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CRITIC AT LARGE

Tom Swiftian Tale Of America

July 05, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

I was sorry to miss the celebration. Not the gargantuan goings-on in New York Harbor but the much smaller one upstate at Hammondsport the previous weekend.

The wingding at Hammondsport observed the 75th anniversary of naval aviation, which was born there. The events were not to be compared in size or majesty with the razzle-dazzle at the statue, but they made their own eloquent comment on the American experience and the American dream, and they were home-grown, the way good things used to be.

Glenn Hammond Curtiss was a Hammondsport boy who opened a bicycle repair shop in a shed, soon had branches in a couple of nearby towns, then got into motorcycles and in 1907 at Ormond Beach, Fla., set a land-speed record of 137 m.p.h.

His success with lightweight engines led him to aviation, and in 1908, his "June Bug" made the first preannounced flight of more than a kilometer. Curtiss and his fellow pilots were soon giving exhibitions at Dominguez Field in Los Angeles and in San Francisco and, like many an Easterner, he found the Southern California winters an improvement on the chills of Upstate New York. He could work all year.

The Wright Brothers had sold the Army an airplane. Curtiss was determined to sell planes to the Navy. In late 1910, he opened a winter aviation camp in San Diego to continue working on what he called the hydro-aeroplane.

Back in Hammondsport, on July 1, 1911, the Navy officially took delivery of Curtiss' first seaplane, a fragile craft, called the A-1, with a 60-horsepower engine. The festivities last weekend marked that date.

There were jet fly-overs, a fly-in by private seaplane owners, a bike race and a parade of antique motor boats. The Navy's Atlantic Fleet Band came and gave a concert in the park across from the Taylor winery; a commemorative stamp was issued. Former astronaut Wally Schirra flew in.

The major excitement came on the anniversary date itself--a brief (five-minute) but thrilling flight off the waters of Lake Keuka of a replica of the A-1, flown by 79-year-old Dale Crites.

Hammondsport also unveiled a unique monument to Curtiss: a half-sized model, in metal, of the A-1, fabricated at Mercury Aircraft in town and mounted on a column set in the water off the public bathing beach. It will turn in the wind.

Curtiss, who died at only 52 in 1930, had left aviation by then and was developing the cities of Miami Springs and Hialeah in Florida. But he remains a presence in Hammondsport. Tourists come in considerable numbers to look at the large granite boulder that marks his grave in Pleasant Valley Cemetery (just up the valley from the field where he made his first land flights). Some of his motorcycles and planes and other artifacts of his career are on view in the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum of Local History, located in the old stone schoolhouse.

What I'd never known until recently was that Curtiss was evidently the model for Tom Swift, the inventor-hero of a series of books that began in 1910 and, by other hands and in other modes, still goes on.

According to John T. Dizer Jr., who summed up his findings in a lecture to the Friends of the Colgate U. Library in 1984, the initial Tom Swift books were written by Howard Garis, assigned to the task by Edward Stratemeyer, whose Stratemeyer Syndicate was a fiction factory turning out series titles (Nancy Drew, the Motor Boys, etc.) by the hundreds. At last reports it still is.

Garis was born in Binghamton and grew up in and around Syracuse, well-placed to know about Curtiss, Hammondsport and Lake Keuka. Tom Swift's home town was Shopton, on Lake Carlopa, and Dizer says the resemblances to the real places are evident.

Curtiss won an international air meet at Rheims, France, in 1909; Tom Swift won a similar air meet in 1910. You can't ignore the further coincidence that "Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle" was one of the titles Garis, writing as Victor Appleton, turned out in the first year of the series. That same year, to assure that young readers were throughly hooked, Garis also wrote of Tom and his Motor Boat, his Airship, his Submarine Boat and his Electric Runabout.

The series was an instant hit, Dizer reported, and no wonder. The boy inventor had international precedents in the likes of James Watt, wondering what could be done with steam from a teakettle. Yet the inventor as a type seemed, amid the assertive optimism of the late 19th and early 20th Century, to have acquired an American patent.

The Jules Vernean dreams were taken to be prophecies not fantasies. Then as now science fiction, of which Tom Swift was a near-to rather than far-out form, was hardly more than a step ahead of reality.

Swift--the name first occurred in an 1894 serial called "Shorthand Tom, the Reporter;" Stratemeyer resuscitated it for the new series--also invented the laser, according to Dizer, and the picture-telephone.

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