The Essence of Flight

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was a piece on LRC Friday, August 29, "Where
the Rubber Meets the Sky
," from the New York Times
of August 28. It told of a 78-year-old WW II vet, Bob Bender, who
often treks from his home in Mineola, Long Island, to Hangar B at
Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to fly small, rubber-powered model

Times article, by Vincent LaForet, is what journalists call
a soft feature. It was a beautiful piece of reporting. I think that
is true not just because it resonated so strongly with me, but because
what was brilliantly conveyed in this story of a dedicated man is
what I am calling for this piece the essence of flight.

am using the term essence in a particular way and will come back
to that.

first to talk about my own reaction. I am a bit older than Mr. Bender,
but I know where he is coming from, as people say nowadays. I started
building rubber-powered models about 1930, when I too was seven,
and kept at it until I went to college. I have since returned to
the hobby a few times, but the last time was perhaps more than 20
years ago. Mr. Bender has got me salivating to get started again.

I built a model for my son when he was about ten, I thought I should
get with the latest thing and made a gas-powered job. We went down
to the local field and powered up. (This was a first – and as it turned
out – last time for me. I had got out of the game when gas power was
just coming into it back in the late 30s.)

let the model take off and watched it climb . . . and climb and
climb, and disappear into the void. I had ignored some instructions
about installing a fuse to detach the tail after a certain period
of flight, which I thought needlessly complicated and mysterious.
We never saw that plane again, and my son was understandably not
converted. He returned to baseball and fishing.

realized much later, contemplating this fiasco, that I really did
not dig gas engines. Guys my age and some younger ones, all over
this country, and in many other nations, make gas-powered model
planes of almost incredible finish and sophistication and fly them
outdoors at often quite elaborately outfitted airdromes. But I am
no longer tempted, as I once was, to get into that end of the hobby.

did have a brief period after the gas engine disaster of making
"peanuts," as the little 12-inch wingspan planes like
the ones Bender flies are known to enthusiasts. I never found a
proper place to fly them indoors, however, and they don't do well
in wind. Now I want to get back into it. Why?

let me try to say. You have ingredients that cost at most a few
dollars. (Back in the 1930s it was a matter of pennies.) You need
only a few tools. The secret of success is not in money but in craft
and understanding something about aerodynamics. It's skill,
not power. And success, watching a tiny plane fly around
in circles and glide back down to the ground, is somehow a uniquely
satisfying experience. One has flown. One has experienced
the essence of flight, and that, like the intuition of any
essence, is a brush with the eternal, with something that is always
the same and always true.

piece on Bender includes these lines:

Bender allows each [of the youngsters who come to watch him fly
his planes] to choose a plane and guides them through winding the
[rubber] motors, each with that precise number of turns. Then he
walks them to a clear spot and let's them set the planes free. u2018You
should see the look on the kids' faces,' he said, u2018when they fly
those planes.'"

know what they are feeling. I can still feel it. They have experienced
a genuine marvel, not available, I do believe, to any human beings
before the Wrights. It seems to be something a little beyond simple
imagination, and I think it goes over into a realm that is difficult
for me to write about, probably because my thoughts about it are
only half formed.

this point I have to veer off on a tangent. In recent months I have
read a ferocious amount of Internet and periodical commentary and
reached the point finally where I could see that my absorption in
the war and the D.C. follies was (a) getting in the way of the work
I am supposed to be doing, and (b) keeping me more or less constantly
upset and furious about the barbarisms and betrayals du jour. I
was gagging on the menu of horrors being served up by our leaders
and suffering from a sense of total impotence to do a damn thing
about any of them.

long ago, in a fight-back posture, and without, certainly, giving
up on my daily fix of insights from LRC, I decided to start spending
a lot more time reading books. You know, the lasting, permanent
kind of thing. Not long after that I bumped once again into the
phenomenon of the Spanish-American philosopher Santayana.

have long had a copy of Irwin Edman's excellent 1936 "Baedeker"
to Santayana's writings, The
Philosophy of George Santayana
, and have read Santayana's
best-selling 1936 novel, The
Last Puritan
, several times over the last 50 years. This
last had a special appeal to my Boston-bred brothers and me because,
besides being an intensely moving story of the whole life of a New
England youth killed in WW I, it is also an enormously circumstantial,
skillful, and ironic send-up of the "Boston scene," which
delighted us "Irish boys" because it took so unseriously
the ponderously serious Boston-Cambridge intellectual scene.

I do not bring up Santayana here to go off on a critique of him
or a mini-biography, but rather to say that I have become at last
a halfway serious student of his work. I have bought a whole bunch
of his books from the online booksellers and will buy more as funds
permit. My present view, which has been developing over recent weeks,
is that he is one of the most consistent, honest, readable and profound
of 20th century philosophers, as well as one of the most
ignored and underrated. I notice that his books sell secondhand
at remarkably low prices.

am working toward trying to grasp his concept of essences,
which I know he did not consider existences. That is, he
said, essences do not "exist." All existence is a flowing,
a becoming; whereas essence (I hope I have this right) is true Being.
It, as it were, rides over and sums existence, and is, if you will,
superior to it, or at least it is fixed and unchangeable, not subject
to the universal flux.

as you can plainly see I am not the man, at least not just now,
to tell you what George Santayana was saying in his late work, The
Realm of Essence. But I had an intuition that I trust, and which
constitutes for me what I consider real learning, when I read that
piece about model plane builder Bender and reflected on my own experience,
vivid to me as I write this.

am convinced that both in the article and in my recollections, I
perceive an essence, the distillation of experience into permanence
and unforgettable truth.

1, 2003

White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas.

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