I spent the last week of August in Nags Head, NC, and had the most humbling opportunity to visit Wright Memorial Park. To stand on the field where Wilbur and Orville first took to the air, to see the landing sites of each successively further flight, and to read the inscription upon their memorial high atop a great sand dune, moved me beyond words.
The monument read:
In Commemoration of the Conquest of the Air By the Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright Conceived By Genius Achieved by Dauntless Resolution and Unconquerable Faith
I tend to have the habit of thinking of the great men of history as though they were not in fact men. We praise the names of an Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa almost to the point of anthropomorphism. They have human characteristics but were not actually human. As if they were some other-worldly being, somehow unlike you or I, but this is a social fiction which disempowers us. Here were two brothers who committed their lives not to themselves, but to a cause.
A cause which would shape the world.
Owners of a bicycle shop in Ohio, these men were possessed with the idea that the sky did not belong to the birds. In a letter written by Wilbur three years before they first ascended the heights, he writes:
“For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life.”
It seems that all men who shape the world share in this “disease.”
The Wright brothers chose Kitty Hawk, NC for their historic flight for a few reasons: limited public visibility, soft sand to lessen the blow of countless crashes, and strong enough winds capable of sustaining their aircraft. Sleeping in tents for the beginning of their experiments proved feeble against the barrage of great winds. They eventually built stingy, wooden shelters with the bare minimum of amenities. One look upon these replicas adjacent to their runway in Kitty Hawk, and you see the undeniable purpose of their mission.
With a single-track mind, with no apparent concern for failure, these two brothers persisted with maniacal obsession through untold obstacles until on Dec 17, 1903 they first achieved powered-man flight.
The rest, as they say, is history.
What moves me most about the story of these two men is not the fact that they changed the world, which they did. It is even not so much the example of persistence, which they clearly showed. It is the fact that they chose to live for a cause greater than themselves. Their actions made it clear that they had no concern for personal gain or recognition. They chose a life that was greater than their own.
They did not sit at home quietly counting their 401(k)s, playing it safe in a cocoon of societal values. They absconded from the norms of their culture, and with single-minded purpose with no concern for anything but their cause, they pursued something greater than themselves. Most men live under the context of their own life, these men lived under the context of changing the world.
As far as “dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith”, I can think of no better representative of these ideals. Our literature and holy texts are filled with such examples. From the biblical Noah to Hemingway’s fisherman, we have countless tales of men who are the human embodiment of resolve. But Wilbur and Orville Wright were not the works of fiction, these were two men who transcended themselves, and did so in the only way possible..
With no concern for themselves.