by Michael Martone
Upon hearing the news of the United States entering the Great War in April of 1917, Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, immediately presented himself to the Aviation Section of the United States Signal Corps, the branch of the Army charged with organizing the country’s first air force. His attempt to enlist as a combat pursuit pilot failed. He was thought to be unfit for flying, too short at five foot two to reach the pedals of the fighter craft and hobbled by the many injuries derived from his frequent crashes. He walked with a pronounced limp. His right arm at the shoulder demonstrated a limited range of motion. Several fingers of his right hand were numb. A big toe had been amputated after being frostbitten. His ears registered a constant ringing. The Aviation Section recognized the talent of the famous pilot nonetheless, and he was appointed a civilian instructor, reporting to Langley Field in Virginia. Instructor Art Smith quickly modified his Curtiss JN-4 training aircraft to accept his sky writing apparatus. Here, he used the device to simulate the sun in order to teach his new charges the tactic of using the sun’s light to blind the enemy aviators under attack. The new pilots dove repeatedly out of this artificial sun. One was to be aware of where the sun was at all times, to employ it upon attacking, and to be conscious of its danger when on the defensive. Often, the simulation of THE SUN would become unreadable when backlit by the sun, the ethereal letters obliterated and overwhelmed with intense illumination from the higher altitude.
Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, 59 years ago, and in all that time he has only seen one person die, his grandmother on his mother’s side, Blanche. Of course, he has seen hundreds of people “die” in the synthetic recreations of the event acted out on stage or screen, but only that one time did he witness the cessation of life for real. It happened at the St. Anne Home in Fort Wayne where his grandmother had been a resident for a time. He was teaching at Syracuse University when he got the call from his mother and raced home to see his grandmother alive one last time. Later, the surviving family members, many of whom were there at the bedside as well, would say that Martone’s grandmother seemed to delay her passing long enough to allow Martone to arrive. And, indeed, it did not take long for her to finally let go (and it is an accurate description—letting go—with the gathered family all urging dying Blanche to let go). Martone was struck at how the dying appeared to be very much a labor, how it replicated the breathing and the struggle of the other kind of labor. Martone’s second son had recently been born in Syracuse, and the laboring of his mother looked a great deal like this laboring of his grandmother. St. Anne Home, interestingly, was originally built by the Catholic Church as a home for unwed mothers, and the room where his grandmother died had, 290 at one time, been a birthing room. He returned to his classroom in Syracuse and gave an inspired lecture to his students, a narrative of his grandmother’s story ending, how we all struggle into life and then find a way to struggle out of it. This journal has asked for a contributor’s note for this issue. A deadline was approaching. Can I send a contributor’s note? The request came via the Internet, an email. He is typing the note now on a borrowed laptop. He is sitting in his father’s room in St. Anne Home on the second floor, not far from the room where twenty-some years ago with his father, who now lies a few feet from him here on his own deathbed, he watched his grandmother Blanche die.