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Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 4a - At G.D.E.

SOMEWHERE to the north of Paris, in the zone des armées, there is a village, known to all aviators in the French service as G. D. E. It is the village through which pilots who have completed their training at the aviation schools pass on their way to the front; and it is here that I again take up this journal of aerial adventure.

We are in lodgings, Drew and I, at the Hôtel de la Bonne Rencontre, which belies its name in the most villainous fashion. An inn at Rochester in the days of Henry the Fourth must have been a fair match for it, and yet there is something to commend it other than its convenience to the flying field. Since the early days of the Escadrille Lafayette, many Americans have lodged here while awaiting their orders for active service. As I write, J. B. is asleep in a bed which has done service for a long line of them. It is for this reason that he chose it, in preference to one in a much better state of repair which he might have had. And he has made plans for its purchase after the war. Madame Rodel is to keep careful record of all its American occupants, Just as she has done in the past. She is pledged not to repair it beyond the bare necessity which its uses as a bed may require, an injunction which it was hardly necessary to lay upon her, judging by the other furniture in our apartment. Drew is not sentimental, but he sometimes carries sentiment to extremities which appear to me absurd.

When I attempt to define, even to myself, the charm of our adventures thus far, I find it impossible. How, then, make it real to others ? To tell of aerial adventure one needs a new language, or, at least, a parcel of new adjectives, sparkling with bright and vivid meaning, as crisp and fresh as just-minted bank-notes. They should have no taint of flatness or in- sipidity. They should show not the faintest trace of wear. With them, one might hope, now and then, to startle the imagination, to set it running in channels which are strange and delightful to it. For there is something new under the sun: aerial adventure; and the most lively and unjaded fancy may, at first, need direction toward the realization of this fact. Soon it will have a literature of its own, of prose and poetry, of fiction, biography, memoirs, of history which will read like the romance it really is. The essayists will turn to it with joy. And the poets will discover new aspects of beauty which have been hidden from them through the ages; and as men's experience "in the wide fields of air" increases, epic material which will tax their most splendid powers.

This brings me sadly back to my own purpose, which is, despite many wistful longings of a more ambitious nature, to write a plain tale of the adventures of two members — prospective up to this point—of the Escadrille Lafayette. To go back to some of those earlier ones, when we were making our first crosscountry flights, I remember them now with a delight which, at the time, was not unmixed with other emotions. Indeed, an aviator, and a fledgling aviator in particular, often runs the whole gamut of human feeling during a single flight. I did in the course of half an hour, reaching the high C of acute panic as I came tumbling out of the first cloud of my aerial experience. Fortunately, in the air the sense of equilibrium usually compels one to do the right thing, and so, after some desperate handling of my "broom-stick," as the control is called which governs ailerons and elevating planes, I soon had the horizons nicely adjusted again. What a relief it was! I shut down my motor and commenced a more gradual descent, for I was lost, of course, and it seemed wiser to land and make inquiries than to go cruising over half of France looking for one among hundreds of picturesque old towns. There were at least a dozen within view. Some of them were at least a three hours' walk distant from each other. But in the air! I was free to go whither I would, and swiftly.

After leisurely deliberation I selected one surrounded by wide fields which appeared to be as level as a floor. But as I descended the landscape widened, billowing into hills and folding into valleys. By sheer good luck, nothing more, I made a landing without accident. My Caudron barely missed colliding with a hedge of fruit trees, rolled down a long incline, and stopped not ten feet short of a small stream. The experience taught me the folly of choosing landing-ground from high altitudes. I needn't have landed, of course, but I was then so much an amateur that the buffering of cross-currents of air near the ground awed me into it, come what might. The village was out of sight over the crest of the hill. However, thinking that some one must have seen me, I decided to await developments where I was.

Very soon I heard a shrill, jubilant shout. A boy of eight or ten years was running along the ridge as fast as he could go. Outlined against the sky, he reminded me of silhouettes I had seen in Paris shops, of children dancing, the very embodiment of joy in movement. He turned and waved to some one behind, whom I could not see, then came on again, stopping a short distance away, and looking at me with an air of awe, which, having been a small boy myself, I was able to understand and appreciate. I said, "Bonjour, mon petit," as cordially as I could, but he just stood there and gazed without saying a word. Then the others began to appear: scores of children, and old men as well, and women of all ages, some with babies in their arms, and young girls. The whole village came, I am sure. I was mightily impressed by the haleness of the old men and women, which one rarely sees in America. Some of them were evidently well over seventy, and yet, with one or two exceptions, they had sound limbs, clear eyes, and healthy complexions. As for the young girls, many of them were exceptionally pretty; and the children were sturdy youngsters, not the wan, thin-legged little creatures one sees in Paris. In fact, all of these people appeared to belong to a different race from that of the Parisians, to come from finer, more vigorous stock.

They were very curious, but equally courteous, and stood in a large circle around my machine, waiting for me to make my wishes known. For several minutes I pretended to be busy attending to dials and valves inside the car. While trying to screw my courage up to the point of making a verbless explanation of my difficulty, some one pushed through the crowd, and to my great relief began speaking to me. It was Monsieur the Mayor. As best I could, I explained that I had lost my way and had found it necessary to come down for the purpose of making inquiries. I knew that it was awful French, but hoped that it would be intel ligible, in part at least. However, the Mayor understood not a word, and I knew by the curious expression in his eyes that he must be wondering from what weird province I hailed. After a moment's thought he said, "Vous etes Anglais, monsieur?" with a smile of very real pleasure. I said, "Non, monsieur, Americain."

That magic word! What potency it has in France, the more so at that time, perhaps, for America had placed herself definitely upon the side of the Allies only a short time before. I enjoyed that moment. I might have had the village for the asking. I willingly accepted the role of ambassador of the American people. Had it not been for the language barrier, I think I would have made a speech, for I felt the generous spirit of Uncle Sam prompting me to give those fathers and mothers, whose husbands and sons were at the front, the promise of our unqualified support. I wanted to tell them that we were with them now, not only in sympathy, but with all our resources in men and guns and ships and aircraft. I wanted to convince them of our new understanding of the significance of the war. Alas! this was impossible. Instead I gave each one of an army of small boys the privilege of sitting in the pilot's seat, and showed them how to manage the controls.

The astonishing thing to me was, that while this village was not twenty kilometres off the much-frequented air route between C— and R—, mine was the first aeroplane which most of them had seen. During long months at various aviation schools pilots grow accustomed to thinking that aircraft are as familiar a sight to others as to them. But here was a village, not far distant from several aviation schools, where an aviator was looked upon with wonder. To have an American aviator drop down upon them was an event even in the history of that ancient village. To have been that aviator, — well, it was an unforgettable experience, coming as it did so opportunely with America's entry into the war. I shall always have it in the background of memory, and one day it will be among the pleasantest of many pleasant tales which I shall have in store for my grandchildren.

However, it is not their potentialities as memories which endear these adventures now, but rather it is because they are in such contrast to any that we had known before. We are always comparing this new life with the old, so different in every respect as to seem a separate existence, almost a previous incarnation.

Having been set right about my course, I pushed my biplane to more level ground, with the willing help of all the boys, started my motor, and was away again. Their shrill cheers reached me even above the roar of the motor. As a lad in a small , Middle -Western town, I have known the rapture of holding to a balloon guy-rope at a county fair, until "the world's most famous aeronaut" shouted , "Let 'er go, boys!" and swung off into space. I kept his memory green until I had passed the first age of hero worship. I know that every youngster in a small village in central France will so keep mine. Such fame is the only kind worth having.

A flight of fifteen minutes brought me within sight of the large white circle which marks the landing-field at R—. J. B. had not yet arrived. This was a great disappointment, for we had planned a race home. I was anxious about him, too, knowing that the godfather of all adventurers can be very stern at times, particularly with his aerial godchildren. I waited for an hour and then decided to go on alone. "The weather having cleared, the opportunity was too favorable to be lost. The cloud formations were the most remarkable that I had ever seen. I flew around and over and under them, watching at close hand the play of light and shade over their great, billowing folds.. Sometimes I skirted them so closely that the current of air from my propeller raveled out fragments of shining vapor, which streamed into the clear spaces like wisps of filmy silk. I knew that I ought to be savoring this experience, but for some reason I couldn't. One usually pays for a fine mood by a sudden and unaccountable change of feeling which shades off into a kind of dull, colorless depression.

I passed a twin-motor Caudron going in the opposite direction. It was fantastically painted, the wings a bright yellow and the circular hoods, over the two motors, a fiery red. As it approached, it looked like some prehistoric bird with great ravenous eyes. The thing startled me, not so much because of its weird appearance as by the mere fact of its being there. Strangely enough, for a moment it seemed impossible that I should meet another avion. Despite a long apprenticeship in aviation, in these days when one's mind has only begun to grasp the fact that the mastery of the air has been accomplished, the sudden presentation of a bit of evidence sometimes shocks it into a moment of amazement bordering upon incredulity.

As I watched the big biplane pass, I was conscious of a feeling of loneliness. I remembered what J. B. had said that morning. There was something unpleasant in the isolation; it made us look longingly down to earth, wondering whether we shall ever feel really at home in the air. I, too, longed for the sound of human voices, and all that I heard was the roar of the motor and the swish of the wind through wires and struts, sounds which have no human quality in them, and are no more companionable than the lapping of the waves to a man adrift on a raft in mid-ocean. Underlying this feeling, and no doubt in part responsible for it, was the knowledge of the fallibility of that seemingly perfect mechanism which rode so steadily through the air; of the quick response that ingenious arrangement of inanimate matter would make to an eternal and inexorable law if a few frail wires should part; of the equally quick, but less phlegmatic response of another fallible mechanism, capable of registering horror, capable — it is said — of passing its past life in review in the space of a few seconds, and then — capable of becoming equally inanimate matter.

Luckily nothing of this sort happened, and the feeling of loneliness passed the moment I came in sight of the long rows of barracks, the hangars and machine shops of the aviation school. My joy when I saw them can only be appreciated in full by fellow aviators who remember the end of their own first long Sight. I had been away for years. I would not have been surprised to find great changes. If the brevet monitor had come hobbling out to meet me holding an ear trumpet in his withered hand, the sight would have been quite in keeping with my own sense of the lapse of time. However, he approached with his ancient springy, businesslike step, as I climbed down from my machine. I swallowed to clear the passage to my ears, and heard him say, "Alors ca va?" in a most disappointingly perfunctory tone of voice.

I nodded.

"Where's your biograph?"

My biograph! It is the altitude-registering instrument which also marks, on a cross-lined chart, the time consumed on each lap of an aerial voyage. My card should have shown four neat outlines in ink, something like this:

one for each stage of my journey, including the forced landing when I had lost my way. But having started the mechanism going upon leaving A—, I had then forgotten all about it, so that it had gone on running while my machine was on the ground as well as during the time it was in the air. The result was a sketch of a magnificent mountain range which might have been drawn by the futurist son, aged five, of a futurist artist. Silently I handed over the instrument. The monitor looked at it, and then at me without comment. But there is an international language of facial expression, and his said, unmistakably, "You poor, simple prune! You choice sample of mouldy American cheese!"


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