First Flight
by Hannah Baumgardt

Runestone, volume 6

First Flight
by Hannah Baumgardt

Runestone, volume 6

In second grade, I learned that I could not fly.

I spent the month leading to this revelation in preparation for my takeoff. A month may not seem like sufficient time for a person to undertake such a project as human flight, but a month is a long while to an eight-year-old.

I spent each recess period I on the swings, pumping my legs to achieve maximum altitude—the height where you begin to suspect that if you rise any higher, you’ll loop right around the bar. At the optimal moment of my forward arc, I would release the chains, leaving the black rubber seat to sweep back to earth as I sailed up and out. Lightning lanced my heels each time I landed, having made it an inch farther than the previous attempt. Progress!

My half-flights frightened the recess supervisors, but I ignored their demands I stop. I was a fledgling standing at the nest’s edge and beating my wings, destined for greater things. I was teaching myself to fly.

Practice was not the only aspect of my month-long training. Research factored in as well. I checked out an encyclopedia on birds from the school library, cracking it open during reading time. I remember poring over a spread covered in grainy illustrations of ducks. Who knows what I hoped to learn from this or why I spent my time on ducks. Hawks or eagles would have been more inspiring. Their wings stretched to encircle the sun, their glaring eyes dared anyone to question their pride, their courage, their ferocity. Perhaps the single logical particle in my brain reasoned that my flight would not contain the majesty of the eagle. Ducks were more my level.

My studies extended beyond school, as well. At home, I learned how a bird’s feathers are constructed, and that a bird’s bones are hollow. I realized, of course, that my own bones were not hollow and that I did not have feathers or any way to grow them. This didn’t seem a major hindrance to me. I had clever fingers, after all, and could make wings of my own. As for bones, their hollowness or lack-thereof would hardly matter if I got enough lift.

My parents made interesting counterpoints in this venture. My mother was quick to tell me I could not fly. I shouldn’t waste my time; I should be practical. My dad encouraged me. His only restriction to my grand scheme was that I should not jump off the roof. It took some effort to convince me of this point.

At last the day came when all my practice and research would come to fruition. I fashioned two wings from cardboard, using a marker to draw the outlines and safety scissors to cut them out. Despite all my references and budding artistic talent, the only reason anyone could tell they were wings was because they were attached to my arms and I was flapping them. In all other regards, they were a sort of truncated teardrop, with my hands poking out beyond their tips. My dad helped with the actual fitting, making four slits in the cardboard through which he threaded Velcro. I remember him securing the wings to my arms, but I remember nothing afterward, not even disappointment. Perhaps the event was too traumatic.

Thankfully, my dad decided to record for posterity what could possibly have been (if one were to measure by my unshakable faith) the first human takeoff.

The opening video is about a minute long. The camera points down at me as I stand on the rug between our dining table and the sliding glass to the porch. Throughout the entire footage, I’m flapping my formless wings and staring at the camera with a fierce determination out of place on my young face. My flapping is not inspiring, neither fast nor strong. However, it is measured and doesn’t stop for the entire clip. I’m sure in my own mind my efforts must have been awe-inspiring, each stroke ending with hurricanes of wind and perhaps gouts of flame.

In the second video, I’m on the plastic castle in our backyard, which stands perhaps four feet high. With my arms Velcroed stiff, I attempt to balance atop the narrow “stone” section of the castle. I fumble about, looking utterly ridiculous, utterly determined, in my khaki shorts, striped t-shirt, rubber boots, and cardboard wings. I mutter to myself, “I – I’ve never flown before…” The video just barely picked up the phrase, and I seem honestly nervous. 

I can’t quite manage to get atop that section of the playset and jump down, saying, “Okay, maybe I should find a stabler place.”

I move to a slightly taller “wooden” crossbeam of the castle. I clamber up easily and stand for a moment, flapping. My heart drums thunder through my chest. I lift my head, laughing wildly, and jump. For a moment I’m in the air, wings pounding, chin tilted to the sun, eyes closed. I let loose an ecstatic ‘yooo -ho-ho.’

I hit the ground.

I’m utterly unprepared for the earth. My cry ends with a little ‘oh…’ which chips off a piece of my heart every time I hear it. My legs crumple. I sit slumped, legs splayed to one side, and stare at the camera in incomprehension for the remainder of the clip.

This should be the point in the story where I say I learned humankind is limited. That I could not do everything. And that is partly true. But the greater truth is that I learned to resist anyone defining for me what I can or cannot do. My mother said from the beginning that I could not fly, and while listening to her may have saved me much work and heartbreak, I believe I am better for having experienced the truth myself. I learned to let only myself define what is possible, and to accept those boundaries only through experience. I learned to have confidence in what I can accomplish. I learned to question my limits and to fail.

Indeed, I heard just recently of wingsuits …

Hannah Baumgardt

College of Saint Benedict

Hannah Baumgardt is a senior at the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota majoring in English Creative Writing and minoring in theology and book arts. She enjoys all things artistic, including reading, writing, sculpting, and playing the clarinet. You can find her work in the literary arts magazine ANGLES and Bridge: The Bluffton Literary Journal.

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