Thursday, December 18, 2003

'How far we have come' on wings of their dreams



By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] A replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer, piloted by Kevin Kochersberger, fails to take off Wednesday in Kill Devil Hills, during a Wright brothers centennial event.
(Associated Press photo)
Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, N.C., had their day Wednesday, with gaudy celebrations of powered flight's 100th birthday. But in this industrious town on the banks of the Great Miami River, every day is a celebration of Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Dayton, Ohio, was home to the two reserved, buttoned-down Wright boys, sons of a United Brethren bishop. At the turn of the last century, they tinkered with bicycles and ran their printing presses for a living, all the while dreaming, planning and preparing for the day when they would build a heavier-than-air machine that a man could fly.

Generations of schoolchildren in Dayton have learned their story. It's a way of life for those growing up in the city where one can still mention "The Boys" and everyone knows to whom they're referring.

In Dayton, there are thousands who spent their first day of kindergarten at Orville Wright Elementary, went on to high school at Wilbur Wright High School and earned a college degree at Wright State University.

The Boys were the very essence of Dayton, a city that earned a national reputation as a center of industry and invention long before the Wright brothers came along.

Daytonians, it seemed, were inventive, but not pie-in-the-sky dreamers. They invented practical things - the cash register, the self-starter for autos, everyday items like cellophane wrap and pop-tops for soda cans.

And, above all, powered flight.

Wednesday, as the national celebration was unfolding 600 miles away in Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers made their first short, shaky flights, Dayton was going about its business, pausing now and then to honor The Boys.

**

At 9:02 a.m. Wednesday, 300 people - many of them in Air Force uniforms - gathered on a snowy hillside overlooking the Huffman Prairie, the 100-acre plot of land where the Wrights flew their early craft in 1904 and 1905 in their endless effort to improve their invention.

They stood at the base of the Wright Memorial, the towering block of granite erected 63 years ago to honor the Wright brothers' achievement, to witness the laying of a wreath. It's a ritual that takes place every Dec. 17, but one that had special meaning Wednesday.

At that moment, like clockwork, a giant B2 Stealth Bomber took off from a nearby runway at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and climbed into the gray sky above the memorial. Necks craned up into the falling snow to watch the aeronautical behemoth pass over in salute to Wilbur and Orville, its 172-foot wing span a full 52 feet longer than that first flight at Kitty Hawk 100 years ago.

"That is awesome,'' said Alan Sheey, a retired civilian worker at the Air Force base. He was part of the crowd that watched the B2 disappear into the clouds, on its way to a fly-over at the Kitty Hawk ceremony.

"My God, how far we have come.''

**

Not 10 miles southwest of the Huffman Prairie, on Dayton's west side, is the neighborhood where Wilbur and Orville were raised. In the past century, it's evolved into an historic district where busloads of Dayton school children make pilgrimages to see the Wright Bicycle Shop, the place where they ran their print shop and the street where they lived with their sister Katharine and their father, Bishop Milton Wright.

Wednesday morning, about the same time of day the brothers made that historic first flight, Dan and Susan Marquardt of suburban Huber Heights walked in the front door of the Wright Bicycle Shop at 22 S. Williams St., a building restored and operated by the National Park Service as part of its Dayton "Aviation Trail'' that chronicles the story of the Wright boys.

They were the only visitors in the shop. A handful of others were next door walking through the interpretive center, a museum dedicated to the Wrights and their friend, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, an African-American poet who lived nearby.

"We couldn't think of any better place to be on the day of the first flight,'' said Susan Marquardt. She and her husband examined the drill presses and tools that Orville and Wilbur used to make their Wright Flyer and Van Cleve bicycles.

"I've been here many times,'' said her husband, standing in front of Wilbur Wright's tire chains and tools. "Like anybody who grows up in Dayton, you're taught to revere these two.

"And they should be revered. They changed the world. They changed everything.''

**

A few miles south of downtown, Christmas shoppers circled the parking lot of the upscale Town and Country shopping center in suburban Kettering.

Inside, the mall's corridors were strung with Christmas lights, and crowds of shoppers drifted from store to store. Across from Books & Co. sat the tiny Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co. store, a money-raising project of Dayton's Museum of Pioneer Aviation.

Inside, the shelves were stocked with Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co. caps and sweatshirts, DVDs and jigsaw puzzles. There was also a fully-built, 1:32 scale reproduction of the Wright brothers' 1903 flyer that sells for $39.95.

Kathy Riggins of Kettering bought one for her 10-year-old son, Ryan, an aviation buff who has had many hours of study on the Wright brothers in school this year. His mother said her son "can't get enough of it.''

"This is something a parent wants her child to get interested in,'' said Riggins. "It is a great story, the Wright brothers. And it all started right here, in Dayton.''

**

In the center of Dayton sits Woodland Cemetery. It is to Dayton what Spring Grove Cemetery is to Cincinnati - the place where the famous lie in eternal rest, the burial site of industrialists, politicians, the old-money elite.

On a snow-covered hillside near the cemetery's center is a granite block, the name "Wright'' chiseled on its front. It is dwarfed by many of the monuments and mausoleums nearby where lesser-known Daytonians rest.

In the Wright plot, the top two spaces are the graves of the parents, Milton and Susan. Below them, marked with simple flat slabs, are Wilbur and Orville. In between them is their sister, Katharine. It is an appropriate place for her. In life, she often had to step in between her brothers during their spats.

Two flower displays and a bouquet rested on the Wright monument at the noon hour Wednesday. A single car pulled up on the nearby lane and an elderly couple walked through the snow to lay a few more flowers on the Wrights' graves.

"We were here to go to my parents' grave, so we decided to stop and see the Wrights,'' said Richard Stark of Dayton.

"We always remember what they did, but especially today.''

E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com




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