Leonard Bessom and His First Flying Machine

Kids in grade school do not yet have their spirits compromised by the strictures and expectations of society. You remember how uninhibited your young self was compared to now. And you can see how those friends with whom you’ve kept in touch mellowed out also. Back then, thinking outside the box was rare if only because the box was not well defined. But finding its edges was fun, and no one was mellow.

This Leonard Bessom story won First Place in the Silver Quill Society Best Short Fiction contest in 2008. It was published in The Storyteller magazine, April/May/June edition, 2009.

 Leonard Bessom and His First Flying Machine

            Mr. Blakely, our teacher, stood in front of our class and announced, “Because this is the last day of summer school, after lunch we’ll have a paper airplane flying contest.” The class erupted in cheering and fist pumping. Mr. Blakely, in his usual short sleeve white shirt, smiled patiently until the class was quiet enough so he could tell us that there was a category for distance-flown and a category for time-in-flight.

After that announcement, most of the girls went back to their lessons, but most of the boys started designing their planes. Those who sat in the back of the room hunched behind the students in front and started folding test models. I looked over at my friend Leonard Bessom. Under his mop of dark red hair, he was squinting his eyes and pursing his lips. I could almost see the wheels turning in the back of his head.

I leaned across the aisle and asked, “Leonard, are you gonna enter the contest?”

“’Course I am.” He continued to look around the room. “I’m going for time-in-flight.” He got up from his desk and went to get some paper.

Leonard was one of the most innovative kids I’ve ever known. Some boys threw spit wads, but Leonard put together some pencils, a ruler, and some rubber bands and made a catapult that launched spit wads across the room in a high arc like wet artillery. One time he applied his scissors to some soda straws and made a little four-piece band. Each instrument was made of soda straws and, sounding like a cross between a kazoo and an oboe, played in a different tonal range. So when I saw him thinking about the contest, I was sure that he wasn’t going to make just a simple paper airplane. He was going to make something spectacular.

Just as Leonard got back with some paper, the lunch bell rang. The air in our classroom was filled with flying white V-shaped forms. There were long, skinny ones that zipped across the room like jets, and there were wider ones with control flaps that made them do barrel rolls and loop-the-loops. Some just floated quietly and slowly, obviously designed to compete in the time-in-flight category.

I went out to our lunch tables and rushed through my meal. When I went back to our classroom, I went right to Leonard’s desk to see what he was doing. He had rolled paper into four tubes, two long and two short, and mashed the two short ones and one of the long ones so they were almost, but not quite, flat. He then taped those almost-flat ones to the long tube so that they formed the wings and tail rudder of an airplane. It looked like a regular airplane, not at all like the folded triangles cluttering up the air space over our heads. It seemed too delicate to throw very hard, and I had no idea how he would get it airborne. I asked him, “How’re ya gonna make it fly?”

He reached into his desk and pulled out a bottle of glue. He showed it to me and said, “It’s gonna fly by fly power.”

My eyes got big. “Fly power? Wow!”

“C’mon, help me catch some flies.”

Summer in our California farm town was marked by its immersion in one huge cloud of insects. They were under our feet and over our heads. The flying ones were out mostly during the day, and they were the greatest annoyance. We rode our bicycles with our mouths closed in the summer. The air was crowded with moths, butterflies, flies, dragonflies, bees, wasps, hornets, but mostly great clouds of tiny things we collectively called gnats. That was outside. Inside, it was just flies.

In our classroom there was a background hum, but it wasn’t because we were musical. Everyone kept at least one hand waving in front of his face to keep the flies at bay. Even Mr. Blakely waved his hand when he was giving us our lessons in front of the class. One time, Mike Pearson swallowed a fly when one flew into his mouth while he was talking out of turn. One of the girls said it served him right. There was a standing contest among some of the boys as to who could catch the most flies with a single grab. Leonard held the record at three.

Mike Pearson, who had a square look with his wide shoulders and “flat top” haircut, thought Leonard’s idea of a fly-powered airplane was cool, and he came over to help catch flies.   Unfortunately, we were killing a lot of them or damaging their wings when we removed them from our fists. Getting useable flies for Leonard to glue onto his plane was a slow process.

Sally Wilson came over to see what we were doing.   She bent her head of blond curls over Leonard’s desk. When she saw Leonard’s plane with some flies glued on it, she said, “Ooh! That’s so neat! Can I help, too?”

Mike Pearson said, “Sure, just stand still.” And he threw a fly against Sally’s butt.   The fly bounced off her denim shorts and fell on the floor. It was stunned but not dead. Mike gently picked it up and Leonard added it to his plane.

Mike said, “Hey, this is going to work. Sally, you can help by just standing there and sticking out your butt.”

Sally put her hands on her hips and acted indignant. Then she laughed and said, “Okay.” And she did just that.   Ever since I met her back in second grade, I had thought Sally was okay for a girl, but never more than at that moment.

After flies were bounced off of Sally’s butt, a few were dead and a few were able to fly away, but most were only stunned, and we could use them. A couple of the other boys came over to help catch flies too. We were getting useable flies at a pretty good rate now. Leonard was gluing our captives onto the wings of his airplane and the flies just stood there with their feet in the glue. Every so often one would try to fly away with a little buzz but soon gave up.

Greg Newton came over. The hair on the sides of his head was cut short but the top and front were long enough to hang in his face. He looked at Leonard’s project and smiled. “That’s cool, Len. But it ain’t gonna fly.” He pushed his hair out of his face.

We all stopped what we were doing. Greg was the smartest kid in the class. Ever since third grade he had the top score on every test, so when he said it wasn’t going to fly, we figured he was right. Except Leonard.

Leonard looked up at Greg. “Sure it’ll fly. Flies got power.”

“Flies never carry anything, Len. They’ve got power but not carrying power. There aren’t enough flies in this room to make this work.”

Leonard looked around the room at our aerial cohabitants. “See how they zip around like flying sports cars, doing loop-the-loops and zigzagging across the room? They got power to spare. And they’re gonna use that spare power to carry this airplane. There’s plenty of flies to make this work.”

“Okay. But don’t say I didn’t warn you that you’re wasting your time.” Greg walked off.

Leonard lined up the black fly engines in a long row across the main wing and then across the tail wing. Then he started a second row. He made a third row. He glued them on the fuselage. And just to be safe, he put some pencils in the fuselage as ballast so his plane wouldn’t take off before he was ready.

Greg came by again. He looked at all the progress and said, “You’re going to need a lot more flies, Len,” and he walked off.

Leonard ignored him.

It was time for the contest to start. The first category was distance-flown. Most of us tried for this category. We lined up at the back of the room and, one by one, threw them to Mr. Blakely who was at the front. There was great cheering and yelling for each throw. Beneath the chaos of noise, airplanes, flies, and kids running back and forth to retrieve their planes, there was a nominal amount of order in our room. Mr. Blakely marked the distance on the floor and wrote it next to our names on the board.

I folded a piece of paper just the way my older brother had taught me. It was a sleek design, and I knew I had a contender for the distance category. I came in fourth. The ones that beat me had the same design as mine. They just got in better throws. Greg came in second.

After his throw, Greg walked back to Leonard’s desk. He watched Leonard glue on a few more flies, pushed his hair out of his face, and shook his head slowly as he walked away.

For the time-in-flight category, Mr. Blakely used a stopwatch he kept in his desk. A couple of those airplanes seemed to stay in the air for a long time. Mr. Blakely wrote the seconds in flight and the kid’s name on the board.

Finally everyone was done. Mr. Blakely called to the back of the room, “Do you have an entry, Leonard?” Everyone looked at Leonard.

“Yep. I got one. Get your stopwatch ready. Here it comes.” Leonard stood up by his desk, his fingers lightly gripping his airplane sitting in the palm of his hand. The entire top of the plane, now empty of its ballast, was a fuzzy black and seemed to vibrate. Then he opened his fingers gripping the plane while, at the same time, he waved his other hand over it as if to shoo away a fly.

With a buzz and a hum, his airplane slowly rose from his hand and flew towards Mr. Blakely in an erratic motion. Greg’s eyes got big and his mouth opened. The plane first drifted to the right and then to the left. It slowed to almost a hover and then inched forward again. It was definitely flying. Greg was shaking his head side to side as if in disbelief, and then he began to smile. It flew almost to the front of the room through airspace that was unusually free of flies. Then it turned toward the windows. It gained altitude as it moved toward one of the overhead lights, and then it turned back towards the windows. When it bumped into the window glass it started drifting to the right, but it kept flying. By this time everyone, even Greg, was cheering and yelling and laughing. Mr. Blakely, too. When it finally landed, it drifted along the shelf under the windows until it bumped into some books.

That airplane stayed in the air for well over a minute. Leonard Bessom wore the biggest smile I have ever seen. And Sally Wilson, the only girl to help out, was quite proud of herself.


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