Aloft on Wings of Our Own Making


On August 7, 1913, Samuel F. Cody fell out of the sky.  Despite having done so before on several occasions and generally being thought of as indestructible, his luck had run out this time.  Investigations concluded that a bamboo strut in his biplane's wing snapped under pressure due to the sustained heat wave in England at the time.  Immediately, stories circulated about sabotage and murder.  People were convinced that some nefarious plot had played out that summer day.  A mere accident could not have been the end of Cody, adventurer, inventor, and showman.

Now, unless you're interested in the history of aviation, you probably haven't even heard of Samuel F. Cody, much less the controversy at the time of his death.  I wouldn't have known, myself, were it not the subject of a book my father pressed me to read.  This exchange was fortified with stories about Cody's career in Wild West shows (and the inevitable conflict with Buffalo Bill,) the use of aircraft in pursuing Pancho Villa, and which piece of local property used to be owned by General Pershing.  That's how these things go.  Dad tells stories like a chain smoker consumes his cigarettes.  So, I took the book (Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral) and read it, even though I've never been all that interested in aviation history, or cowboys, or biographies.  It's good to read outside your usual tastes now and then, especially when it seems to mean a lot to your dad.

Reading Cody's biography has given me plenty to think about- things that have little to do with airplanes or Wild West shows.  That reaction to his death was something that could have happened today.  A beloved celebrity's death (and despite being more or less unknown now, Cody was popular enough to have thousands show up to his funeral) is often viewed with disbelief, and it doesn't take long for imaginations to take over.  Clearly, this isn't a modern trend but a human response as common in 1913 as it is now.  Part of it may be the general discomfort we have with death.  If it could happen to the rich and famous, it could happen to us.  Better to imagine there was some extraordinary circumstance involved.  Part may be our own innate need to weave tales.  There is an evolutionary advantage to being able to look at a situation and piece together what might have gotten us to that point.  Understanding cause and effect and being able to imagine possible scenarios is a survival skill.  So, naturally, our brains are wired to solve puzzles this way, whether there are easy explanations or not.  Our clever solutions and stories are often more interesting than the truth, so is there any wonder that exciting alternate theories can have a longer life than those easy explanations?

Another interesting aspect of the biography was the character of the man himself.  Who Samuel Cody was is in many ways a fabrication.  A middle class, Midwestern nobody who left school at age 12, he renamed himself, imagined an exciting backstory, and told it so often it became the truth.  He was talented, hard working, and willing to learn, which coupled with his tendency to spin a tale, made him an excellent showman.  From that experience as a daredevil and stunt engineer, he got involved with man-lifting kites as an alternative to balloons and with designing airplanes at a time when the world was unsure if flying machines would work in any sort of practical way.  Although it's true the world was more wide open in that era, and "experts" in aviation were limited to a handful of people who were making it up as they went along, Samuel Cody's whole story is one of total self-invention.  So, here again, the stories that we tell have a certain power to define our reality.  In fact, in this example, that's maybe even more true than in my first.

When I went to return the book after finishing, my father had just come home from a spell in the hospital for pneumonia.  He was happy to be home, but still grumbling about his hospital stay, the nurses, the extra meds he needed to take, and the demands of physical therapy he would have to endure in the weeks to come.  He's not good at slowing down or listening to directions.  (read more about Dad here )  Returning the book gave us something else to talk about beyond the usual complaints and griping about the effects of aging and a lifetime of hard work, hard drinking, and smoking until a little after his lung collapsed.  And that revealed yet another aspect of this idea of story-as-reality.  I had commented on Cody's lifelong motivation as the ultimate showman, his need to make a spectacle and draw attention by pushing to the next level.  Dad disagreed.  Cody, he said, was always focused on taking care of his family.  All his showmanship, the deals he cut with the British government, the risks he took with his life and reputation were all to build a secure life and legacy for his family.  This concept would never have occurred to me without Dad's suggestion.  Certainly, Cody's love for his common law wife and children was evident.  Certainly, he wove his family into every ventured enterprise, including his wife and children into shows and projects building kites, dirigibles, and airplanes.  But it took my dad to see the man's family as Cody's primary motivation.  I'm still not convinced of that conclusion, but what has become clear is that my father saw himself in Cody's story and that family was Dad's primary motivation.  It didn't always seem that way when I was growing up, and it didn't always work out that his family benefited by his actions, but we were who he lived for.  We were the reason he worked hard and took risks and made hard choices.  And it was important at this late hour in his lifetime that he make me see that - in his indirect way, by sharing this story he had layered with his own truth.  So, once again, we find what we seek.  The story that means something to us has more importance than whatever objective truth may exist.

This idea that we make our reality is not a new one.  It's plain that our ideas about the world have changed throughout time, and what was certain a thousand years ago may seem clearly false now.  Our perspective and values have changed, so our reality has changed along with them.  My current read is But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman, a book that explores our malleable reality through the lens of history and asks what we may embrace as truth now that might be viewed differently in the future.  While I wouldn't necessarily agree with all his conclusions (and, maybe, neither would he,) I do admire his willingness to jump into the unknowable.  He bravely dissects the way we think and how it affects the way we see the world.  In many of these exercises, one thing is plain:  what is is not always as important as what we tell ourselves about what is.  The way we view the world is coloured by who we are and what we value in our personal story.

Before you start with the "but, science" argument, let me say this- Science is a thing.  There are mostly provable facts about the universe that all come down to repeatable experiments and math.  Klosterman does an excellent job of laying out the arguments for modern science's definitions of our real world.  And, personally, I'm totally behind those who seek those objective truths through the scientific method.  I'm not about to dismiss the body of scientific progress because I think a story might be more interesting.  Science works, and we have a world filled with technology and medicine to add weight to the idea.  But there are all sorts of aspects in our understanding that are fuzzier in nature and subject to interpretation by the storyteller.  We are humans.  We make stuff up based on what we see and think.  What we make up is influenced by who we are and what is important to us.  And the stories we make up have the power to shape our reality.

For all our love of the concept of objective truth, it really has little to do with what we believe.  As human beings, we love a good story and we fashion our reality from them.  The noble search for objective truth and our love of story need not be opposed.  Searching makes a good story, and we can rejoice with each new discovery.  Even our failures in that goal can still be raised up as part of the journey, the necessary hurdles before our happy ending.  In that way, the tales we tell ourselves can furnish us with hope and the ambition to continue after a setback.  Even in the pursuit of truth, a good story can keep us aloft and make all the difference.

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