The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed

Blog entry
Authored by
26 August, 2008

I'm reading my way through John McPhee's books in order (having taken a few detours), but I'm writing about this one out of order because it's an Interlibrary Loan book and it has to go back this week.

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed was a fascinating study of the creation and testing of a prototype airship in the early 1970s.

Right from the first chapter, the narrative disabused me of my faulty assumptions - that the topic would be uninteresting to me, focusing on some secret military airplane. (I've found McPhee reliably transforms topics I find uninteresting into compelling and delightful stories. I have no interest in sports, but A Sense of Where You Are and Levels of the Game were riveting.) Instead, I found a collage of personalities devoted to birthing a frustrating new technology, complete with surprising personal motivations and haggles.

While both of the company presidents had served in the military, they were also both ministers, and both were driven by the desire to use the airships in missionary outreach, bringing cargo - machinery like tractors, foodstuff, Bibles - to underdeveloped countries.

The diverse backgrounds of the men they brought together to work on the craft were equally surprising. I loved reading about John Kukor, a championship model airplane builder. (The sentence that ends Chapter 3, which profiles Kukor, is one of those wonderful, apt moments McPhee does so well.)

I noticed McPhee taking a little more license in his writing ("the megalopolis had come in so fast that horses trapped between motels continued to graze there", and there's a beautiful description of a slow sunrise that includes a rare two-word sentence, "Venus stayed.") Most of the writing, though, was classic McPhee: precise description and a superb sense of timing, a masterly creation of suspense.

Reading these early McPhee books always makes me curious about what's become of his subjects. I checked for recent information on airships, and I was pleased to find recent forays into building them. Then I looked up Aereon Corp., sure I would find nothing (or some new company with the same name). I was amazed to discover that Aereon is still in business, still building aircraft, and still (apparently) has the same president, William Miller. Their web site even has a photo of one of the test flights described in the book (Chapter 16 or thereabouts).

Living and working in Silicon Valley, I'm used to people working to change the world with technology - but it's usually electronic communication, not something you can touch. It was fascinating to read about the engineering, the physics, the complex and surprising interplay between the laws of flight and the feel of flying; and to witness the dedication of men (no women in this book, except Olcott's wife and the cafeteria lady) to a dream of building something that could bring food and opportunity and hope to people they'd never met.