“Wings, or The Lesson of Daedalus”

by Larry Danielson

So there I was, finally looking at the real picture.  

I’d flown some 12 hours–from Winnipeg to Toronto to Frankfurt to Brussels—and now I was in the Musée des Beaux-Arts—looking at a picture of flight….failed flight. This was “The Fall of Icarus,” done by the famous 15th century Flemish painter Peter Brueghel the Elder. But I’ll spare you the historical details. I’m not qualified to teach an art lesson and my interest in this picture was strictly personal.

I had thought about the fall of Icarus since I was a boy, and in the museum that day, I couldn’t get close to it. The room was crowded with children—probably a school field trip—and the curator was going on and on, pointing to different features in the painting.  I didn’t understand a word of it. It was all in French, and I’m monolingual.  (Just the night before I’d skipped over “Fish” on the restaurant menu, thinking that “poisson” might mean “poison.”

I wondered what those kids in the museum were thinking as they looked at that painting by Brueghel and listened to this ancient Greek story about Daedalus and Icarus—how the Minoan king imprisoned the inventor and his son in a great labyrinth and how they escaped, using feathers and wax to build bird-like wings.  

You probably know the story…how Daedalus warned his boy not to fly too high or the sun would melt his wings…and how Icarus ignored that advice and fell to his death. I first heard the story in second grade. Paul Ness, the teacher for our one-room country school in Rochert, Minnesota, read it to us from a book illustrated with Brueghel’s painting. 

You could tell by the names—Daedalus and Icarus—that these guys weren’t Minnesota Swedes, but we listened anyway.

I suppose the story had some moral—like “Children should listen to their parents,” “Look before you leap,” or “Don’t be too ambitious.”  But whatever the point, it was lost on us.  All we could think about was flying…like Daedalus. 

My brother Lyle, like Daedalus, was an inventor and he took the lead. To an outsider, Lyle might have looked like just another country kid, with his crew-cut hair and his face full of freckles. But he was a mechanical genius in the making. 

He was only in Grade 4 and already he’d built a car—using just a hammer, some nails, and wood. It was a two-seat sedan.  It’s true that it wasn’t yet mobile—Lyle was still figuring out how to build the engine and four wheels out of wooden parts. But to make up for this minor flaw, he’d added an impressive scoop bucket on the front-end. Show me another car in the neighbourhood that had one of those!

The prospect of self-propelled flight was an idea of a different magnitude.  We had some notion of what it could be like. When Dad wasn’t around, we’d sneak up into the haymow in the barn and swing from the hay ropes. It was exhilarating to sail through the air, before we dropped into the hay below. 

To get an idea of how to build the wings, we watched the birds around our farm,

especially those big Canadian geese that were migrating south for the winter. And then our construction began in earnest.  

We ripped about 50 lath strips out of Dad’s best snow fence and nailed them together in two triangle configurations.  We thought about covering them with chicken feathers, but they would take too long to collect.  Besides, we had no idea where we’d get wax. 

It was probably Lyle who thought of using tarpaper.  The folks had just re-papered the outside of the chicken shed. We tore it off of two walls—the ones not visible from the house—and that gave enough material for both wings, top and bottom.  The wings seemed a little rickety so we reinforced them with binder-twine.

Just before lunch, we were ready for the test launch.  The problem now was that—unlike Daedalus and Icarus–we didn’t have any cliff to jump off of.  I suggested the barn roof, but Lyle said it was too steep and too high to climb. We decided to use the roof of the chicken coop instead.

We borrowed a few boards from the wooden car to build a ladder. We could always replace them, but if we learned to fly, we weren’t sure we’d want to waste our time driving around on country roads.  

Lyle climbed up on the roof of the chicken coop, and I followed, handing up the wings to him. By rights of age and invention, he got to use the wings first. I watched in admiration as he fitted them on and walked towards the edge of the roof.  He stretched out his arms–like a goose gliding— leaned forward and waited for a good gust of wind.  I hurried to get off the ladder and onto the roof with him.

Lyle was gone. I had expected that he would take off slowly and circle around the farmstead a couple of times.  My folks would come out of the house, behold the sight, then rush to the hand-crank phone and summon our neighbours as witnesses.  I worried, lest one of the older Wallgren boys insisted on jumping cue and deprive me of the chance to be second to fly.

I was disappointed to have missed the sight as Lyle shot upwards like the father and son in that ancient Greek story. I searched the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.  I hoped he wasn’t flying too close to the sun. We didn’t have to worry about the wax melting, but even tar paper can burn. North, East, South, and West.  Not a sign of him.

And then I heard it. A low moan, just over the edge of the roof.  I looked down and…there he was. Lyle!  Lying in a heap of lath and tarpaper, looking more like he was dead than Daedalus.

In that Brueghel painting in the Brussels museum, you can see the ocean in the background and, on the horizon, a bright yellow sun on the horizon. In the front centre is a ploughman tilling his field and a shepherd tending his flock.  Neither of them notices Icarus, who is out in the ocean….drowning.

Lyle’s disaster did not go unnoticed—his twisted ankle, the big lump on his forehead. But once they knew he was still alive, my folks seemed most concerned with how to replace the tar paper we’d torn from the chicken coop. They had saved egg money for weeks to buy it.

Now, you might smile and think of our misadventure as just boyish foolishness.

But, given such precocious beginnings, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my Lyle later became the pilot of a commercial jet.  

You wouldn’t be surprised…but you’d be wrong

My brother Lyle won’t set foot in a plane. He now hates heights so much, you couldn’t get him back up on the roof of that chicken coop, even it was still there.

Going to see Pieter Brueghel’s painting in the Brussels museum gave me a sort of closure to the affair.  It’s taken a long time, but I think I finally got the point of that old Greek story—the lesson of Daedulus.  It is this: The dream of high flying may be fine and good, but it needs to be balanced with the dread of a crash landing.