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Jack Smith

Standing corrected on Rodney Dangerfield, Washington, the Wright Brothers and contemporary minimalist art

November 27, 1986|JACK SMITH

When I travel with my wife, I am a tourist, not a reporter; so inevitably I make some errors in my reports.

I am indebted to my readers for correcting me on one or two I made in my recent columns on Washington, D.C. As usual, though, my readers aren't always right.

Evidently I did err in saying that we flew to Washington on an American Airlines 747. Three readers have advised me that American flies DC-10s, not 747s.

June Searcy of San Gabriel is disappointed in me for not renting earphones to listen to the in-flight movie, "Back to School," a comedy in which Rodney Dangerfield goes back to college. "After seeing that movie," she says, "I felt I could write a fan letter to Rodney because I enjoyed it so very much."

Perhaps I was unfair. I certainly don't want to be one of those who don't give Rodney Dangerfield no respect.

Ned K. Zartman of Playa del Rey questions my statement that George Washington, as President, made 14 trips between the capital and Mount Vernon. "If he did," Zartman observes, "he had a long ride, because I believe the capital in his time was in New York City."

Washington was inaugurated in New York City. But for the last seven of his eight years in office, the capital was Philadelphia. Not too hard a ride for a soldier-farmer of Washington's mettle.

Two former residents note that Georgetown is not a suburb of Washington, D.C., but a part of it, as Westwood is a part of L.A. (And like Westwood, it's regarded as a better address.)

Hugh Haroldson of Oceanside accuses me of two errors in my report on the Air and Space Museum.

First, he notes my observation that Charles Lindbergh had "nothing to sustain him" on his flight to Paris but milk and sandwiches. Lindbergh had only one canteen of drinking water and one sandwich, Haroldson says. "Nowhere in his writings does he mention milk."

Come on. Every red-blooded American hero drinks milk.

Haroldson also challenges my reference to Samuel Langley's "steam-powered airplane, in which he almost flew before the Wrights."

He is correct. In 1896--seven years before the Wrights' historic flight near Kitty Hawk--Langley's unmanned, steam-powered airplane flew 4,200 feet in 1 minute, 45 seconds. On Dec. 8, 1903, just nine days before the Wrights' successful flight, a gasoline-powered plane manned by Langley's dauntless young assistant, Charles Manley, damaged a wing on launch and crashed ingloriously into the Potomac.

But perhaps the Wrights weren't first. Nick Basura of Glassell Park offers his file of magazine and newspaper articles purporting to document five earlier successful manned flights by aviation pioneers.

The first of these generally unsung heroes was an immigrant German schoolteacher, Jacob Brodbeck, who took off near San Antonio, Tex., in 1865--38 years before Kitty Hawk--and flew to treetop height in a plane powered by a coiled spring. Was that history's first manned airplane flight?

On Aug. 14, 1901, two years, four months and three days before Kitty Hawk, a Bavarian immigrant named Gustave Whitehead took off near Bridgeport, Conn., in his two-engine, acetylene-powered monoplane, flew for half a mile and landed safely. Three newspapers reported the flight.

Four years earlier, a Texas railroad ticket agent named W. D. Custead had flown round-trip between the villages of Tokio and Elm Mott in a plane of his own design, powered by a Whitehead engine.

On March 31, 1902, a New Zealand farmer's son, Richard Pearse, flew his three-wheeled monoplane, powered by a two-cylinder engine made of junk, at an altitude of 30 feet for five-eights of a mile over the farms of Waitohi.

In May, 1902, an eccentric California genius named Lyman Gilmore flew a mile or two over the Sierra foothills in a monoplane launched down a chute and powered by a 20-horsepower steam engine.

Basura is impatient with the Smithsonian Institution for crediting the Wright brothers with the first manned flight in the face of these earlier claims.

The Smithsonian's answer is that "the distinction that made the Wright flights the first practical ones is that they were sustained, controlled, powered, manned and heavier than air--and that the machine landed at a point higher than or equal to the height at which it took off."

The Wrights' Flyer flew for 12 seconds. I don't know how the Smithsonian could certify that it was sustained and controlled.

A myth is hard to erase.

I have been gently reproved by two art educators for admitting that I failed to appreciate "The Stations of the Cross," a set of 14 abstract paintings by Barnett Newman, for which the National Art Gallery had just paid $4.1 million.

"The perfect solution to your ignorance of contemporary art would be to spend an hour or so with me at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) or LACMA's (Los Angeles County Museum of Art's) new Anderson facility," writes Joyce Helfand. "I can cure anyone and have in fact helped even more ignorant people than you. . . ."

Minsa Craig writes that she lectures on "The Language of Art," and would be glad to enlighten me.

"You see," she says, "it is true that art is a language and if you don't study this language it is hard to be understanding."

I am gratified that Los Angeles now has MOCA and the Anderson wing. We have entered the 20th Century. I hope to spend many enchanting hours in both places.

But I will understand Newman's "minimalist" paintings only when I understand composer John Cage's three minutes of silence for the piano.

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