Friday, December 12, 2008

Early Bird, Epilogue

DeLloyd Thompson is buried in the family plot in Washington Cemetery, next to his mother, Sarah. Behind him is a large tombstone for his grandfather, David Haggerty, but Dutch's grave is marked by the flat stone shown above, visible only if your brush away the fallen leaves.
Quite fittingly, just south of McKennan Circle, where the plot is, is a tall obelisk resembling the Washington Monument, around which Thompson had flown one night in 1916, dropping "bombs" and creating a national sensation.
More curious, though, is the inscription, particularly the year of birth: 1887. The bronze plaque that once adorned the memorial gates at Washington Airport gives his date of birth as Jan. 21, 1889. To make matters more confusing, police reports concerning his near-fatal auto accident in 1945, presumably relying on his driver's license, listed his age as 57 at the time, making his year of birth more likely 1888. So when, exactly, was Dutch Thompson born?

I have learned in doing research like this that history is rather approximate. In this case, exactly which year the great aviator was born is not critical to his life's story. But there are other dates that matter a great deal, and once an historian misjudges a date, historians who follow him are likely to repeat the mistake, so often that it assumes the disguise of truth.

I relied upon many sources in the writing of "Early Bird," including articles appearing in this newspaper written by Earle Forrest and Robert Campbell, both deceased, and by Harriet Branton. I also learned much from an article about the Cicero Flying Field by Carroll Gray; archival information posted online by the Early Birds of Aviation Inc.; and Thompson's own scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and photos, preserved by the Washington County Historical Society.

Here's an example of the long life of a false assumption:
Forrest wrote often about Thompson's achievements. Knowing that Wilbur Wright and Walter Brookins had staged a flying demonstration at the fairgrounds in Arden in October 1910, Forrest wrote that Thompson was inspired by the demonstration to attend Brookins' school and learn to fly. It seems logical. Reading this in Forrest's articles, Campbell and Branton repeated the story. The Internet did not exist when Forrest was alive, of course, and so he had no access to the records of the flying schools of St. Louis and Chicago and the wealth of information preserved by the pioneers of aviation. Researchers today do. And the truth is that Thompson had learned to fly and had flown solo for the first time several months before that demonstration in Arden, on Aug. 6, 1910. Had Wilbur Wright actually come to Washington, Pa., at the suggestion of Dutch Thompson? We don't know. But assuming so and putting it in print might create another problem for future historians. That Thompson was not inspired by Wright's visit, but might have actually inspired Wright to come here is quite a different interpretation of history.

I think what this illustrates is the importance of preserving the historical record. The Washington County Historical Society is doing its best to do just that, but it takes much time and money. They deserve our support.

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