A Writer’s Notebook: wing walkers

This happened a bit by accident. But I’ll explain below.

I get all sorts of pilots coming in on the little grass airstrip out on my farm: crop-dusters, helicopters, daytrippers coming in from the next state, on their way south or north like migrating birds. But the other day I had an honest-to-god biplane roar in over the treetops, and I knew before it had bounced to a stop at the end of the strip that I was going to walk the wings.

My great-grandmother was a wing walker. She knew Charles Lindberg before he was a pilot, back when he was still doing airship stunts. She knew Mabel Cody, too, said once she’d even met her uncle Buffalo Bill. Amelia Earhart took her up to walk the wings, though there’s no proof of this except an old silver-toned photo I have in one of my mother’s albums. It’s tucked in there with snapshots of a dancehall, a streetcar in San Franciso, my great-grandparents’ wedding, a blurry dancing dog, and a beach scene, four people I don’t even know wearing thick black bathing suits with snug skirts, the men in unitards. The photo of my great-grandmother is shaky, Earhart’s plane a bright streak against a dark treeline, but for some reason my great-grandmother is the clearest thing in the photo. Her blonde hair is streaming behind her like a flag. She’s smiling at the camera and giving a salute. She’s leaning out over the front of the wing, the only thing keeping her from falling into the propeller the momentum of the big machine beneath her bare feet.

The biplane pilot who landed in my yard wasn’t surprised when I went out to him. I had a glass of ice water and a cheese sandwich, something I did for everyone landing on my farm. He was leaning over his engine, the curved hood folded up overhead. The smell of the grass was heavy in the air, three long lines of it freshly crushed beneath of the hot rubber tires. He held the glass up to my like a toast, his way of saying thanks, and he set the paper plate with the sandwich on his lower wing.

I told him I wanted him to take me up and he said, “Sure, sure!” The easiest thing in the world, bumming rides from passing pilots. But he thought I meant in the cockpit. I corrected him.

He didn’t say anything, just looked at me and breathed through his nose. Then he crossed his arms. I think he was trying to say “Hell no” without actually using the words, but I crossed my arms too and just breathed right back at him.

Finally, he said, “Lady, you are out of your damned mind.”

I said, “Let me show you a photograph.”


People say that human beings aren’t meant to fly. We get the stories of Icarus, we get the long rundown of safety procedures inside our sealed and pressurized cabins as though the slightest thing might destroy the delicate balance that keeps us in the air. We say that skydivers have a deathwish, and we talk about crack pilots and astronauts like they’re heroes. But put your flat hand out a moving car window and feel the air across your skin. Watch a wingsuiter zip through the sky like Superman, just a turn or a twitch all it takes to direct the arrow of the body. The human form is naturally aerodynamic, all rounded edges and lean limbs. The air hugs you.

Earlier this morning, I turned on OPB to listen to the news, but the first thing that caught my ear was that, behind the newscasters’ voices, the producers were playing “The Charleston.” I’m not sure why, but there it was. And I had this vision of myself holed up in some 1930s hotel writing a novel and listening to old jazz on a scratchy radio. I even posted about it on Facebook:

The idea stayed with me all day, so when it came time to do the Writer’s Notebook post, I knew I needed to return to the music.

I didn’t know what I was going to write until I started playing this YouTube video of “The Charleston”: I was watching for the dancers, but they started showing all this other `20s- and `30-era film footage, and there were the wing walkers. It was the most striking image in the whole 10-minute film.

And I have a good writer friend who lives on a farm just outside Portland and, I swear to you, has an actual, working grassy airstrip not 50 yards from her back door. She goes up all the time, though never (that I know of) actually out on the wings.

Anyway, that’s where the idea came from. If you want a formal exercise, call it a combination of writing what you know and using what’s there — just take any stimulus that comes your way and run with it.

Incidentally, I might eventually do something with this, because I have this idea that the pilot is going to take some convincing, so in my head, the narrator takes him inside and offers him lemonade instead of water, but it’s lemonade she spikes with just a little bit of whiskey, not so much he’d notice, but enough, and then she keeps adding whiskey, a little more each glass. Or something. Or maybe she breaks out a bag a weed and offers to get the guy high. Whatever: my idea is that she gets him drunk or stoned enough that she can talk him into it, and THEN he takes her up. Which, of course, is a problem. But I don’t know what’ll happen after that.

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5 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: wing walkers

  1. Degrees of separation: I know someone whose school-friend is descended from one of Bill Cody’s Injun* Rough Riders who came over to Britain and stayed.

    Nice Hot Club de France version of the Charleston. Degrees of separation: Charleston is a suburb of Dundee and is just down the road from here.

    *Somehow it feels culturally uncomfortable referring to a ‘Native American’ in that context of 19c, faux-Wild-West showmanship. Beats me why, it just does. Sorry, no offence meant to anyone.

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