Paper Airplanes: Pure Americana

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the April 20, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259I made a paper airplane today. It felt good. The act satisfied me even before I lofted the plane into the air. I made it at work while I waited for a printout. This is not the sort of thing I am normally paid to do. It felt good.

I used no ordinary paper. I used a confidential memo. Upon completing the folding, I flung the flyer purposefully towards members of the operations staff. Of course, I first requested “clearance” (i.e., asked somebody if the Boss was around). It felt good.

The flight lasted all of one second. The papyrus plane gently rolled over after leaving my fingertips, then nosed speedily down into the floor. It travelled all of six feet. The Boss’s Assistant, from her desk at the far end of the hallway, failed to notice the short voyage as the white angled object shot out of my office door and into the trading area. It felt good.

I can’t recall the last time I fabricated a glider from a scrap sheet. I do, however, remember my Golden Age of Parchment Jets. Back then, I could fashion a whole fleet of effective flyers, each with a different series of folds, each with a different flight pattern and each with its own hand-drawn insignia.

That was back in the Space Age, when every kid wanted to become an astronaut, every teacher wanted their students to become aeronautical engineers and every parent thought Lost in Space provided the best way to learn the technical language of their children. (N.B.: I never did like Lost in Space.) A keen competition pervaded my elementary school class rooms – who could build the best paper airplane?

Young boys (the girls busied themselves with their own furtive adventures – passing notes) secretly folded during Reading Period, anxious to try out their latest creation during Recess. Personally, I always preferred the desks with the tops you could open. Paper airplane manufacturing could then take place during the frequent – and normal – opening and closing of the desks. We eventually learned to become very discreet with the engineering process. In fact, often the girls’ intercepted notes provided the teachers their only access to the nature of our exploits.

The faculty frequently tried to redirect our enthusiasm. They encouraged the girls to write short stories instead of notes (perhaps not realizing the notes contained mostly fabrication to begin with). They suggested the boys might be interested in the “ancient art of Japanese Origami” rather than “simple-minded” paper airplanes. None of these proposals ever bore any fruit. Essentially, our educators generally failed to learn from current events – the cultural revolution of the 60’s compelled us kids to buck authority.

Paper airplanes felt good. They represented the constructive escape from the mundane world of adults and into the fantasy world we all dreamed of. Indeed, they typically led to more outside reading than our instructors would ever dare assign. We fled mathematics for model airplane design books. We dumped the age of exploration for the stories of World War II dogfights. We bypassed Tom Sawyer for any biography of Robert Goddard. I can still hear a friend’s father howl, as we swarmed over yet another Scholastic Book Service order form, “forty cents for a book about model airplanes?! That’ll never get you boys a job at the steel plant!” Funny thing – those books are still around (inside a cardboard box buried deep in my parent’s dark basement), but the steel plant is gone (having succumbed to cheap foreign labor, the wrecking ball and, ultimately, various forms of vegetation).

Still, paper airplanes represented the edge of life. Thought provoking and enjoyable on one hand, they felt naughty (and enjoyable) on the other. Perhaps the greatest risk one engaged in with these carefully folded floaters occurred during assembly. There we were, the young generation in a scene right out of Leave it to Beaver. We sat in quiet apathy on the bleachers of the gymnasium while the Principal expounded on some current crisis. (“It’s intolerable the way some of you young ladies and gentlemen behave during the ‘Duck and Cover’ exercise…”)

Suddenly, from the huddle mass of pre-adolescence, came a perfectly crafted paper airplane. The Principal, in an attempt to discourage further rebellious behavior, disregarded the obvious aberration so not to ruin his strictly structured speech.

Then, as usually happens in such situations of pomposity, the plane, in its slow soft descent, zeroed in on its target as if guided by an inboard motor. The Principal, having succumbed to arrogant righteousness, failed to “Duck and Cover” until it was too late and the glider bopped him on the head. The collection of kids could not hold back any longer and burst into laughter, (joined by a few of the more hip teachers).

Of course, the culprit – a coarse ruffian – usually got nabbed and hung by his thumbs during Lunch Period for all to see. (Public humiliation proved a stronger deterrent than the Principal’s feigned ignorance.) Law-abiding students, with the Fear of God (or their father) in their soul, lowered their eyes and looked away as they passed the marked transgressor of justice. They would never dishonor themselves!

Yet, we remained attracted to the aura of the paper airplane, continuing to tempt fate by breaching the rigid constraints of the older generation. Even now, when we have become the “older generation” and new demands have entered into our life, it’s rejuvenative to step back, tear out a piece of paper from our legal pad, fold it (almost mindlessly) and toss it – even just to see if it’s built well enough to float to the waste basket.

Last Week #3: Mr. Spock’s IDIC (originally published April 13, 1989)

Next Week #5: An Open Letter to Governor Cuomo (originally published April 27, 1989)

[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]


  1. Chris Carosa says

    Author’s Comment: In the current era of social media, pundits warn us never to post anything you wouldn’t want your boss to read. Here’s a headline: The same warning applies to old fashioned media. Only a couple thousand people lived in our town and fewer still actually read the Sentinel. When I wrote this column, I envisioned myself writing a Christmas letter to a large group of friends. I had no idea my boss would actually read it – until he called me into his office.

    Bill Napier was a fatherly boss. He would yell at his employees like a father yells at his kids. You always feared getting hollered at, but you knew he did it only because he cared for you and wanted you to be the best you could be. He may not have realized it at the time, but he taught me a very valuable lesson – the same lesson those social media experts blare out today – if you write something, you must assume everyone will read it, especially the people you most prefer not read it.

    I became more circumspect in future columns. I also told Bill I made up the stuff about work to draw the readers into the real story about the era I grew up in. I didn’t lie. And the work-related hook succeeded, at least based on the verbal feedback I received from readers when this article first appeared.

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