When a man sits down to write a history,—tho’ it be but the
history of Jack Hickathrift or Tom Thumb, he knows no more than his heels
what lets and confounded hindrances he is to meet with in his way,—or what
a dance he may be led, by one excursion or another, before all is over.
. . . For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations
from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along,
which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself
perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still
to look at than he can fly. . . .
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
IN THE SUMMER OF MY FIFTEENTH YEAR, I made a solo flight from Babbington,
New York, on the South Shore of Long Island, to Corosso, New Mexico, in
the foothills of the San Mateo Mountains, on the banks of the Rio Grande,
in a single-seat airplane that I had built in the family garage.
Because I was still a boy, barely a teenager, the feat was breathlessly
recounted in the Babbington newspaper, the Reporter, and in the regional
press as well. There were errors in those reports, and the errors
have been repeated in anniversary recaps at intervals since then.
The errors have now been so fully sanctioned by repetition that they have
the ring of truth. From time to time my day is interrupted by phone
calls from eager interviewers who want me to tell the story again.
Without exception, they want me to retell the story as it has already been
reported. I have tried, during some of those telephone interviews,
to correct a few errors of fact and interpretation, but my efforts have
been dismissed with the condescending politeness that we employ with those
whom we regard as having had their wits enfeebled by time.
Because I have consistently failed to set the record
straight by phone, I have for some time intended to prepare a full and
accurate written account that would do the job without my having to pause
in the telling to endure the protests of reporters who accuse me of being
“modest” when I am only trying to be, at long last, honest. I have
finally begun writing that account. The first third of it, which
chronicles my preparations for the trip, occupies the pages that follow,
and to my surprise, it is full and accurate, setting a standard of completeness
and accuracy that I shall strive to maintain in the two parts of the tale
that are still to come.
In the spirit of completeness and accuracy, I will
confess to you here that the account that I have found myself writing is
not quite the account that I had intended to provide. I’ll be frank:
I had not intended to set the record quite so straight as I have done.
I had intended to allow some of the old errors to stand—the ones that conveyed
an impression of me as more capable and my trip as more successful than
either actually was—and I had intended to perpetuate the myth of myself
as a daring flyboy, the “Birdboy of Babbington,” the epitome of American
ingenuity and pluck, teen division. My intentions altered after I
revisited Babbington, the start and finish of that famous flight.
As you will see in Chapter 1, “Babbington Needs
Me,” I revisited the town because I received a note from a former schoolmate
urging me to see what had become of the place during my absence. Following that visit, upon my return to Manhattan, I sat down
to write, full of good intentions, determined, focused, a man with a mission.
Almost at once I began to meet with lets and confounded hindrances, difficulties
and disappointments, and even a personal disaster—an injury to my beloved
Albertine—that delayed my work, stretching it out over a far longer time
than I had intended to give it. This unexpected extension of the
time given to thinking about what I wanted to say led me to compose a more
complete account than I had intended. For me, you see, the lets and
hindrances abetted my love for a full account, because they gave me time,
and, given time, I tend to wander, and when I wander the byways of memory,
surprising views and prospects solicit my eye. I pause.
I look. I enjoy the view. I explore the prospects.
I add the view or prospect to my account. I can’t help myself.
I am by nature digressive, within limits.
My friend Mark Dorset, an unaffiliated academic
who specializes in human motivation, has written at some length on digression,
and some of what he has said applies to me:
Digression is antithetical to, but dependent
on, the intention to progress along the straight and narrow way.
In order to digress, one must first be progressing. One cannot be
sidetracked unless one is first on track. One cannot stray unless
one is first on the right path. One cannot turn aside unless one
is first moving straight ahead. Proust famously pointed out that
we cannot remember what has not occurred; he might just as well have pointed
out that we cannot digress from a route that we had not intended to take.
If one’s honest answer to the question “Where are
you trying to go?” is “I don’t know,” then one cannot digress.
To digress, then, you must begin by traveling a
route that will get you where you intend to go. You must have a goal
and a plan for achieving it in order to depart from it. You cannot
digress from the right path unless you are already on it.
The easiest path to digress from is the straight
and narrow, the straight and strait, rather than the broad way that rambles
on its own. The slightest deviation from the straight and narrow
is a digression, but the broad way allows a lot of wandering within it,
so that one may amble a meandering course and still be within its limits,
not really digressing at all.
The digressive thinker is by nature an explorer rather than a point-A-to-point-B traveler. What is the opposite of a digressive thinker? Someone like Phileas Fogg as Jules Verne portrayed him in Around the World in Eighty Days:
He gave the idea of being perfectly well-balanced, as exactly regulated as a Leroy chronometer. . . .
He was so exact that he was never in a hurry, was always ready, and was economical alike of his steps and his motions. He never took one step too many, and always went to his destination by the shortest cut; he made no superfluous gestures, and was never seen to be moved or agitated. He was the most deliberate person in the world, yet always reached his destination at the exact moment.
He lived alone, and, so to speak, outside of every social relation; and as he knew that in this world account must be taken of friction, and that friction retards, he never rubbed against anybody.
That is certainly not me. I am no Phileas Fogg. I rub against everybody—and against every memory—and against everybody in every memory. The friction retards my progress but warms my heart.
There is attached to digression a strong suggestion of weakness of character in the digresser. The digresser is digressive, inclined to stray from the right path, the point, the main subject, the intended direction, and the goal, and this tendency to stray is considered by many to be a fault, which characterization makes digression nearly equal to transgression. Progression, on the other hand, is generally regarded as a virtue. The progresser, if you will allow me the term, is progressive (not in the political sense, usually, but in the forward-marching sense), never straying from the path or plan, always moving toward an established goal step by step. To go off course by choice, or to be lured from the right path by a seductive roadside attraction, is regarded as a fault, but to be forced off course is not. The sailor blown off course by mighty Aeolus is guiltless, a victim, but the sailor drawn off course by the Sirens’ song is a fool who ought to have stopped his ears with wax and stayed the course.
I was, as I hope you will agree after reading the pages that follow, blown off course by the accident of Albertine’s injury as much as I was lured off course by the siren call of unsolicited recollection. The first was no fault of mine, an accident. The second I count a virtue, since it served the cause of completeness and accuracy. As a result, however, the short book that I had intended to write about my exploit has become three books, the Flying trilogy: Taking Off (in which I make my plans and depart), On the Wing (in which I meander from Babbington to New Mexico), and Flying Home (in which I return to Babbington, somewhat older and, perhaps, somewhat the wiser).