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Sailing into a Creative Tide with Brothers

A true tale of innovative Belford boys a century ago; and a wish for more of their kind today

The story of two Belford boys who built a dirigible balloon and boat was a front page headliner in the Red Bank Register 100 years ago, on Feb. 15, 1911. It is the sort of story about kids that you're not likely to hear these days, much less read on the front page of a newspaper.

“The gas bag has a circumference of eighteen feet and is of light canvas," the story said. "The frame of the balloon is 11 feet long, two-and-a-half feet wide and 10 feet high." Gas bag? OK.

According to the article, when the boys tried it out, the balloon floated up to the height of their father’s barn, and then fell to the ground because its propeller broke. That seems straightforward enough, but then the article gets pretty funny.

“The balloon caused a big commotion in the poultry yards at Belford," it went on to say. "Some of the roosters and hens cackled and squawked and scurried into the hen roost while others stared at the bag in dumb wonderment. They have not been interviewed about the balloon, but there is evidently a division of belief among the fowls as to whether the thing that came flying over their heads was a big white hawk or an enormous floating egg.”  

These two boys were quite inventive; and, since their surname was White, they were known as the White Bros. According to the article, “Their fame in that place is as great as the Wright Bros., the celebrated aeroplanists (Yes, that's how it's spelled in the article).”

In addition to the dirigible, the boys were also in the process of building a boat. At first they made toy boats that were operated by clock works, but as of the date of the article, they were also constructing a gasoline "pleasure boat" that was projected to be 18 feet long with a four cylinder horsepower engine.

The boys said they expected the boat to get up to the "zippy" speed of nine miles an hour. I don’t know how old the boys were, the story didn't say. But I’m imagining that they were teenagers who started making movable toys much earlier in their lives.

I'm imagining them — sans computers, television and an overload of organized activities — having a lot of time to get creative and let their imaginations flourish during the day, despite, perhaps, school and the many chores that were routine for children of that time. I can see them content and putting together odds and ends from their environment.    

I can’t imagine today’s young people having the time, or the inclination, to seek adventures on their own. There are so many distractions; television, computers, gaming systems, hand held devices to text friends, playing games via thousands of apps, taking pictures or movies to go viral, and generally to keep in virtual touch every waking hour.

In addition, from nearly birth these days, children are taken from sports, to camp, to classes after school. I don’t see many children doing adventurous things outdoors on their own at all. Group sports is the closest their involvement comes to that notion. And even then, it's an organized activity with parameters.

I remember an adventure I had when I was 10 or 11 years old and (kind of) built a raft from found objects on the beach. Actually, it was a door from a burnt out beach building and two pieces of wood that we used as oars. I talked my friend Ann into going out to sea with me.

We swam in a channel that separated two pieces of land so it wasn’t really open water. We started paddling and the current took us out past the rock jetty into a boat channel. There were a few boats there, so we probably would have been rescued before we went around the point into open water.

The problem was that we weren’t that good at paddling so the boat started to go around in ever widening circles farther and farter away from the shore line. Ann cried and I paddled for my life. Eventually, we made it, (thanks to me) to the tip of the jetty and our mothers were able to grab an oar and pull us up onto the rocks.

I guess those are precisely the sort of adventures from which most parents are trying to protect their children. I don’t blame them, but it taught me something about myself and about risk. I learned that I’m too stupid to panic when in trouble, that I am resourceful and that I tend not to see the pitfalls soon enough.

Learning to be quiet and by yourself is equally as important as an overload of organized social interaction and gaming. It is the child, or adult, who has time on his or her hands that eventually imagines something new, something that has not been seen before, something original or an original interpretation of what has already been imagined.

I believe that creativity and innovation need time and space to flourish. Some people say that America is losing its innovative edge, but I’m skeptical of those gloom and doom scenarios. We seem to do well creating innovative technologies, which is what our children are very familiar with. Some children are finding ways to create videos that they post on YouTube and some classes that children take open their minds to scientific and artistic innovations.  

Syndicated columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, albeit in 2004 before the economy collapsed, "America is the greatest engine of innovation that has ever existed, and it can't be duplicated anytime soon, because it is the product of many factors: extreme freedom, an emphasis on independent thinking, a steady immigration of new minds, a risk-taking culture with no stigma attached to trying and failing." 

In 2009, President Obama laid out the Obama Innovation Strategy. According to a White House press release, the strategy seeks to “harness the inherent ingenuity of the American people and a dynamic private sector to ensure that the next expansion is more solid, broad-based, and beneficial than previous ones."

It focuses on critical areas where sensible, balanced government policies can lay the foundation for innovation that leads to quality jobs and shared prosperity. It has three parts: "to invest in the building blocks of American innovation; promote competitive markets that spur productive entrepreneurship; and catalyze breakthroughs for national priorities, which includes developing alternative energy sources, reducing costs and improving lives with health IT, as well as manufacturing advanced vehicles."  

Sounds good to me. Hopefully, there are some young White Bros. dreaming of how they can build a better fuel alternative, find a cure for crippling disabilities or create exciting gaming systems that don’t involve war and killing.  

I would love to know what happened to the Belford's White boys. I thought maybe the boat builders Grady White might have a connection, but when I looked it up online, I found that the company is out of North Carolina and is only about 50 years old.

Those two boys may have never made it off the farm, but I'd like to think that they were always involved with making things more interesting and fun in their day-to-day lives.

I like to think that they finished that boat and sailed around Sandy Hook on an exploration of Jamaica Bay.

There was another brief news item in the paper that day. It said that Mr. and Mrs. Harry White of Belford entertained the hikers club, and one member of the Jolly Retainers Club, at their house on Feb. 8, 1911. Jolly Retainers Club? Hmm ... It seems that the parents of the White Bros. were out-of-the-box thinkers themselves.

Get this quote about the Whites' club: “The club’s object is to abolish spring fever and find the fountain of youth by long walks.”    

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