Rufus Porter by Himself

for Jean Lipman

My fathers made Boxford, Massachusetts. They drove out the trees
then straightened and smoothed the land
like bedsheets. They were proud to call themselves
the first settlers. Once when I was fifteen, imagining myself
inside a coat and vest and static beard,
I stepped out of that body and walked
to Maine. There, looking upward past the roofs
of Portland, I found that god-damned tower.
Lord, what a sight! A flag calmly unwrapping
the sea-breeze, the windows spiraling
high above the town. When I traveled its stairway,
the light leapt and leapt for me
until I could see Casco Bay and clear
to Paris. Here, I told myself, here is a place
where I can live. And so I stayed in Portland,
becoming a house and sign painter,
sleigh-painter, drum-painter, drummer,
fiddler, schoolteacher, gristmill-builder, and a member
of the Portland Light Infantry, in five years. Then
something big happened. I was on my way
down through New York State, pulling a cartload of paints
behind me and trying to figure how
to free Napoleon from the island of Saint Helena,
when I envisioned blimp. There is was,
lifting off a hayfield and rising higher
than the Portland Observatory in no time flat;
then sort of pausing to turn and float
the light. Good God, it was beautiful! Fitted out
with a rudder, a steam-powered propeller and,
last but not least, a saloon which contained the small
smiling faces of Napoleon and yours truly. I shouted
for a full minute before I noticed the farmers
in the road, leaning on their scythes.
How could I tell them I had just begun to invent
the future? I kept right on going
through New Jersey, painting portraits
and considering how to put the American farmer
on wheels. For the next several years it gave me pleasure
to imagine his solemn figure seated
on a Rotary Plow, and Engine for Harrowing, Sowing and Rolling
at the Same Time, and a Car for Removing Houses and Other
Ponderous Bodies. My favorite invention, however,
was not a farm machine or my walking cane that unfolded
into a chair or even my three-wheeled steam carriage
controlled by reins: it was the blimp.
That fact is, I chased the god-damned balloon
through five decades, trying to find someone who could see
the sense of it. once, in 1849, I even wrote it up
as “R. Porter & Co.’s…Aerial Transport for the Express
Purpose of carrying passengers…to the Gold Region
and back in Seven Days…for $50.” Of course, I lied
about everything. There was no company,
there was no blimp, there was, in short,
only me, Rufus Porter, feeling so damned free
in my mind I was on my way to California
already. Thinking of me, imagine that flight
upward, beyond the immovable farms,
beyond whole towns clinging to earth, beyond the earth.
Imagine me standing up to shout among the clouds forever.

-Wesley McNair