The Wright Brothers should have been second.
July 26, 2015
The Reverend Burrell Cannon stood on the edge of an open pasture and listened to the wind antagonize the tall brittle pines that rose up from the forest behind him. He loved the winds, and, yet, he hated them. They were free, and he wasn’t. They went where they wanted to go, and Brother Burrell Cannon couldn’t even get himself unstuck from the red clay farmland that kept the pines and Pittsburg glued together.
He watched the sun and the moon share the same afternoon sky, and he hugged a black, well-worn, tear-stained copy of the Good Book tightly against his chest, staring up toward the far heavens that tempted him and taunted him and dared him to rise above the clouds. He was destined to go there. He was sure of it. And he wasn’t willing to wait for Judgment Day either. He would worry about the resurrection later.
For Brother Burrell Cannon, the clouds didn’t seem so far away anymore, and the good reverend knew that he and he alone could reach out and touch them. He would defy the winds. He would fly because God intended for man to fly. At least, God, in His infinite wisdom, meant for Brother Burrell Cannon to soar above the pines. He was the anointed one, the chosen one. Thus it had been written if he had to write it.
Late one night, as candlelight flickered upon the wrinkled pages of the Good Book, the East Texas preacher stumbled across the blueprint for flight, tucked away in
the lyrical, mystical incantations of Ezekiel, where it had lain hidden for thousands of years. God had locked it away Himself, waiting for the right man at the right time in the right place to finally unearth its Biblical secret. Maybe old Ezekiel had been having visions, or maybe he had actually caught a glimpse of the future. Brother Burrell Cannon didn’t know. He only realized that on a dark Texas night, he had seen the light, and it shone squarely on him. Those cursed winds would never shackle him to the ground again.
The good reverend turned to the book of Ezekiel and gazed once more upon the phrases that had inspired the mechanical eccentricities of his soul. He studied closely the passage about the whirlwind that came out of the north, a great cloud of smoke and fire, and of the four living creatures that were supported by wings and wheels.
Brother Burrell Cannon read aloud: The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the color of a beryl: and the four had one likeness and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel … And when the living creatures went, the wheels went with them, and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up from the earth … And under the firmament were their wings.
The good reverend sat back and stared into the darkness of the night. The revelation was as bright as the candle that burned gently before him. God had spoken. Brother Burrell Cannon had caught a glimpse of the man who had glimpsed the future, and the secret of the ages burned into his mind as clearly and as surely as if God had handed him a blueprint and said, “Build it, and the earth shall loosen you, and you, among all mankind, shall fly.” If he were God, that’s what he would have said.
Brother Burrell Cannon knew that at last he stood on the fringes of flight. The Good Book was his master plan and his workbook. It was perhaps the hundredth time that he had waded his way through the mystifying prophecy of Ezekiel. He knew the words by heart now. They had become clearer, and so had his destiny. With metal and tools, he would make a whirlwind of smoke and fire, one supported by wings and wheels, one that would carry living creatures within it. Brother Burrell Cannon would fly, no doubt about it.
It’s just that he wouldn’t be spending so much time in the pulpit of the Baptist Church anymore. God had finally led him to the machine shop where he belonged, and he prayed for strength, wisdom, perseverance, spiritual guidance and a lot of money, especially that part of the prayer about a lot of money.
The good reverend walked boldly into a room where the pillars of Pittsburg sat waiting for him. He was a big man with a strong voice. The Baptists liked the way he preached, and the leaders of the little town trusted anyone who could keep them pushed away from the burning gates of hell – although Brother Burrell had been acting kind of strange lately.
“I need twenty thousand dollars,” he told them.
“To build a manufacturing plant.”
“For the Ezekiel Airship Company.”
Now he was talking kind of strange as well.
The pillars of Pittsburg paused, frowned, and raised their respective eyebrows to different heights. Perhaps they hadn’t heard the preacher’s words correctly. Perhaps they had misunderstood. After all, the windows were open, and the wagons were making a lot of noise in the street outside, and the summer insects were humming louder than unusual. At last, one of the businessmen asked in hushed, measured tones, “Just what are you planning on doing, Brother Burrell?”
“I’m going to fly.”
Nobody laughed. The good reverend, they saw, was dead solid serious. His eyes were afire. He believed in the scriptures, and nobody laughed at the scriptures. Maybe he could fly. The people of Pittsburg were certainly willing to buy stock for $25 a share in the Ezekiel Airship Company to find out. The plot thickened when Brother Burrell Cannon talked P.O. Thorsell into cleaning out the second floor of his foundry so he would have a place to work.
Slowly, the odd, skeletal flying machine began taking shape. The preacher read the Good Book, then read it again, searching for clues that he could incorporate into his design. Night would usually catch him in the shop, but it seldom talked him into going home. He was a man obsessed, some thought he might be possessed, and Pittsburg hung onto every prayer, every curious sound that drifted down from the open window of P.W. Thorsell’s foundry.
A year later, as summer stained the red clay farmland with sweat but no rain, the good reverend dragged his airship out to the street, piece by piece, and began putting it back together again down by the railroad tracks. It was the only way he could haul the mystical contraption of Ezekiel through a narrow doorway on the second floor. It didn’t look like much. But then, nobody knew what a flying machine was supposed to look like anyway. So the crowd applauded and thanked God that somebody else was going to ride it up above the pines and leave their feet solid on the ground..
“He’s a mad man,” said the cynics.
“He’s wasted his time,” said the non-believers.
“He’s wasted our money,” said the worried.
“I’ll just wait for the rapture,” said the religious.
Brother Burrell Cannon loaded his blessed contraption onto a railroad flatcar and headed toward St. Louis where a group of high-dollar investors waited to see him defy the winds. Unfortunately, the winds caught up with him first. Just outside of Texarkana, a sudden tornado ripped down the tracks and tossed the flimsy little craft off the rails and into the pines, severely damaging it.
The good reverend, however, did not quit. He couldn’t build a new airship. He had run out of money, and Pittsburg had run out of money, and most everyone had run out of patience. So Brother Burrell Cannon patched up the tattered remains of his airship and kept on moving toward St. Louis.
The investors had read all about the prophecy, and they watched a cumbersome old motor generate eighty horsepower, spitting fire and smoke and sounding a lot like a whirlwind coming out of the north. The wings and the wheels in the middle of wheels were all in place, and, lo and behold, Brother Burrell Cannon coaxed it off the ground. He would have flown, too, some said, if the damned old telegraph pole hadn’t gotten in his way, if the wires hadn’t snatched him back to earth again. The good reverend lost altitude, and the investors lost interest. The flying machine and his last bankable dollar hit rock bottom about the same time.
A dejected Burrell Cannon journeyed home in shame. Maybe he had been wrong. Maybe God didn’t intend for man to reach for the clouds after all. Like the airship he left behind, he was broken and beaten.
A year later, on the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a pair of brothers named Wright crawled into a flying machine with wings and wheels in the middle of wheels, and they did defy the winds. They flew. Not far. And not particularly high. But they flew.
It was so simple, Brother Burrell Cannon decided as he walked among the pines and silently cursed the winds as only a preacher could. They had had their chances, the good reverend and Ezekiel, and they had failed. God had anointed another.