The Call of the Clouds
A Story by Lea Sheryn
Two young boys runaway from home to witness the first flight
Ever since I could remember, my older brother, Deacon, wanted to fly. Day in and day out, it was all he ever spoke about. My father, the Right Reverend Josiah Samuel Whittier, didn’t believe it was possible for man to take to the air. When Deke spoke of the possibility, my father thundered it was blaspheme against God. In my father’s opinion, if God had wished us to fly, He would have had the foresight to give us wings. Still, my brother insisted that someday there would be a great invention that would allow us to travel in the clouds.
The year 1903 brought speculation that the achievement would be upon us. Deacon had just turned fourteen during the summer of that year and I had turned eight a few weeks before Easter. No one knew how he came about the information but somehow he had heard a rumor that two brothers from Ohio named Wright, who for three years had been experimenting with a design to create a flying machine, were closing in on success. Despite father’s thunderous exclamations cautioning Deke to silence on the subject, he persisted in his talk.
Early one cold December morning, just as I was beginning to awaken, I thought I felt a draft enter the room. As I turned over to gain a new position, I noticed a movement in the curtains and was just in time to see Deke’s head disappear from the frame of the window. Quickly throwing my trousers and shirt on, I yanked up my suspenders and climbed onto the trellis a few moments behind my elder brother.
Having much longer legs than I, Deacon had a tremendous head start on me. Rushing to catch up to him, it was all I could do to keep him in sight as he deliberately marched along the road to town in the pre-dawn of an adventurous day. Hearing the chug-chug of an approaching locomotive, I noticed Deke’s direction was leading him to the far side of the depot. My brother was going to hop the train!
Calling his name, I rushed down the slope headed to town. Stopping at the edge of the tracks, Deke turned to me and hollered: “Go home, Sam.” Instead of heeding his instructions, I rushed forward to join him. It was my intention to discover what his plans were and to attempt to convince him to return home. I knew my father’s fury and my mother’s anxiety if their eldest child were to suddenly disappear. I reached his side just as the train approached.
Deacon swung easily into the yawning gape of an opened boxcar. Leaping after him, I managed to grab the ledge at the opening and began to scramble for footing. Grabbing my hands, my brother hauled me on board.
“Don’t you ever do what you're told, Squirt?” Deke questioned as he deposited me in a corner and stood over me.
“What are you doing? Where are you going?” I fired my questions without answering him.
“Kitty Hawk,” he answered, sitting down beside me.
“Kitty Who?” I asked, perplexed.
“Not who; where. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Orville and Wilbur Wright are there right now, experimenting with their flying machine. I’m going to see them fly,” Deacon bragged.
“You’re going to what? Oh, no you’re not. You gotta go home, Deke. Mother will worry and Father…you know what Father will do,” I blurted out, thinking of the leather strap the Right Reverend kept hanging in the barn for the occasions when his sons disobeyed his strict law of household behaviors.
“I’m going to Kitty Hawk and, as soon as day breaks, Sam is going to jump off this train and go home,” my brother declared as though his word were law. “Understood?”
“I’m cold, Deacon,” I complained, hugging myself around the middle to keep from shivering.
The argument ceased as my sibling struggled from his coat and unwound his muffler from around his neck. Although his outer wrap was much too large for me, I was glad of its warmth. Occupying my former place in the corner, Deacon took me in his lap and held me close for the duration of our train journey. It was a great sacrifice for him to do this since I knew the December cold penetrated the outer wall of the boxcar yet he never complained. All in all, he was a good brother who cared for the welfare of others and showed his kindness by taking on such tasks without a word of complaint.
When the train showed signs of slowing as it closed in on a depot sometime around mid-morning, we leaped from the moving boxcar. Grabbing my hand, Deacon dragged me down the grading and into a wooded area. It wouldn’t do if we were discovered hiding out in the train since we would have been hauled to the nearest police station where a telegraph would be sent to our parents with our location. Hence we would have been returned home to face the wrath of the Right Reverend.
Upon gaining the far side of the wooded area, we found ourselves on the outskirts of a farmyard. A tow-headed boy about my own age was busy chopping wood at the block. Although it was a downright cold day, he had stripped his coat off and draped it over the pump. It didn’t take Deke long to silently creep forward to snatch it, grab my arm and run. As soon as we were out of sight, I gave him his coat and donned the one he had stolen.
“Father says it’s a sin against God to steal,” I proclaimed, feeling uncomfortable about wearing a garment that belonged to someone else.
“It’s an even greater sin to allow your little brother to freeze to death, Sam,” Deacon responded as he marched off in the lead. I ran to catch up to him.
Our life of petty crime continued through the states of Virginia and North Carolina as Deacon raided henhouses, root cellars and dairy barns to feed us and provide fresh milk each day. He even went so far as to swipe a pecan pie from the opened windowsill of a farmhouse with the farmer’s wife still busy in the kitchen. We were a long way from our home in Brooke’s Mills, Pennsylvania. When we weren’t marching along the road, we were able to hitch a ride on any transportation that provided itself, which meant trains, wagons, and much to our enjoyment, a Ford Model A. Finally Deke declared we were close to Kitty Hawk.
Once we reached Kitty Hawk, situated on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it wasn’t difficult to discover the location of Kill Devil Hills where the experimentation with the flying machine was taking place. Standing in awe at the sight of the Wright Flyer, I couldn’t believe for a moment that it would ever leave the ground. The contraption, built of giant spruce with a wing design of 1-in-20 camber bicanard biplane configuration and twin propellers, seemed unwieldy to my young eyes. How were they ever going to get that thing off the ground? I wondered. Deacon, on the other hand, had no doubt success was in sight.
Situating ourselves in a place where we could get a good view yet still remain undetected, we prepared to watch the Wright Brothers take turns with their experiment. Sitting with his knees bent upwards and his elbows propped to hold up his chin, Deacon studied the maneuverings as the trial and error testing continued. Finally on December 17th, 1903, Orville Wright took the controls and launched into the first recorded flight that lasted 12 seconds at a distance of 120ft. All in all, Orville and Wilbur completed four brief flights that day, all at low-altitude. Unfortunately, by the end of the day, the flyer was damaged by a heavy gust of wind that turned it end over end.
Despite the inability to make quick repairs, my brother was in paroxysms of glory. “We did it!” he exclaimed, jumping to his feet and whooping loudly as he waved his arms over his head. Tugging on his coat, I pulled him back to the ground and whispered: “They did it.” Deke reddened at his assumption of having participated in the experiment and repeated: “They did it.”
Gathering the meager results of our picnic lunch, we rose to leave the scene of the great achievement of the first flight. There, standing behind us, the tall imposing figure of the Right Reverend loomed. Dressed all in black and with his hands clasped behind his back, our father appeared as stern and righteous as ever. A little further away, our mother sat inside a black carriage, her hands clasped tightly in her lap.
Without a word, father pointed us toward the road and made us walk along side the carriage the full four miles to Kitty Hawk. Taking us each, one at a time, into the stables behind the hotel the Right Reverend had booked for the night, he tanned our jackets for us with his black leather strap. Deacon took his punishment in stride, like a man, but I couldn’t endure mine. As soon as I was set free, I ran into our rented rooms to bury my head in mother’s lap.
Ever fascinated with flight, Deacon, with the help of his good friend, Eddy Franklin, built his own bi-plane in a fallow field on the Franklin farm. When the war called, he eagerly signed up as a pilot soon becoming an American Ace. The news hit us hard when we received the wire that he had been brought down over Germany. I admit I was at a loss to think my brother was gone forever.
Deacon, who had always shown such great joy in the idea of flying and who had answered the call of the clouds with such gusto, was gone. It was only then that I realized how much he had meant to me and how ashamed I was to think I had never taken the opportunity to tell him. His body was never recovered. As much as I grieved his loss, I knew Deke had died as he had lived, and that he had fulfilled his dreams of soaring with the clouds.
World War II found me in the Chaplain Corp. Never, during my stint in Germany, did I lose the opportunity to seek information concerning my brother Deacon. However my searches remained fruitless. Even after the years between the two wars and now, I still feel the loss of the brother I admired as a youth. I longed to bring him home, but he is lost to us yet.
I am now the Right Reverend Josiah Samuel Whittier. My mother is long gone; she couldn’t bear the strain of the loss of her firstborn and departed this earth shortly after the news of Deacon’s death. My father passed on to the Glory Land he preached about at a cantankerous old age leaving me the church he’d founded in Brooke’s Mills before the turn of the century. Unlike his fire and brimstone sermons, I preach the Love of Christ and administer to our congregation as I am needed, which brings me to the bedside of the sick and dying and to women having difficulties with childbirth. At the age of 93, I still enter the pulpit for Sunday morning and evening service and on Wednesday night prayer meetings, although my son, another Josiah Samuel Whittier, would rather relieve me of those duties. My eldest grandson, Deacon, is the flyer in the family having acquired his wings with the US Air Force.
Dutifully I tend the memorial marker commemorating the life and heroic death of my elder brother, Deacon Marshall Whittier. I realize my time is near and my life is drawing to a close. It is my hope that I will see Deke beyond the Pearly Gates and we will be young once again, sitting in that field at Kill Devil Hills watching history unfold as Orville and Wilbur Wright record their first flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.