In working on this book about Francis and Gertrude Rogallo’s story, I’ve been privy to some fantastic resources, not the least of which is a set of interviews with Rog and Gertrude that were recorded in 1993. The recordings were on cassette, and the digital copies I have are sped up and pitched high, not quite to Chipmunks speed, but bad enough. Even so, the recordings have been invaluable. I’ve transcribed all eleven tapes, about 40,000 words, and one word that Rog used again and again, in many contexts, is “interesting.”
He did not throw the word around rhetorically. It seems that what was important to him, what he spent his time and energy on, were ideas and projects he found “interesting”– a defining quality of an inquiring mind. His work at Shell Chemical just after he’d graduated from Stanford was “interesting, but to me not nearly as interesting as aeronautics would have been.” About birds? “I was extremely interested in birds–anything that flies, I was always interested.” And when Gertrude talks about when their first child, Bunny, was born, Rog is asked, “What did you think about that?” He answers, “Oh I thought that was very interesting!” Gertrude jumps in and says, “He was stunned!” and there’s great laughter.
Starting the summer he was 12, Rog said, “I was more interested in spending my time building and testing miniature motor vehicles than anything else that was available to do at the time.” Over the course of about four years, during summers and on weekends, he built many versions, experimenting and problem solving. No steering box? He built one out of an old Model T brake drum, a chain, and some coil springs. No differential? The solution was to power the car with a propeller. He and his brother Harold bought a draw knife, carved a 36” propeller, and mounted it to the engine on the rear of the car. They eventually licensed the vehicle, and drove it in local parades, selling advertising on its side.
Rog always remained interested in aeronautics, and he became specifically interested in flying that would be available to everyone–not just “millionaires and the military”–in the mid 1940s. By about 1945 he had “a radical idea” in his head, and in 1948 Gertrude sewed their first flexible wing, their first flying prototype. We’re really lucky that Francis and Gertrude had the patience and perseverance to stay interested in the project. And though Rog had many other projects that interested him through the years, he always remained dedicated to pursuing the possibilities of the flexible wing.
I think about things that interest me, about my own patience and perseverance, and like most folks I think, I’m assailed by doubts, and humbled by small failures. I’m interested in lots of things, like the way water displays turbulent fluid dynamics, how music attaches so deeply to memory and emotion, the way the wind becomes visible in moving sand. And how the possibilities for an idea so simple took so long to be recognized.
Finding a way to tell Rog and Gertrude’s story that isn’t simply a dry recounting of facts, a transcription of “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” is proving to be a huge challenge. But I’m still interested.