A Brief History of Flight
By Ronnie Bray
I envied boys who could make paper aeroplanes that actually flew, some of them describing wonderful patterns of flight before the well-shod and perfectly polished feet of the 'Lucky Devil Launcher.'
My crumpled monsters went into their death gyrations as soon as they left my fumbling fingers. Had I thought to ask one of the glitterati, I may have learned the secrets of their craft but in my world you did not ask, and in my world nobody volunteered to tell.
Yet, flight was not impossible. The school issue steel pen nibs we used to scratch and splutter our written work across our smudged feint-lined pages made excellent darts. By snapping off the two bits that made the writing points, a set of lesser but more deadly points appeared one each side of the shaft. The upper end of the shaft, designed to slide into the penholder, could be split by gently trapping it in the desk lid, taking care not to damage one’s fumbling fingers all the while. A piece of paper, deftly folded by ink-stained fingers into four, fashioned to resemble the fletch of an arrow, was inserted into the crack, and the dart was born. Being extremely light, this was no long distance dart, but it stuck into whatever it hit, provided that it was not impenetrable.
We discovered that human flesh was not impenetrable. Pete West knew, a priori, that human flesh was not impenetrable, for when I asked him to stand in front of the wooden garage doors along the little going-nowhere-lane that ran at the side of Gabriella’s Milk Bar in Trinity Street, parallel to Little Greenhead Park, as we called the leafy walk, he refused point blank. It was the only time that I have ever seen fear in Pete’s face. My most eloquent pleadings could not move him. My appeals to him to trust me, and my insistence that I was possessed of far more skill than necessary, to ‘just miss’ his trembling head were to no avail.
Yet, stories of archers shooting peerlessly at small objects placed on or near a loved one form part of our classical mythology and appear in many parts of the world, the most celebrated being that of William Tell and his son, when, had it not been for Pete’s unreasonable terror, the legend of Ronnie Bray and the pen nib dart might have overtaken the Tell story in modern romance.
Most of my dart work was confined to the classroom, where there was less wind factor to take into consideration. My mathematical knowledge applied to pyramid building would have rendered Cheop’s monument a piece of paving nine yards square. My class at the time of the nib-dart explosion was Form III, ably led by tennis-playing Mr. Charles Brummitt of Farnley Tyas in my next to last year of school, except when Mr Bob Hesford, one-time goalkeeper for that repository of lost hope, Huddersfield Town Association Football Club, stepped into the lion’s den during Mr Brummitt’s unexplained and brief absence.
During some part of Bob Hesford’s short incumbency, I worked at the front edge of his desk. I have no idea why or for how long. One morning as we sat down together on opposite sides of his desk, he reached across, gave my knuckles a light tap, and said with a good natured smile, “That’s for nothing: now try something!”
It was one of those years when I applied myself to pursuits other than schoolwork. In fact, I do not recall ever getting round to schoolwork in any of my classes. I am only aware of increasing bewilderment as I was passed from one pair of hands to another with each passing year. Little wonder. No one had ever bothered to explain why I was there in the first place. I was just shovelled out of the back door like so much house dust and headed in the general direction of Spring Grove School.
I was forcibly reminded of this when I was a psychiatric nurse at St Clement’s Hospital in Ipswich, Suffolk. We admitted a man suffering from manic-depressive psychosis. He was a most interesting man who was in the florid stage of hypomania. He had embarked on many bizarre projects, spending all his family’s money in the process, insisted that he was the Prime Minister, had the solutions to all the world’s problems, and ran the whole ward ragged for a week until we managed, through chemical cocktails and good, honest psychotherapy – i.e., talking to him - to bring him down to our level of delusion. Then, we learned that we were indeed in the presence of greatness. The man was a genius who could remake a fine watch, strip and rebuild any kind of machine, tailor a suit fit for a king, and speak ten languages, probably all at the same time.
He struck up a conversation with an hostile White Russian we had been holding against his will for the better part of twelve years. He was able to tell the man, a diabetic, that he was in hospital. The man’s demeanour changed instantly. He had imagined that he wa sbeing held prisoner by the Russian Secret Police and that the daily shots of insulin we gave him - not without a struggle - were eating his brain away rather than saving his life. No one else spoke his language, and he cried when his normalised translator was eventually discharged. What a properly applied explanation can do, eh?
Well, no one explained to me why I had to go to school for the thick end of twelve years! I knew it was punishment, for what I did not know, but that was nothing new, and I knew it was very boring – not like the pictures! Pen nib darts brought welcome relief to my imprisonment. After the pen nib darts fad, nothing much happened to relieve the boredom. I pored over my books and papers, staring at the jumble of letters arranged into meaningless masses of words and wondered how others made sense of them. I was not dyslexic; I could read since I could remember, but ideas did not form in my mind too well and I turned off, just as I did with numbers. If you want to see me faint, just show me some numbers and my brain goes right off into Dreamland.
Sometimes the paper aeroplanes shot across the room. That would only happen when teacher’s back was turned, which was not often. Rule 1 for self-preservation was, “Never turn your back on them!” We were not rowdy or aggressive like kids are today, but had fine veins of twinkling mischief running through us now and then, and it surfaced again, only not me. I dare not do anything to attract attention, and was always surprised when I did. I used to doodle on my paper, drawing little inept sketches of things that rambled into my mind like the Model Lodging House at number nine Chapel Hill just below Brunswick Road Chapel. For some inexplicable reason some of us found that hilariously funny and would collapse into shaking, shuddering, wobbling jellies laughing like drains, if someone said ‘number nine’ in a silly voice.
Throwing aeroplanes when teacher was not looking was the beginning of rebellion and the reinforcement of guilt. There was some kind of feeling about even pulling a face behind teacher’s back but none of us ever did that. We rather liked our teachers, even if we did not understand them. We admired most of them and looked up to them. I knew them as a race apart.
My model of society was stratified, with teachers and policemen above parents, these more powerful than other adults, then right at the top was God, a mysterious powerful being who did things with clouds, waves, fireworks and thunder. Below God, but only just, were headmasters and ministers of religion, both of who had minions that would kill restless boys if told to do so. In that society, my dwelling place was in the dust. Most days I was just thankful to be, so long as I was not required to do anything that exposed my ignorance or lack of skill.
Other boys had to run almost the whole length of the playground to retrieve their aeroplanes, whilst mine fell at my feet. I did not even get exercise in the recovery of my sorry projects, although my back developed a high degree of flexibility.
Flight was for birds and clever boys who could whistle loud, think, and understand what was going on. Most of them could do sums and even get some of them right. They seemed to know what the teacher was saying, although there was not much discussion. They did not build ink empires in the margins of their blank papers, and the teacher never went behind them to see what they had drawn. I felt quite proud when Mr. Brummitt, a kind man, stood behind me and announced, “Whenever I want a little light entertainment, I look over Bray’s shoulder!”
Still, it would have been nice to have one of my aeroplanes fly - at least once.
Copyright © January 2001 - Ronnie Bray - All Rights Reserved