I watched as they ate and talked in the small restaurant in Kitty Hawk. There weren’t many people there. Just three couples, and Kate and Wilbur Wright. I’d lusted after Kate Wright ever since our high school days. All through college, even taking a few of the same classes. And then as she became actively involved in her brothers’ great experiment. Sadly, we’d lost touch and I was now engaged.

I moved to a table closer to theirs so I could catch their conversation. I vacillated over whether I should say hello or stay where I was. I’m rather shy but I doubt she would have recognized me. They were engrossed in a conversation about the next day’s first test flight of “The Wright Brother’s Flying Machine.”

“C’mon Wilbur. Let me fly it. It can’t be that hard,” Kate pleaded.
“Absolutely not. Out of the question.”
“I won’t tell anyone. It’ll be our secret. I promise.”
“Can you imagine what would happen if anyone found out that I wasn’t flying my plane on its first flight. What if people saw you getting out of the plane? Planes aren’t for women, Kate.”
“That’s just rubbish – and you know it. Besides, they won’t know it’s me. We’re the same height and build. I’ll hide my hair. As soon as we land, I’ll go into our tent and then you’ll come out. No one will ever know. Simple.”
“Maybe to you, but not to me. And, more importantly, I want to be the one to fly it. It’s my invention. My baby.”
‘You know you hate heights. I don’t. I can do this and no will be the wiser. Besides, I’m part of this. Who brought her teacher friends to help with your experiments at Huffman Prairie? Your sister, that’s who.”
“I repeat. The plane’s no place for a girl.”
“I’m no girl. I’m just as strong and as much of a daredevil as you.”
“What if I let you sit next to me, instead of Orville? He doesn’t want to get in the plane anyway.”
“Alright. Just as long as I’m on that plane.”
“Let me think about this. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
They finished their meal and left.

I sat there a bit longer, contemplating a conversation that clearly no one was supposed to hear. Certainly not a reporter from Buffalo.

The next day dawned chilly but dry. I was supposed to be writing a story about a union skirmish between the town officials and a local factory in Newport. But to me, this was a much bigger story. Imagine the headlines, “Wright’s Sister Takes Place of Orville on First Flight.”

I hitched a ride with a local reporter over to a high hill where the plane was now sitting. Unimpressed, he produced a flask, showing more interest in its contents than of the historic event soon to take place. I never saw him write a single word but I’m sure the flask was empty within the hour.

I watched as the huge bird-like machine was lifted onto a short platform atop of the hill. A few tents had been set up as temporary housing for the Wright brothers.

Soon two figures emerged from one of the tents and climbed up into the machine. There was a strong wind to give it some support and within moments the engine started. I watched spellbound as it glided off the hill and flew for a few hundred feet before roughly setting down on the beach below.

Unconsciously holding my breath, I exhaled as two figures safely emerged from the plane and went back into the tent. A few minutes later they reemerged.

I looked hard. I was sure it had been Kate who climbed in and out of the plane. I recognized her gait, with its bit of feminine swing. Clearly it was not Kate now, who spoke to the few reporters.

Then I spotted her, next to her brothers. Our eyes met. She recognized me. Did she wonder if I knew? And if so, would I tell? I waved and walked away. I hitched a ride back into town to write my story about the effect of unions on small town economies. I left town the next day. I never saw Kate again.

I never spilled the beans about what I witnessed. Or what I overheard that night. But I’ve always wondered who really was in the plane with Wilbur. My bet’s on Kate.

2 thoughts on “Orville – or Kate? by Linda Freedland

  1. Wow! Another great story. How much of this is based in the truth or is it completely made up? I never knew about a sister named Kate. You have a great imagination, if it is all made up.

  2. Linda–I’m reading E.L. Doctorow now, a master of historical fiction, so your piece utterly charmed me. Thanks for so expertly blending “fact” with “fiction.”

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