• Unassisted Human Flight

    Allan Gurganus

    Winter 2021

    My first night as cub reporter and they send me to a four-hour County Sewage Hearing. I call that hazing. You try distilling lively prose from Wastewater Issues.

    To be safe, I’d worn my best blue thrift-shop blazer. But when I afterwards approached Falls, NC’s mayor, he clammed up. I’d asked one question but he heard: I lacked a brogue of sufficient Dixie humidity. He sensed a newbie would have no info worth swapping. I knew nothing yet of hog prices, storm damage costs, proof the Presbyterian pastor kept an open tab at Discount Adult Art. Having been assigned a town of 6,000, I found its every citizen obsessed with one thing only: the other 5,999.

    And after five years’ reporting here? I talk slower, think faster, scratch anywhere. The blazer? Long since replaced with denim work clothes. People here now know my name because I know theirs. And today, with regret, I leave Falls. . .

    This must be my last Herald Traveler column. Our editor has spent years slashing my discursive if clarion copy. He’s presently vacationing at Myrtle Beach. Mel has finally agreed to let me “go long, however many farewell pages.” He left one urgent Post-it: If need be, cut the issue’s “Want Ads.” But “Recent Arrests” and the Hardee’s ads are sacred, okay?

    I’ve been summoned to Richmond’s big-league paper from this noble farm team. Let me thank you, reader, for your patience in watching a boy from Akron come to consciousness in plain, stark civic view. You have been patient as my accent lost its harder corners. Consonants seem Midwestern fencing now. The South is all nougat vowel. 

    This much I have learned from our small town: whatever story the Herald sent me out to cover was never the one locals tried telling me instead. 

    Today’s column finally gives the people what they want. This is the tale Falls has pleaded for these five years: our secret “miracle” too long ignored. My last seven weeks have been taken up with the sad facts of the Mahon family drowning. If the reader is tired of this tragic act, imagine how Falls’ feature writer feels. In brief, the Mahons, farmers long established in our county, inherited a motorboat. It arrived at night, and the father and mother and five children decided to take said craft for a test spin in their farm’s biggest irrigation pond. The eldest son had brought his pistol. He intended to fire off a traditional New Year’s Eve round overhead. Somehow the gun discharged into the bottom of the fiberglass boat. No one was hurt, but bullets shattered the boat’s underside. This would have meant nothing if any of the Mahons could swim. Shortly after the pistol fired, the motor stalled, and, out that far on water after midnight, the thing slowly sank. Since the nearest neighbors live three miles away, no shouts were heard. Come morning, only a boat trailer hinted what had happened. The Mahon drowning seemed the last tale I would tell here. Then the one printed below took me—after the dredging misery of the Mahon deaths—to heights unguessed. 

    This morning I and my cat (named “InkJet”, enemy of sparrows, five years’ chunkier) head north, leaving behind the story I feel proudest of. It proved my hardest interview to land but will be the easiest to remember. 

    How His Tale Recruited Me

    A short old white man hoisted one thrashing catfish. It hung alongside him nearly half his length, black as motor oil. I photographed these two beside the victor’s farm pond.

    “You think this fish is something? Know who your paper keeps missing? ‘Miracle Boy.’ Not even my catch here can touch him. Imagine a local human flying. Thirty-odd years back, one naked boy ‘flew’ most of a mile. No fake wings. No helium or nothing. The sky it someway took him in then coughed him back down home alive. I swear.

    “Your editor made you drive clear out here, son. Why? To report my hooking this forty-four-pounder. (True, my wife did phone the paper. And, sure, this creature fought me something fierce for twenty-six minutes. The wife camcorded every single second. And she will show you, if I don’t walk you clear back to your pickup.)

    “But you need to be writing about the strangest thing ever happened this far down Rodgers Road. The boy that survived his flying? He’s up around forty now. Still paying taxes, still pulling for ‘State’. He could tell you it. But you’ll likely have to trick him. Usually Larry won’t talk about it. Can’t maybe.

    “One naked twin, about age eight? He drowned. Was the second brother flew into the sky. It’s the sky-one is still alive. ‘Miracle Boy’ stayed airborne whole minutes. (Wish Doris’d filmed that.) His name is Larry A. Winstead. The twin that died? Now that one was ‘Barry.’ Barry went under. But Larry? Went up. Don’t stare like I’m a senile. Phone him, son. (No, Doris. Our boy-reporter does not need to watch your whole film of me landing this monster. ––Maybe just the highlight reel.)”

    Stray Larry-Winstead-flight-facts have reached me almost monthly these past few years. I admit to feeling ever more skeptical. Features editors on papers this small have got to be gluttons for local color. (Didn’t I offer that hard-hitting two-part-series regarding the history of our Pun’kin Festival?) ––But unwinged human air travel? For a documentarian like me, without supporting footage or some talkative surviving Icarus, that sounded hard to verify. 

    Still, boy-flight info kept finding me. Into the paper’s downtown office walked a recent bride’s brisk mother. She’d come to retrieve wedding photos from our paper’s Society Editor (me, also). This lady was unusual in seeming pleased with my nuptial coverage. She had even sent me a monogrammed note and some folding money.

    A prosperous farmer’s wife, she attends the society church in town. That shows in her preference for four-inch heels. This day she sported pearls, a lace collar, one small hat that clamped. While dictating her address for mailing purposes, she mentioned Rodgers Road. This somehow recalled to her a certain unique neighbor. She said she still owed me a favor. She admitted she had wept when my coverage of her family wedding mentioned bridesmaids’ peau de soie and, in the Herald Traveler famous for typos, spelled it right. So, indebted, this lady started in the middle, saying a nude child had once been jerked up into quite a wind like the one that took Dorothy clear to Oz, and did I even know? Had my advanced degree in journalism left me too sophisticated to recognize an act of God? 

    “Now that you covered my Stacey’s wedding so nicely, why not write him up? People enjoy topics like close calls in famous storms. But past that, son, picture a boy being held up midair while getting to look down on all of Tuscarora County. And afterwards, it really improved young Larry. You see, I attended second grade with him, before. And he was . . . I won’t say sneaky-mean but . . . he would torture frogs and three of our weaker girls. Get them into corners, et cetera. One wet herself. No names. But nowadays there’s just something extra about Larry Winstead. Changed for the better. It’s lasted, too. There’s a thing when you see him you’ll know, son. Larry is like . . . maybe a man you always lived near but would never once let on he’d maybe saved his whole platoon then won the Silver Star? Like that. Strong, different.

    “I reside on his same road and usually pay attention. And, for instance, Larry vegetable-gardens to give most of it away. Not just excess August zucchini, either. Headed the Cub Scouts, and let’s see, coaches Peewee Football. I even know people he has lent thousands of dollars but once they skip out on him? Larry still speaks to them, in church, at stores. He is a fellow very little bothers. A hotshot reporter like you, from ‘away’, you might well find Larry and his wife ‘a little bit’ (she looked around then whispered) ‘country.’

    “But Duke Power values him. We hear Larry’s their operational brain for this whole end of the state. Don’t let his being quiet fool you. Most people talk better than they write. First get him telling it then you do the write-up. Being so young and bushy-tailed, you’ll someway force Larry to go on record. ‘In his own words’ type a thing. It’ll be like pulling teeth. But you’ll end up with your biggest prizewinner. Just make sure you spend three-four hours with him. Overeducated people like you make too many appointments. Which keeps them feeling important but wears them out early. But Larry? Not someone who ever hurries, Larry. Lives right on Rodgers near where wind took him up. The child flew nude. Neighbors still swear he landed like a bird would—on its feet.” 

    She made me look up Mr. Winstead, forty. Like his famous storm—I see I had started circling Larry long before I found him. Why had it taken almost four years to bother tracing him? I hadn’t believed the thing really happened—unassisted human flight. But, too, maybe this very delay strengthened me into the writer-interviewer-detective needed for landing such a tale? 

    Now I can finally leave Falls with a clear conscience. For years I’ve been here, listening so hard I couldn’t hear. The best true stories? They are the most unlikely. I learned that here in Falls. 

    Stalking our Subject

    Surprising to find Larry’s name listed right in the book. Friends spoke of him as being hermit-shy, at least about his single unexplainable incident. So exactly one year ago, I left him a first respectful phone message; I named those ten character witnesses most stubbornly urging me to finally get on record his aerial adventure. Three weeks later, no response.

    While awaiting a reaction from Lawrence Alston Winstead, electrical engineer, I did my own due diligence. Being a recent grad of Carolina’s J-school, I have classical training. I love facts.

    ––I am not like some of these guys who’ll try and sneak in layers of ticky-tack frosting without admitting such spun-fluff is plain ole Fiction. I so worship unvarnished “nonfiction,” I’ve grown downright anti-novelistic. Who needs make-believe given a world constructed weirdly as ours? I now believe the girders of the mysterious are what really hold us all in place. Those provide limitless horror stories plus surging poetry daily. But first I had to know the likelihood of wind’s taking up any object heavy as some tree-climbing country boy aged eight. 

    I Googled “children carried off by cyclones but staying alive.” I discovered that L. Frank Baum, bard of the prairie, heard tales of actual kids riding in houses borne heavenward then returned. He gave his Dorothy a last name acknowledging easement with her own storm: “Gale.” I found that, in South Dakota in July 1955, a nine-year-old girl plus the pony she rode both got hoisted by wind but survived, wounded only by major subsequent hail. 

    I phoned the National Hurricane Service down along our NC coast at Nag’s Head. I figured I would make an appointment then drive that pretty oceanside road on the company dime. I called a few days prior to Christmas. An office party sounded ongoing. I heard secretarial shrieks and carols played upon what seemed a skilled amateur accordion. (I had never thought of meteorologists as party animals but, being not quite twenty-six myself, I admit I am always learning!)

    The fellow that answered said, well, if I was a real reporter, he might take just one official question; he explained being off-duty and drinking eggnog, though steeped in decades’ savage storm experience. “I’ll turn sixty-five this June,” he bragged and confessed. First he sounded mellow then moderately drunk. But his love of terrible weather flung a certain sea dog’s salt into his baritone. Was child flight possible? I asked.

    “Sir, it’s not unusual for youngsters weighing less than eighty pounds to be carried aloft by winds exceeding one hundred miles per hour. (I’m told the kids that fight it often come out worst.) Soon as an infant gets sucked into the sky, I’d say trust becomes essential. Think about it. If winds can uproot silos, homes, bridges, winds’ll sure shift kids from spot to spot, as an oversight. Hardest part of any ride comes as it ends, of course. Like life, buddy, getting up and started’s easy, right? It’s your coming down’s the killer. I wonder how retirement will feel. Oh well, here’s to the luck of fools and children, Merry Christmas!” Click.

    Now I’d somewhat affirmed the likelihood of child airtime. I turned to our own paper’s coverage of that fatal tornado. It’d happened thirty-three years ago tomorrow! 

     The Herald Traveler does not keep microfilm, we keep the papers. With those stacked at our warehouse and consulted most often for the making of rodent nests, it took me hours to find the actual piece. Newsprint had darkened to a hue between manila envelope and Cuban cigar. “Emma Hague” read the original byline.

    Now deceased, then an unmarried lady well up into her sixties, Emma was, aside from me, the Herald Traveler’s best “local color” artist, ever.

    Some say her style sounds dated, but Hague’s legwork never fails to still check out. She attended Smith College, did well, but came right home. That happens. She lived with an argumentative mother and so—locals claim—she never minded being called out to fires, et cetera, at all hours, fearless apparently. True, her storm-item opens with one of that era’s typical hokey human-interest grabbers. My best J-school professor once discredited this as a “little did they know” lede:

        “At exactly noon on Saturday, September the 5th, severe weather had been widely predicted and yet residents of a small mobile home park named Whispering Pines Camp went about their midday errands undeterred. Maybe autumn’s warm spell gave a false sense of security. Though trailer parks are lately known hereabouts as ‘tornado magnets,’ nobody among that Saturday’s resident car waxers, yard sitters, or bike riders paid the skies much attention.

    “Winds up to one-hundred-and-sixty mph (with swirling gusts in excess) came suddenly, survivors claim. A tempest, swirling clockwise, instantly dismantled three-fifths of the park’s metal and plywood domiciles. 

    “Pets lost to violent updrafts included cats and especially chickens. ‘It was more a howl than the train-sound folks tell you to expect,’ one elderly resident confided. She asked that her name go unlisted to avoid alarming her distant children. ‘Then my bone china went to powder and yet, look at me, bruised but left in my same rocker.’

    “Eight-year-old twins, Larry and Barry Winstead, were ‘swimming’ in a four-foot blue rubber bathing pool beside their mother’s rental trailer. The mother, Amanda, 32, Merchant-Mart’s Fabric Department Manager, worked inside at her sewing machine, making clothes to order. It being so warm, the twins’ water games remained innocent of any bathing apparel. One section of the family trailer landed directly on top of Barry. He would suffer contusions to the head (then likely drowned). Brother Larry, however, would meet a fate far different.

    Allan Gurganus's works of fiction include Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, White People, Plays Well with Others, and Local Souls. His newest collection, The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus, will be published in early 2021 by Norton. He lives in North Carolina.

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