His knees were the landing gear, which he skinned, and his arms fit into the wings. He cleaned the neighborhood of clothesline, attached it to the glider, then rounded up 10 friends to run. They waited for the wind.
It came soon enough that summer of 1915, flying Paul Garber in his homemade plane straight across California Street into an old field of oaks that holds an embassy now.
"I felt the lift of it," he says, "and it was marvelous. I thought I was a mile high. Oh, it was exhilarating."
Better yet was watching the Wright Brothers fly. He did that at Fort Myer in 1909, when he wasn't quite 10. His father had given him the trolley fare and there, through the gates, came this apparition with wings and a propeller and look at that, men! Two of them, flying straight for him.
"It was such an astonishing sight," he says. "I've never gotten over it. And I don't want to."
Paul Garber is historian emeritus at the National Air and Space Museum and a world-class airplane connoisseur. He plain loves them, from that contraption the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk to the Concorde to the C5A transport that will hold six buses.
So yesterday, they named a museum after him.
It's called the Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, Md., a big, hot hangar that used to be called the Silver Hill Museum. It's still part of the Air and Space Museum and holds the original nose cone that carried the first monkeys (Able and Baker) into space, as well as a World WAR I Spad XIII fighter plane a lot like Eddie Rickenbacker's.
Yesterday, the champagne corks popped. "Any more of this," said Garber as he took the first sip, "and I'll start flying in the air." No clothesline necessary.
At 80, he is the grand patriarch of American flight, a man who says he dreams about having wings, a man who has acquired planes for the Air and Space Museum for 60 years. Sometimes, the pilots weren't even out of them when he asked.
Charles Lindbergh, for instance. Garber figures that the young flyer was probably over Newfoundland as he wrote the cablegram, asking for the Spirit of St. Louis. "I took the cablegram to my boss," he remembers, "and he sort of smiled and said, 'But he hasn't gotten there yet.' Well, I knew he would."
He chuckles with delight. He is a round man with shocks of gray hair and the disarming charm of an adored grrandfather. His hands clasp in front of his chest when he speaks, sage-style, from the desk chair in his Air and Space Museum office filled with airplane pictures, airplane memorabilia and general airplane clutter. He even has airplanes on his tie.
It's late morning and he's putting the last touches on his speech for the afternoon museum dedication. Even so, a walk through the museum is just fine with him.
"I was told by those I worked for back in those days that aviation would never amount to anything," he says as he strolls toward the Apollo II capsule that carried Neil Armstrong to the moon.
"They said I was foolish," says Garber, "and that I shouldn't waste my time." He rubs his hand affectionately, like he's petting a dog, over the plastic that protects the capsule from poking tourists. "Somebody leaned too hard," he says, patting a small hole on one side.
"I'm really not too much on spacecraft," he admits, walking now toward the early flight exhibits, "although I admire them. I'm more a winged person than a firecracker person."
Maybe one small wingspan into the early flight display, he notices a little exhibit on the left. He heads straight for it, clucking. "They've got something upside down here," he says, eyeing an 1804 model glider designed by Sir George Cayley that certainly looks right-side-up enough.
"See, says Garber, bending over and sticking his nose almost to the glass, "they can't fire me yet. They just don't know. They're all very diligent and capable, but they haven't been here 60 years."
Above him is the 1909 Wright Brothers military flyer he saw that day at Fort Myer. He says it's absolutely his favorite plane.
Back upstairs, away from the exhibits, he eats in the cafeteria. The girl gives him chicken soup without asking. "They know me here," he says, adding chocolate milk and crackers to the tray. That's it for lunch.
He eats the soup, broth before noodles, and relates how his father the art dealer always considered his son the plane fanatic something of a failure.
"He was trying to make a merchant of me, you see," he says."I think I was quite a disappointment to him."
They lived on 24th Street near Massachusetts Avenue in those days. Garber learned to fly during World War I, but missed out because Armistice Day arrived before he soloed. But then he flew with the old Air Mail Service (New York to Washington, 3 1/2 hours). And in 1920, young Garber began his work at the Air and Space Museum. He began by repairing exhibits, which wasn't bad, although what he really liked was building models. Soon enough, that's what he was doing and soon after that, he was hunting around for airplanes and airplane memorabilia.
It was on one of those trips that he met his wife, Irene. He calls her Buttons. Anyway, she lived in California with her mother, who had lots of airplane stuff he wanted. They invited him in and Buttons remembers that he drew the design of what was to become the Paul E. Garber facility on the oilcloth that covered the kitchen table.
(Pretty close to what it looks like now, she recalled yesterday. In between, they got married and had a bunch of children.)
Garber has now finished his soup and is chewing on a cracker. "The whole experience of flight I love," he says, "no matter what I'm in." This includes even something like United Airlines flight with an aisle seat where you can't see a thing. Even so, he always tells the pilot if it's been a good landing.
Still, those commercial airliners are a lot like flying in boxes. He misses the open air.
"In an open cockpit," he says, "you can feel the wind on your cheeks, and you can tell from it whether you're flying straight or whether you're crabbing a bit. It helps."