Dream researchers - or oneirologists, as they are officially known say that the most commonly reported dream in every culture is the dream of unaided flight. In this sleep fantasy, the dreamer takes to the air and soars above trees and buildings, and the feeling is immensely ecstatic. But unaided flight is just a dream, surely?
For centuries there have been tales of Eastern gurus and other holy and mystical men of the world who have allegedly been capable of levitation, but scientists are very skeptical towards reports of people overcoming the laws of gravity, although the late scientist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said that one day in the not-too-distant future men will be able to fly under their own power on the Moon - under pressurised domes. An Earth-dweller on the Moon would only weigh one sixth of his terrestrial weight, and this would allow anyone with even rudimentary strap-on wings to fly through the air - although Asimov stresses that if the common lunar gas Argon was mixed with the dome's atmosphere, the resulting denser air would make flying even easier.
But here on this world, in the state of Missouri in June 1884, there was a report of one man who could resist the gravitational pull that makes us all prisoners of the Earth.
In the pastoral town of Dexter, near the Mississippi River, there lived a 27-year-old farm-worker named Reynard Beck. Reynard and his elder brother Samuel worked the small farm for their widowed mother. After the death of Sam Beck senior in 1879, the Beck family had a rough time trying to make enough money to live decently. The family had the utmost respect from their neighbors, who admired the way the proud Becks refused help from anybody, but the integrity meant that the Becks had virtually no social life at all. Sam and Reynard could never afford the most basic pleasurable things like good clothes or the occasional drink. In fact, both boys were unable to court girls because of their financial disposition, but they plodded on, content with what little things they had.
One morning before the sun was up, Mrs. Beck called her sons to breakfast. Reynard awoke to the aroma of eggs and bacon. He yawned, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, when suddenly, the young man experience an intense feeling of delight - and a sensation of being lightweight. He threw his blankets back and was about to get out of bed when he started to float up towards the ceiling. He wasn't frightened - but amazed. He felt light as a feather, and assumed he must be dreaming. The farmer reached out and grabbed hold of the headboard of his bed and pulled himself down onto the mattress in a state of disbelief.
Mrs. Beck shouted her son again and told him his breakfast was getting cold. Reynard reacted by letting go of the headboard, hoping that the weightlessness had subsided - but it hadn't - and he found himself floating upwards slowly like a soap bubble. He ended up spread-eagled against the ceiling. The boy remained there realizing that something incredible had happened to him. But what? He knew he was over 166 pounds in weight, so how could he just float? He was naturally baffled. He pressed the soles of his bare feet against the ceiling and pushed them hard, propelling himself down to the bed. Before he could rise again, he grabbed the bed's headboard and pulled himself down onto the mattress again. He took hold of a chair and clutched it against his chest. The weight of the chair was just sufficient enough to keep the levitator grounded. Reynard ignored his mother's impatient cries for him to come down to breakfast as he slowly moved towards the chest where his clothes were kept. He opened a drawer in the chest and took out an old leather belt that he wore for fishing, and attached to this belt were various lead weights he used on his fishing rod. Reynard wedged his feet under the chest and put the belt on. Moments later, he was relieved to find that the weighted belt was keeping his feet firmly on the floor.
Reynard was a God-fearing, superstitious individual, and as such he thought it would be out of the question to tell anyone about his weightlessness, for he feared they would say he had made a pact with the Devil. So he went down to have breakfast with the belt covered by a loose shirt and worked in the fields without breathing a word of his strange secret to his brother.
Before he went to bed, Reynard took off his belt and instantly started to levitate. He held on to the headboard of the bed. At that moment, Reynard's brother came into the room and saw Reynard with his hands on the headboard and his feet in the air. He naturally assumed Reynard was performing a handstand.
"What are you doin'?" Sam asked, bemused.
Reynard suddenly lost his grip on the headboard and started rising through the air to the ceiling. Sam stood there, completely shocked as he watched his brother bump the ceiling with his head.
"The belt! Hand me the belt, Sam!" shouted Reynard, and Sam picked the weighted belt from the bed and handed it up to his airborne brother.
"How did you do that? That's one neat trick. How in tarnation did you do it?" Sam said, suspecting the amazing feat was performed by wires. But he could see that there were none. This truly perplexed him.
As soon as Reynard put the belt back on, he descended again. After he'd told his brother how he had woken up to discover his new talent, Reynard and his brother decided to tell their mother, and she seemed more concerned with what people would say about her levitating son than the mysterious ability he possessed.
Sam convinced his brother that there was money to be made out of the paranormal faculty, and the two men decided to go on the road, exhibiting Reynard as 'The Floating Wonder'. The act proved to be very popular. When the crowds crushed into a booth to see the show, Reynard simply undid his belt and rose steadily through the air to the canvas roof, where he held onto a metal frame. When news spread of the astounding 'stunt', thousands of people flocked to see the show, and the takings mounted considerably each day.
When the Floating Wonder displayed his anti-gravitational antics at a town in Oklahoma, a few skeptics employed a gang of hooligans to wreck the booth in order to 'expose' the fraudulent goings-on. But the vandals were shocked to see that no wires or trickery was being used at all. This revelation only served to bolster the reputation of the Floating Wonder.
Scientists and doctors turned up at the shows, determined to disprove the myth of the flying farmer, but they saw Reynard Beck was no hoaxer - he really could levitate - but that went against accepted science, so the men of learning refused to comment on the inexplicable gravity-resistant man.
In April 1887, a reporter from The Kansas Star newspaper was assigned to get to the bottom of the Floating Wonder. He later wrote of his attempts to discredit the brothers from Dexter: "Before the exhibition, I thoroughly searched the room, looking for wires, hydraulic ramps, hidden supports any device that might provide a clue to the mystery, but I found absolutely nothing. While Mr. Beck sat in a reclining position three feet from the floor, I beat the air above and below him with a cane, but met no resistance. With the utmost reluctance, I came to the conclusion that he was floating in mid-air."
The Floating Wonder was continually quizzed about the method he employed to leave terra firma, but the farmer was unable to offer an explanation. He was equally puzzled by his unearthly capability.
After six years on the road the Beck brothers had netted over one million dollars from their Floating Wonder sideshows. But in the spring of 1890 the brothers suddenly announced that they were closing down their booth and returning to their farm in Dexter. There were rumors that this had come about because Reynard had lost his strange power. Crowds of curious sightseers swarmed over the Beck farm, hoping to catch sight of Reynard, but he sternly refused to make any more public appearances and became a recluse. After publishing an account of his bizarre condition, Reynard begged for privacy. His last statement to the press in August 1890 was enigmatic: "Once a man has flown in the air, he can never be quite the same man again."
In September of that year, a rumor spread from Dexter and circulated around Middle America. It was said that the Floating Wonder had deliberately taken his belt off outdoors and had flown up into the sky to a sure death by asphyxiation. The news hounds responded to the widespread gossip by invading the Beck farm in droves. A tearful Mrs. Beck was being comforted by her son Sam, and they admitted that Reynard had been missing for three days - and they revealed that his weighted belt had been found in a field near the Tennessee border.
Reynard Beck was never seen again. Was the Flying Wonder a mammoth hoax perpetrated by the penurious Beck family - or did the young farmer really levitate?