from The Collected Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne

Edited by Michael Martone

 

w r i g h t

One of Art Smith’s earliest aerial attempts pays homage to the inventors of heavier than air controlled powered flight. It was composed over the open ocean of North Carolina’s Outer Banks near Kill Devil Hills in 1915 after several trial runs spelled out with a stick upon the sand dunes. Back in 1910, Smith had traveled from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis to see the brothers demonstrate their craft. Returning home, an inspired Art Smith breathed out upon the window of the interurban whisking him north, and in the fog now clouding the car’s glass he spelled out, with a trembling finger, the name of the creators and in so doing prefigured his own invention of skywriting in the rapidly approaching future.

 

R l G H T

During the 1916 barnstorming tour of the upper Midwest, Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, wrote this over the town of Wahpeton, North Dakota. The meaning of the message was unclear. One interpretation has it that Smith was asserting his “right” to land his craft on the one paved municipal street below, the citizens of Wahpeton being notorious for their dislike of the many stunt flyers now crisscrossing the region. The other theory holds that this was a signal to Smith’s ground chase crew that he would be turning “right” and heading to the more welcoming town of Breckenridge, Minnesota, on the eastern bank of the northern flowing Red River.

 

R l T E

On November 18th, 1925, the Scottish Rite Cathedral opened in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Art Smith flew above the ceremonies, inscribing this message along the corridor of Fairfield Avenue. The Valley of Fort Wayne Ancient and Accepted Order of the Scottish Rite, a growing order of the Masons, sought, at the time, to expand. Max Irmscher & Sons began construction in April of 1924 with 200 masons, mostly local, taking a year and a half to complete the project costing over $1 million. Two steam shovels took six weeks to excavate the ballroom. Over 350,000 bricks were used in the construction, adding to the building’s reputation as the most “fire-proof” in the city. Art Smith had longed to be “tapped” by the secret fraternal organization. He often thought of his skywriting as a kind of masonry. The smoke might be like grouting, or the words concocted out of that vapor a signifier of “wall.” But his contribution to that glorious occasion proved inconsequential, the writing disappearing almost as soon as it was written, and goes unremarked in the printed commemorative program.

 

W R l T

Not long before his untimely death in February of 1926, Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, affixed the above above an open field straddling the Indiana, Ohio border near Paulding. At the time, Smith served as a pilot for the recently formed Air Service of the United States Post Office, flying the routes between New York and Chicago. He would often modify his Curtiss Carrier Pigeon aircraft with his skywriting apparatus, several times advertising over the large metropolitan regions to Write Home or Write Mother via the PO. It is harder to explain this message affixed over the open and desolate pastureland of western Ohio. Smith left no notes in this regard. Who was the intended audience for this swiftly dissipating and somewhat lyrical missive?

 

i f

The letters “i” and “f” appeared in the clear blue sky over Fort Wayne, Indiana, during the fall of 1921, inscribed there by Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, using his patented device to generate the fog for sky writing. Smith often commented that he wished he could find a way to produce the messages he wrote in the sky instantaneously instead of the slow sequences produced, one after the other, as his machine, flying a kind of aerial ballet, moved from point A to point B through time and space. While Art Smith was able to solve many physical problems presented by the invention of flight, he was unable to overcome the linear constraints seemingly built into the act of writing in this manner. In this case the “i” appeared first in the sky followed then by the “f” creating, with every pitch change and sputter of the engine’s report, a kind of suspense suspended above the literate observers down below. And then…

 

l  t
i f

In the summer of 1921, Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, read for the first time the writings of the mathematician Daniel Bernoulli as he convalesced after his crash into a cornfield near Lima, Ohio. He had been flying and crashing now for more than a dozen years, doing so, as it appeared to him, with only the instinct of the avian species and the tinkerer’s knack for having a go, never fully realizing the physical laws of nature that he and other pioneers of flying were employing in, what seemed to be, the miracle of heavier than air powered flight as well as their death defying stunts and maneuvers. Only a week before writing “lift” above, Art Smith was moved to inscribe the equation

 

p + q = po

over Lake Wawasee near Syracuse, Indiana, its waters congested by the Labor Day boating populace mystified by the formula floating overhead.

 

l  t

“The duration of space in space” was how Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, described it, the punctuation of the fading letters accentuating the empty empty distance between those letters that remained temporarily suspended in the cold cold stratosphere. After completing another composition, Art Smith would often cut the power to his noisy engine, and he and his aircraft would descend, gliding earthward on the wings of a welcome silence. A silence composed of the static frequency of the wind flowing over all the surfaces of his body as he waded into the altitudes of denser air and the solid grasp of invisible gravity.

Contributor

Michael Martone

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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