Tag Archives: Winds of Kitty Hawk

A Sand Bucket and the Writer’s Quill


Downstream results, a lesson learned from making movies.

Sunset in the late summer on Pismo Beach, a windy Southern California beach, casts shadows eastward into timeless drifting dunes. Yellow highlights on the wind swept sand, blown from the crests, make the dunes look as if they are smoldering from the blasting sun’s rays. The eastern cloudless sky is dark early from loss of light, turning purple and mixing with sloped backsides of dunes dropping down into undefined darkness. The western sky is bringing in cloudy fog.

Wind is what happens when warm air rises and cool air rushes in to replace it. At the end of each day the heat rises off the dunes and the cool evaporating ocean air rushes in.  Crossing the dunes, the cool advancing air is heavy with salt and moisture feeding the sand grass and ice plants, the only things that can actually survive on the sand.  Plants especially adapted, drawing their water from the air and feeding it to their roots, anchoring themselves in the wind in some strange backward manner.  Sheltering small rodents, birds, sand crabs, spiders and bugs, and keeping the tops of the dunes from blowing away, making the dunes somewhat stable to catch more moisture.  A micro eco-system.

Dunes are like living things, always moving beneath the wind, always changing, and somehow always the same.  Lift is what an airplane wing accomplishes when forced through air.  A strong enough continuous wind will lift most anything not held down, shapes, large or small, even if it is not shaped like an airplane wing.  The tops of the dunes are domed; they push the wind up just as an airplane wing does, and on the back side of the dome is a downward slope lying in the downwind draft, and similar to an airplane wing there is a lift created, not beneath the wing, but behind the edge of the top of the dune.  It is this that makes the dunes move.  It is this that makes the plants choose to grow here which resists their moving.  It is a sand dune that is responsible for the first flight of man in an airplane.

Like most things in life, these elements don’t at first appear to be related, but when odd things come together they often come out even.

Over a hundred years ago, on a sand dune on the east coast of North Carolina, a place called Kitty Hawk, the sun was rising, and the warming air began to rise off the beach, drawing in fresh heavy cooler air from the Atlantic Ocean.

It was this very effect that had brought the Wright brothers to that beach, that and the sandy landing field for their first experiments in flight.

They had observed dunes to find out how lift worked; a stroke of their own genius, they had come to take advantage of the incoming strong wind, and the high ground of the dune tops.  They chose this location for their flight, and forever will be remembered for their first airborne flight from a dune into the lifting wind and across the sand.

75 years later on the west coast, the dunes at Pismo Beach, California were being used to film a re-creation of that historical event.  Not so much because they look so much like Kitty Hawk, but because they are so close to Hollywood.

On the day before the filming out on the dunes, the sun had almost given all its light, and there were flash light flickers coming to life down in the deep purple slopes behind the dunes.

The heavy lights and equipment that normally accompany a film crew would not be on the location until the next day, and then only for one day as the permit to place things in the dunes was limited to three days of construction of small sets, with one day of filming on that particular set. People are required to remove everything they bring in every day. Cans, wrappers, chairs, even bottle caps, tooth picks and cigarette butts. This would limit any damage to the dunes.

These dunes are federally protected and also a state park.

Instructions had been given to all of us to remove any and all trash, tools, equipment and gear whatever, each day.  Leaving only the specially permitted movie set of the Wright brothers building, and a night guard posted providing around the clock attendance.

The crews left, assuring the park ranger that all things, except the set, had been removed.  No tools, ladders, paint cans, ropes, cords, materials or supplies had been left.

It became too dark to see anymore.  No one could see the small toy sand bucket that had been left by my child who had spent the day visiting me “on the set” (I was the construction chief).  But it was there, it wasn’t far from the set, perhaps fifteen feet.  The set, positioned by the ranger, was behind a dune, out of the wind, but the bucket was just outside the protection of the huge dune; it was not a tool anyone missed, it was not materials to be accounted for, had not been noticed. He was only 7 and neither the ranger or myself caught this.  It was setting in a wind row down at the bottom of the dune. The wind followed its own path it had carved out for itself.  In these lines of wind drift, the sand moved little.  This location had been mostly undisturbed for perhaps decades.  The dunes are resting in their own self established equilibrium. But they do slowly move.

Long after all but the guard had gone home, and a little after the guard had fallen asleep, the Pacific Ocean surface cooled, the warm sand returned its heat to the sky, and the wind arose.  It slid under the mantle of stars across the water and onto the beach.  The domed-topped dunes lifted the air and the compression of wind against the dunes whistled across their tops, causing a slight vacuum on their backside edges, lifting tiny grains of sand from between the rooty toes of the sand grass and carrying them over the angle of repose on its backside down slope.

At the bottom, the wind met new resistance where the child’s sand bucket now sat.  There the wind swirled about this foreign object, the bucket.  The lift of the little sand grains was lost.  They fell just behind the sand bucket, forming a new small rift in a half curl.  As night stars drift overhead, sand grains began to drift below.  Some free from their resting place for the first time in decades.  All through the night the wind pushed against the new riff in the dune floor, moving sand from beneath the bucket, moving sand from tops of the dunes now feeling new patterns of air and placing it on an ever-growing new small dune. Something had changed in the wind rows, something that affected every dune around it.  The wind was moving differently this night than last night.

As the bucket went down, a new dune went up.  At first it was inches, then it grew to feet.  By morning when the guard awoke, and the crew arrived the wind had stopped.  Sunrise was a beautiful, cool clear crisp day.

There where the child’s bucket had been overlooked was a new hole almost a dozen feet deep and near thirty feet across and behind it was a new dune twice that size.  It had collected sand from dunes all around with every passing wind all night long.

How can there be a treasure in such a tragedy?  The set was wreaked, now tilting towards the new hole with sand piled halfway up.  The sand would have to be moved back into place before the next big wind storm or the entire dune range would be affected.  Fines would have to be paid, and the filming would be delayed, thousands, tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

Not only had the downwind effect on the little bucket had huge consequences on the dunes, it had changed the events of the lives of several dozen people.

Long term, that spot in the dunes will never be the same. It was an enlightening experience.

We do not control the moving forces within which we live, but by placing something just so in any moving force we will greatly affect all things downstream.  A pebble in a stream, a word in a crowd, an insult, a compliment.  Whether by accident or by purpose, there will be an outcome.  The outcome cannot be predictable but there will be an outcome.

It is the same with placing a word on a page, paint on a canvas, notes in a song; it brings irreversible change downstream.  We cause invisible dunes all life long.  Play, work, do, make a downstream outcome, even if it cannot be anticipated.  Life is a constant moving force, put your sand bucket in it, it will bring change to your life and like the dunes, whatever you do will find equilibrium.

That was forty years ago and the gift of knowing how things are affected by my actions has impressed every decision I have made since then.  For a day my son had the greatest sand pile ever to play in, and I am careful how I stand in the wind.

jmc/emc

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