For a century the trajectories of two bloodlines arced closer toward meeting. Their product, born in 1909 and now white-haired, sits before me temporarily at rest in the converted barn he calls home at Flying Ridge Farm in Connecticut. But it will not be long before Robert Edison Fulton Jr. is in transit again. His is a lineage made of motion.
In 1807 Robert Fulton—mechanical genius, inventor, artist—launched the steamboat Clermont in the Hudson River. Every schoolchild used to know his name, but only for this feat. Largely forgotten now are his other accomplishments: a dredging machine, the first practical submarine, naval torpedoes.
In this chronicle of other desiccated amazements are those of Ezra Johnson Travis, soldier and horseman. Not a hundred years after the Clermont’s journey, Travis began the Utah-Nevada-California Stage Company. The Company carried mail and passengers eight thousand miles a day through the arid West. His son Wesley was born into the motor age. Hoofprints became a memory under the paving on those same stage routes, over which odd, stretched cars of Wesley’s devising now began to travel. Soon they bore the name Greyhound. Wesley’s sister married a descendent of Fulton, one who imported Mercedes automobiles and occasionally raced them; he became president of the Mack Truck Company. Although the young couple lived on the impressive bluffs of Riverdale north of New York City, they seemed to love leaving home. They and their children took the first passenger flight from Miami to Havana in 1921.
One of their children, the one whose blood was most awakened by these motive forces, now sits before me in his studio in Connecticut. The winds of this accumulated history may be what is perceptible in the air, what stirs around him. In any event, a P-51 Mustang fighter plane is visible through the vast picture window of the barn. The plane waits for another spring to make the snow drip back into the earth, as it has for each of more than forty of them. Then Robert Edison Fulton Jr. will take her flying again in the warming air. Flight’s repetition —opening the cockpit door, settling in, checking controls, buckling belts, at last pushing the button for contact—is done as it is in a dream, tumbling thousands of times over itself. Robert Fulton played this particular rondo so many times his flight hours eventually amounted to over two years.
Before he left the earth so much, Fulton was a close acquaintance of its many textures. In 1932 he got a free Douglas twin motorcycle fresh from the factory in Bristol. It was the sort of easy offer one receives when one one has grown up in Riverdale, son of a behemoth corporation’s president, and schooled in Switzerland, at Harvard, in Vienna, and therefore naturally ends up at a London dinner with Kenton Redgrave, the owner of a motor works. But, reverting to blood and not to bloodline, Fulton hid a revolver under the motorcycle’s oil sump and proceeded around the globe, one that bore far fewer paved roads than it would a handful of years later. The yawning sands of Turkish deserts tried to swallow the bike dozens of times a day; pounds of Afghani mud clumped the wheels to a standstill. The flooded streets of Shanghai imperiled his journey though not his haberdashery. Fulton’s motorcycle was up to the rims in water, but his fedora remained properly in place.
The Connecticut barn contains concrete reminders that the trip, the first near-circumnavigation of the earth by motorcycle, occurred: collages made from stills of the movie footage he shot, some copies of the book he wrote and illustrated. The barn contains the man, 84, who contains the memories. Fulton is usually too busy to think much about them, because every day there are things to invent: a new method of setting type, a book that is a self-contained kit for framing its own contents, another kinetic sculpture or flag or fountain. But occasionally he simply looks out the window. Little pieces of life come back at him as if they were already stories, or films he has seen. Then they go away, when his wife calls from the kitchen, or the phone rings and it’s someone up at the nearby workshop where another of his inventions is in production: the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system (STARS), known informally as Skyhook, under exclusive contract to the CIA and the military, and somebody or other from the government is always calling or writing for something.
Fulton’s first journey of adult life may have been on the ground, only briefly and inadvertently through the air a few blazing seconds before coming down again, but true flight has long claimed him for its own. The last of his darling Airphibians, developed in the 1940s, is in the Smithsonian far away. He had poured everything he had into conceiving and building a private plane that could be stripped of its wings and propeller in minutes to become a car. Charles Lindbergh took one for a spin. The first roadable airplane was photographed driving through London, in front of a windmill on some beach, Nantucket or Cape Cod maybe, rolling down what looks like a lot like Park Avenue, and in the air. Always in the air. It was the vehicle he thought would transform transportation but instead broke his heart.
When night falls, the light in the studio shuts out the hills beyond the towering window and sends him back a vague image of himself if he looks toward the glass, a picture of white hair and a thin body bent over the worktable. He is always thinking about the air, whether he is aware of it or not. Only sometimes does he feel a slight breeze that comes from an unlocatable source. An almost imperceptible reminder that the end will be here soon.
After thirty years in production, Skyhook needs little attention from the man who made the impossible fly. But when he was making it up, it consumed him. It began with the statement of a problem, simple and impossible. Say, he had posed it to himself, you are trapped behind enemy lines. You are injured on a desolate mountaintop, or so far into hostile space no helicopter can reach you, no plane can land. But then, he thought to himself: One could fly over; one can always fly over.
How to connect? He did it on paper, he did it in that field out there with strings and balloons, and of course he did it in his sleep when dreams wouldn’t come. As answers did, one finally appeared to Fulton.
What he saw had the elegance of every recalcitrant problem made manifest in a single-unit solution—along with its concurrent resistance to an equally beautiful description in words. But what he had come to was this. The plane flies over. It drops you a kit. This contains a helium canister, a balloon on a wire, and at the other end a jumpsuit. You put it on and send the filled balloon skyward. The plane banks and returns. This time when it flies over, the special strut on its nosecone that looks like nothing so much as the latticed wings of a dragonfly catches the wire. The plane seems to be leaving without you, but only for a minute. That’s when you feel it: the tug, the pull, and then you are lifted up, until you hang against the wind, yourself flying, being winched up into the safe belly of the plane.
Just another project among many for Fulton. Done now. There are more problems to solve. The world contains a glorious infinity of problems. At this moment he is applying leaves and pressed flowers around the edges of photographs of nude figures and landscapes. Some, taken from a plane, show the land from so far above the topography has seemed to reverse itself, becoming unendingly small, its true shape intelligible as it never is caught underfoot.
Still, other things sometimes unreel themselves in Fulton’s mind, not when he has called them back, but when they want to come. He can’t find a solution for this problem except to let the memories take to the air. Outside, the wind picks up and divides itself over the wings of the Mustang. His aged Irish setter twitches in her sleep, a low groan. Occasionally it occurs to him that everything he has is old, this barn, the scrapbooks of articles from Life and newspaper clippings of ancient achievements, always with a picture of a young man with a knowing, sly smile and a shock of thick hair that grows straight up. It was chestnut, he recalls. The Douglas motorcycle is now a vintage curiosity, the machine he entrusted everything to, the one that imprinted twenty-five thousand miles in his bones so each one can still be felt.
The thousands of hours in the air with a steady high roar of engine in his ears have permanently stopped down the hearing on one side. Maybe that’s why he feels suddenly aware these days that what is inside his head seems more real than anything outside it. He goes to the door and turns off the light. The dog rouses herself into sudden youth, running up the stairs and into the corridor toward bed.
Fulton doesn’t bother to turn on the light in the hall joining the studio with the main part of the barn, because he knows it well: It too was once lines on his drawing pad, then beams in his hands. He knows it well, taking him where he wants to go.
Yet as he walks it seems to grow longer than before, more narrow. Perhaps it’s the cold that every winter invades the old structure, but then something else occurs to him, and it is now like he’s walking through the corridor to thirty years ago. Now it is spring.
There are wide leeds of water breaking up the winter’s ice. The men have been at the base, codenamed North Pole 8, for a long time. Now that the air is getting warmer, they are more isolated than ever. No planes can land on the soft ice becoming floes all around them.
One of the men is sick. The pharmacist, the closest thing to a doctor in this sector, isn’t sure but thinks it’s only a matter of a few days.
Fulton gets the call late at night. Skyhook is still in its infancy, and the Air Force has equipped only one plane. Few people have seen it work.
He dresses in the dark.
In Alaska they make radio contact with the base. They have told the sick man a plane is coming for him. Sweating on his cot, he tells them again and again: I’m a pilot, and I know they can’t land. They can’t do it! No, he’s told, the plane won’t land, but it will still come for you. Through the delirium he can feel his feet on some faraway rock of sense, and he knows it can’t be done. He will wait this out.
Fulton goes back home in the Air Force plane.
But the pharmacist had it wrong. The man didn’t have a few days to live. He had ten. Fulton goes back, the mission changed in one detail.
Out on the ice the men are preparing the body for its transport back. In return, they have asked for a case of vodka to help them mourn their lost friend. From a distance they hear the racket of the plane’s approach. They can’t see it, however, because the warming air is drawing up mist that once was ice, air thick and white with it. They’ll have to do this one blind.
The kit is parachuted down. The body is stiff, and it takes them some time to get it into the jumpsuit. They inflate the balloon, but they have lost it when it gets fifty feet up in the spume. The wire stretches taut from the body in the suit, which looks like it sleeps there on the ice. The radio crackles as they hear the engines grow louder, from where they cannot see. The pilot is telling them something. “We’re coming over! Get down, get down!” The men don’t know whether they need to take this literally, but the sound keeps getting louder, and the plane must be coming mighty low. They can’t see it, but the roar rattles the air. So they hit the ice, face down. They feel the cold through their clothes, and still they don’t move.
Now it’s right overhead; they can feel the wind. The noise is incredible, and the men cover their ears. Eyes close on reflex.
Something near them stirs. One by one they lift their heads, open their eyes. All around, white mist swirls. It must be the air that is moving. Then, all at once, they start to see. The body moves. The body is rising. Solemnly, slowly, it lifts from the ice. As if on a board, it is rising to its feet in front of their eyes. For a moment it stands, uncertain. It goes up, back to the wind, solid, hanging there, pausing before it continues as if reluctant to go. Then it opens a hole in the sky and is gone.
The men don’t look at one another, because they are still waiting. They have held their breaths. The huge sound of the plane diminishes, and they know it’s not coming back. Their eyes are on the white ceiling through which their friend has passed. That’s when they see it open once more, not to swallow one of their own, but now to give something back. The bottom of a wooden crate has broken through the cover, seemingly right at the spot where the figure of a man just was. The vodka arrives, swaying down through the air on its chute, an even exchange.
Fulton doesn’t know why this has come to him tonight, going down the darkened corridor toward sleep. Only that he likes symmetry. He has always liked starting in one place and returning to the same spot, changed only by the length of the travel. He remembers that the world is doing that right now, turning on its axis, and that once he did that to the world.
But now he has reached the end of the hall, and he’s glad when he feels a certain mystery in the air. He makes note of it before moving on. Strange that the temperature in the main body of his house is much warmer than it is in the passageway beyond.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of five books, including The Perfect Vehicle, The Place You Love Is Gone, and The Secret History of Kindness. She has written on books, photography, animals, motorcycles, and other important things for a number of publications.