Issue 129, Winter 1993
Passing through darkened Virginia, lips eager and sticky from Southern Comfort, a girl and I talked intently in the vestibule. She was married, her husband was off in the army. I don’t remember where the bottle came from —it was either hers or we got it from the porter. The floor was trembling beneath our feet, the threshold between the cars creaking. She was from a small town somewhere and was wearing a cotton dress. The train leaned into great, lurching curves, the metal slowly squealing like a message sent along it. We saw nothing but each other’s faces. It was the spring of 1944. I was nineteen years old, on my way to primary flight training. The others were in the sleeping car behind us; most had gone to bed. Soon we were embracing fiercely. A married woman on a train at night, her body tight against mine. “Pete,” she moaned, “Oh, Pete ... ”
I had told her my name was Peter Slavek —it came from a novel by Arthur Koestler. I was linking everything together, fatalism, sex, war. In my imagination I was already a pilot, handsome, freedom reeking from me, winds coiled round my legs. I had no real idea of what lay ahead, vast southwestern skies with their clouds and shafts of light, towns with railroad tracks running through them and Masonic temples, dejected country with little lakes and fading cabins amid the pines, Bible country, the air pure with poverty and religious broad- casts. It didn’t matter, I was going.
Arthur Koestler had also written about an RAF flyer named Richard Hillary, well known at the time. Hillary had been a pilot in the Battle of Britain, grass fields and the insect-like planes bouncing across them, the sky dense with fights. He was nearly killed when the canopy on his burning plane jammed, and he could not bail out. I knew his beautiful scarred looks by heart. He had written a book about his experiences called Falling Through Space. The chapters often closed with a knell: from this mission Peter Pease, from this mission Rupert someone, from this mission someone else, failed to return.
Hillary, Koestler noted, was burned three times —it was only the first when his canopy would not open. They patched him up — his face would be a glossy reminder of it as long as he lived —and he returned to flying and a second crash, which was fatal. He burned to death. His wish had been that his body be cremated, and his ashes scanered in the sea, and to complete the cycle this was done. He was twenty-three when he died. I do not recall whether or not he was married but there were many love letters to a particular girl.
We have long forgotten those girls, doomed to go alone or with their parents down the lane to the village church, girls whose hopes had vanished. They were the fruit that had fallen to the ground. I longed to know these girls but also to bear the guilt for having robbed them, to have my ashes be the cause of their grief.
Of course there was Saint-Exupéry. He seduced me as well. I had read him, joylessly at first, in French, line by line and constantly looking up words. He was a favorite of the French teacher. Eventually I came to like him on my own — it was his knowledge I admired, his wholeness of mind, more than his exploits — and years later my affection for him was confirmed by a woman who told me that her youthful love affair with him was the most brilliant episode of her life.
She had met him at a reception in New York in 1941 or 1942. She was good looking, European. She fell in love instantly, at first sight. He had been in America since a few months after the fall of France in the spring of 1940. I imagine him —these are the dark days of a long war in which he would eventually vanish, fate unknown —as somewhat drab, in a gray double- breasted suit with perhaps an overlooked stain on the lapel. Like an ex-fighter whose career had ended a decade before, he is carrying a bit of weight. Balding but with a face that is smooth and somehow youthful —the clarity of intelligence shines in it —in his buttonhole is a distinguished dot of red.
She tries to talk to him, she absolutely must, “Mon- sieur . . .,” but her french is hopless. She tries English, to no avail. Finally she says straightforwardly, “Wollen Sie mein Telefonnummer?”
Then she goes home and waits, until late in the evening. The sullen black phone never rings. The next day, however, he calls, and the searing love letters he subsequently wrote she kept for the rest of her life.
There was also his affair on one side of the world or the other, among the palms of California or the forests of East Africa, with Beryl Markham — two ecstatic souls, somehow un- jealous of each other. Over the years Saint-Exupéry managed to progress, for me, from being a mere figure of culture to one of enviable flesh and blood.
In such footsteps I would follow.
Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on a loop of a sluggish, curving river, was where we learned to fly. The field was east of town. The flying school there was run by civilians.
We lived in barracks and were broken up into flights—four students to an instructor —alphabetically, of course, although inexplicably I was with Marlow, Milnor and Mahl. Our instructor was an ancient, perhaps in his forties, crop duster from a town in the southwest part of the state, Hope, which he described as the watermelon capital of the world. His name was Basil York. We were probably among scores of young men
he had taught to fly and were reminded of this by a stern warning for the next student to be ready when the plane taxied in from the previous flight. We waited, watching intently for the plane’s number and with no chance to question whoever had just come down about what had happened, what had they done in the air and what should we look out for?
Early flights, the instructor in the rear cockpit, the bumpy taxiing out on the grass, turning into the wind, tail swinging around, dust blowing, and then the sudden, mad sound of the engine. The ground is speeding by, the wheels skipping, and suddenly we are rising in the din to see the blue tree line beyond the field boundary and, below, the curved roofs of the hangers falling away. Now fields appeared, swimming out in all directions. The earth became limitless, the horizon, unseen before, rose to fill the world, and we were aloft in unstructured air.
Looking over the side of the airplane I could not believe it, the noise, the clatter of the engine, the battering wind, and the flat country below laid out in large rectangular patterns with din roads, the glint of occasional metal roofs, flat water. They talked meaninglessly about “section lines.” In the air these suddenly became real.
We passed a thousand feet. I felt as unnerved as if sitting in a chair at that height. We climbed higher, to fifteen hundred or two thousand feet, the height of the stalls, the first of the demonstrated maneuvers. The nose comes up into steep blue air, higher, higher still, unforgivingly higher, something sickening is happening, the bottom of the seat feels ready to drop away, and the dry voice of the instructor is explaining as at the top the plane, almost motionless, suddenly shudders, then starts to fall. Now I am to do this, his matter-of-fact voice directing it: throttle back, pull the nose up, way up, higher, hold it here, hold it .. .
There were spins, jamming the rudder in at the top of a stall and falling, the plane turning around and around like a maple pod. There was the anguish of trying to make proper S turns across a road, the wind making one loop bigger than the other unless you steepened your bank.
An hour has passed. All directions have melted away, the earth is too vast and confusing to be able to say where we are. Only later is it clear that the roads run on cardinal headings, north-south, east-west. The world and everything in it, the river, farmers’ houses, the roads and lone cars are unaware of us, droning above. The field is nowhere in sight. Like a desert, everything visible is vaguely the same when he says, “Okay. Take us home.” It must be this way, I decide, though there is nothing to confirm it. After a few minutes, without a word, he abruptly corrects the heading ninety degrees as if in disgust.
Everything you have done has been unsatisfactory, the stalls not steep enough, the S turns uneven, the nose of the plane continually wandering off in one direction or the other when you are told to hold it straight and level, anything that could speed up, slide or drift away has done so.
In the distance, magically, the field appears and with preci- sion, occasionally explaining what he is doing, he enters the traffic pattern and expenly lands. My flying suit is black with sweat. Face glazed, disheartened, I scramble from the plane as soon as we park. One of the others is standing there to take my place.
All was tin, the corrugated hangers shining in the sun, the open-cockpit airplanes, the tin gods. We were expected to solo in a few hours, not less than four or more than ten. If you were not able to take off and land by yourself after ten hours, you could be washed out. The days were filled with classes, briefings, flights, the sound of planes, the smell of them. We were mixed in with regular air cadets, some of whom were older and had flown before. We marched with them, singing their songs, the vulgarity of which was irresistible, and continued to kick into spins at three thousand feet on every flight and mechanically chant the formula: throttle off, stick forward, opposite rudder. . . . Even after three or four flights I still did not fully understand what a chandelle was supposed to be and had only a faint conception of landing.
Like the first buds appearing, individuals began to solo.
Word of who had done it spread immediately. Face scorched red by the sun, behind me Basil York repeated over and over the desiderata as we entered traffic, “Twenty fifty and five hundred, twenty fifty and five hundred.” He was referring to engine rpm and traffic-pattern altitude. “When you’re flying B-17s,” he said in his high-pitched voice, “I want you to still be hearing that: twenty fifty and five hundred.” We had begun to execute the landings together, nose up, throttle all the way off, both of us on the stick. I knew his recitation, “Start breaking the glide, ease back on the throttle, start rounding out, all right, that’s good, hold it off now, hold it off . . .” The trouble was, I did not know exactly what it all meant.
There was the famous story I heard later, of the instructor who had a favorite trick with students having difficulty learning to land. After exhausting the usual means, above the traffic pattern somewhere he would shake the control stick rapidly fiom side to side, banging the student’s knees to get his attention. He would then remove the pin holding the stick in place and with the student twisting his neck to see what was happening, wave it in the air and toss it over the side, pointing at the student with the gesture of, you, you’ve got it, and pointing down. It had always worked. One day for still another lagging student he rattled the stick fiercely, flourished it and tossed it away. The student nodded numbly, bent down, unfastened his own stick and, ignoring the instructor’s shouts, threw it away also. He watched as the frightened instructor bailed out and then, renown assured, reached for the spare stick he had secretly brought along, flew back to the field and landed.
To solve the complexities of the traffic pattern I had made, for quick reference, a small card with a diagram of each of the possible patterns drawn on it. Entry was always at forty-five degrees to a downwind leg but to work it all out backwards and head straight for the proper point was confusing and nothing seemed to annoy York as much as starting to turn the wrong way. The worst was when the wind changed while you were away from the field, the pattern had shifted, and everything you had tried to remember was useless.
A week passes thus. We fly to an auxiliary field, a large meadow five or ten minutes away. There is bare earth near the edges where planes have been continually touching down.
“Let’s try some landings,” he says. Nervously I go over in my mind what to do, what not. “Make three good ones, and I’ll get out.”
We come in for the first. “Hold that airspeed,” he directs. “That’s good. Now come back on the power. Stan rounding out.”
Somehow it works. Hardly a bump as the wheels touch. “Good.” I push the throttle forward in a smooth motion, and we are off again.
The second landing is the same. I am not certain what I have done but whatever it is, I try to repeat it a third time. Almost confidently I turn onto final once more. “You’re doing fine,” he says. I watch the airspeed as we descend. The grass field is approaching, the decisive third landing. “Make this a full stop,” he instructs. I ease back the throttle. The airspeed begins to fade. “Keep the nose down,” he suddenly warns. “Nose down! Watch your airspeed!” I feel a hand on the stick. The plane is beginning to tremble. Untouched by me the throttle leaps forward but through it somehow we are falling, unsupported by the roar. With a great jolt we hit the ground, bounce, and come down again. He utters a single contemptuous word. When we have slowed, he says, “Taxi over there, to the left.” I follow his instructions. We come to a stop.
“That was terrible. You rounded out twenty feet in the air. As far as I can make out, you’re going to kill us both.” I see him rising up. He climbs out of the cockpit and stands on the wing. “You take her up,” he says.
This consent, the words of which I could not even imagine. Alone in the plane, I do what we had done each time, taxi to the end of the bare spot, turn and almost mechanically advance the throttle. I felt at that moment —I will remember always —the thrill of the unachievable. Reciting to myself, exuberant, immortal, I felt the plane leave the ground and cross the hayfields and farms making a noise like a tremendous, bumbling fly. I was far out, beyond the reef, nervous but unfrightened, knowing nothing, certain of all, cloth helmet, childish face, sleeve flapping wildly as I held an ecstatic arm out in the slipstream, the exaltation, the godliness, at last!