Lines from the poem, “High Flight” slipped into my mind, while I was flying over the Channel on the way to Heathrow Airport. That last line was a douzy! Mark and I were returning home from Paris via London and Dubai. This was only the first short leg of the journey. We’d left the same way, en route to Roma, ten days earlier. The clouds below formed a landscape of ridges and rivers, that seemed familiar to me, an Aussie voyager, but was constructed out of fairy floss. I could only imagine the rich French countryside, and the Manche far below, hidden by the snowy screen.
It was a perfect one-hour flight. Very few bumps. The plane had risen above the bad weather in Paris. I brushed away a tear at the thought of the Latin Quarter far away down below. I’d fallen in love with it half a century ago. Rose twilight bands tinted the horizons on both sides of the plane. I glimpsed the silvery half-moon, looking quietly down on the plane, and thought of my young grandson, also named Mark, about to have his fourth birthday party the next day back home. We had thirty hours of travel ahead of us yet. Why oh why was our beloved country so far away from everywhere else that beckoned us?
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr
On the third of September in 1941, eighteen year old John Gillespie Magee was flying at 30,000 feet in a test flight of the Spitfire V. As he climbed up above the clouds, he was inspired to write a poem, describing feelings of awe that overcame him when he flew into a realm of strange beauty far above the earth. Once back on the ground, he wrote a letter to his parents. in which he enclosed a copy of the poem.
Flying fighter sweeps over France and air defense over England against the German Luftwaffe, he rose to the rank of Pilot Officer.
Just three months later, on the eleventh of December 1941 (and only three days after the US entered the war), Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., was killed, when the Spitfire V he was flying, collided with another plane over England. He was only nineteen years old.