Commentary: Yearning to fly

The Kansas City StarJune 21, 2012 

“When once you have tasted flight,” Leonardo da Vinci is reported to have said, “you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

From earliest times, I suppose, human beings have envied the capacity of birds to rule the air.

But though he put it eloquently, Leonardo — born nearly six centuries ago — was speaking of something he’d never experienced.

A relentless tinkerer, he did make several attempts to create artificial wings. He never used them. He gave that honor to a servant, who launched from an upper balcony and broke a leg.

So da Vinci prudently redirected his inventiveness in more practical and less perilous directions. Oh, yes … he also did some painting.

I must have had my own childish affliction with the yearning to fly, and it, too, turned out badly. I was only 7 or 8 years old and, unlike Leonardo, had no servant to take the fall for me.

We lived on a humble street in a small bungalow with a tiny front yard and a terrace dropping away steeply to the sidewalk below.

I’d seen pictures of airplanes and decided to build one of my own.

In the basement garage I found an empty wooden vegetable crate — its dimensions suitable to serve as the cockpit for an aviator my size. Wings and tail I fashioned out of cardboard.

To be able to taxi to the brink of the terrace for takeoff, I tied my roller skates to the underside of the crate with a piece of found rope.

My father was at work. My mother was busy cooking. So, unsupervised, I had the terrace and the sky all to myself.

The flight was dramatic, but brief. And I did not experience that rapture of which da Vinci spoke. I wound up down on the sidewalk with only a chipped tooth and a skinned elbow.

It could have been — probably should have been — a good deal worse.

That long-ago adventure came to mind when I saw the recent news account of a British stuntman who jumped from a helicopter at an altitude of 2,400 feet, clad in a wingsuit — a garment whose stretched surfaces make the wearer resemble a flying squirrel and provide a measure of lift.

Without deploying a parachute, the jumper glided to a safe landing on a “runway” constructed of 18,600 cardboard boxes and celebrated his success by popping the cork of a bottle of champagne.

Going on the Internet to see what more I could learn about the feat, I happened upon an advertisement offering secondhand wingsuits.

“Fly Like a Brick,” said the headline of the ad.

No thanks, I thought. Been there, done that.

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