Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he learned at a very early age, about flight. His mother, a high school English teacher, read to him of the adventures of Daedalus and Icarus from the book Mythology written by Edith Hamilton, who was born in Dresden, Germany, but who also grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Martone remembers being taken by his father to Baer Field, the commercial airport and Air National Guard base, to watch the air traffic there. He was blown backward on the observation deck by the prop-wash of the four-engine, aluminum-skinned Lockheed Constellation with its elegant three-tailed rudder turning away from the gates. At the same time, the jungle-camouflaged Phantom F-4s did touch-and-goes on the long runway, the ignition of their after-burners sounding as if the sky was being torn like blue silk. As a child growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Martone heard many stories about Art Smith, “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne,” and the adventures of this early aviation pioneer. In the air above the city, Martone, as a boy, imagined, “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne” accomplishing, for the first time, the nearly impossible outside loop and then a barrel-roll back into a loop-to-loop in his fragile cotton canvas and baling wire flying machine he built in his own backyard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose sky above was the first sky, anywhere, to be written on, written on by Art Smith, “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne,” the letters hanging there long enough to be read but then smeared, erased by the high altitude wind, turning into a dissipating front of fogged memories, cloudy recollection.
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In 1915, on the eve of his departure from San Francisco to Japan for his first tour there, the news broke that Aimee Cour, the wife of Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, had left California, returning home via train to her parents in Indiana. His three-year marriage in shambles, Art took to the air in pursuit of his retreating wife, tracing the railroad right-of-way until he overtook the consist near Truckee as her train approached the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada. There, in the thin mountain air, Smith composed a message in the hope his estranged wife would catch a glimpse of the missive out of her parlor car window.
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Leap-frogging across the Great Central Plains, Art Smith followed the Overland Route of the Union Pacific, its crack express train bearing Aimee Cour eastward. Flying ahead of the speeding engine, Smith continued to sky write this cryptic message at intervals that many on board, looking out from the open observation platform, believed mimicked, as it faded in the distance, the parade of telegraph poles, disappearing, as well, in the wake of the onward speeding train.
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In Chicago, Aimee Cour changed trains, boarding the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited to Fort Wayne. Art Smith flew between the city’s tall buildings, etching in vapor the single word again, the same one he had inscribed over and over upon the open sky of two-thirds of the North American Continent. His estranged wife must have spied the ghostly aerial letters sliced apart by the sculpted airspaces the skyscrapers created as her taxi, in lunchtime traffic, transferred her from the North Western Terminal to Union Station where she barely made her connection.
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Years later, Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, returned to Lake James in the northwestern corner of the state of Indiana. It was there, years before, drifting in a rowboat with his future wife, Aimee Cour, on the lake’s placid surface that he confessed his love for her and his desire to fly, drawing her attention to the lazily circling hawk in the distance. As he hovered above the site, steering his smoke emitting aircraft to compose, once again, his plaintive message, Art Smith thought he remembered the moment that marked the beginning of his life. He once again spelled out the plea from years before. The letters overhead were reflected in the green waters of the lake and seemed to sink as they dissipated, disappearing below the jagged horizon of pine, the only sound that of his machine’s echoing engine.