100 Years Gone

The floral tributes to Wilbur Wright 100 years ago. The airplane arrangement was re-created for today’s ceremony.

Saturday is my grandmother’s birthday, she will be 96. I’ve spent most of today wrangling her birthday cake. Each year that I’ve done this I get to a certain point and I wonder why I didn’t just tell my Aunt Merrice that I’d bring potato salad and she should order the cake from the grocery. Tomorrow, though, I’ll be glad I stuck with it. My grandmother is a complex person, and at this point, she is nearly blind from macular degeneration and getting progressively deaf. But she absolutely loves cake. Given this, she deserves a better cake than what’s on offer at the grocery store.

But this post is not about my grandmother or her birthday. (After all, what will I write about when we slog in tomorrow, exhausted, our faces smeared with frosting?) Instead it’s about 100 years. And I thought of my grandmother, not just because of her cake, but because last year, when she turned 95, a cousin’s husband said to her  “Just hang in there, Eula Faye. Before you know it, you’ll be 100!”

Horrified, she responded, “But I don’t want to be 100!”  (And more on that tomorrow.)

This is about a different kind of centennial. This afternoon I went up to Woodland Cemetery to mark the 100th anniversary of Wilbur Wright’s funeral. Not the anniversary of his death– which was May 30th, but the anniversary, to the minute, that his father, brothers (famous and less so) and sister laid him to rest in the steep and leafy rolling hills of Dayton’s most prominent cemetery. It seems an odd thing to mark, really.

They expected a thousand people or so to turn out for this shindig, but it was cold and a little rainy, and they got about 200. When we arrived, a brass band was playing John Philip Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell March”, which may be more familiar to you in this context.  Though it was a period piece for sure, it seemed a bit surreal today, maybe even Python-esque.

On this day, a hundred years ago, 25,000 people lined the streets of Dayton to say goodbye to one of their most famous sons. Wilbur was only 45 when he died from typhus– and it had been less than a decade since he and his brother Orville had grabbed the brass ring of powered flight.  When Orville died 36 years later, his death was a major news story (sharing the front page with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi) but the streets were not thronged with mourners.

It seems like the organizers couldn’t quite figure out what they wanted to do with this event, and so it was a kind of hybrid of lecture and re-enactment. The minister droning on and on (did I mention the sound system wasn’t quite functioning?) was totally out-of-place. She just didn’t seem to know when to stop. A prayer would have been okay, I suppose, but still, this was not the funeral. Yet they closed with “Taps” and moved a replica of one of the 1912 wreaths– an airplane of white carnations, over the grave.  The 20-something-year-old-son of my friend Martha told her as she left for this event, “I hope no one cries. He’s been dead for a hundred years after all.”

Neil Armstrong, bent with age, was the keynote speaker this afternoon and perhaps if I could have heard him better, I might have gotten a little misty-eyed. In the program his talk was listed as “Paragon Lost,” but I really can’t tell you the first thing he said. That really is too damn bad, because I would have liked to have heard him, even if he is reputed to be a bit of a cantankerous so and so. But he carried with him a tiny bundle of wood and canvas from the Wright 1903 Flyer when he stepped on the moon, and there’s something about that gives me a lump in my throat. It’s an amazing trajectory to think that only 66 years separated that rickety first flight on the sandhills of Kitty Hawk and the launch of Apollo 11.

One booming historian noted this afternoon that “100 years later we are gathered here, and in a thousand years, people with gather here.”  I looked at my friend Martha and laughed out loud, which made another self-important type sitting in the row ahead turn around and shush me. We don’t gather to mark the death of Robert Fulton (1815) or Eli Whitney (1825) or Jethro Tull (1741) all of whom made incredible contributions to modern life. And as for inventions from a thousand years ago, consider these: plywood, plumbing, ice skates, perfume, calibration, lenses, central heating, plastic surgery, cataract surgery and dentist’s drills. All still essential today and yet their inventors are anonymous to us. Time marches on inexorably, we mere humans little more than dust. Given the remarkable modesty of both of the Wright brothers, they wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I know, another day with not a thing about weight loss or fitness. What can I tell you? There’s more to life than dieting.

Target number 56. Steps 5011. Food was scattered today: two naked cupcakes (no frosting), three scrambled eggs, a glass of lemonade, a large pretzel and a handful of nut clusters. Thank God for the nut clusters– I don’t usually endorse food, but these are well worth it. True North Almond Pecan Cashew Clusters.

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