lized his charts. Art Smith, The Bird Boy, con­tin­ued his pa­tient cal­lig­ra­phy. His fa­ther, spread-ea­gled on the grassy floor of the park, fixed his ap­par­ently un­fix­able eyes upon the blank slate of sky over his head. His son would say later that he be­lieved his fa­ther’s con­di­tion was brought on by the sun’s in­ces­sant glare, his fa­ther work­ing out-of-doors as a car­pen­ter’s as­sis­tant, his vi­sion screwed down to mark the fine guide­lines of the saw­ing. Per­haps the oculist in Chicago would sug­gest some kind of ex­er­cises for the eye. Art Smith imag­ined per­form­ing com­pli­cated feats of aerial dex­ter­ity, in­scrib­ing cur­sive trails of smoke that his fa­ther would fol­low from be­low, strength­en­ing the sub­tle op­tic mus­cles’ abil­ity to track, the lenses to fo­cus and mag­nify, to shut­ter and flood the reti­nal nerve with in­for­ma­tive light. The crowd gath­ered that day grew fa­tigued with the see­ing, cran­ing their necks to see through the tidal sheets of light. Now, in the cor­ners of their eyes, shad­ows, per­haps af­ter­im­ages of their star­ing, ap­peared. A flock of tur­key buz­zards, Cathartes aura, cir­cled, cir­cling above them, hom­ing in on the invisible scent of some­thing dy­ing or dead nearby. The cit­i­zens of Fort Wayne, as they stared at the drift­ing black birds, float­ing punc­tu­a­tion to the now new sec­ond and even larger let­ter that eclipsed the dis­ap­pear­ing orig­i­nal E, shielded their eyes against the sun.

The third let­ter ap­peared to stretch for miles in all di­rec­tions, curv­ing gen­tly at its far reaches, the fluid va­por seem­ingly drain­ing over the hori­zons. Art Smith’s fa­ther re­mained stretched out upon the lawn of Driv­ing Park con­tin­u­ing to re­port, “Noth­ing. Noth­ing. Noth­ing.” And again, “Noth­ing.” The crowd gath­ered there (the Jour­nal Gazette had es­ti­mated sev­eral hun­dred) now joined the el­der Smith on the ground, drop­ping down in groups of threes or fours, fam­i­lies, clubs, whole curious church con­gre­ga­tions. They were weary from the sus­tained awk­ward wrench­ing of their necks from the hours of watch­ing Art zoom back and forth over their heads, com­pos­ing the ex­pand­ing E’s one af­ter the other. The field was blan­keted with bod­ies, ar­rayed like patches on a crazy quilt. Those sighted could see clearly, of course, the long seem­ingly end­less strokes of the let­ter’s var­i­ous lin­ear runs. It ap­peared al­most like the sky above them was be­ing plowed, turned over to re­veal fur­rows of clouds. Or per­haps the sky it­self seemed to be im­pris­oned, barred be­hind the par­al­lel­ing ma­trix, a con­fine­ment of space cap­tured in smaller squares of space. The sun set be­yond the city to the west. And as their col­lec­tive eyes fol­lowed the blooming line head­ing in that di­rec­tion, caught there too in the joint pe­riph­eral vi­sion of the masses, a clutch of sub­tle sun dogs flared up, north and south, lodged in the teary cor­ners of thou­sands of eyes. The op­tic phe­nom­e­non par­en­thet­i­cally haloed the light with more light. Th­ese spec­tac­u­lars were lost, of course, on the blind eyes of Art Smith’s fa­ther, who, the next day, left with his son for the ap­point­ment in Chicago, there to meet with the world fa­mous oculist. In a sky­scraper of­fice build­ing within the Loop, the Smiths learned, sadly, there was noth­ing to be done. Later, the fi­nal­ity of the news sink­ing in, they, fa­ther and son, gazed out the win­dow of their room at the Palmer House, out through the slim fis­sure be­tween the crowded build­ings to the sliver of se­verely clear sky ap­par­ent over Lake Michi­gan, and both imag­ined for a mo­ment the bril­liant fu­ture of Art’s life in the op­u­lent and un­oc­cluded air.

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