A POET OF THE AIR
LETTERS OF JACK MORRIS WRIGHT
OF THE AMERICAN AVIATION IN FRANCE
APRIL, 1917-JANUARY, 1918, continued
October 24, 1917
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER: --
I am very tired --- disgusted and stupid. Tired because it's just after flying period and I've been in barracks, broke, for a month; disgusted --- I mean mad, very mad, because I have n't been up to fly for three days, stupid because I've been doing nothing. Nevertheless, I shall write you, because I feel instinctively that it has been some while since my last letter to you. During that time much has happened. I have been flying alone considerably and feel confident --- too confident in the air. An aviator must be calm and thoughtful --- my thoughts are voyaging and dreaming too much. I don't concentrate enough up there. I'll not think aviation so soaring next time and will concentrate more.
Perhaps --- for the sake of conversation at this hour about which you will probably be taking tea in the red-draped studio upstairs, talking nonchalantly or nonchalantly dreaming --- I shall answer you with what I have been doing to-day. .
At sunrise, before even, I yawned and (we are four in a room by ourselves now, Jack, Bruce, Bill, I) asked Bruce how the stove and the weather were. As both agreed to my getting up, I slipped on my "leathers" just in time to race for breakfast: coffee, bread, syrup, beans. Then I came back for a cigarette while the first two platoons marched down to "double controls" and "landing." Poor devils, they had to take life so hard compared to the "solists," and at last I was one of the privileged ones.
Once out in the field I found the wind blowing hard, but was on edge to get up. I did n't, though, and perhaps it was best; so after standing in rubber boots and a wintry climate for three hours, I came back and finished up my toilet down to my finger-nails. I played soccer-ball a while, smoked a little, and went --- I mean ran, raced, flew to lunch: potatoes, bad meat, tough bread and cheese. I rested after lunch and smoked some more of my friends' cigarettes --- tried to read "La Femme de Trente Ans" of Balzac, but threw it up. Then came lecture.
Everybody smokes and cracks jokes, for the lecturer --- a comrade --- is a peach and his stenographer still better. I intended to take a walk, but didn't; met some boys from Paris, who had their commissions from ground school in U.S. and were just starting in to fly. They thought too much of their , Harvard accent---a dead-sure result of getting stripes --- so I just turned away towards my room. I again tried to read Balzac's "Thirty-Year-Old Woman," but found her too complex, and upon a call-out grabbed my flying clothes and got over to the machine. I also found out I was to be paid to-morrow, so I had a broad smile on my face. It died down during the afternoon, though, for I did n't fly, which set me raging --- numb with the blues!
Well, one fellow was tried out in front of the chief pilot to see whether he should continue. He got by for some reason or other. We call him "horse-shoe" anyway.
Baron de Haven, our monitor, got mad because we cut in on the Anzanis and explained how yesterday at C-----, on account of cutting into another "piste" that way, four men were killed. Then one of our machines bounced on its wheels and flipped over on a wing --- breaking it. A couple of pilots went up in Nieuports and played tag and gave war manuvring --- that is, as soon as one would get in a position to kill the other --- the latter would " barrel " or "tail-spin" or "wing-slip" and loop away. Another one of ours came in with its hood hanging on the motor. It was getting late, and I was about ready to fly as far as my frozen senses could make out. The wind was strong. Another fellow came in --- glided --- "piquéed" too much, bounced up some ten yards and dug straight down. The fool pushed on his stick because he got rattled, burying its nose in the earth, turning over, breaking everything to be broken, including, almost, my friend Jack, who was just climbing into another machine.
The author escaped, and we took him out of his belt just in time for him to meet the usual storming of the monitor. As usual, also, the boy took a broken propeller blade back to hang over his door or make a cane with.
Jack made a good landing after correcting the drift in his glide. You see, one is supposed always to face the wind starting and landing. The boy, just before we started out, made a "cheval-de-bois," turning around to the left on account of the pull of the propeller (propeller-torque), cut off and started again; he repeated a little, got off the ground, thought he was still doing it, cut and came down on his wheels; thereby "dropping the carlingue," that is, lowering the front-middle of the machine through a choc, so that being our last machine, the monitor strode off with a bark of a "goodnight" at the class of young aviators---would-be aces--- future heroes --- and future corpses, and the said multitude, including myself, who by that time was foaming at the mouth, strayed wearily, drearily back towards the barracks.
I will soon be eating supper. We have only three meals now --- supper is very bad meat, tough bread, beans and jam --- that is, if you get there first, and after you get there, can eat it, then I'll smoke "bull," read, and go to bed with hopes and disgusts and glimpses of vengeance for the morrow.
There is my day --- poor me --- please a little more tea and another slice of chocolate cake, or perhaps a "tortoni" before the tray is carried out and we light the lamps. Mr. W., I suppose, is just coming home and P'tit is starting to prepare. I hear an echo of an old banjo and the hollow blow of a wintry wind. Ah! yes, I am not there. I am here; the echo is reality and reality is an echo.
I am not on the divan and cushions of the studio. I am at war.
P.S. We honored Guynemer's death as all other schools in France and camps. He is called the "Child of France" as Joffre is the "Father of France." Immortal honors of all deities are raised in praise to him --- eternal praise.
Last day of October, 1917
DEAREST MOTHER: --
I always put a lot of affection in that title. I always sit down to write you with great concern and a larger heart. No matter what I may write, what frivolities and scrawlings, what business terms or diary notes, it is always with much consideration and warm sympathy that I send the letter to you. It is a root that has taken firm hold and only the most desperate aggravation could loosen it. It is something that can never be forgotten under any skies, on any soil, for it is there; it grows; it is ready to force its presence on me if necessary, for it has gathered the austerity of even commanding me through the long years that have made us not only relations but friends. I hope that you will always be conscious of it under any circumstances --- which indeed would be the trials to go through and the tests that are necessary. I think one always comes back to his mother. It's an animal law and most probably a human one.
I'm in the last class of this school now, and if good weather keeps up, I will be voyaging and doing the other stunts that go to make up the "brevet" and to make you an aviator full-fledged, licensed, and ready for the Devil himself. After that, perhaps two weeks or three from now, I get a three days' leave in Paris, during which I shall enjoy the comfort and refinement; in short, the contrast of a good hotel, good meals, and all the other bourgeois luxuries. It's good to wallow in bourgeoisie a couple of days after a period of more or less privation. After that I don't come back to Tours and its golden, burnished château-land again.
I go to the school of "perfectionnement." It will be all American and the biggest in the world. Where it is I am not at liberty to tell, but there my occupation is that of the French schools of perfectionment, that is, training on light fast chasse machines (if I choose "chasse" work), very modern; in fact, such as they use at the front every day. There I go through acrobatics and machine-gun work and some extra delicacies including lectures on aerial war tactics and strategy.
After that, I know not what --- outside of perhaps another permission to Paree --- just what Fate will do with me. I have hopes, though, ---that she will not make me a monitor, but send me to the front, although both are worthy of any aristocrat.
To-day Bill is leaving for his three days in Paris. I will only see him again at the "école de perfectionnement." He got through without breaking a thing, which is good.
Just back from two ten-minute turns out on the field on the Anzanis (the last class of the school). I ran into a rainstorm for a while and it was annoying. It took half the joy out of the scoot, for it feels like fifty Singer machines all sewing at once, criss-cross your face.
Mother! I've just found out that the one man in the world I would want to meet lives about five kilometres from here in a big château and wants to meet an American soldier. He is ANATOLE FRANCE. Is it really possible? Were I to meet Jesus on Fifth Avenue, I would not be so surprised. Maybe I'm not out for the biggest adventure I've had yet. I'm off ---let's hope I succeed; I have a couple of rivals; one who had it all fixed up for himself, but is spending a couple of days in jail, Ah! I'm off!!!
Outside of that, I've just received the "Touchstone," and as a most natural result fell deadly in love for the fiftieth time with all the Isadorables.
Mrs. B. has just sent me a great package, the best of which is a candy box all dolled up to make a marvelous Louis XV tobacco safe. The pictures of yourself are wonderful. I keep them as poems and beg you to take all you can. You have n't sent me as many as I've sent you. Send me pictures of my friends, too, if possible. But after yours, what I'd rather have would be a monthly package made up of "Seven Arts " (magazine) and "Vanity Fair." I hope you will not forget them, for it is important that I keep in touch with the world I am to handle later. I've just heard that "Harper's Bazaar" is now still better than "Vanity Fair." Do send me a couple of copies.
Now I'll close and wait for some good weather. That means reading "La Femme de Trente Ans," of Balzac and finishing a couple of Futuristic conceptions of Gretel until at last a warm Indian summer day shall greet me into a future career that shall not have room for any of the late boredom. I shall do my test, great through its tangency to your first adventurous flying. Then to Paris; then perfecting on beautiful modern machines and all the future I've dreamed of at the front and perfected in my mind as a gigantic horizon. So I'm perfectly satisfied with life now, although feeling quite material. So much so, in fact, that I'm more pleased than anything else with the beautiful pen I've found to write you with. It's the best I've had since the funeral of my fountain pen. This pen makes life just one long serpenting enchantment. See how nice it scrawls!
I don't see how the Victor records, trunk, and my belongings would cost too much, as there is no duty on baggage coming to soldiers. Please send them to me, as I'd like to enjoy them while I can, outside of the fact that it would be a little bit of music and comfort at the front, which, little as it may seem, is not a neglectable factor, at least to one who is going through it. Peoplein America don't seem to realize they're at war. When you come back from the Red Cross parade and their carnival banners and write me of how America is waking up, it does n't make me smile; it makes me pity when I think of the parades I've seen at the front --- parades of living ghosts.
November 2, 1917
MY DEAR MR. W.: --
My first letters were purposely vague when I entered aviation, and I think that I have explained why to mother about two months ago.
My first reason was that I did not wish mother to start fussing and planning to prevent my decision from realization until it was already under way. My second reason was that censorship forbids me to say much under penalty of court-martial. My third reason was that those items of news entrusted to me as a private and perhaps, a future officer of the U.S. Army, I fully intended to keep within their own circles.
Having gone through double-controls, landing-class, and first solo class, I am now in the last class of the school, which will throw me on to my license tests and my career as an aviator.
A number of times I had thrills that made me want to give the whole wonderful game up, but in between times I have never felt so happy in all my life. Those thrills are bound to come. They're the most of the game and make the sport adventure, so I'm getting over their after-thoughts and trying to be as sane as possible, though the French say that to be in aviation one must necessarily be or soon become insane.
As I have n't the slightest intention of ending up at an asylum, in spite of its low price, even in war, I suppose that the greatest factor of flying, its inspiration, will be mine and geometrically increase that happiness that has already freed me from the hypnotic pettiness and strife that New York seems to loom up on the horizon of a young school-boy.
There have always been two things I never wished even to consider: the army and aviation. I am in both as a result, and still more, I cannot now understand how any man can keep out of them. They have temptations for every character of the "Human Comedy."
I would like to tell you the technical side of my life, and some of the rumors and plans that I hear about, but as you know, it is impossible. The censor only lets Art slip by and is often strict on that too.
In ending, though, it seems that in the last big offensive, that of Champagne, the casualties of aviation were eighty per cent. They always have been the highest, so I might hint that in case anything should happen, I would be entirely, at ease that you would exercise all of your very strong influence to appease mother in every way and prevent any sad results from her womanly fanaticism.
November 4, 1917
MY DEAR SEVEN ARTS: --
At a table covered with an army blanket, warmed by a cast-iron stove, lighted by a barrack window, sits Jack Wright, himself, with a letter from a little French girl in his pants pocket and a letter from a little American girl in his shirt pocket --- as to his money pocket, there is nothing of special importance.
I've just finished an Abdulla which, being ninety-nine per cent opium, makes me conscious that being broke can never be beautiful, especially after being rich a week ago. Therefore, the letter in which you gave me a prescription of how to live on six dollars a week was most harmonious to the present mood of his majesty's austere soul; excepting that I'm just now demonstrating how six dollars a week is luxurious. The only thing that annoyed me in your letter was its vitality --- that did n't harmonize at all.
Since I've been in this game, I've given up Art entirely; I've become like ye ancient Greeks who used to sun-bathe on the top porch, drink sodas on the veranda, and sun-bathe again on the top porch after inhaling the perfume of sweet flowers on the way between the top porch and the veranda (the way being made as short as possible at that).
My life consists of being broke and not being broke. Both are equally passionate: one consists of flying and the other of flirting.
You see, Youth was not meant for sculpture and architecture; that is for lofty, classical, cold and beautiful Idealism. Youth is a painting, splashed with colors, lights, and warmth of life radiated through some crystal medium, some medium between nature and him.
As to study and its pleasures, contemplation of psychology, and the rest---that's for still further on --Old Age.
Just now I am out for life's passions. Whee! but I'm wild. Still more, I am not making Art out of them, but making them the Art --- the living Art; the most real and therefore the most palpitating and the most in resonance with the human soul of all Art. It is a great deal to mingle with human nature and its throbbings; they are not divine, but they are real, and therefore strong.
Dreams are divine, so they are vague, and lack strength and impression because they can only be realized in Art. Of course they gain in permanence. One extreme is materialism; the other extreme is insanity; the thing to do is to join them, but that I reserve for later on ...
The spiritual part is in me, but the other part, life itself, I know little about, so I must gain in experience and learn to weigh life in its true values and thereby join more harmoniously my Art to Nature.
Yet, I have another theory. Being an Idealist, it seems horrible for me to want to join Art to human nature and produce a medium between the two, for fear that I would have neither, so I think that I shall just take one and live it thoroughly; then the other and live it thoroughly.
First (being young) I shall take human nature; second (when older), I shall take Art. In other words, I'll now become a note of rag-time and later a nut ...
So you see me, in spite of my cheerless surroundings, a liver of life --- an artist of the real --- a youth trembling within the infinite arms of life.
Outside of that, I am flying. I've been here two months and am practically through. I have obtained three things: A cadet officership, a French flying brevet, and the discovering of the most voluptuous and beautiful woman in the world --- my aeroplane. Were it a choice between Anna and my 'plane --- well, I'll admit I would hesitate; but were it a choice between the rest of the school put together with Isadora in the bargain, I'd choose my aeroplane decidedly.
My boy, I know what it is for the young country poet to hit New York, or rather for New York to hit him, but aviation is the ninth marvel of the world, be it the handkerchief wave of a school-girl, as I skim by, or the wave of the black veils and tricolor banners of all France; be it the sunlight on a daisy field where cattle graze or the roaring speed with which your machine hurls you into the mouth of the mighty brazier gold: the setting sun. It is more than a passion, for while you are winging through space, you also realize that those sunlit beds of flowery meadows may be instantly the chasm of your grave. The very danger of it impassions you. Your head rings with the constant humming of the wings of death until, superbly mad, you strain your feverish lips towards Death, the queen, and beg of her a kiss. I know that some day these lips of mine that smile as Death promenades with me will tremble; some day ---some glorious day of Spring, with too much Youth and passion, and that as steel towards magnet they will seek her mouth and find it in a first and last long kiss. And that Death shall be like one in the full divinity of first love; it shall be immortal and eternal.
That, my boy, is more than most men attain. Though your present life be "just as in the novel," mine will one day, for a few hours, be just as the novel could never attain.
"One glorious hour of crowded life
Is worth an age without a name."
Scott was right --- n'est-ce pas? Then why not come and join me.
Your mention of fruit and indigestion amid your poetic letter greatly amused me. It amused me as seeing Andover once again in the midst of your Oriental life.
I am glad to hear Dick and you got on good. Tell me if you meet any more of my friends, and for God's sake don't break up the Duncan school. Tell me what you think of them all.
I am living now with Bill T., ---what I call a hereditary friend, one of those people you've always known. Then Jack S., who swims around in the river of my atmosphere with Springfield, Massachusetts, tied around his neck. Then Bruce H., a stoic old classic who writes sonnets and heroic plays, who has been on the newspaper and out West and who makes life a psychological study at which he smiles from his classical heights on to the chaotic depths of free verse. He probably used to be one of the good old pillars that upheld our friend the Parthenon.
There is also myself ---lazier than ever. Laziness, you know, is the worst of human vices, for it leads to boredom and from there catches the express for hell.
Just found out that Anatole France has a château next door and wants to meet an American soldier, so I'm after him.
Write me considerably just now, for your letters are very interesting at this stage. I know they will change soon enough, so each one becomes a gem.
I will try to send you some photos in exchange for news of your latest girl (news from you, of course), and only hope that you get a few settled ideas in view during the very hard school year. I admire your working just now beyond the question of its difficulty, though.
I have given you, here, some entangled yarns of general philosophy --- spiced here and there; here and there wound into embroidery. I hope I have n't been too severe with my seeming indifference against your life which I realize is hard - very hard - as hard as I could want.
I hope I have n't talked too much of my lazy army life and its ego. I hope I have tempted you to write me soon, lengthily, often, and all the rest that goes up to make one of these impossible, perfect correspondents.
5 November, 1917
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER: -
Just a word before lunch. It is a windy late autumn day. I used to like the wind, but now that I'm in this game I don't. In one class this morning five men flew; two had forced landings; one finished safely; two smashed up while landing, all on account of the wind. Don't worry, though, for though I've seen accidents lately, I've never seen any one killed. Since I've been here, only a finger has been broken; it was peculiar, too, for the boy was spilled out of his machine by some telegraph wires and fell to the ground; his helmet saved him.
I was saying that I did n't like the wind these days, but the purple and rusty landscape is enchanting. Now a long streak of vineyards with a row of leafless trees veiling in their dusk the white façade of a château. Now a cluster of rays from out of the clouds on to a bunch of golden trees and their barkless, shining trunks, --- all is a land of color from the red belt and blue wheelbarrow of the road man to the valleys of rusting gold and their tarnished skies above.
I suppose I told you I'm on my tests now; still more, I'll be one of those to get the French brevet instead of the American, which, in a way, is a distinction if you consider that only the first to volunteer will receive it. The badge will be like this: [sketch.] It is the stamp of a full-fledged aviator and is worn over the right breast pocket. The wings and the star are gold; the wreath is silver.
Then I become a member of all the different aero, clubs. No matter where I go, in what country, I'll have a home and an honored one.
The tests consist of four trips covering some four hundred miles. Then the spiral test, consisting of two hairpin turns; and landing within a circle, and an altitude test demanding you to stay at seventy-five hundred feet for an hour and a quarter and a number of landings and hours necessary. On all these tests you must keep a good barograph reading of level flights, descent and ascent.
This morning I went out on the spiral field and learned how to do the hairpin, but did n't get up. This test will be like this: [diagram.)
Then I walked back, instead of taking the truck. The long Touraine road bordered by tall trees was sprayed with autumn leaves. Here and there a cluster of golden ones would sparkle out against the deep green background of a grove of pines --- all tossed in the fragrant breeze. Here and there a still pool with a half-sunken barge that had been left untouched by the artistic French so to give more poetry where possible, and to send to the passer-by from its rains, veiled under playing reeds and bright leaves, the echo of an ancient romance; perhaps when smiling lips met smiling eyes as the barge drifted on smiling ripples.
My friend Jack smashed a machine to-day. He bounced on his landing; did n't have speed; so that the wind crashed him down again on his wing; it was hardly his fault.
Wednesday, the 7th , --- Morning
Again a word before lunch. Had a funny time this morning and feel quite happy, as one would after a couple of hours with his bestest girl, for I had about one and three-quarters hours with my machine. I did the three things I wanted to do while at this school: fly over the city, chase a train, circle down on a château.
First of all, let me acknowledge the candy ---more than acknowledgment, though, for it was just like Christmas to get it. One boy got some cigarettes to go with it and another some Hershey's chocolate bars to add on, so six of us sat down and with candy, cakes, and cigarettes, lived like millionaires, although we were all broke. The main joke of the evening was one of the chap's fourth girl getting married as all the previous ones, so we toasted him with caramels and Fatimas through a long evening of aviator cheer; he was the gayest of all, for you get to be a Fatalist out here; in fact, it is necessary that you do, that when you're up, you realize that if Fate intends you to live you shall, and reciprocally --- that gives you great courage, and with the help of the roar of the motor and hurricane blast of the wind as you split the space, all fear becomes quite humble; it must. We ended the happy evening like little children, telling ghost stories with the lights out and our bellies brimful of candy.
This morning I went with the totalizing class because I came out short of hours from the solo and needed a couple more about before voyaging, etc.
My first machine was tried out and ahead she bounced and shot full into the rising sun; she skimmed upwards, and below me; across the shining river, the dark towers of the cathedral stood in their mediæeval ignorance --- petrification. My soul was soaring too, when I heard the motor talk back at such spiritualism. I wondered if she was missing. Well, you never have to do much wondering here. It simply stopped dead a second. I looked at it, at first patiently; she picked up; stopped again; this time I couldn't stand such foolishness and got mad. I swore at the cursed demozel for going back on me and fully explained to her that we had lost fifty metres and only had fifty more left. Whereupon she quit making fun of me and started off halfway decently again, but nevertheless with misses and bangs and stops that made my heart patter. You always do love a person more when they start going back on you. Decidedly I was entirely in love with her now, so much so, that my tour was shortened and spoiled for the need of looking out for good landing spots, clustered houses, woods and vineyards, not forgetting telegraph wires. Of course, though, I got back with my usual good luck. A forced landing is a great experience, but one never cares much for it.
In a few minutes another machine was ready and I was off for a half-hour. I sailed over the cemetery and its black crosses like so many dead ants, all of which I did n't forget to salute at full attention, for one always has much respect for their future home. The wind was getting to be like a hurricane and bumps were frequent; it kept me working steadily and my legs, even, grew tired, though they were propped against the sides. I passed over the bridge I used to take into town when I had money and saw the rue Nationale where all the cafés and theatres are. Little people were going about their petty ways. I did n't bother to wave to them. Now and then the King condescends to anoint his people with a wave of his royal hand, but only as an exception.
I then took a notion to see if my friend, Mr. W., was home, so I passed over the convent and in front of his château, but he was n't even out hunting on his grounds.
Flying at fifty metres is, after all, the best, though it is a little dangerous; so I came down and passed slowly (about sixty miles an hour) above the peasants ploughing and sawing, over their heavy stone farmhouses with their display of chickens and kids in the courtyards and a geranium or two on a window sill. My neck was as tired as my arms and legs, so I settled down to earth again.
I went up for another half-hour and explored a different part of the land --- long, brown fields, slim gray trees with blue-gray ponds amongst them. Here and there a villa in its luxury of leaves and flowers and autumn sun. I was dreaming away happily. Now and then a machine would pass under me or keep up on my left, for instance, like a kite attached to me being strung out little and little, until I'd back around steeply and change direction, getting face into the wind and scarcely advancing, but climbing as fast as I pleased. Just after leaving the city and the cemetery behind again and pleasantly bathing in nonchalance, the old boat took a swerve to the right and down on the wing in a speedy drop through space. I had a faint notion it might be the end and my teeth gritted. I managed to bring her back, though, and looked around for my star in the heavens.
Well, I went up again with orders to come back to the hangar when I was through, for everybody had stopped. It was rough and unpleasant. I was tired and feeling a little cloudy like the sky. Your candy was playing me a mean trick, I guess, for I thought an awful lot about the Touraine. I got up to three hundred and fifty metres (four hundred yards --- higher than the Eiffel Tower) and looked the country over for a decent château. I followed the Loire out a way and saw a beauty --- terraced and surrounded with fountains and gardens. One window was open, so I shut down the motor and glided straight for the open window. At the end of a hundred yards I was about thirty metres from it. Whereupon a fair lady came out on the balcony in a violet robe and sent kisses to the unknown cavalier, the aviator, one of her future defensors. It was a gallant kiss --- not a flirtation. Something as the fair nurse (if there be such) bestows upon the dying soldier. I like those gallant kisses and the message it brought to me as a silver arrow shot through the golden sunlight was pure and radiant. This was the impression of a second, for I was just skimming the trees; so I pulled on the gas lever and with a thunder burst the motor picked up the machine and shot her ahead as I slightly banked, thereby going in every direction at once: ahead, above, and sideways on a wing. I turned for a last farewell as I left the roof under my train and took the trail of the gods towards their vastness of blue. I got up higher than the Eiffel Tower again. Being bored, I shut down the motor and "piqué" Silent and swift with the wind whistling in my ears she dropped in a few seconds the space of three hundred metres. I was just on top of the houses and plains again with my stomach in my throat and my ears a-singing. Then I let her go on again, now and then jerking her upwards, which gives a cute little tickling in you. Off in the distance a train was creeping around a bend; so I swooped down at it and when at fifty metres off ground with the train some one hundred to my left, I banked into a curve parallel to that of the tracks and slid by it waving to the poilus who answered me joyously, for at last I was "one of them." No longer an "embusqué," but a defensor, even of the poilu himself. I felt their admiration and brotherhood sent out to me at last and was still more pleased than by the mid-air kisses of a moment ago.
I was feeling more than bored, so I gently rose to one hundred feet, swung over to the field, averted any possible machines, and first cutting my motor and then the "contact" (in ease of landing accident) settled down to earth with a gradual curve and a long skim just over the ground. Turning the motor on again I sat up in my seat, looked ahead, and "taxied" back to the hangar where a couple of mechanics came out to get the machine and see it safely in place. All this latter, of course, being done before the envious eyes of the last newcomers, who were in the double-controls I had left behind. In short, I feel like a Senior at School.
The rest of the afternoon I spent in resting up from the ride of the A.M.
I think that when I get back to the States, one of the features of my society aero club, which I intend to put in style in place of golf clubs around New York, will be a side show called "Flying without Flying." The person will sit down in a comfortable seat with his feet and hands on cakes of ice. In front of his nose I will place a funnel conducting a compressed air current of some two hundred miles an hour. At his left an ancient Ford motor will be going full speed, but missing, so that between the misses a machine gun can be heard, which noises will be conducted without loss, by megaphone. Around his neck a heavy stone will be tied which ought to tire the muscles out pretty quick, and on his head an instrument of steel something like this [sketch], which is slowly tightened around his skull and his eyeballs.
By this means he will soon learn how to fly. If, like myself, he has never cared much to even ride in an auto, on account of the effect of the throbbing motor, and the breeze, I don't think he'll care so much about flying four to five hours a day out at the front with the increased sensation produced by the ticklish feeling that a Boche is behind you or swooping down from above or waiting behind one of the thousand and one clouds just ahead.
This morning I went into "spiral test." I did n't get up, but had to take the machine home. It is a much speedier and more powerful and lighter machine, so I found out that spiral, something like hide and seek for your landing spot, height, distance, curve, glide, angle, etc., was not going to be one of the easiest. My good luck, though, ought to pull me through. It's now about lunch-time. I'll stop a while; no, I'll get this letter off. À tantôt
Best regards to all. Our little spiral monitor must come from the Midi, the way he acts out, on his feet, the test, and swears, gesticulates, and jumps around in general.
11 November, 1917
MY DEAR MOTHER OF ONARGA: --
Think of the marvel! I've met another creature from the Onarga, Watseka, Kankakee triangle --a young student-pilot across the hall, Bill Lindsay.
Our chief pilot left to-day for another school. The boys gave him a gold wrist watch. He was a prince and understood the psychological instruction of a student marvelously. I shall never forget the way in which he sent me off for my "first hop" alone. A very young Frenchman succeeds him as Captain, which is quite a grade in the French Army.
Well, yesterday afternoon I was supposed to have killed myself three times. Not feeling ready for Purgatory yet, I just fooled them all. The first time I was supposed to run into two long, thin poplar trees, but what did I care for such a silly smash-up? Then, when I banked around at fifty metres off, I was supposed to have either slipped on the wing or been flipped by the wind. I sure gave them the laugh, though. Ha! Ha! Bringing back a machine from spiral field, I was gliding, and at the same time watching a machine coming down just over me. I happened to look around just in the pleasant time to find the earth in front of my nose and the grass blades as big as California pines. Well, I did n't care in the least for Mother Earth --- not in the least; so I snobbishly pulled back in the stick just in time to swerve up over her tender cheek with a sarcastic grin from ear to ear. I guess I fooled them all right.
This morning I passed the hardest part of the tests--- the spiral. I had never been up to six hundred and fifty metres before (twice as high as the Eiffel Tower, so that I enjoyed ravishingly the new and enlarged wealth such height puts into your view --- your grasp on earth. The Loire was bending silently round her ancient tapestries of sienna forests and the streaks and planes of light the sun turned the fields into. The city and her towers were lost in the gathering purple of a storm. As I turned back, the earth was completely drowned in the nearing storm, but I could see above it into the secret, sunny glow of heaven as the sun tipped these leaden domes with gold, while across the struts of my plane, as on the window of some saintly church, the sun slanted its warm rays, and I realized that, far below me, men could never touch nor know these spots of sunglow that went sailing with me, hung in the midst of the space of God.
It was very cold, though, for a north wind was blowing, making me drift considerably. As I leaned over the front of the plane to peer down on the mapped-out country below me, trying to place the field amongst the familiar land-marks, I felt as though it were at the front: those roads were trenches and that it was for a battery I was searching. Then I saw the "T" far below me and made for a good position. After cutting off the contact, the long glide down started with only the blowing wind for company. I made my first turn as a train passed far below me. Then came the last --- the hairpin --- a strong wind was fighting me and being without the motor, it shoved me far back away from the field. I was forced to put on my motor, which luckily caught. My barograph, considering the day, read fairly well. He had me make a second one --- this time I was entirely at home and corrected myself considerably, although after keeping my eye on what seemed to be the field, once over it, I discovered not a machine in sight; not a "T" ; not a person. It made me laugh, though the monitor was probably dancing the Saint Vitus' dance down below, and all the boys were laughing. Thanks to an old tower and a lake, I found the field, but right under me, which caused considerable manuvring. All went as right as it could on account of the wind. I cut and came down when I saw myself short and just about on top of some apple trees. Thank God, that motor did n't miss and carried me safely over their tops. On my first "tour-de-piste," by the way, the whole car of the machine began to shake like an old scare-crow. I did n't know whether a cylinder was dropping off or half the machine itself, especially as there was a grove of trees right underneath, which I supposed might be soft for landing on one out of a hundred times, but which I'd just as soon shun too. The old tug pulled out of it, though, by some mistake or other so I was able to get down and stamp my feet around to warm up, although I had forty good minutes flying this morning and regret that only the wind will make the old sport impossible this afternoon.
Have just finished Balzac's "Femme de Trente Ans" and started his "Femme Abandonnée." Balzac chats delightfully with his reader, putting in philosophical bits and psychological studies that give a saintly glow to the whole chapter. You know creatures much better when you've read him a little. The hard part is to remember his talkings.
We had some tasteless white bread to-day. The first I've had for half a year, but poor as it was, it tasted like cake to me; so that I stored some extra pieces in my cupboard for rainy afternoons.
Monday night, 12 November
Gee! November sounds wintry, but it hasn't snowed here yet, even though we're a month ahead of you here in France.
Well, we had three hours flying to-day. Only hope that weather and machines will let me keep it up, so that I'll be out of here soon.
This morning I did my altitude. I never want to do it again --- at least with these open machines. My bird was brand-new, and soon all I could see of the city were sparkling bits that were roofs, and through the layers of mist and the clouds of smoke, the toothpick factory chimneys belched out still more obscurity till the sun seemed but a faint scintillation on the huddling of the industrious city. The test took me two hours, and from the beginning to the end I kept beating my fingers on my knees, as their tips were very numb. Otherwise I was warmly done up in a fur "Teddy-bear" suit and could distract myself on the way up by looking across the tops of the herds of clouds, whose infinite foam under the sun and the unspotted blue above, seemed a gigantic waving sea of melted opals where now and then arose a coral island or a topaz one as the sun tinted a distant cloud rising above the rest. I don't remember all that happened, as when you're up there, during what time you have to try to think and observe and contemplate, the wind is blasting in your face with the force of a big blinding hand, while your motor makes a horrible noise, most indifferent to your poetical attempts. Two things came to me, though: One, I no longer was the least bit interested in humans; they were almost of another world of which I could only note the outlines --- the roofs of those towns below hid, undoubtedly, romances, intrigues, passions, the beatings of many hearts and the palpitations of some souls, but I was far from them. They were vague and half forgotten, and I did n't care for them nor heed them in any way. , If I'd had a girl up there with me I most probably would have kissed her a couple of times --- but only through habit --- not through the least bit of flirtatious interest. I seemed to find my joy more in investigating the new mediums of space in which voyaged unknown mystic and monstrous creations of ages past and future; clouds that were the voyaging souls ethereal of dead worlds; winds and light that were the germs of a vast futurity. Second, as I looked across at those inanimate clouds, vapor and mists floating half between the sun and the earth, as I saw the infinite blank sky, the cold sun, the numb earth, I realized how life was but a scientific combination, but of temporal existence --- how it all went to --- whence it came --- to make up the rest of inanimate space, and to lifelessly float on and up and down as a factor --- dead or alive --- of science, not of any God or anything, with a soul, only of science, chemistry, physics, materialism, germation and withering. I fully realized that no future life was possible --- that it would be ridiculous for us to have affairs before the judgment of a god after death (a god who had no place to exist in this cold, scientific space). I fully realized that once dead and withered, a plant of the planet Earth, we dried up and away as the rest of Earth's plants and flowers.
I was then at the height I needed to reach nine thousand feet. There I was to remain an hour on a level --- which I did --- sometimes letting go of the controls completely and singing up there alone; sometimes half sleeping; sometimes quite bored with the petty yet monotonous aspect of Earth below; sometimes tickled with the novel aspect of color or formation up above the clouds --- mostly occupied in watching the time pass away on my barograph. When I saw that I only had fifteen minutes left, I think I never became so suddenly and extremely happy in my life. I let out a whoop, let go of everything, and though fastened in my seat, was kicking around and beating the old plane in a wild attempt to dance a jig. I poured out French rag-time and seized the top plane and shook it like an old friend and raved like a typical maniac for about ten minutes. Then I headed for the city and started the descent. Your ear drums are shoved in; your glands are blown up like balloons, and you think your head, heart, and eyes are to follow; but you soon get down from a place ten times as high as the Eiffel Tower. I went through a little cloud on my way down, although I did n't need to, as I saw the top of it right in front of my upper plane. It smelled like a put-out fire and was quite disgusting and wet. I landed feeling like quite some boy, tipped the mechanic and made for lunch in a hurry not much the worse except for a finger-tip that I probably froze. You always feel great right after a flight because your nerves are all on edge, but half an hour later you find yourself quite worthy of a bed and perhaps something to stop your head- or neck-ache.
Well, here it is Thursday, the 15th.
The afternoon of my altitude, I went on a "petit voyage." It felt good to get out of "tour-de-piste " and swallow up miles of country. My machine was comfortable and quiet after the powerful altitude busses; so that I felt rather as though taking a pleasant sail than an air ride. I've gotten so that I don't have to concentrate much on the machine, having the "feel" to correct it unconsciously, and can look around at the country nonchalantly, as a fair queen gazing from her throne across her subjects attired in their court costumes. It is remarkable how you catch on to travelling without names of towns or any one to explain, just by your map, which shows you the shapes of certain forests, the direction of certain rivers and roads and their relation to each other. I landed at the town and met a couple of the boys. It seemed like meeting friends in a foreign land and the little gathering of our planes, ready to carry us away again, seemed like a beach party, only. that we flew there instead of riding.
On your voyages you usually meet some of the boys and each one has a different tale, equally exciting. Some have been staying there a week on account of weather; some have just gotten away from a château where Count X has been royally entertaining them during a forced landing; some have nearly met death.
The next day I started on a triangle. The first part was two and a half hours straight flying in icy weather. The wind also takes your head and pulls it back terrifically, adding another hardship to the whole. At first, it was pleasing to feel myself out for a long trip by air; it was a wonderful novelty. A number of machines passed me on my way, and I flew over an English school. I soon found out, though, what these "brevet" tests are; not a test of your flying capabilities, but rather a physical trial, a bit of tangency with the raw side of aviation, an accustoming to what you will have to meet at the front. I landed at X, with the expectation of a comforting meal, with a feeling of having slept out in a snowstorm, and with one of having wrestled a pretty tough bout. My barograph was so far all right. I signed my papers and tried to warm up and rest, but I could n't get anything to eat there, so I climbed in again and set off on the second part. The wind was with me, so I went fast, but I could n't see ahead very far, and it was getting bumpy; now and then you could feel yourself turn white, but I had full confidence in the old bus and just looked ahead and let her go. (By the way, at the end of the first part I had landed with my distributor half off and a spark plug wire cut.)
Before I knew it I was over a city we spent a summer near and then at the end of the second leg of my triangle. There a marvelous lunch awaited me at a certain little house that has become very famous amongst we brevet men for the beautiful little specimen of American Beauty to be found in a neat apron serving a cozy family table in an unknown little country house in an unknown little country town. Three other boys were there Weather made me stay there two days; two days of family life --- Biltmore food, gigantic beds of silkiness and downiness, and a quaint village proud of a few historic memories and the inhabitants of a couple of people of the day. Outside of all that, we four aviators set the town's eyes wide open watching us joke amongst their funny world of odd people, awkward and ignorant --- comical to all but themselves. We would start out in the morning walking through the town, stopping at every little café and spreading our weird oats through their rustic life. We once ran into the town "marché" Immediately the "marché," though in full thrivance, stopped and looked at us. The whole town slowly followed us around their "marché" from counter to counter, as one boy insisted on buying specimens of their --- wood and iron shoes and another in buying their tablecloth, napkins, and all of us following as gods from heaven or fools from Mars through their aweing, blinking crowds of sheepish peasant boys flirting with peasant girls and hardy peasant women wrapped in black, strapped in at the waist and chained at the feet with their sabots.
Another time we went through hysterics watching one of us get a shave at the barber's., The walls were pasted with all the big men of the world: One whose beard was five yards long; another who had twenty-nine medals; another who was over one hundred years old, and other marvels.
The barber was a fat, rheumatic, goutchalic, peasant woman who first looked at her victims and then, chaining them in the chair, proceeded to flash her saw-edged razor around gracefully, chipping off bits of beard here and there. When she had finished, you walked into a closet and washed the remains of the fight off with some ice-cold well-water, and when you stepped out, she took you by surprise with a gallon bottle of five-cent perfumery which was all showered on you before you knew what was happening. This, of course, required a bath-towel and a lot of sputtering before you came to yourself again. During this time she'd be staring at you over her spectacles, planning another novelty torture of her art.
A few old priests from the school came in. One had taught under Nap. III; one had received a letter from Louis-Philippe and the other had fought under Nap. I, but they were all as spry as kids, as they claimed, pulling their old gray bangs with a laugh and a jig and setting about for the long curriculum of the weekly shave and hair-cut. She came up and challenged each one of us, but having prayed anxiously during the shave of the first one, we backed out, one after the other, in spite of the looks of our chins, and the fatal mistake we would make in refusing Mrs. Bluebeard.
Well, this noon after lunch, I was bound I was going to get back, though the others did n't think it worthwhile trying. I went down to the field, donned my flying costume, deigned to spare a smile and word on some people, eagerly watching on --- also signing my name on some cards for some little demozels; then, after looking the machine over, climbed in, tried out the motor, waved to the gathering, and was off. First I sailed over the house where I had stayed to say good-bye, then headed for the end of my triangle. I soon found that the clouds were impossibly low and that a mist made it impossible for me even to fly at the minimum voyage height. I was obliged to keep below two hundred and fifty metres and only hoped that my motor would n't fail me in a bad place.
Soon I could n't see far enough ahead to use the map, and the compass, which is rarely used outside of night work on account of its inaccurateness, became my only guide. The bumps were sudden and hard. Finally the fog gathered, and I was speeding ahead in 'a whirl of opaque mist and now and then a vague glimpse of brown that was the earth. I discovered myself to be over a big forest because I was but a hundred metres over its tree-tops. Thank my luck that the old engine was going good, for a forest from the air in a fog is an ugly mess of sea-weed and black things that you don't care to smash on. It was surely the Forest of A., so I headed off on another angle to leave it to my left and get to the river. All the landmarks looked out for were lost in the sea of mist, and I was starting to think of how it felt to get lost when I was six years old, when a gray, snaky line announced the river, and then the top of a cathedral tower passed under me, telling me I was almost at home and safe. Before I knew it, it was time to land. Luckily the camp was in a clearing and I got back to my little room glad to see home again, to find my little articles of intimacy and a long letter from you.
Thank you for increasing the allowance; I assure you I needed it and will be as careful of it as I am grateful for it. I wish you'd send me a copy of my published letter, if you have one on hand. Of course I am pleased to have something published, especially as they are only offhand notes, carelessly thrown together; not even comparing to my diary, but it goes to show how the poorest prattling, if it meets the public demand at the right moment, can beat out the most serious art. It is a tragedy and a terrible pity.
I would send you more serious reflections from the war, but that I don't want to see them lost. It tickles me perhaps ---more, though, to see my smallest offsprings and most indifferent words picked up and published as would be the slightest details of a big man --- just as journalists would glorify how Pershing lit his cigar or what Whitney Warren thought of the war while getting into a taxi. It's all very amusing. Just now, though, I'm an aviator and that life has plenty of novelty, of varying, sudden, and extreme romance to fill the dreamy desires of youth with all its fantastic wonderings and demands and ideals. Aviation in war-time gives a youth just about all he ever envied in the long list of books from the "Round Table" to "Don Juan."
Well, here's for good weather to-morrow. Ah! Don't add anything to my address other than Cadet-Officer, Jack Morris Wright, Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces, via New York; for at any moment I may be changing camps and mail would be lost that had further specifications on its address. The general address covers all my possible destinations. A detail address could wait for me long after I had left the place for good.
Now enjoy your trip and get New York well out of your system, as you should every once in a while; I'm glad to see you not only start to realize that, but to materialize the conception.
Two more days good weather and I'll be through!
November 20, 1917
MY DARLING MUZZIE: --
Well, your son is now a full-fledged aviator, diplomed with the Brevet of the French Government and a member of the Aero Club of France, thereby a member of every aero club.
I don't know how far along I was in my tests when I last wrote you, but I think since then I've done a triangle first; I did it in three hours which laid me up with fever and headache for three days. Then to-day, I did a voyage up to X, where there is an English Naval Aviation School.
It is a model camp and painted up to be decorative against the little groves that background it. Everything is clean and pretty and the whole looks like one of those little toy towns you see in windows.
They have a number of planes, well kept, --- students in their English naval uniforms --- very cocky --- and all the mechanics outfitted in the same uniforms, all of which is very different from the French camp, which is somewhat humorous by its mixture of attires and bonnets, and --- peculiar for the French --- barren grounds and barnlike barracks and hangars. The French only care that their machines run, which they usually do.
Back from X, where I got some English cigarettes, some English food at their officers' canteen, and a general taste of those wonderful English gentleman manners which seem bred into the lowest classes as well as in those aristocratic thin boys who were student-aviators.
I took a little nap and some food and was off to make up some time and landings of which I was short. This done, I walked into the "pilotage" very proudly and expected the clouds to part, the sun to rise, and the stars to dance.
Instead, the Secretary exclaimed, "Another one!" And thus I was knighted with my pilot license.
After signing some papers, I came back to get my suit pressed for Paris, which was the first actual joy and realization that I was at last an aviator.
How the first days of double-control work back in September seemed far away! Yet from the time I decided to join, in July, to now, it has been about a third of a year; never has a third of a year rushed past my bewildered eyes so rapidly. It passed like a comet, furious and glowing. It has been a wonderful period of youth, of adventure, of romance, that which is now the ideal I strive to attain. Thank God, I am living up to my dreams. Thank God, my dreams are not fancies, are not dreamt in vain, and perhaps the forgings of a real mind and the real prospect of a man.
I've gone through the school without breaking a thing --- rather clever, eh what?
1917, November, Thanksgiving
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER. --
Our Father who art in heaven, I thank you for, this sweet day on which I may give thanks that, as a result of Special Inspection, we are privileged to clean out the barracks from the cobwebs in the attic to the pinheads on the floor, to scrub the soles of our rubber boots and burn up all literature collected in railway stations, to dress up by putting on leggins and to be turned out of the barracks until inspection is over (some three hours) with the feeling of a starched evening shirt and with nothing but a vast field of mud to play in.
However, along with the turkeys the Red Cross has also descended from heaven and permits us to write you 'midst the slaughter of a breakfast table and a subway crowd of cadets.
I close my eyes and listen; the hum of voices and the clinking of cups brings me back to my leave in Paris, only, though, to turn me around in front of its gates as I open my eyes again; yes, I had three and a half days in Paris --- rather, in Paradise.
Out of the cot, the mess hall, the walks, the vaudevilles of Tours, and the anxiety of flying, I stepped into the most perfect relax that the luxury of silky beds, Maxim's dinners, taxis, and National Theatres ever bestowed on youth even in fairy tales or Parrish's dream pictures.
Just now, a corn-beef sandwich and some spilled coffee are helping my desperate exuberance of description along; so don't be surprised if I tell you that I never spent three such days in my life.
For seventy-two hours I grinned steadily: I grinned while eating, while sleeping, while constantly wallowing in the constant caresses of luxury, and when I did n't grin, I just shrieked with joy. I forgot that Aviation existed --- its brevet pin that I wore was rather a symbol which I glittered through the throngs of Babylon from l'Opéra to Place Vendôme --- a symbol of heroism to make men's eyes open and women's eyes half close.
Though I never passed the circumference of the Madeleine-Opéra-Folies-Vendôme, I certainly toured the world, and that within three days. I took in everything from the restful Lotus Islands to Inferno of Broadway. I walked on taxi wheels, sat on pillows, fed on caviar, and for a breeze inhaled but the choicest cigarettes. I most impudently turned myself into a king and commanded world-wide recognition, that is, the head waiter at the Café de Paris always bowed (not nodded) to me, the head waiter at Maxim's always rushed to me to offer his best table, and the head waiter at the Café de la Paix always placed my favorite flowers on my table.
In the meanwhile, the bell-boy of the American Bar, rendezvous of all the aristocrats incognito, was always awaiting my sortie matinal at my hotel door to note my latest prescriptions, and next to him various press agents --- dreadful bores --- stood with their choice stenographer to rush the headline news of those prescriptions through in the evening Society papers.
In short, my arrival was a triumph (there's nothing left of the Arc de l'Étoile), my stay was an epoch, and my departure was a funeral --- in fact, I can still hear the bewailings, especially when the sergeant-major informs me, through a megaphone and an army dictionary that my bunk is an insult.
Having drained Paris, or rather, Paris having drained me, I came down here at X, somewhere in France, mainly in the mud.
Just one incident happened in between, though. I took off the ermine and donned one of these beautifully simple private's uniforms; kings always like to be simple now and then, you know. After an auto ride through the country of France --- i.e., a truck ride in the rain --- I descended at my winter resort. The first sight of my quarters convinced me that great inventions were under way; they were surely preparing us for undersea flying, for I walked into what at first seemed to be a submarine; as I became used to the dark, however, I found conditions different, i.e., more like that curiosity called the steerage. I don't think that even a woman would have wanted to become curious then, though.
Being slim and pale they shoved me into an upper bunk so that the climbing up and down the wall to get in would help me along; at the same time I would accustom myself to altitude work and thus be able to --- nay, dream not of that, but of helping build the new reservoir that marks the spot from afar --- all resorts have the famous flag pole.
The boat was making me a little sea-sick as I had too much Paris, but a phonograph came to my rescue with rag-time. Their worn-out records and their cheap tones have done more these first few days in saving my life than Schubert's "Ave Maria" ever did in saving my soul. I'll never again mock the poet's love for inanimate objects, for this "phono" has become my muse, my religion, my life, my Paris, my corn-cob pipe.
"Oh, wondrous, ethereal phonograph,
To thine nightingale voice '
Let me write thee a poet's paragraph."
By that time I was just beginning to realize the substantiality of my brevet and the fact that at last I was a full-fledged aviator. The next morning, while trying to dress at 5.30, 1 stopped realizing a moment, --- being frozen through, --- but soon after, picking up stones on a field and piling them daintily in little heaps, I more than realized the heights of aviation. Only one thing lacked to make me feel at home --- the black and white suit; but a little later, I, my soul, and my realization of being an aviator, was politely allowed to expand itself further as I carried --- more than ever at home --machine guns down a railroad track, slipping on the muddy ties just as back on Fifth Avenue or the Champs Élysées ---just as when, a red bandanna slung on a branch over my shoulders, I used to tread the Santa Fé.
Since then I have been passing the time away passing inspections, unbuttoning my coat to sit down again, and doing it up for another inspection. In between the button-holes I have been laughing away the blues.
That also is quite an art, especially in such a contrast as I am now, when your dreams glide down the fluttering boulevards of Paris and quiver on their butterfly wings whilst your feet slip under you in the mud and at the same time you're saluting in all directions.
Ah, yes! I'm in the Army. I'm even in the Aviation. I'm in the barracks --- in the mud --- in the barren, empty, stupid, and unsympathetic. I'm being a number (186) in a place Dante never imagined, and yet ---a secret --- a little word from within me --- just a note, but yet the key to a mighty symphony --- this all, that makes this letter whine in spite of me --- this all --- it is the what that makes a man. It makes you set your teeth and square your jaw and if you've got the grit to welcome the worst they can invent with open arms, and still wish for more, if you're a real pilot and can control a smile as well as a plane, you'll not only come through to the caresses fully appreciated, --- of a Paradise unbuyable, undreamt, --- but more still, you'll come through for the world, and you a man.
There's why I smile, mother dear, why I laugh, why I shriek with joy and find the mess hall lined with chocolates, the labor done in Rolls-Royces, the camp a Metropolitan Opera House.
I did n't mean to say all this, but que voulez-vous et que veux-tu --- I'm in the Red Cross and all these ancient nurses talking over their sandwich counter lead me into their babbling too.
Now and then, you know, one can't help forgetting that one's writing back to New York where hearts are hidden, words mean their opposite, love is diplomacy and diplomacy is love!
But if you take this off in a den-room, far from the traffic and the tea-rooms, you'll find it a good old-fashioned confession. It'll almost make the New England cottage, the fireside and its little family seem true again and half worth the while as all that should this day of Thanksgiving.
Let all, even New York, give thanks! I'll take my turn first and in doing so, thank you, mother dear, for all that just, a simple word like that can express.
Aviation School, France
December 10, 1917
MY MUCH BELOVED MOTHER,
towards whom I realize more and more the increasing affection I owe and feel: --
I have your letter in hand --- the letter you wanted me to burn. First, I won't burn it until you tell me again; because it is very vital---if only the sarcasm with which you begin by announcing a moment of lazy conversation and end with a couple of points such as come but once or twice in a career.
I have also received a couple of others, but will answer this one first.
I read it in the machine-gun shop while awaiting the lecture and found in it a number of revelations including that general tone of motherly praise which strengthens me, of course, but, oh my, how it does make me vain! It is even dangerously caressing to my vanity, for it makes me think my very laziness some wonderful poetic mood --- my very sleep divine --- the way I brush my teeth a vast symphony of gurgling such as Beethoven's "Pastorale."
Of course you are one who has suffered more than a great deal --- you have suffered more than most "men" (beings made to suffer), and yet you are a woman --- frail, sensitive. How you endured it all is by itself a marvel. That alone would be enough to form a career --- a career of martyrdom worthy of the highest praise. But seeing in you something exceptional I push my letter further.
One who has been through what you have has necessarily been crushed from their former positiveness to a negativeness of execution and advance --- of life in general. Your marriage helped the negativeness in you to grow. You became more dependent than independent --- certainly a right position. You have had things given you; necessity has disappeared; hardship and its spurs have passed out and with them a certain amount of positiveness.
The combination of this married life and the aforesaid suffering leave you now in a life half of which is dependent on, and demanded by, your husband, half of which is invaded by the "repos" resulting from your former struggles.
Nevertheless, with my blind "élan de jeunesse" I want you to rise and ever rise. I do not want you to rise through me either; it is too negative --- too unreal --- too much like the croyant of the mediæval ages.
I am not you, though I come from you. You are youyourself, for your soul, as Verlaine says, is the combination of your head and your heart, neither of which I embody, though I may rassemble. I want you to rise more, then. I think you above the daily mother or the daily wife. I think you an individual, a unit, a pole of art --- something quite above Society's males and females --- a being with a gift given to it and therefore with accomplishment to be made. A life-work to be done for the sake of the gift that was given you. More still, for your own sake.
All of this leads me to the following: Just as Mr. W. has his business, so you have yours. Hours which can be devoted to nothing but their own cause. You have your studio, your clay, your thoughts --- plunge into them. Bury yourself in them. If you do not make worthy statues at once --- of little importance. Keep living in the work and the studio just the same. Keep thinking, keep imagining, keep nervous and creative and questioning and solving and dreaming and working ---modelling. Before you know, those hours will weave a net of months, strong in their accomplishment of art without your knowing it. Because you will have buried yourself daily in clay you will have unconsciously been building a monument of art; just as germs expanding each day build up the system of a human being and, before they know it, have left in their trade a few masterpieces --- a heart, a head; perhaps a soul.
Inasmuch as it is mostly for yourself and your seeking of divinity rather than commercialism, it matters little whether you sell or not. It matters little, even, whether humans ever see your work. They are but outside elements in the seeking of divinity you will be working for. Only two elements matter --- your work, which is your means---your soul, which is the searcher.
Ridding yourself a moment of all the people and trains and theatres around you in a tempting merry-go-round of material ticklings, you will acknowledge that life is first the guessing of one's highest pleasure and then in the accomplishment and the finding of it.
Your highest pleasure is sculpture. Therefore, anything such as sales, popularity, criticism, fame, is aside. Sculpture is foremost, and alone with sculpture must you be buried during the business hours of your day. It is there you shall obtain of life its utmost: your "highest pleasure." It is there you shall find your tangency with God --- your gates and parks of Paradise. This God, this Paradise, this higher life, is not ethereal either, but as you near it through daily work and accomplishment and dreams, you will find it a real, palpitating, radiant being in the comprehension and appreciation you shall have acquired and keep acquiring of Men and Nature that are about you; of their respective weight in the balance of realities and of their beauty and pleasingness for you.
This sounds ethereal, yet it is not. Look at the smallest atom about you --- a rock: the man who has not buried himself in work and dreams --- who has not developed his gift and his means to divinity---does not know, as he passes, that the rock exists. The man who has done, knows that the rock is there for a purpose --- a purpose of inspiration (force, ruggedness, color) to his brain and a purpose of impression (a mood) to his heart, altogether a decisive purpose for his soul.
You see, then, that the smallest atom about you must be comprehended and appreciated. That it is therefore a part of the divinity your work will give you. That this divinity exists and is necessary, if you consider it necessary to enjoy life and that highest pleasure it contains for you.
The simplest illustration is the difference between the love of a couple in the balcony of a movie show or around the soda counter and that in the studio of young Beethoven or the gondola of Byron in Venice.
You see, then, that I insist on your devoting many mute hours of burial within the walls of your studio and your dreams---that I insist that you rise within the genius you have been gifted with, have shown a great deal and have been recognized by the foremost critics of sculpture.
I insist that you, like Isadora, rise in your genius, seek ever towards divinity, and by deitizing yourself, arrive to appreciate life through the light of a higher comprehension.
As a postscript I may add that although New York has no special bearing on what you work at in your studio, its environment, rather than being an ugly impression, should add much to you. Don't you know that everything has a beauty of its own --- that that's why life is worth so much --- that if you can't see the special beauty of each factor, it's your own fault. New York has a vigor, an enthusiasm for perfecting and progress, to be found nowhere equal. It advances, pushes ahead, accomplishes, enlarges. It's alive; it's a muscle in tension; an athlete at work; a piston of progress. Its vitality, its wide-awake life, its science and accomplishment are beautiful, everlasting and divinely beautiful.
Fifth Avenue is the most wonderful highway of the world, for beyond its style and grace it has the strong undercurrent of something vital in movement --- of vast business, circulating, advancing, handling half the world, progressing in the name of mankind. You can hear it in the rush of limousines, in the factory crowds or the pleasure crowds, in all the mighty elements that ebb and rise as the surf and the undertow of a great force.
There is its beauty --- a beauty of energy and science --- a unit of beauty in the world. Can you not connect art with every kind of beauty? If not, I pity art which claims to be the expression of worldly beauty.
Go to it, mother, there's a great deal of beauty, and that's all that's necessary for you and triumph. I know you will never admit it, that beauty idea, but you'll have to, for beauty is life. Why, I'm in one of the most barren and uncomfortable holes Satan's heel ever left behind, but still I admit beauty, for the Americans have come here to build not only an aviation camp, but the biggest one in the world, and each day I get inspiration and a breath of life just to hear the multitudinous buzzing of sawmills at work, of laborers' feet treading under loads, of hammers building and building.
Tracks are laid and the progress of science, coupled with efficiency, sends trains into the deserted countryside, platforms to unload at and men and machinery to lay their magic to building up a little city where noise and bustle (apparently horrible) become the symbols of a mighty work in progress, in steady, growing progress. Then looking across the whole of the puffing, grinding, rolling, rising camp, looking through the columns of smoke, the shifting of gas clouds from the chimneys of machines and the blots of steam from their whistles --- looking through the haze that enhaloes the whole, I see beyond a vital future of result, airplanes splitting the heavens with their fleets and an enemy's host beaten to the ground --- an attained goal --- a triumph, reached by the daily teaming work of the many machines and men at this camp to-day.
It is all beautiful and it makes even this place beautiful. I must admit, in spite of me, to find a special beauty here, a unit of beauty, a factor of life.
All this is somewhat smeared with the mud of camp and blurred by the long hours of idleness, of waiting hours for your turn on some barren, rainy field; it is all dimmed by the sad distance between my present mentality --- a compound of nervous tension and the remains of a little poetry ---this mentality, I say, and that exquisite condition I was in when my thoughts were clear and a little deep, at least, thanks to study and work.
Nevertheless, it conveys a message, I hope, and that will fulfill, at least partially, my ambitions for you. Perhaps, being my mother, you can guess through this entangled vagueness the source that might have been more clearly expressed under different conditions, just as you read my writing, say, where others unrelated to me could not.
Passons -je repond à vos lettres qui me restent dans la main.
I have received a sweater from the Red Cross and some "Sweet Caporals" from the "Sun." As to warm clothes, etc., I can buy all that myself, much easier than to have them sent. I would like to write you all about my health, clothes, food, and other such questions you ask, but the censor would have me punished for so doing as it would indicate the condition of the American troops in France.
We have a Red Cross here where we can buy sandwiches and hot coffee and think the nurses are pretty, and the Y.M.C.A. (where I find a schoolmate working --- son of the famous Robt. Elliot Spear) has a big room where movies and other little entertainments, along with a store that sells necessities to the music of a fairly good Victor, occupy some most of our blank time.
I'm dying to get a room of my own where I can build up stone on stone a little world of thought and art. I don't care if its sentimentalism wrecks me while flying, but I just can't become an idiot. Heavens! I soon won't even have the necessary wit and appreciation of beings and styles to enjoy my leaves to Paris.
I think I'll be able to fix up some kind of a little world of art to occupy my brain---it will be hard having never worked but by assignment or keen desire, and having gone so long unoccupied, it will be also very discouraging at first, but perhaps I'll be able to do it even without the satisfaction of knowing that I'm doing something through outside criticism, which, of course, I won't have on hand, but if I have the art born within me, and with that alone will I ever do anything artistic.
If I have it, then I will be able to start things going all by myself, to myself, for myself, and be happy, though all my efforts be hidden and unknown to the rest --- though nothing be substantial as a result.
Perhaps, though, if my work is good, I will find in it alone enough satisfaction to keep a smile in the place of blank, drooping lips.
Until I get a room, though, it will be useless --- besides up till then, thank God, my classes in flying will occupy me most of the time and the rest of the time will be passed slowly but surely --- standing at inspections.
Now take all the love, the lasting, deep love I possess. You alone have it, I assure you; you alone have ever had it. All the rest are but fancies to distract me --- flutterings of the heart, not heavings of the soul. And there is all the difference between the nervous, petty, surface of the ocean and the swaying, fathomless forces of its depths far underneath.
December 18, 1917
DEAR, DEAR NANA: --
Of any gift you could have chose, bought, or demanded, of some magic Allah lantern, nothing could have been more suited and "à propos" than the two warm, cozy bundles you sent me. I have been wearing them continuously and have felt more "at home" in them than in any Paris hotel or friendly mansion. But more than the sweater and the mits did I appreciate the sincere little note you enclosed with them.
I receive many letters over here --- long and exuberant, but nothing satisfies one so much, in places of need, as a short line or two that is really sincere and that carries with it a part of the deep source from which it came. I have kept your note carefully amongst the very few pages that I have stored up during my time in France. Be persuaded that the note shall stay with me for a long time, that the affection with which you wrote it shall not fade from my souvenir and appreciation. It will stay with me constantly in symbol of the dear, dear love you have so lastingly had for me.
That was a very good Nana, so let me pat your hand, and thank you and tell you that your only mistake is not to realize as much as you should just how much I really think of you.
Now that you've promised to always know just how fond I am of you, just how I like to pet and spoil, in return, my grandmother, I'll tell you how business is buzzying over here. Not of the news you've received through my letters to mother.
You know that I'm now in the real thing. The little wizard they use to hunt men with at the front ---little devils of efficiency, you know. But of course you don't see exactly what it is. As a true grandmother you're saying now and then,"Oh, I'd like to know just what he is doing!" And then you blame the censor, poor man, and afterwards you'd blame the Kaiser and then the whole worldly system of things that so veil the exact and every movement of little Jack --- how he washes his teeth or whether he does at all.
Well, I get up in the morning by moonlight. We never wash. After roll-call, I immediately race to get first in the breakfast line and usually find fifty or so ahead of me. Before breakfast is over I must race back --- climb up into my bunk and turn into chambermaid. As the last blanket is folded, I jump down from my bunk, through my flying clothes, and out to formation with the moon still shining and the winter's night on full blast. Then I march to the field of my class, where we build a fire in a tent and sleep until smoked out; by that time our teacher and the planes will almost have arrived; that is, we'll only have another half-hour to wait.
The morning passes between stamping our feet in the snow and flying through it up in the air. The flying is wonderful when you don't have too much of it; so I'm enjoying it immensely just now. Everything becomes white --- the snowy ground and roofs, the sky, the silver-painted machine. Here and there tints of rosy clouds or veils of violet or amber gently spread their warming glow across the vast white world you fly through. It is much prettier than summer flying. Things are quieter and more serene, whiter and more saintly.
Flying appears, also, when everything is white, more in its natural aspect --- that of everything being a sea through which you swim as serpentine as a fish, or a sky through which you sail and dive. No earth and wheeled vehicles seem to exist.
Well, then we march back again and equally again do we race for grab, wash our dishes and out for a class on motors or archeology or how to make chocolates. Then about the time you are telling Tee to stop clawing your dress while you serve tea, I am entering that famous rendezvous for all the camp where, after work hours, we gather (or push rather) to the Red Cross counter to buy tea and sandwiches and spread all the last rumors of the camp, of how the Germans had nearly taken Paris or the opposite; why we were not to wear special aviator uniforms and who was hurt during the day and always --- oh, always --- how well "the" nurse could speak French.
If I have any extra time, I use it, most valuably in washing. If not, I don't wash; perfectly natural, perfectly simple. After dinner I either go to the Y.M.C.A. to hear that the band has fallen sick or else I roll into bed as fast as I can arrange the blankets.
So you see your Jacky tumbles from here to here throughout the day, from formation to classes and at last back to bed for a night of beloved rest and dreams of home --- happy Christmas visions, and silent thanks for the little comforts, such as the sweater and mitts, that are sent from "back there."
And you --- just how are you? How is health and life and happiness? How is all that is due one in your stage of life? What do you do to pass the hours away, or, better still, to greet their coming and wishing for more? Tell me something of the aspect things and people present to you and what substantialities and hopes you hold in life. They are all vitally interesting to me and I sincerely want you to sit down and write me lengthily on them. Pass over the little events of the day and tell me the happiness of the month. But first of all, greet the Christmas day with all the added joy that my youthful wishes can reënforce, your acceptance of Christmas dawn. Think much that day of how I wish it to be happy for you and satisfactory as you retrace, then, the hours of many other Xmas days; think often of the appreciation I'll realize towards you that day of many souvenirs; think often of all the thanks I've ever shown you on those precious days; and then, adding them all in one, realize one-half of what I send you this time in 1917.
This year, mother, Christmas comes in the midst of war; your son is far from you with the crusaders in lands that are foreign and fearful; before the mightiness of war and its struggles for Liberty; before the godliness of the vast vision that every day spreads itself before my wings --- wide across the arching firmament, a vision of the forces of right and wrong grappling in one of these epochal combats that decide of the long centuries ahead, --- before this mighty Moloch, Christmas seems but a point in the fearful sky that embodies France.
If, then, it has become but a point let us not make its feeble spark that of a Christmas tinsel, but instead, that of a Christmas star --- a small but infinitely beautiful star of prayer, of harmony, of hope.
It will be our most substantial gift yet, and will be the truest Christmas we shall have seen flitter by together.
Christmas, regretfully, I shall not fly probably and shall not be able to isolate and éloigné myself from the world for the word of good cheer I would send it, but as the morning sun breaks forth, I shall send the thanks to you, that I owe you over and over again and with them my word for all; at evening, before sleep, with one last look at the Christmas stars, I shall send my Yuletide wishes away on a farewell kiss, and then, having passed a happier Christmas than ever before, I shall retire for the morrow of work and the future of war. I am sure that you will agree that such a Christmas present, now at such a distance, is the best. Only one people, though, won't get a cent out of my good wishes --- that's the Russian: they seem to be prolonging the war by two years and the slaughter and poverty by multiples. I shrink to think of Kerensky's career!
Coming back to your letters, though, --- any questions? Ah! A play? No! I have nothing more to do with art, for the moment, nor art with me. I'm not going to try to get anything published at all. What does get reproduced will only be careless notes and unread letters and hurried sketches --- their reproduction, in fact, would greatly surprise me, seeing how hard I tried with my serious work last year.
Gee! I get lonesome for you ---funny that oceans were ever invented. I get damnably lonesome for you; I want to talk to you at this stage of my life; I want to take you up in my latest accomplishment; I want to show off to you. I get so lonesome for you, especially as I have the funny feeling --- secret --- that I'll fall at the front.
When I think of the triumphant return home 'midst a shipload of comrade heroes, when I see myself walking proudly, joyously, off the gangplank into your arms, and all the luxury and happiness of home and friends, I suddenly shudder, for the grim, grinning vision of aviation sweeps the happy scene brutally away and leaves me gazing into a dry, gray desert where a deep hole gapes, marked by a cross of wood.
All that, though, may be foolish and sentimental, so I pluck up my little god of materialism and say, "Oh! Well, it's the game."
I took all that in before entering, and now that I'm at it --- here's to the game through and through and what of life I've got ahead, here's to the red-bloodedness of it all and the victory of a thoroughbred.
You know it is n't always vain to talk about oneself; in fact I have been bragging more about a principle than myself.