A POET OF THE AIR
LETTERS OF JACK MORRIS WRIGHT
OF THE AMERICAN AVIATION IN FRANCE
APRIL, 1917-JANUARY, 1918, continued
December 27, 1917
DARLING MUM: --
It is awful the way the days go by without my writing you, but my time is very filled with formations and waiting in line and all the rest, which, though it does not accomplish much, nevertheless takes the time away.
At noon I have no extra time and at night a few tired moments are all. Your little diary came the day before Christmas. I was on the point of buying just such a little notebook. The "Vanity Fair" followed and I was pleased to see Aida Arbozs photos in it. Did n't know she had taken the other one's place at the Beaux-Arts.
Great news! Impossible news! In fact I don't fully believe it yet. Anna wrote me. It was n't a whim by any means, but it means a whim. It is the first breath of reality taken by the visionary angel I used to worship on a silent, secret altar back during the three long years at Andover and that even over here I have not forgotten.
One always has filmy dreams of beauty when young, and if later one can see bits of them come back fully alive, it is very pleasing. The same day a couple of other letters came from ancient relations still moaning my departure and oathing in general also.
The dear girl Sylvia sent me three huge packages containing 400 "Rameses" and "Egyptian Deities," chocolate from Maillard, 1 lb. plum pudding, gloves, soap, socks, cigarette case from "Cross," preserves, and everything fine shops could turn out.
As a climax, several letters blew in from you and one from Nana.
The next day, Christmas, Mrs. F.'s outfit came in cleverly wrapped in "New York Times Pictorials" and safety pins. So far, lucky boy, I have received no useless presents, excepting that I don't need any more sweaters.
Christmas Eve I heard Mrs. ----- sing at the Y.M.C.A. and listened to taps afterwards as soldiers wending their way back to the different barracks, through the silent, snow-covered streets of the camp. Night covered all, most conventionally, and Christmas Eve seemed but a myth. The only difference it held this first time away from home, this Christmas Eve at war, was that I could get up when I felt like it, instead of 5.30 the next morning.
Christmas morning, when the boys woke up, gave one a sight gladder than any Christmas mom yet. They hollered, as six-year-olds from blanket to blanket, up and down through the bunks and over the trunks, "Merry Christmas!"
These young lads of iron laughed and screamed as kids and wished with kiddish naïveté a merry Christmas to each other. For one second since I have been over here, was War cast aside for the atmosphere of home. Then all died down into the daily routine excepting that dinner came at three---an awfully late hour; so I sat under a strip of mistletoe that had peculiarly strayed into our barracks and there ate Sylvia's plum pudding with Jack S. rather sad because the expected kiss did n't come. In fact, sad visions sprang up off and on that day as a custom was n't kept as at home or a souvenir was n't kept down.
That afternoon was quickly wasted and in the evening a minstrel and Mrs.----- and the movies passed the time away more gleefully than a New York night---from the "Winter Garden" to "Jack's."
Mrs.----- was the first woman I'd seen for ages up here at camp, so that the boys all went "topay" about her singing; the Christmas atmosphere of the Y.M.C.A. --- usually cold as a prison --- also helped and for another second --- a mere dream-second --- the haunt of war ceased its halooings in our souls.
The next day I was up by moonlight again and off to fly, but this time --- ah, belle aventure! I was at last on those beautiful, dear, sweet, beloved coffins called the modern "chasse" machine. Delicate to handle and therefore dangerous, but powerful, fast, conquering, and therefore Paradise! Months had I watched, here and there and at Tours, experienced and glorious pilots rip up the air with them and in a second darting from one corner of space to another, doing impossible acrobatics and conquering the greatest forces of the world---those of the unknown infinite; so that as I sped through the air for the first time on them, I was almost purring with the silent joy to know that at last I was doing what my idols had done ---that I was piloting these little devils --- these little beauties.
This morning we flew while it was snowing and I certainly realized it. Bumpy! Oh, how bumpy! Whiffs that tickle your nerves till they're silly.
This afternoon we had a lecture and most of the time off, so I'm sitting cuddled up in my upper berth scribbling and reading and smoking and feeling like a comfortable leisurely club man, perfectly satisfied with life. I caught a chance to wash, so I feel better still. I expect your little souvenirs de Noël this evening; in fact, I've made a bet on receiving them.
My vanity is quite tickled to tell you that the Government has considered me worth being a First Lieutenant, so --- well, I am one. I feel like a Christmas tree, for I'm buying all sorts of cute gold cords and silver bars and things. On the side, though, it's rather nice to attain that position at nineteen.
There is absolutely no way, though I have tried, to satisfy your wish for a photo before I get to Paris, which won't be immediately as all leaves have been cut off by Headquarters.
Hurry and come to Paris! I feel that I want you here.
But I suppose Mr. W. actually needs you more. He has done everything for you and me, so that it is entirely for him that you would plan events.
Give all my friends my regards.
In this post I am yet for a while a cadet, until I receive my active orders, so my mail must be addressed, "Cadet," though I have officially received my commission from Washington.
December 29, 1917
MY VERY DEAR FRIEND MRS. M.: --
It was very kind of you to send me all those newspapers, but oh, how homesick it made me! Nevertheless all such remembrances are more than welcome, for we are far from it all; if we do see a daily paper, it is at least a week old.
Dick has written me recently and explains some plans on getting into the machine-guns corps. Perfectly ridiculous! He would probably be enlisted as a private --- let's say a sergeant --- but that also entitles him as well to an orderly job in a London office --- as it would to carrying a machine gun around France, a Baedeker in one hand and a package of cork corn plasters for corns in the other with a physiognomy much like a pack-mule's. I don't think that would harmonize in the long run with his "temperament" and his "dramaticism" no matter how patriotically and self-sacrificedly he may have enlisted. There is only one service for him and that is aviation.
Next spring most of us will be useless, so that the entrance exams will be less severe on his weak heart. Over here they are easier yet; as by the stove is sitting a young Harvard lad, who, outside of a few other infirmities, has a torn valve in his heart and he is an excellent aviator.
I would rather see Dick in the American Service, but he ought to try for foreign aviation if he does n't succeed at home, as there is nothing outside aviation worth volunteering for. If he can't do that he would be of better service to his country in the realms of his art.
If he would, on the other hand, get over here as a civilian, he would see for himself, and with a knowledge increased and vivified by the actual sight of war and its conditions, facts totally ignored and misunderstood at home, he would be able to make the wisest choice with regards to the biggest event.
Do convey this all to him, as it is written with much sincerity and experience.
As to myself, I am now at perfectioning school, where I am going through the most scientific pilotship required by these actual fighting machines I am flying. The last touches of aerial strategy, tactics, gunnery, and pilotship are being given me and I await anxiously the precious moment at which I can set out for the front and my career, as a man-hunter.
It will be beautifully adventurous and I am looking forward to a royal time.
At this period of the year, I wish you, with more emphasis than ever, the best returns of all the hopes you conceive for yourself and for all the pride you rightfully place in Dick. May he choose and follow the glorious highway that opens its rare gates for him.
December 29, 1917
MY DEAR FRIEND SYLVIA: --
The happiness your packages gave to me easily counterbalances the agony of those who staggered under their weight in transporting them to me. Had I known such an armful of joy was being sent to me, I would have been prepared; I would have sent a special truck to the station to load them and have organized a labor team to unload them as well as an unloading platform, for when I came in from flying, they covered my bunk with their mystery and welcome, from my boudoir (a shelf for soap) to my den (some photos tacked at the head).
As I sit with one of the Deities, incensing these primitive surroundings, I can see in its immortal fumes (for over here such fumes are immortal) the many rôles you have filled for me. You have been a one-man's show.
In sending the plum pudding you were a grandmother to me (they are adorable creatures), by the cigarette-case you became my fiancée (what trickery), while the cigarettes turned you into one of those irresistible Lenore Ulrich, Theda Bara, or Valeska Suratt --- in fact, all three in one.
The socks, --- and by the way, I could n't have done better myself --- er --- I mean if I were a girl, --- they named you as that thoughtful friend, a fellow's sister. And what were you not? With candy, soap, and all the forbidden fruit so tempting you were certainly the impersonation of one of these dreams such as only soldiers can dream. All in all you were a dear.
I'd send you an airplane or two, a Zeppelin, or any little war souvenir of appreciation except for the authorities.
It might interest you to know all these little elfs and good spirits you set loose are faring. The gloves have guided a vast silver bird through the opalescent skies and have the promise to be caressing, some day not far off, the deadly little trigger of a machine gun. The plum pudding was burnt in crude peasant rum before the hungry eyes of a couple of young adventurers. Its luxury was in full harmony with the keynote of their hearts. It also immediately harmonized with that of their digestive system, and such harmony! It made the snow melt and the birds sing (though they're only crows around here). The cigarette-case flaps open to one of my teachers, a hero-flyer back from the front, and he says, " Dommage que la belle n'a pas fait mettre son nom à la place du vôtre---dommage." It also offers a cig. now and then to a German prisoner, who always has to have me pull it out for him, as his hands are swollen and awkward from three years' animal labor. But he never forgets to add, "It does much to remind me of little Katie to see such presents." While as to the cigarettes personally, you know what cigarette fumes witness: the intimate broodings and the secret dreams, the hopes and the reminiscences as well as the very lines I send you and the hearty thanks that accompany them. Last of all, the end is the most emphatic, I place your picture on the bit of barrack wall above my head, between an invitation to a Greenwich Village ball and a helmet worn at the dance of War.
There your image patiently watches, as a guardian angel, the boyish pranks and whimperings of I, me and myself. I don't know just what it thinks of me, of my wild planning and aerial thoughts, but it always seems contented and doesn't even get mad when I flirt with it --- it is superior enough to spread a good-natured, optimistic veil over the eccentricities of my youth's buzzings and hissings and tinklings.
Gee! You're a kind lady! You're a perfect dear, and I'll take you in your sky-blue frame to soar with me towards my secret abode --- my fairy wonderland --- the unknown infinite of the heavens.
I don't know just what kind of Xmas you had --- doubtless it was happy, for you are always happy, always laughing and smiling as I remember; two dimples prove it. I suppose you had red ribbons and tissue paper all over your room and amongst the glittering presents half buried 'midst such a rush of popularity (I mean the ribbons, etc.). Then you had tea at Sherry's with some jolly friends --- about then I was at the camp Y.M.C.A. cabaret, club, and shopping market ---as inviting as an empty barn, cozy and cold, beautiful and barren, you know.
Christmas Eve you went to midnight mass, while I, far from Christianity and civilization, listened to "taps" ring out in the night of France 'midst the snow-tipped tents of the crusaders.
A little later as you were coming home, I woke up, not so much by mental telepathy, as it should have been, or yet by Christmas carolling, but by the blasting of the most recent grave --- we have such things over here.
But yet, I am zealous of the holiday that was mine and would never have exchanged it, not even for a Deity. It was the goal of all the thoughts of many other Christmas Eves, in the homes of friends across the sea, and it received their silent message with a serenity I could never afford to miss. Each heart rose as the prayers came to us, and answered back with pride that quiet frosty night, that the heavy work ahead would be done and done well.
This letter is written between Christmas and New Year, so it is my privilege to wish the both of them to you in the gayest garbs they can bedeck. I am not worrying about hopes and inspiration, for such days too many people wish you those wonders. All I want you to do is to have an incomparable time of rollicking fun. To laugh, to dance, to toast, and to forget all those idealistic hopes and inspirations one so worries over every other day, just have for one long day, a merry frolic unforgettable. Do so with the thought that my loudest laughter and wildest whoops of joy are with you every minute, for the sake of a gay, sporty time. A counter-balance like that is surely needed to keep the world steady 'midst so much of the opposite and it will afford me something of its pleasure just to read about it in your next letter.
Aviators' Camp, France
January 7, 1918
MY VERY DEAR MUZZIE:
It has been years since I have written you, and I know it. I have been conscious of it each moment and still more conscious of how it made you feel. I am very sorry as I always am when I don't get a real chance to write you.
I have had a touch of grippe and that retarded my letter somewhat, but now I am back to duty again with my heart bent on flying much more than they'll let me and every other day attending lectures or shooting-range.
I am still flying "tour-de-piste," but soon hope to leave those miserable, monotonous classes of landing --- going up and landing --- for the spiral class --- a good spiral is the hardest acrobatic and much fun is promised to break up the long hours we stand around in the snow waiting.
Every one that goes up for a spiral always entertains the crowd, so I I'm looking forward to a good time. After that my course is --- altitude, acrobatics (in general), group flying, reconnaissance, and duel training. Then I'm shipped to the front --- oh! the blessed day! Every one is dying to get there. Those who are n't at first soon are, after they've gone through a week of this camp.
There have been some accidents lately, each of which should have been fatal. One was, and the others escaped miraculously. Jack S. should have been killed yesterday, but he escaped with a broken arm and a broken shoulder --- probably it will put him out of flying. Anyway, it puts him up for a couple of months, thereby spoiling many of chummy plans.
It also makes quite a hole in my existence to see my daily comrade taken away for the rest of the War. He had my Teddy-bear suit on and it's hopelessly ripped up from the smash.
This camp life has a great deal of beauty about it.
The barrack life is beautiful in that you are in immediate touch with the crude necessities of life---not the luxuries. You live in tangency with the elementary factors of life --- barren food, log beds, a fire, and there is life. It is beautifully rude and ugly --- it is barbarous; it expresses strength and force; it is in true harmony with War.
It reminds you of the heavy wooden chambers where the Vikings sat in the light of their glittering shields and broadswords. The life outside bears with it the constant spirit of war ---machinery and laboring hordes turn, hammer, and construct day after day an increasing camp --- a dawning city that is to fashion the fleets of fire and death to rage in the enemy's skies and clash against him.
Constantly there is a rustling on the wintry wind that blows through the barrack streets and hangar aisles --- a rustling of something ghostly, a constant remembrance of death that passes on the breeze. Every few days the rustle bursts into a triumphant shriek and another grave is blasted. And on through the days Death whispers her tune of War into our young ears.
There, is a great deal of beauty; there, is a wonderful unit, a whole, a masterful picture of War, of crudeness; it is savage and ugly, but it is beautiful.
I have heard that no Americans will be given leave to Paris any more; if it proves true, it will be a soul blow to me as all that I have in the world, outside of a home across the sea, is back in Paris. I don't know just what I would do if I were never to see Paris again during these months of war. Nice and Biarritz may be pretty, but Paris is beautiful. It has a soul and a beautiful one and one that I am blessed enough to be in divine tangency with through every sense and fibre of my human being. I haven't lost all hopes about it, though. There is always a way, you know.
The main thing now is to get to the front. As soon as I get there I will begin to live. I intend to have a little home there, charming friends, writing and drawing spasms, luxuries and some independence with the added thrills of my daily adventures against the Huns. All my present is in that future, despite the idiocy of being the least bit in the future in this game. But here, a great deal of my present is made on planning the near future which I can permit myself, seeing that there is more reliability in futurity while yet in the stages of training.
Oh! Coming back to gentler thoughts --- one wanders off those dark by-paths now and then. In spite of all the atheism I contain, of all my belief in the neutralness that follows death, I cannot quite succeed in chasing away its haunt. But that is only because I'm in this barren, uncomfortable place---later I will lose all thoughts like these in a wild enjoyment of life, caring little about being killed or not --- seeking danger and adventure, in fact, rushing through the skies after the Hun, challenging him in duel, and straining my young lips for Youth's blessed kiss from Glory, willing and glad to receive it from Death if necessary, ready for the beauty of its romance.
So now, let's clear up this letter with a little chat --- down with the blues!
Tell all my friends that I will write them as soon as possible; but that I have scarcely a moment that is not taken by either flying, lectures, shooting, or sleeping, mostly by waiting in line, my turn, waiting hours --- long dull hours in which time goes by in blankness unusable, but necessary. Tell them, though, that when at last I reach the front I'll stop waiting for a while and will be more at leisure to answer their dear letters. Tell them, moreover, that each letter they send is a bit of home and friendship over here and that no one like a soldier can appreciate their sympathy. A lot of that is perhaps bluff, because I'm really lazy, but if I were n't lazy I would not be a true soldier either, and I don't think they would want anything but the genuine.
I don't suppose that the war could possibly have affected the character of the people at home; it's too new and too far away. I suppose that the teas are just as frivolous and the dinner-parties just as indifferent. I can see the gatherings in salons and studios surrounded by their luxury and intellect and chatting and discussing just as before, flirtation and art in the dim lights or the gay lights 'midst a rustling of gowns and a tinkling of cups and glasses. Everything is undoubtedly the same. You all seem to be passing through this world crisis in which men agonize, hope, and die, without more than a political, a very scant tangency to it.
Over here the people are very changed. True that their gatherings are still chatty and gay and intellectual, but there is always the dominating influence of the conflict at the gates of Paris as though it were just behind the very curtains of the particular salon or studio. There is always a keen comprehension and appreciation of the struggles of the days and nights and years, and always a ready heart of sympathy for the worshipped men who are on leave. You notice the difference if you watch closely; you notice it everywhere, even in the cold heart of the café girl, even in the way people walk to and fro along the boulevards. There seems to be a spirit of friendship unknown to peace-times, and it draws you closer to the gray houses, their balconies, and windows; to the towers and curving bridges ---to all the silent, smiling soul of Paris, the city of War. There is where I hold a great deal of pity for you all --- at home. You are not, in your limits even, finding the new spirit that the War has brought.
Paris has not all been able to fight, but. all of it has been saturated with the holy spirit of fraternization which the Great War has brought. That spirit will die away, and you shall not have been caressed by it; you shall not have had the blessed opportunity of finding a sort of Paradise, ephemeral but beautiful, ruling the hearts of men.
Ah, mon Dieu! That harmonizes little with this place, for the beans are Sunday's charm here, and I must join the mess-line to wait some more, then I wait in line to wash dishes, --- ye gods, how I'm sick of washing dishes, --- then I come back to get ready to wait some more. Now you do a little waiting too, until my next letter.
P.S. Your letter brought a blessed breeze to me last night. I had not heard from you for some time and camp was becoming unsupportable, so that I was glad to get that cheerful bit from the other side and hear about my friend Lief Neandres. His first recognition by the general public tickles me as though it were my own (in spite of the jealousy it arouses). It makes me think myself far behind to look over that boy's hard years of toil and study and now the first streaks of dawn, the first touch of publicity and recognition --- the beginning of a fame that is going to be very real and generous for him, I know. But at the same time I am gaining too; gaining spiritually instead of materially, and I think that that will be important if after the War I am in a position that will enable me to tackle Art.
January 5, 1918
DEAR JACK: --
It gives me a sense of importance to write a letter to a man who has fallen doing his duty, to write a letter over here at war between two aviators, to one of them who has just gone through one of the bigger thrills of the game. What you have just been through is one of those adventures that go to make up real romance --- so rare outside of books. You can be proud of it --- proud because you will have gone through an experience others will not have --- proud because you have seen Death face to face and have seen what to others is but a distant myth. I envy you.
But outside of that, your fall has produced a very negative effect. We were all shocked at the news (and aviators are n't shocked easily). When I told the boys around the stove what your monitor gave me, they listened silently and sadly, and when the news was known you were one for whom every one held the truest sympathy, as their faces and few simple words expressed.
Personally, after eight months of constant and increasing comradeship, after being with you every moment of duty and leave for the past three-fourths of a year, I felt an emptiness dug into my existence such as only the absence of a big friend could leave. I know what it means ---the obliteration of all the plans we held in common for the front and the comradeship we were to enjoy fighting in the same escadrille. I know what it means and consider it as a loss I shall not forget --- rather I do not need to consider it, for its reality weighs upon me each moment as I remember the incident through the days.
I hope, though, that outside of that, you will not be worried further, that you will now see beyond the details of the game, such as "getting ahead" by a class or two, such as getting to the front a few weeks sooner; that the more general character of the sport will show you how it is to be played "all in the present" --- that one must enjoy and make the best of each phase as one goes through it without plans or thoughts of the future which could be upset in a second.
You are in aviation --- that means you like the game through and through. You like the flying, the reputation, the luxuries of it. Therefore you are to enjoy them all the time, for they are not in the future, but constantly with you. You are to enjoy each phase of it and to live entirely in this the present, within the phase you are going through. The future should never be planned or counted on or hoped for or expected more than by the vagueness of a few day-dreams. In this game you become absolutely a faithful to the "Rubáiyát" and Omár Khayyám, so do not start brooding on when you will ever get to the front, and then on when you will get a Boche, and then on when you'll be an ace, but take the present and make the most of it --- it's a game of the present, so lift the cup of the present and drink it to the chalice and be merry of its wonders. That way is the only successful way of going through aviation --- you have no upset plans and you have all the joy in the world.
Just now I can see you enjoying a civilized life --- a bit of comfort and cleanliness at last and soon a long leave either to Paris, the city of adventures, or to Nice, the land of sun and flowers and heavenly rest. Either furnish another one of the immortal phases, such as other humans cannot enjoy in this miraculous business of being an aviator.
So laugh! laugh! laugh! for life is FULL of joy. I'll send you the latest Ford jokes to make you see it! Also you need n't worry about reminding me to write Brentano's, for I've actually accomplished that.
January 13, 1918
Well, you blessed boy-those "cigs" were like liqueur for a dinner. They're a most peculiar mixture; they taste like nothing but Pittsburgh Athletics. I smoke them everywhere --- in the camp mud, beside the plane, over flirtatious words to Parisiennes --- everywhere in this peculiar world of mine I smoke your particular "cigs" and remember my peculiar --- delightfully peculiar friend --- Dicky M. --- pardon me, Mr. Richard Mansfield the second.
But I can beat even that title: Listen to my latest (I'll take a fresh page): First Lieutenant Jack Morris Wright, A.S., S.C., R.C., A.E.F., U.S.R., U.S.A., R.M.A.
And it's all mine, hélas! How cute it sounds to introduce me. People expect a Maharajah, and find but little me. Mon Dieu!
About your joining the R.F.C., or the machine-gun corps: I wrote your mother considerably on the subject, begging her to communicate my correspondence to you; so doubtlessly you already have found out the news. You seem to be quite a writer at present --- mes compliments! Do send me something --- just a line or two of your verse or a story or a play. It will mean a lot to me.
Myself, I am not in the proper living conditions to devote much time, though I long to, to Art --only an article in the "Sun" --- mere notes --- but I was glad to get the $8.00.
I'm in another one of those pictures of war now --- a vast camp, a muddy exile, alive with building machines and a daily progress --- a factor of energy mingled with the general ugliness of the existence and the dominating atmosphere of the fatal --- all very beautifully ugly, barbarous, warlike; far from the cushioned dens and the intimate eyes my young heart lies buried in --mourning for me to come back where my soul flickers.
Flying is slowly progressing --- painfully slow, though, for I'm aching to get to the front where my dreams have built a little cottage, intimate friends, a bit of Art, a bit of sympathy, and also the thrills of daily man-hunting.
Now, I'm flying the modern duel machine, small and graceful as a maiden --- and, like a maiden, dangerous to her enemies and treacherous to her friends. In fact, as I look at the bunks around me, I see some that are empty --- one boy across the way in the hospital for a long time; the boy across from him --- fell yesterday badly smashed up; above me, my chum of daily duty and Parisian days of pleasure, is no longer there with a cheerful grin, but lies on his back in a plaster cast since six weeks. He fell, too, and his flying suit that I wear shows great gashes in it to tell the silent tale to me as I'm alone, up there, speeding and diving in my plane.
I expect to be at the front soon, though ---next month, I hope. All I have left are acrobatics, spirals, altitude, group flying, and duelling --- it won't take too long.
Now tell me also all your adventures, your serenades, your elopements, your "units folles." I'm away from the city most of the time, but still manage to receive enough letters from Cupid to fill the mail-box.
How is the drama? Any serious outlooks? Are you studying seriously and hard? You know any kind of a success --- even in Art --- can only come from the hardest drudgery and toil. You have to go through Hell, my boy, before you get to Heaven. I suppose you realize it; look at the successes and you'll find hours of damnation and years of hardship and study, nights and days of work.
Well, do write me of your "milles flirtations," etc.
Aviation Camp, France
January 13, 1918
MY DEAR MRS. F.: --
No one could appreciate wool more than a soldier, especially if it is knit by friendly hands, and more especially if the soldier has the habit of flying through the coldest regions invented for man.
Every stitch has been appreciated over and over, and the history of how the scarf and socks and the whole knitted gift flew with me through the vast distant skies is one long beautiful fairy story of how the poor wanderer appreciated the magic good fortune bestowed by some unknown fairy queen.
It is unsubstantial, I'll admit, to place you on a throne 'midst a land of good fairies, but I can assure you that every step of the coronation is sincere and that as I crown you, my "hurrahs" are loud and strong.
Many thanks for bringing back to me the little dreams I used to have of fairyland. I had almost forgotten them, so materialized had the world made me.
It is good to feel the happiness of a little magic now and then.
The present is also a most practical one, and when in near future days I shall be on some outpost guard, alone, in the clouds, the hours will not be so hard with the warmth you have sent me both in knit and in heart. A double flame shall bear me happy company on my daily missions and I am glad to feel the backing up of all the dear friends I left behind.
Kindly receive my true reconnaissance.
January 15, 1918
VERY DEAR MUZZIE: --
Well, I expected to tell you I would be in "spirals" by now, but on my last landing of the "tour-de-piste" class, having a machine that bent to the left, it twined on me when the wheels touched and broke a piece or two. It is the first time I have ever broken anything, which is a nice record. ,
That same day I was to have my first forced landing, which is disagreeable to have for the first time when you're on a "15" --- these modern machines, especially, --- when as the motor "poops" on you and dies you look overboard on nothing but vineyards stretching a network of wires under you so to better catch your wheels on coming down and "flip" you.
However, I "pancaked" so as to touch all points at once and not roll ahead thereby smashing down on top of the wires instead of swooping into them. As a result not a scratch was made to the machine and I was very happy.
I am living near a town which Frenchmen abhor all over France; nevertheless it gives me great joy to get there once in a while, after an hour's train ride and a long walk through the mud. Its coal-dark streets thrill me because their cobblestones ring with the going of shoes of people; its ugly houses seem sweet villas of civilization, and on the outskirts of the town it makes me happy to see a bit of nature that is grouped and arranged into scenery --- little ponds with their tall pine trees and the mound of a hill half hiding a peasant house --- something that is more like earth and less like the abandoned planet I am used to daily.
Of course, when flying I can feed my eyes on the rolling variety of the country, but it does me good to come next to it; to look at the trees rising next to me, to breathe in the fragrance of a blossomed night, and to muse at the phosphorescence of a pond gleaming just under my feet. I appreciate these weekly expeditions to the ugly city and its meaningless bits of nature as a prisoner let loose in a sun-sparkling garden of hollyhocks and crystal fountains.
The town itself --- I mean inhabitants --- are stupid, awkward, innocent, and corrupted; they are low humans ---almost animals as they sneak about in the black night of their tortuous streets. Now and then you can see them under a rare light --- it's an old man whose stocking of coins has blotted out the stupid moments when as a boy he felt the virile sap rise within him --- moments nevertheless that were the whole romance of a life --- his life.
Or else it is a girl --- fifteen or thirty --- there is little difference in the age here excepting that the one's face is a little more red than the other --- both are naive and sheepish. It is a girl, then, who has waited on soldiers for the past three years of war, who has been at their wild toastings, has collected their tips and their roughness, and now she stops as you pass, blinks at you, and expects a soldierly buffing, a grisly slap on the shoulder. Alone again she probably wonders what it all means --- thinks it the caressing and pleasure of humans --- pleasures secret and vile, but perhaps good --- doubtlessly the only heaven, and then she picks up an old ten-cent novel entitled "Fires Divine" and absorbs it, practices the gestures, notes down the witty conversation.
The next day she exists between labor and the talk of peasants who are humans of the soil and about their wine --- joke of the vices of the lowest degree, for they never rise above the soil, never get rid of their mud; they enjoy it, wallow in it, laugh about it.
If only the girl was entirely and madly devoted to vileness, she would be a unit, a picture, a beautifulness, but she is not; she is awkward and timid and yet desirous. Burning more through curiosity and idleness than by the fires of the object itself --- passion.
It is a pitiful sight. War has changed it a little; the directness and roughness of the men of the trenches have driven out some of the timidity of these creatures of the soil, but still they drift around between the kitchen, the wine cellars, and the dark cobblestone street, a picture of the lowliness, of beastliness, smeared with the grease of the dingy peasant houses and the mud of the soil.
Between the camp and the town I am having a wonderful, a precious education in ugliness; it is a literary note of great value, an experience of life --- a following out of my yearning to live life to its entirety.
I expect to be out of this camp in three weeks. Then I move to a small camp a couple of miles away. There I'll stay two weeks I suppose and either go to a divine French shooting school or to the front.
Another friend fell yesterday. His face is all done up in bandages with a hole for his mouth. But he is cheery and glad to be alive.
As I look about me I find the bunk opposite empty. He's laid up from a fall. The bunk across the way --- the same; the bunk below---the boy was shot and badly laid up. The bunk next to me --- the lad is laid up in the hospital, too; and "laid up " means for three months over here, for after your physical injuries you have to cure your nervous system by going to Nice or somewhere.
At least, I see the daily papers --- I get the Paris "New York Herald" every evening at the camp paper studio.
You cannot imagine my joy to be nearing the front!
January 16, 1918
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER: --
What awful news I have received! Ye gods! For reasons I cannot tell you, it appears that all of us advanced men in "chasse" work are to be doomed to drive those awkward, elephant, uninteresting machines of "Reconnaissance" and "Artillerie Réglage." I, who counted so much upon speeding through the fire of combat on a small, fast, duel machine, and setting out independently in the skies to make my reputation, am to be tied down to directing artillery fire and other such long, monotonous, negative, unfighting drudging. It will be only for this spring, but that means three months and three months mean a lot in this game --- they are a life time with us --- a lifetime in two ways.
Not counting the regret of giving up this duel training (chasse) which held my heart so intimately, not counting the insipid training for the rest of the winter, or those craft as big as houses with front verandas and just about as capable of flying!
Oh! quel manque de délicatesse, d'art, que ces penguins de Reconnaissance et de Réglage --- Dieu me soulage!
This sport is beginning to show itself up too. It is, in short, a little world, somewhat aerial, and very fast-turning --- where that which takes years to be done in civilian life, here takes a day, an hour. Your plans are broken, your friends disappear, your intimate chums are scattered away from you as soon as you have gained their friendship.
The scenery is shifted constantly, rapidly, in the climax of the act---in its very beginning---just before its wondrous end.
I met Jack Sawhill --- I was his chum --- he is away forever now, broken up in the hospital.
I met Bruce Hopper, a literary chap, breezing from Montana. I knew him intimately and he me. Last evening an order swooped down, caught him, and now he is back in Tours.
I was just beginning to know J. R. Edwards (son of the admiral) after four months being together. I hoped to make a friend of him. He was booked up by another order and landed from his duel machine into one of those clumsy ignorami, called " Reconnaissance " machines, that can't even make a decent turn.
While as for feminine friendship and the least little ray of the gentle and sympathetic in my big, young heart ---that is too far off, too impossible to be even dreamed of.
Gee! I wish I knew where Sherman was. I surely would shake hands with him! He hit the nail on the head when he said what he said! The blessed old man!
To-day the wind is blowing sixty an hour and the clay-mud is feet deep; so we're not exactly flying --- just a lecture now and then, so you won't go entirely mad. But believe me with all that I so sincerely and constantly regret in my exile, I would never, for any fortune, change places and go back again to what I left --- to all the art and luxury and sympathy I left behind. Never, never! And then, in spite of all War's trickery, I'm just devilish enough to have a wee hope in the near future; in fact, I firmly intend to sound life to a very deep degree. That, is a great deal, though without "chasse" work it is not enough. Perhaps, too, I'll come through to at last be able to take up "chasse" work, when this summer it will be possible, then I'll have my chance, for I'm with the first American Aviators in France against the Hun. By the way, I think I hate the Hun. I certainly hate the Russian --- there are a good many of them in town and they've learned well not to get very near an American. They stay out or get knocked out.
Now, dearest woman I know, do not take War so seriously. You are blessedly far away from it all, so don't bother to try and. hypnotize yourself about it. Just enjoy, enjoy, enjoy --- all the joys and laughter the world contains, for it will make me happy to catch the feeble echo of your laugh through the lines of your letters --- your dear, sweet letters.
With all the devotion that years --- I am but beginning to realize --- can weave into my sonly heart --
January 16, 1918
MY DEAR MR. W.: --
Your letter brought me immediate joy, for I immediately pounded on the word 200 cigs. per 10 days!
I fed on them as at a banquet --- a banquet with all its royal luxury.
Excuse me, but personally I think it is one of the most brilliant manuvres of the year. I'll surely recommend you for the "Sat. Eve. Post's" "Who's Who." The gift's little mystery only added to its charm, and I'll certainly inform you accordingly whenever I receive a package. If it is concerned with your business, I wish you'd tell me what the profession is, for it's the most successful business to me, that I have ever seen you undertake. You certainly were a Wise man when you chose that line, and I congratulate you Wright away.
The advice you gave me on cigarettes has not passed over indifferently. In spite of appearances, I always reflect over your advice and, in fact, usually follow it to my own success. Cigarettes, though, I have been smoking for about three years. I am somewhat of a dreamer and enjoy their perfume and subtle taste of an epicurean, a poet, or some other such a sensitive and perhaps insane creature. I find inspiration in their nonchalant fumes, or, at least, I think I do, and hypnotism, you know, is the best remedy for any malady and therefore the best way to be inspired, if, of a literary nature, you hunt for inspiration, muses, or other such filmy nightmares.
However, I do not inhale --- I am a very harmless sinner and seeing that the vice will not grow on me, seeing that I am able at will to leave off for three months at a time, as I used to up at school, I hope you will not find me an everlasting prodigal.
Slipping over to your paragraph on aviation, how does this sound?
The New York man of business or leisure usually spends his week-end at his country club, his golf club, etc. He does it through desire, habit, style, or lack of anything else. I don't see why, if properly introduced, it would not be just so much more stylish and attractive for him to go out to his aviation club, where he would soon be flying very comfortable and safe machines, built and furnished for pleasure, where he could take his friends up with pride and where at the same time, within the majestic manor of the club, tea would be served to dancing and orchestra, dinners on the lake would be brilliant, and royal balls could be arranged often. Would it not be the latest note of modernism and therefore the most successful scheme possible? You see it appeals to man's most appealing --- Pride, Luxury, Style, Change, and a little breeze of Adventure. Would not such a tempter to the palate of man's epicureanism be a great financial success, if properly introduced and well capitalized at first?
You also speak of going into the scientific branch at present. Pardon me, Mr. W., but I have come over here to fight and fight is my all in all until the war is over. I have seen too many slackers, and I have too young and eager a heart myself to ever be satisfied with anything less than the utmost of this new world of war into which all my equals have been thrown and in which they are finding new life. Excuse me, but I am going to fight.
The officers you mention will doubtless prove useful to me sooner or later, as I am bound to run across them.
I have told mother all the news of my progress and my outlook; she has communicated it to you with all the joy I put into telling her about it.
Though there are a few hard moments, materially, the spirit of the game never vanishes and it constantly fills every one of the young hearts about me; whether an ex-newsboy or an ex-millionaire. They are all transformed into happy cavaliers eager for the Great Adventure, and strong with a morale that is bound to make good and uphold the standards of the country they crusade from.
Every boy around me is such as is rare in civilian life. They are characters, they are sports, they are sure to be successes; they are a new blood, a-bubbling over in the sinewy but worn veins of France. Why, they are so in harmony with the common cause, though they come from miles away where about the college halls war is an ancient myth, that they are already changing and dissolving somewhat into the Great Spirit of France; they sing French songs instead of rag-time; they talk French whenever they can and are forgetting their first complaints --- to admire the people of whom they had at first seen but pleasure-loving and practical inefficiency.
They are realizing the silent undertow of the French that made café frequenters and effeminate salon chatterers turn back at the Marne a foe that had set out to conquer the world and outpoured in the most brilliant array of modernism and efficiency an army the avalanche of which has never been witnessed since the fabulous days of Alexander.
And now I wish you a great celebration with which to welcome in the New Year with a real good hour of laughter and fun. Here's to the frolick---may I join in the toast with my hearty good wishes and cheer.
January 19, 1918
MY DEAREST MOMMIE: --
Spring has burst across the wintry wilderness; Congo fruit jungles are blossoming through the camp; many little Fords go chirping through the branches and sow Ingersolls all along the way --that is, I have just received my active orders. I can wear all the paraphernalia, silver bars, gold and black hat cord, black braids, gold silk braids, collar decoratums, and also the gold aviation eagle on my heart. I can dress up to beat the Kaiser, and more than he, have somewhere to go. I feel like a Christmas tree, with an added sense of importance that tickles my vanity and blushes up especially when I try to appear natural as I walk down a camp avenue.
Oh, yes! I've had a first salute: a beauty; just the way these privates ought to ! ! ! I, who in the French Army as poilu covered with dust on a banging truck, and in the American Army was a blinking, gawking door-keeper, jumping up and down to attention forsecond lieutenants, and being kicked from the first to the fifth flight by thousands of corporals, I, am now ye honorable and much-respected, much-waited-upon first lieutenant and pilot. I'll have to grow a beard too, for I look like a baby --- which is n't the exact appearance to front these gangs of fighting Yankees.
One private guessed immediately that I had just put on my stripes, probably because I had been moving a garbage can with him half an hour previous, and as he saluted, a broad grin spread across his tough cheeks --- it was beautifully sincere and I couldn't help laughing.
All the boys, as I walk down the barracks, wish me good luck, stand at attention, and then jump on me and muss me all up. Confound these lower creatures --- I must move immediately to the officers' barracks.
The next thing to do, now that I'm a gentleman again for the first time in many months, was to go and have tea. Imagine having tea, but such is the gentle and civilized custom of the officers; so off I went to the Biltmore --- which was the Red Cross. Now the Red Cross is divided distinctly in two. In front of the counter a long line of soldiers and cadets wait to buy a tin cup of coffee and a sandwich, to the worn-out needle of a Victor. Behind the counter, laughing as easy life permits, sit the favorite privileged few --- the officers sipping chocolate, dipping into choice confitures, and being waited on with china ware --- that they do not have to wash afterwards either --- at a few long white tables, surrounded by a whirligig of white-and-blue nurses.
The tea was just exquisite ---a couple of friends, newly commissioned, were with me. It was the first time we had been clean in two months, so we felt as in tuxedos and were immediately very affected in voice, awkward in gesture, and insipid in conversation --- fluent chat, such as officers --- the highest wits --- always are supposed to be keeping up amongst their intellectual circles. Then, O wonderful sight of brilliant chandeliers and glistening tables of feasting, I walked over to the officers' mess, much embarrassed and wondering why I was n't banging my good old mess kit in a line unending such as I had always done for the last nine months. Decidedly I had been enthroned, blessed by God, sought by fortune, transported for some vague but important merits, high into the celestial on the kind wings of smiling, suddenly visible angels from Heaven --- that is, Headquarters.
I ate on china; I ate a feast and I ate without the forecast of standing in another line out in the cold night to wash greasy tin dishes in cold water and freeze my hands all the way back home to the barracks.
More still, German prisoners ran around to get the platters and see that I was served. The sergeants of the mess addressed me "Sir." The privates stood silently at attention, daring not to utter so much as the title "Sir" lest it disturb my tranquillity of thought.
The next morning I was awakened by the rush of my friends to stand at roll-call at 5.30 A.M. I grunted and rolled over to doze off another hour or two. Then I proceeded to dress, received the compliments of the morning from the sergeant who, the night before, had had me working on hands and knees all over the barracks floor, and when he asked me if I would leave everything straight in the bunk when I left for the officers' barracks, I merely remarked, "I'm not living here any more."
Then I brought my baggage over, after a luxurious breakfast, to the new barracks where an orderly opened the door for me as I entered. At noon a chicken dinner with a fine dessert awaited me, and I sat opposite the next room where I could watch, with a broad grin, the boys I had left standing in the winding, serpentine sleepy line to receive their Sunday beans.
Feeling dressed up and as though I ought to go somewhere --- ought to harmonize the surroundings more with my dignity --- I entered church for the first time in nine months --- the last time nine months ago was only because, at school, I was forced to ---and after hearing a sermon from Bishop Brent of the Philippines had the honor of being introduced to him by the former chief of the track service who is bunking now next to me --- nor more than I --- in fact not as advanced.
That, too, is funny. I had always seen him flittering here and there, out with the section, 'midst high French officials at well-loaded tables, at intimate parties in the Section Headquarters --- rolling around in his staff car. Now I am his equal in rank and beyond him in aviation.
I have two titles for my book --- or your book rather. The first is the best for an unknown writer who wants the curious to pick up his book with interest in the author's cleverness rather than a passing thought of sympathy such as the second title would impress.
First title (to be used) ZZZZZZZ ... BANG! on a cover like this: Streak of lightning (cannon flash), color, red (bright), background color, yellow (bright), title color, red (bright).
The cover must be of that rough soft leather that binds so many of those small delightful books --otherwise the color scheme and the title would produce a cheap effect.
As few people will buy and those will buy because they are decidedly interested and more especially because my buyers will be the mothers and wives (of whom I thought in making up the title), the price must be high, must be extravagant --- it makes the book important and takes away such cheapness as the title would invoke to certain brains.
I'll sign my name JACK WRIGHT. I have sent you the dedication already. Here is the cover design again --- larger. The Z's had, to avoid similarity with the flash of lightning to which they are near placed, better be in writing form.
Here is the foreword, but you --- the receiver of the letters, my mother, must put in the preface --- don't make it an advertisement. On one of the forepages, the first one, the criticisms and words on my letters -- of those big men, such as Prof. may be written in a column with their respective names underneath each one's words. Here, then, is the foreword: --
"These letters are taken directly out of the hurried office of Mars; they are notes on the exact shell-holes "your" man will crouch in, on the precious stars and mighty heavens he will look up to, on War's fight, toil, and divinity, on War's Romance, and War's exile, on War's New World and the new life it spreads, each passing day, to every human proud to have a soul across the Atlantic firmament in the first grasping streaks of dawn. They are secret notes that Mars held nearest his heart, that were dictated to me on top of blasting mines and of which the undersigned stenographer who received Mars' dictation, takes an enthusiastic interest revealing their message to you."
As I have none of the letters in hand and cannot illustrate them, I do not desire the book illustrated with either photographs, sketches, or decorative panels. The paper will, like the leather cover, be rough and rugged-edged. You've seen it often.
I suppose, as you will notice by the terming of my foreword, that the letters are to be reproduced in letter form. When it is published, send me a dozen copies or so which I shall autograph and send to various intimates.
Gee! These officers' barracks are neat, clean, barren ---so much like Brown's Hotel --- as compared to the clubby, American atmosphere of the boys in sweaters and slippers back in the cadets' barracks. However, there's a piano and a couple of armchairs along with a couple of useless orderlies. I always did like butlers ---they are such delightfully useless but ornamental creatures --- pardon, I mean ornaments.
Just heard of a witty trick done recently by a friend. He was doing acrobatics when he went into a "vrille." That's very bad near the ground if it happens accidentally; he came out but to go into another --- the ground coming up like lightning when he kept his calm enough to notice an "aileron" flapping --- useless --- and traced the break back to a missing bolt, whereupon he --- marvelous brain, he must have divine control --- undid his belt and stood up a little, full in the dash of a death-spin, a sure, fatal fall, grabbed the disjointed piece and held together with one hand over his head while with the other, in one of these very tricky machines, he made his landing safely with the other hand.
He is a hero that not only the papers ignore, but most of the camp. He has the compliments of us aviators and I can assure you that means something.
Great joy! To-morrow morning I enter spirals; that will be the beginning of more rapidly succeeding and more vital events of interest; that is, more dangerous slips and drops to be caught up in true, more businesslike, warlike flying. Now good-bye for the while.
Keep good and don't worry.
I hope you understand the appreciation I hold for the effort you are making to publish a book of my recent letters. It is very keen.
January 22, 1918
Just a word to tell you how my world is turning around. It is turning around very rapidly, for I have just been doing spirals yesterday. That is to say, you're hung up in space some three thousand feet when you cut down the motor and start. For a second, everything is silent as the silence of night, when. you're walking towards a precipice, as the silence just before the hand strikes down to plunge in the dagger. Just then I tried to think of my instructions --- absolutely useless. I was thoroughly stage-frightened, but I was nearing the precipice, the dagger was quivering to plunge down, so I started. I pulled the plane over on a perpendicular and down; the back a little on the stick to make her spin lightly, and off she went, the clouds whirling by as in a cyclone --- a war of the gods and the wind roaring at me like a continual fog-horn and pulling on me hard.
Round like a top, down, down towards the earth, as in a falling merry-go-round the plane led me like a bolt, through space.
I remember vaguely, acknowledging that if the bus did smash, it was nevertheless a great experience, and that was the height of the game. It was a great adventure, 'midst the wild, invisible forces of the clouds, high up from other humans. It seemed, so to speak, like when the movie shows angels sweeping by diagonally in the heavens, with the clouds whizzing around.
The spiral was increasing in rapidity on my left, rather behind me, for I was turned to the right watching the needle on my tacometer, pushing with my feet accordingly, and trying to convince my hands, in spite of them, to pull back farther and over, so to make the plane spin tighter and on a perpendicular; however, my hands refused to go far. I just could n't make them.
By then the wind was roaring so loudly and the plane whizzing me around so fastly and downwardy that I started to wonder whether I was in a "vrille" or not. (Fatal if you don't come out of it.)
I looked over my left shoulder and saw the horses spinning around regularly and decided all was well; by chance I glanced over my right shoulder at the clouds --- OOOOOOOh! that empty feeling; then all was funny.
I looked back inside the machine again and recovered promptly, and with another one thousand and one prayers to something, some one, somewhere. Looking over at the sky when you're spinning seems to create a cone with the far end in the bottom of the sky. Anyway, you can wager no sailor even of a submarine would take more than one look at it.
Enfin --- I came out ages from the circle I was supposed to reach without pulling on the motor again, so just had to. When I felt the machine grip earth again, I felt as though I had just finished a heated debate in the Senate, and won; had just finished a complicated trial for suicide, and won; had just finished a desperate suit for a star in the Century, and won.
I immediately was sent up for my second, which is a good plan while you've still got the confidence left in you. My second, I felt was better, so that when I came out of it, it was as though I had held my breath under water a long time. I just burst loose and sang and shouted at the top of my voice, in English, French, and Yiddish. On my third spiral, when coming out, I was evidently dangerously flat, for my propeller just about stopped and then did, which cut off the chance of pulling on the motor again, which I needed to, being over a forest a half-mile from where I should be. (The wind had drifted me.) So I tried to crank the propeller --- not that I got out and did it ---not exactly. I dove down a couple of hundred feet and the force of the wind, just as a private chauffeur, cranked it for me. I pulled on the gasolene; she winced and the motor gave a whoop and a pull and so I skimmed above the trees. So far, I am slowly and contentedly easing into the life of orderlies and good meals and general respect of an officer and gentleman.
I might have added, too, that in between the spirals, yesterday, I saw the last twirl that was the farewell second in the life of a boy in the class next to mine. I don't feel heart-broken for him so much as for the mother back home.
American Air Service, France
February 27, 1918
MY DEAR MADAME WISE: --
Writing you has been a duty which I have long realized, and yet postponed indefinitely, thinking that a joint expression from all of Jack's friends would be more fitting, and perhaps more representative of the feeling caused here by his death. A letter has come from Mr. Wise, however, which prompts me to write you personally, to assure you his effects will be taken care of, and his grave well marked. I had been transferred to another camp a few days before Jack's accident. My purpose is to fly back the first day I have free, and bring all his things to Paris. I shall write you at once upon so doing, and also tell you of Jack's resting-place in the little camp cemetery, and the provisions I will have made for its upkeep.
If words of a comrade can bring any sweetness to the sorrow of a mother, I offer mine freely. "Who would not sing of Lycidas --- Lycidas who is dead ere his prime." Jack was my soul comrade in life, and in death he is Lycidas; when I visualize the panorama of the last dramatic months I see all my experiences of war and war's preparation colored by a soft and mellow light, the light of a personality which enveloped me like a cloak. That light was Jack. And in memory let me praise him, just as in life I revered his talents and noble character.
I first met Jack on board the Touraine, along with a few hundred other young fellows fresh from the classroom, coming to France for a share in the big fight. Jack was different from the rest of us in that he experienced a home-coming feeling when we sighted the banks of the Gironde. It was his France that welcomed him, the France he had learned to love intimately. We were first drawn together by discussions on poetry --- Jack defending free verse of the modern school against my attacks in favor of the sonnet and older forms. Many times the battle of the books waged high with no decisive results, for we were each confirmed believers in our respective poetical faiths. In Paris he went wild with the ecstasy of reminiscence. He would point out place after place where he had done some particular thing, from the Luxembourg Gardens to the Montmartre. We visited his former residence, and even picked out another near Boulevard Saint-Michel, where we intended to seclude ourselves for six months after the war, there to write and work together.
Much against our inclinations we went into the camion service instead of the ambulance. The work in munition convoi was always distasteful to Jack. The dust of the roads irritated him, and the humdrum work of handling the cases of shells bored him terribly. He was given a special trailer for a studio, and relieved as much as possible of such work as greasing the trucks. All the time at the front he seemed in a semi-trance, a sort of nostalgia, and found vent only in long walks. I can remember so well trying to find him at times, and learned to go to his favorite hill overlooking the Aisne. There he would be walking aimlessly and a solitary figure in the background of glorious poppies and bluets. He lived within himself those days, entering but seldom in the camp sports, and certainly far from happy. On one occasion he brightened --- his birthday. The camp artist (a French decorator), Jack Sawhill, and I helped him celebrate the day with a little supper in the trailer. Soon after that he left on permission, enlisted in aviation as you well know, and after his first difficulty was settled became happy again in his progress in mastery of the air.
We came to Tours together, and learned to fly. Jack realized more than most of us the larger significance of flying. He came down from his second flight convinced in his mind that he never would become a pilot. Flying was so tremendous in reality, so supernatural, so akin to some divine privilege. The immensity of space appalled him. He told me he, always felt as though invisible hands of a cosmic giant were supporting the frail wings of linen and wood, as on he rushed with the gripping power of the propeller. He was always a keen psychologist, and reflected on his mental flux while in the air. His naive curiosity prompted him again and again to "stunt" with his plane, long before he was master of the controls. A rivalry sprang up between him and Jack Sawhill, as to who would make the most rapid progress in winning the much coveted French brevet. One day Jack circled the field counter-traffic, that is he turned to the right on the take-off when the two balls at the pilotage indicated compulsory turning to the left. For that error he was taken off the flying list for two or three days, much to Jack Sawhill's delight. Jack Sawhill, however, landed cross-wind the next day, and was given a similar punishment. This friendly rivalry continued till Jack Sawhill fell in a Nieuport, and was taken to the hospital with a broken arm.
At Tours we were four in one large room --- calling ourselves the "Four Musketeers" --- Big Bill Taylor was Porthos; Jack Sawhill, the fiery enthusiast, was d'Artagnan; I, because of my few additional years and gravity, was Athos; and Jack was Aramis. Jack was Aramis without Aramis's later religious hypocrisy, Jack the polished and refined, the master of délicatesse, the carefully dressed, the quiet-mannered --- yes, Jack was Aramis. We chided him a good deal upon his vanity, which pleased rather than annoyed him. He was ever conscious of being observed, and wished to appear at his best, be it his hair, of which he was justly proud, or the rubber boots issued to us by a paternal Government. We had a wonderful time in that room, one of the jeux where dice were défendu, and cards seldom seen. Jack had no time for the vulgarities of barrack life, a characteristic well understood by visitors who dropped in to get warm and smoke.
Our next experience was at the camp where Jack was killed. He and Jack Sawhill came down after three happy days in Paris. I had missed the two Jacks and was tickled to have them with me again, even as fellow-sufferers in the hardships of a newly constructed school. Flying was slowed up by the continuous rain; we all had colds and sore throats. I went to the camp hospital late in December, and was about starved. Jack tried to see me, but could not, but he saved a lot of delicacies and good cigarettes from his Christmas box, and showered me with such good things when I got back to the barracks.
The first one killed at our camp was a Lieutenant Paul, who went into a vrille on his first "tour-de-piste" in the smallest type of plane. We were all greatly depressed by the accident, and Jack more than most of us. He said to me: "Strange to think of life as complete when a fellow is killed like Paul was ... yet everything laid out for him to do has been done ... he finished his work ... his turn had come." Jack's own turn was not far away, even though his fatalistic tendency had not prepared him fully to meet it.
Jack and I attended all classes together at the last camp. We were ready for spirals when I received orders to go back to Tours to fly---observers for a while. That was January 16. I bade him good-bye, saying I should meet him in Paris, or at the front, or maybe behind the moon. He reminded me of our Latin Quarter prospect "après la guerre" and promised to keep the rendezvous. His rendezvous was not with me, but with Death.
The news, a few days later, of his last spiral returned me. I could not believe it, a blackness came over me, and I asked: Could it be that our Jack, our Jack was gone? --- my heart burned with thoughts of him, my comrade and your son. It seems that he spiralled down from a thousand metres with a cold motor, found he was gliding short of the field, and tried to lengthen his landing angle. He flattened out at fifty metres altitude, the plane stalled, then wing-slipped to the ground.
It is not for me to say it could have been averted. Jack had formed the habit of jerking off his goggles to land, saying he did so to protect his eyes should he smash. The wind would always bring water to his eyes, and he always appeared to have been rubbing them after landing. I think the dizziness caused by a spiral, heightened by water-blindness of the eyes, made him misjudge his altitude. But he is gone. He was a man in a man's war. He had in abundance the qualities of a master pilot. He was a camarade jusqu'au bout.
My own mother has been dead for thirteen years. Roaming and university study accustomed me to a motherless life, so that before coming to France, I had lived with no consideration for that link with God --- a mother. War and social isolation changes one, and I was soon to long for the tie I had never known, save as an unthinking boy. Comrades would receive letters from home, full of kind thoughts and little anxieties, full to the seals with the love only a mother can give, that brave and wonderful affection, which strains between fear and pride, and sends the loved one to the battle-line to fight and die---like a soldier. What a triumph for a mother to give a son. What a stimulant to "carry on" a mother's tenderness. I listened with intense loneliness when friends would tell of good news from "home and mother." I tell you this because it was Jack who understood my feeling, and it was Jack who shared his mother's messages with me. What beautiful letters they were. What an appeal to a home-hungry boy. They revealed to me a magnificent fellowship between mother and son, an identity of spirit to which my heart of emptiness could aspire, but never attain. Once you mentioned your pleasant task of copying all his letters on a typewriter. What treasures they must be to you now ---living companions in the dark hours of memory, so full of Jack, his eagerness, his hopes mounting high, and his visualized goal as a pilot and artist.
"Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on."
Not an ordinary rôle has been yours in giving a son to a noble cause. Mothers have offered their sons, and heroically too, since time's evolution of nations first revealed to the necessity of war. But you have been the mother of an aviator. Jack belonged to the race of aerial cavaliers. To them earth is a place of bondage, for they have tasted the thrills of the heavens. To their ears comes the music of the universe, and to their eyes the vistas of other worlds denied to the earth-bound. Only those who have heard the upper winds whistle through the struts, only those who have invaded the vast and vacant chambers of unexplored atmosphere, only those who have roamed through the cloudy lanes of the great above can claim kinship in that race of men. The tremendous thrust of the motors, the gentle pressure on the "manche à balai," the delicate adjustment of the essence manettes, all these are factors in the balanced life of a pilot. They represent laws and powers which should not be abused. They are a, b, c's in the aviator's manual, and mark the boundary-line between the earthly and sky dominions. They are the secrets of the aerial race, and secrets Jack knew.
Like the rest of us Jack early adopted the care-free swing to life in the air. One cannot worry and fly. He had a song on his lips to the last, a smile for every difficulty, and a shrug for unpleasant situations. As he often explained to me, his emotions in line of flight ranged from supreme ecstasy in the sheer fantasy of a long glide to the panicky fear which comes to a pilot when a collision with some other sky-pilgrim seems inevitable. Every day a pilot runs the gauntlet of human psychology, as much as a terrestrial experiences in months. To one as temperamentally contracted as Jack all this marvellous phenomenon of the sixth sense, the "feel" of flying, was an endless study. He loved it all, and made others understand it better because of his finer perceptions. Other than his beautiful personality I think this, the appreciation of the powers of the air, was Jack's greatest contribution to the pioneers of American aviation in France. As the dreamer of real castles in the air, Jack shall long be remembered., As the comrade of my first Year of the War, he shall be enshrined in my memory.
Accept, mother of Jack, the sympathy of one who loved him, and cannot forget.
J'apprends avec stupeur que mon seul ami vient de tomber. C'est aimé de la connaissance humaine qu'il montait vers l'idéal qu'il voulait obtenir par ses propres moyens.
Joignant au sang d'une race nouvelle un courage antique il est mort, je vois, en toute ferveur ---Quel verbe divin entendait-il là-haut pour perdre ainsi la volonté de vivre?
Je me souviens de ses paroles confiantes. Il disait que l'aviation avait surpassé ses rêves qu'il avait cru plus vastes que la vie elle-même et que cela c'était en vérité un miracle.
J'ai cru voir là que son âme se refuserait à redescendre. Il avait choisi la voie douloureuse mais il croyait en l'immortalité de l'être pourvu qu'il soit pensant.
Et qu'importe alors qu'il soit roseau? Est-ce que ceux que nous avons aimés, Madame, peuvent mourir? Est-il pour vous en ce moment une seule voie intérieure qui prétende affirmer la vie éternelle? Non! La personalité, à peine touchée de grâce et de néant se mêle à l'univers et déjà le corps remonte, de la terre où il repose vers le ciel, sous la metamorphose, en fleur. Les fleurs ont déjà sans doute reçu les larmes du ciel sur sa sépulture.
Mais où que se trouve cette dernière, Lui sera toujours présent à mon esprit. Combien de rêves, en effet, nous avons élancé que je ne veux pas détruire et dont sa mort me fait un devoir!
Il succomba pour l'exemple. Par son attachement au pays de la pensée réelle, exprimée d'ailleurs dans ses uvres, il lui avait fait d'avance le sacrifice d'une existence utile qui le devint plus encore de ce fait même. C'est donc à moi, son Benjamin, de relever son bouclier et de reprendre la vie sans défaillance pour qu'enfin triomphe l'esprit.
Je me rappelle de ses yeux clairs, le jour où je le revis, et de ses cheveux blonds qui semblaient le casque d'or et de raison; nous nous étions reconnus comme si l'océan ne nous avait jamais séparés. La mort nous désunit moins.
Il savait mes espérances; j'admirais sa force simple de caractère dont j'étais fort éloigné. Mais je crois pouvoir vous dire --- mieux qu'avec le mot d'honneur qu'en prétendant qu'il quitta, pur, le monde, avant les désillusions --- en vous affirmant de faire mon possible pour ramasser ses ailes et reprendre l'exécution de son rêve d'ange protecteur.
La faiblesse française fut de ne savoir haïr --- A deux reprises le fer me le rappelle cruellement ---je haïrai donc la force et la haine.
Pardonnez à cette audace qui le poussa à abandonner les siens pour courir au droit menacé.
Je le sens d'autant plus que je sais la douleur d'une mère; mais l'existence est ainsi faite qu'il faut que nous tendions de la surpasser pour la diviniser.
Sa fin prouve non combien est triste cette grande aventure de l'homme sur terre mais combien aussi nous pouvons la rendre juste.
Puisqu'il lui fallut d'autres horizons votre devoir est, je crois, Madame, de ne point attrister son âme errante pour lui permettre et d'abord de se dégager et ensuite de revenir vous assister.
Votre tristesse l'éloignerait et le ferait souffrir car puisque l'âme est oiseau --- nulle colombe ne peut se désaltérer aux larmes d'amertume.
Croyez bien, que le temps ne doit point amener l'oubli mais le retour étant donné que l'avenir naît du passé, et que le vrai culte que nous devons rendre à sa mémoire est de nous montrer aussi droit et aussi confiant que lui.
L'absence de Jack me sera toujours présente. Une lettre de mon fils qui n'avait d'autre camarade que lui vous dira sa peine --- mais moi, chère amie, qui le sentais un peu mon enfant, l'ayant vu si longtemps grandir --- je ne vois rien de plus noble à vous dire --- de plus vivifiant pour votre cur que de copier la lettre admirable que m'écrivit Jack quelques jours avant son ascension --- j'y laisse tout son bon cur y éclaté près de son héroïsme.
Je lui avais déconseillé l'aviation mais il devait monter et sa chute le porte en haut.
Le 8 Janvier, 1918
MES TRÈS CHERS AMIS
MADAME ET MONSIEUR BOURDELLE,
Cette époque de l'année me ramène plus vivement encore l'hospitalité et les conseils que j'ai toujours reçus si généreusement à vos mains.
Avec tous les remerciements que je dois offrir à l'année de 1917, ceux que mon appréciation a pour vous sont parmi les plus grands car c'est aux moments les plus heureux et les plus décisifs de ma vie que j'ai reçu de vous le conseil et l'encouragement si chers à un jeune homme.
Mais des remerciements sur papier je les déteste et pour qu'ils ne paraissent pas trop superficiels je vous fournirai le cadre de mon existence jusqu'à ce jour. D'abord ce ne fut pas une existence; ce ne fut pas une vie même --- ce fut un paradis --- un paradis sur terre.
Tous les rêves, tous les mirages dans les halos desquels m'apparaissait l'aviation ne se sont pas évanouis au jour brutal des réalités. Au contraire, chaque étage d'idéalisme que j'attendais de l'aviation c'est montré solide et miraculeux et toujours conduisant à des hauteurs nouvelles --- aussi vrais et aussi splendides. Cela est beaucoup dire. Pour que les choses humaines deviennent vraiment des objets divins et satisfaisent à nos âmes pleinement, il faut qu'un miracle se produise --- car ce n'est pas la coutume.
Ma première école était en Touraine à côté du château d'Anatole France. Là, j'essaya pour la première fois des ailes et, lentement, en tremblant, je les étendis, peu à peu jusqu'à ce que j'obtins mon "brevet" de pilote. Maintenant je passe à travers les derniers moments d'apprentissage: c'est le perfectionnement, les manuvres, la science. D'ici sous peu je serai près pour le front et avec un enthousiasme débordant je partirai vers l'horizon fatal. Déjà je vole sur l'appareil rapide qu'on emploie au front et déjà à la sérénade féerique du vol s'ajoute les premiers échos de la farouche symphonie du combat.
C'est un appel qui fouette mon jeune sang et double l'enthousiasme d'un coeur en pleine romance et d'une âme en vaste extase.
Il y a peu de jours, j'ai reçu mes galons de 1er lieutenant, ce qui est un gentil cadeau de noël.
Acceptez, je vous prie, la reconnaissance que je vous offre à pleins bras ces jours de nouvel an, et lorsque les carillons de 1918 sonnent, trouvez y les vux joyeux de votre jeune et dévoué ami. Brûlez aussi pour moi une chandelle sacrée à la future année de la petite et veuillez étendre à Pierre l'espoir et la foi que j'ai en lui. Dites à Madame Rose qu'elle m'est une vraie grand'mère, toujours bonne et souriante.
Respectueusement je me souscris votre serviteur constant
CHÈRE MADAME --
Vous comprenez que je ne risque pas une telle lettre. Je vous la garde et lisez-en la copie.
A son arrivée à Paris, Jack passa une journée à St. Cloud avec nous ---il la passa à me persuader de le pousser, de lui conseiller d'être aviateur. Je m'y refusai comme pris de double vue, ce qui m'arrive souvent.
Je lui dis et redis, je ne peux prendre une telle responsabilité, car je crois l'arme de l'air la plus dangereuse pour le soldat. Mesurez bien tout avant de vous décider, lui dis-je.
Quelque temps après Jack vient me voir il me dit, je n'ai que vous en France --- vous êtes connu, donnez-moi un certificat de caractère, de volonté, de raison, de ténacité. Ah! bien vous êtes décidé, Jack, vous voulez être aviateur. Absolument, me dit-il --- Je vous demande un certificat. Bien, lui dis-je. Je le fais et je lui donnai le certificat qu'il avait le droit de me demander.
Il semble, Madame, que le destin l'avait choisi---l'avais-je compris, je l'ai disputé au destin. Cet enfant-homme, ce héros en fleur, me touchait profondément. Mais, le maître des existences a fait la sienne surhumaine.
Icare tomba pour vouloir atteindre au soleil. La lumière le prit, et, brûlé, il tomba lumineux.
Jack a voulu monter rejoindre la victoire du droit, il l'a rencontrée dans le ciel --- elle est immortelle, et, brûlé d'immortalité, il ne pouvait pas rester homme.
Jack, chers amis, ne peut pas être pleuré. Il est devenu élan, devoir, justice, honneur --- il est le héros pur dont l'âme et la vie se sont données --- et qui n'a pas levé son arme contre aucun mortel, qui n'a eu permission de Dieu que de faire le geste de la foi et du sacrifice. Jack ne peut pas être pleuré.
Ah! notre regret oui --- Cet enfant, cette grande figure était l'adolescence éternelle du beau --- il restera en nous tous comme une religion.