Jean Roland’s son, Oliver Rowland (the First; my grandfather was the Third) left his descendants two great legacies: the sawmill which would be the basis of the family’s fortune, and the letter w in the middle of our family name. I don’t know which one had the more lasting effect. The mill, in its various incarnations, made the Rowlands rich—for a while, anyway; the money was gone by the time my grandfather grew up—but the w made us American. It married us to the continent, this orderly land where crops come up in endless rows, this land of long borders. And of contested property lines, quarrels between neighbors, drunken fights, lawsuits: this land of rows, too, of which the Rowlands have had their share.
The story most often told about the w is that it was bequeathed to Oliver by a county clerk, a shushing, shuffling fellow who had ws to spare. But there is another story, told more often about the Rolands than by them. According to this story, the wavering, looping, up-and-down-again w introduced some unsteadiness into the Roland character: a shadow, call it, a double way of thinking in which good is always balanced by bad. That was why none of the Rowlands ever rose to the heights which Jean Roland reached in his balloon. The w put a kink in their wills, so that even as they rose up a part of them was already looping back down. Even the Mill was never what it could have been. Oliver the First’s son John invented a gearing system for the lathe: it could have made him a fortune, but he waited to patent it—there was that w again, that wavering, that wondering, what have I wrought? The patent went to Sears, Roebuck & Co., and made them countless thousands while the Rowland Mill chugged on in obscurity, turning out the three-legged “Thebes chair” for which some connoisseurs of furniture today remember it.
In the end, I doubt that this story about the Rowland w is any more true than my grandfather’s story about the balloon. But on the other hand, it’s unarguably true that we Rowlands have trouble getting off the ground.
Which is, perhaps, what gave me the strange and somber idea for Luminous Airplanes—I mean, Luminous Airplanes the science-fiction novel. More on that later.