The romance of flight never seduced me. When other kids built model airplanes, I stuck to earth-bound tanks and halftracks. The first book I wrote, age nine, was a biography of John Glenn, but I treated it like a John Ford movie in the exosphere. I never imagined myself in Glenn’s place, or Lindbergh’s, or Eddie Rickenbacker’s, and flew for the first time when I was almost thirty. Our latest visit to the Museum of Flight in Seattle was mostly for the boys.
Upstairs, almost as an afterthought, is an exhibit devoted to non-human precursors to flight – birds, of course, and bats, but also a display of twenty-six mounted insects, mostly butterflies but also dragonflies, beetles and cicadas. My favorite was a damsel fly, Megaloprepus coerulatus, with the largest wingspan, more than seven inches across, in the order Odonata. This specimen was collected in Peru, my wife's homeland. The tips of its forewings look dipped in egg yolk. The head is inky and mostly eye, and resembles a misshapen blackberry. Most impressive is the abdomen, a long skinny black stick sculpted by Giacometti. This dead insect shared the skeletal fragility of early aircraft, and I’ve seldom seen anything so beautiful, certainly not in the museum. In “The Dragonfly,” Louise Bogan had it right, the tough, evanescent beauty:
“You are made of almost nothing
But of enough
To be great eyes
And diaphanous double vans;
To be ceaseless movement,
“Link between water and air,
Earth repels you.
Light touches you only to shift into iridescence
Upon your body and wings.
You split into the heat.
Swift beyond calculation or capture
You dart into the shadow
Which consumes you.
“You rocket into the day.
But at last, when the wind flattens the grasses,
For you, the design and purpose stop.
“And you fall
With the other husks of summer.”