The Writing Traveler: Would the Ezekiel Airship fly?

A replica of Reverend Cannon’s flying machine can be found in the Ezekiel Airship Museum in Pittsburg, Texas.

An East Texas preacher believed he had found the blueprint for flight locked away within scriptures in the book of Ezekiel.

For the Reverend Burrell Cannon up in the pines of Pittsburg, Texas, the clouds didn’t seem so far away anymore, and the good reverend knew that he and he alone could reach out and touch them. He would defy the winds. He would fly because God intended for man to fly. At least, God, in His infinite wisdom, meant for Brother Burrell Cannon to soar above the pines. He was the anointed one.

Late one night, as candlelight flickered upon the wrinkled pages of the Good Book, the East Texas preacher stumbled across the blueprint for flight tucked away in the lyrical, mystical incantations of Ezekiel, where it had lain hidden for thousands of years.

God had locked it away Himself, waiting for the right man at the right time in the right place to finally unearth its Biblical secret. Maybe old Ezekiel had been having visions, or maybe he had actually caught sight of the future. Brother Burrell Cannon didn’t know. He only realized that on a dark Texas night, he had seen the light, and it shone squarely on him. Those cursed winds would never shackle him to the ground again.

The good reverend turned to the book of Ezekiel and gazed once more upon the phrases that had inspired the mechanical eccentricities of his soul. He studied closely the passage about the whirlwind that came out of the north, a great cloud of smoke and fire, and of the four living creatures that were supported by wings and wheels.

Brother Burrell Cannon read aloud:  The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the color of a beryl: and the four had one likeness and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel …  And when the living creatures went, the wheels went with them, and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up from the earth … And under the firmament were their wings.

Caleb Pirtle

The good reverend sat back and stared into the darkness of the night. The revelation was as bright as the candle that burned gently before him.

God had spoken.

Brother Burrell Cannon would fly, no doubt about it.

The good reverend walked boldly into a room where the pillars of Pittsburg sat waiting for him. He was a big man with a strong voice. The Baptists liked the way he preached, and the leaders of the little town trusted anyone who could keep them pushed away from the burning gates of hell – although Brother Burrell had been acting kind of strange lately.

“I need twenty thousand dollars,” he told them.

“What for?”

“To build a manufacturing plant.”

“What for?”

“For the Ezekiel Airship Company.”

After a moment of silence, one of the businessmen asked in hushed, measured tones, “Just what are you planning on doing, Brother Burrell?”

“I’m going to fly.”

Nobody laughed. The good reverend, they saw, was dead solid serious. His eyes were afire. He believed in the scriptures, and nobody laughed at the scriptures. The people of Pittsburg were certainly willing to buy stock for $25 a share in the Ezekiel Airship Company to find out. P.O. Thorsell cleaned out the second floor of his foundry so the reverend would have a place to work.

Slowly, the odd, skeletal flying machine began taking shape. The preacher read the Good Book, then read it again, searching for clues that he could incorporate into his design. Night would usually catch him in the shop, but it seldom talked him into going home. He was a man obsessed, some thought he might be possessed, and Pittsburg hung onto every prayer, every curious sound that drifted down from the open window of P.W. Thorsell’s foundry.

A year later, as summer stained the red clay farmland with sweat but no rain, the good reverend dragged his airship out to the street, piece by piece, and began putting it back together again down by the railroad tracks. It was the only way he could haul the mystical contraption of Ezekiel through a narrow doorway on the second floor. It didn’t look like much. But then, nobody knew what a flying machine was supposed to look like anyway.

“He’s a mad man,” said the cynics.

“He’s wasted his time,” said the non-believers.

“He’s wasted our money,” said the worried.

“I’ll just wait for the rapture,” said the religious.

Rumors say the craft actually flew 160 feet at an altitude of ten feet, and Brother Burrell Cannon loaded his blessed contraption onto a railroad flatcar and headed toward St. Louis where a group of high-dollar investors waited to see him defy the winds.

The investors had read all about the prophecy, and they watched a cumbersome old motor generate eighty horsepower, spitting fire and smoke and sounding a whole lot like a whirlwind rushing out of the north.

The wings and the wheels in the middle of wheels were all in place, and, lo and behold, Brother Burrell Cannon coaxed it off the ground.

He would have flown, too, some said, if the damned old telegraph pole hadn’t gotten in his way, if the wires hadn’t snatched him back to earth again.

The good reverend lost altitude, and the investors lost interest.

The flying machine and his last bankable dollar hit rock bottom about the same time.

A dejected Burrell Cannon journeyed home in shame. Maybe he had been wrong.  Maybe God did not intend for man to reach for the clouds after all. Like the airship he left behind, he was broken and beaten.

A year later, on the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a pair of brothers named Wright crawled into a flying machine with wings and wheels in the middle of wheels, and they did defy the winds.

They flew.

Not far.

And not particularly high.

But they flew.

It was so simple, Brother Burrell Cannon decided as he walked among the pines and silently cursed the winds as only a preacher could. They both had their chances, the good reverend and Ezekiel, and they had failed.

God had anointed another.

You can find many of my travel stories in Confessions from the Road. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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