Western Flyers Don't

Their detailed plans came up short every time.
Western Flyers Don't

In the mid-1950s I spent time in front of the radio listening to The Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon. I wanted to be the hero on the white horse one minute and fly to the stars the next. Elements of rational thought were evident but they were coated with a rich imagination; some would say I was gullible. With recurring dreams of flying and the wondrous feeling that would come from it, my older cousin and I set about finding the most direct route to becoming airborne.

Jumping seldom produced the satisfaction we were seeking. Reasoning that speed and angle had something to do with it, we would race our bicycles as fast as we could while pulling up on the handlebars, hoping to become airborne. Frustrated with the results, we had long conversations questioning our technique.

It was during one such conversation that we discovered a surefire way to breach gravity and soar into the sky. While pulling up on the handlebars, we would go as fast as possible off the side of a bridge. This would combine thrust, angle and air. Surely the flying part of the Western Flyer would wake up and take over from there.

I remember my cousin pointing at the word Flyer on my red bicycle. “It says it right there. The bike is made for flight.” Being unable to read the instructions that came with the Western Flyer, we were left to our own creativity in solving the problem of flight.

We rehearsed every move on the street. As a measure of safety, I had a leather helmet for these circumstances and a sweater that could be tied around my neck like a cape. I did this in case temperatures were lower at the altitude I wanted to reach.

On the day we felt ready, my cousin insisted that he wait until I was in the air before his own launch. Since I would be in the lead position as the first flyer, I agreed. He was a year older, and it seemed fitting that in this one endeavor, I could be ahead of him.

We raced to the wooden bridge several blocks away. As we approached, I went faster and faster, rolling up one edge of the bridge, then over the side.

While it is true that I was airborne, the imagined ride into the sky was not to happen. I went straight down into the shallow creek below.

A few days later, after analyzing all the moves from the previous approach, I tried again. The second attempt yielded the same result. The bicycle survived, but I never felt the same about it afterward. The bicycle had failed my expectations.

Learning from our mistakes, we decided that when we were old enough, we would notify the makers of the Western Flyer bicycle. In the meantime, we channeled our energy into flight using another method.

My cousin was attending an institution of higher learning to get his ideas. I, being the younger, listened to the radio. When he got home from first grade, we met at his house or mine, and there we would talk.

One day while at school, he saw a picture of a man parachuting from an airplane. His description of the picture led us to surmise that the man floated to earth using the parachute to reduce the speed of his fall. This discussion renewed our interest in flight.

Perhaps we started with the wrong materials.

Our initial objective was free flight with the ability to select direction and speed. This parachute idea was passive, but I was open to accepting baby steps to our goal.

We looked for material to assemble a parachute and initially decided on a towel. However, rain stopped our maiden flight. During the rain we noticed umbrellas for the first time in a new light. They all appeared to be perfect, smaller replicas of the parachute in the picture.

Math was not our strong suit at that point, but it was easy to see we were smaller than a grown man. Given that we were smaller and the umbrella was smaller, we had a match. With that observation behind us, we discarded the towel parachute concept.

Now, all we needed was a tall place from which to launch our first flight.

The bridge had lost its charm. Two falls into the creek and a sore arm were enough for me. Perhaps the gravity surrounding the bridge was not suitable for flight.

In any case, a tree seemed to be the best alternative. We could climb to the top of a tree in the front yard and jump out as far as we could from the top branch with the open umbrella above us. Our acute reasoning told us the umbrella would carry us away from the limbs below and we would drift to the ground, directing our path with the angle of the umbrella.

However, given that we had no experience with this mode of travel, we decided to jump from a limb on the far side of the chosen tree to float away from the house.

We waited for a day when the wind was blowing in the desired direction, taking delight in how our critical-thinking skills would save us from landing on the roof of my parents’ house. We reserved that flight for when we had experience controlling the descent.

On the day of the maiden umbrella flight, we could only find one umbrella. Being a pound lighter than my cousin, we determined that I should be the one piloting the umbrella.

My descent was slowed—not by the umbrella but by the branches between me and the ground. After a few minutes regaining my breath, I walked away from the experience with bruises and sore limbs. The umbrella paid the real price. My cousin had borrowed the umbrella from his parents. His sore limbs came later.

The lack of another umbrella and a ladder saved us from jumping off the house.

So we moved on to snakes.

If a snake talked to a girl, like Eve, why would it get bashful around a boy? And does a Texas snake have a Texas accent?

Life’s big questions require curiosity and a moderate amount of initiative.

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