Michael Martone

large image of the characters N A H C 0 3, the chemical formula for baking soda

The skies over Terre Haute, The Crossroads of America, bustled in the closing days of 1921. Eugene V. Debs had been released from prison and been welcomed home a hero. The Root Glass Company had captured lightning in a bottle and the bottle itself had become a kind of lightning. Hulman and Company also was headquartered in Terre Haute, a wholesale grocery and manufactory of leavening agents. Now as the company wished to expand into the retail market, they considered a rebranding as well. Art Smith experimented with his new idea of a more permanent form of “skywriting.” He would write his message in bold letters printed on giant panels of silk. The message? The chemical formula for company’s signature product, baking soda. The streaming silk banner unfurling and flapping in Art Smith’s wake dictated that he create, in the face of the banner’s new and unique aerodynamics, whole new techniques and tweaks for steering and stirring the aircraft for sustaining controlled flight. The buffeting was an amplification of the popping and puckering of the scarf he wore around his neck that would slap him, wrapping around his head and blinding him during gravitational gyrations caused by his acrobatic maneuverings. The tail of letters had a life of it own in the slipstream. But flying with a banner was in no way as challenging as the actual production of letters out of thin air. He easily set his stick and throttle to a kind of automatic course, a slow broad circle over The Crossroads of America with the actual crossroads below serving as a kind of center on which he pivoted. It wasn’t challenging to fly this way simply hauling the letters, letters that seemed nonsensical to him, lugging them through the lower thicker air. And he could continue to display the advertisement even into clouds, clots that rose into lofts of white wispy loafs, that accumulated and expanded into billowing banks and bluffs in which he would disappear only to reappear, his trailing message intact like a ticker tape threading itself through gloved fingers. There was that. He didn’t need an empty sky to promote this leavening agent. The Hulman Company would rename the baking soda Clabber Girl in the New Year. And he would be back with another banner calibrated to the new name, churning and chugging through an undulating cloudscape, a curdled buttermilk sky.


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