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A Bone-breaking Country Flight in Italy, c. 1920 December 13, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

This early aeronautics story comes from central Italy in the 1940s. A mysterious aged man lives up in a secluded valley, a man who is spoken about in hushed terms. It seems this man is almost a wizard in terms of mechanical objects.

When he was young he made a bicycle entirely out of wood, the only part he didn’t make was the chain. Another time he made a merry-go-round… He made it for the children of the village. It worked by turning a big handle. It needed two people to do it and while the children went round sitting on the horses he had carved from the trunks of trees, he paid a man to play music on an accordion.

Then there is the real purpose of this post, the plane.

He might have told you about the bicycle and the merry-go-round; but what he never tells you anyone about is his aeroplane. He built an aeroplane, long, long ago, soon after the last war. It had no engine but he tried to fly in it and he launched himself in it from the top of a cliff. Fortunately, it was not a very high cliff and all he did was break a few bones but he had to be taken to hospital. People used to make jokes about it and he didn’t like to be laughed at, and so he never spoke of it again; but it almost flew. If he could have done sums and had known how to read and write he might have been a rich man…

Let’s say that he built this plane in the chaotic Italy of 1920 when socialists and fascists were beating each other up on the street and the country was trying to get over its ‘mutilated victory’.  This would be a mere 17 years after the Wright brother had punctured the sky: pretty impressive to even dream of creating a plane at that date in this hills where he lived. Beach, being a suspicious old thing, does wonder whether this actually happened. The thing that makes him wonder is (i) the way villages create their own mythologies and (ii) the fact that our flier ‘broke a few bones’. Stories of early attempts to fly often end up with the flier being punished by God for their presumption. Take this sixteenth-century account that gives us some idea of how bad it was seen to join the witches and fly:

Once we two herdsmen were in the woods, conversing about childish things. Among other matters, we wished that we could fly, so that we could fly up over the mountain, out of this land and into Germany; for this is what the people of Valais called Switzerland. There there came a huge, gruesome bird zooming at us so that we thought it was going to take one or both of us away, and so we began to scream, and to defend ourselves with our shepherd’s staffs, and to bless ourselves, until the bird flew away. We said to one another, ‘We did wrong in wishing we could fly: God did not make us to fly but to go on foot.’

Of course, stories of early attempts to fly may end with factual broken bones because, let’s face it, that was the nature of the game. Perhaps on reflection this is the nature of the game and perhaps the nameless Italian really did build a glider or some description: if so what extraordinary guts! But all this leads Beach to a rather tortuous question. He has come across some early attempts to mimic cutting edge technology out in the ‘villages’: a team of Scottish Highlanders building a car, say, just after its invention; some peasants building an electric plant in the Amazon. Any others: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com