Saturday, November 14, 2009

First Flight

For as long as she could remember, Ange wanted wings.

She slipped on a once-yellow T-Shirt that she’d modded into a halter top and caught the tips of her orange hair bouncing in the mirror. She’d stopped noticing the discolored spots on the top long ago, and only half-consciously noted the new ones she’s added as she pulled the edges down to her waist over the top of her grease-smudged jeans.

She remembers the first time she saw a bird take flight. Her dad had taken her and her brother to a city park, but she ignored the jungle gym and slides. Ange spent her time watching a raven as it picked blackberries from thicket growing by a nearly dry creek. She could have cared less about the bird eating. It cawed a few times as a couple walking two dogs neared, puffing out its breast to fill its lungs and appear bigger, but the dogs kept walking.

As the canines closed in, the raven threw up its wings into hard aches preparing for the first downbeat, and then it was airborne. Flapping hard at first and then more gently as the lazy breeze provided lift at higher elevations.

Paleontologists still argue over how flight evolved. Some contend that flying evolved as the earliest birds made their way to the treetops and then glided to the ground. Others argue that wings grew out of a need to run up extremely steep inclines, like trees, to get away from predators or to the food hidden amongst the branches. Ange knows differently, though.

Flight didn’t happen because an archeaopteryx needed to get away from a velociraptor, or to get back down to the ground. Flight evolved out of a desire to escape, period. And out of a yearning to see the world as no creature before it. Lying in the damp grass watching that raven in the park, she could see the wonder in its eyes. She knew she needed wings.

She expected the high school’s metal shop instructor to laugh at her when she took him the sketch of what she wanted to build. It was early November when she finally got up the courage to drop by Mr. Maroni’s office after school.

“It’s easier to buy a plane ticket,” he’d said.

“I don’t want to fly, I want wings.”

He looked at her over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses, gauging her sincerity.

“Maybe I can help.”

They’d spent hours after school cutting aluminum tubing and figuring out the mechanics of her paper idea. To her surprise, Ange discovered she was actually good at math. She’d hated working out problems in class, but the minute she had to start figuring out the angles of the wing spines – and how much space she had to allow for them to collapse and expand – it was like someone had flipped a switch. When Maroni showed her his idea for the pneumatic pump that would breathe life into her device, Ange trilled in excitement.

A week ago, Maroni left a package wrapped in brown paper with a purple bow on the workstation Ange had laid claim to. She opened it and found 14 plastic casings, shaped like the aluminum they’d cut for wing tips, and purple LED lights. She was baffled at first, then cried as she realized what was to be done with them.

She’d composed herself and launched into removing the old aluminum tips. She was waiting with a smile on her face when Marconi walked in 20 minutes later. He only had to show her how to wire the first tip. She did the rest by herself.

Ange still hadn’t tried them on. She knew they worked. Maroni had helped her rig a mannequin out of an engine lifter that the automotive shop stored in a closet and never reclaimed. It gave them the space they needed for testing, but first flight had to be something special.

She loaded the wings into a military duffel she’d found in the attic as a kid, carefully set the package into the trunk of her brother’s baby blue, ‘71 Duster, and headed for the coast. She didn’t know where she was going, but she knew it when she saw it – a rocky jetty spotted from the 101 headed north.

She found a spot to pull over, unloaded the bundle, and hiked out to the last rock that wasn’t wet. Her heart drummed a frantic beat as she unsheathed the wings from the duffel and began working the pneumatic pump. She thought it might explode in exhaustion as she slung the bridle over her head and slid the loops around her arms. Reaching around the small of her back, she flipped the switch to ignite the LEDs and hesitated for a fraction of a second before pushing the button to spread the spines to their full six-foot span. The foils snapped open as she threw her arms up in hard arches and soared.

Ange always wanted wings. This pair will do, for now.

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