J. B. did n't return until the following after noon. After
leaving me over C, he had blown out two spark-plugs. For a while he
limped along on six cylinders, and then landed in a field three kilometres from
the nearest town. His French, which is worse, if that is possible, than mine,
aroused the suspicions of a patriot farmer, who collared him as a possible
German spy. Under a bodyguard of two peasants, armed with hoes, he was marched
to a neighboring chateau. And then, I should have thought, he would have had
another historical illusion, this time with a French Revolutionary
setting. He says not, however. All his faculties were concentrated in enjoying
this unusual adventure; and he was wondering what the outcome of it would be.
At the chateau he met a fine old gentleman who spoke English with that nicety
of utterance which only a cultivated Frenchman can achieve. He had no
difficulty in clearing himself. Then he had dinner in a hall hung with armor
and hunting trophies, was shown to a chamber half as large as the lounge at the
Harvard Club, and slept in a bed which he got into by means of a ladder of
carved oak. This is a mere outline. Out of regard for J. B.'s opinions about
the sanctities of his own personal adventures, I refrain from giving further
These were the usual experiences which every American pilot
has had while on his brevet flights. As I write I think of scores of others,
for they were of almost daily occurrence.
Jackson landed unintentionally, of course in a
town square and was banqueted by the Mayor, although he had nearly run him down
a few hours earlier, and had ruined forever his reputation as a man of
dignified bearing. But the Mayor was not alone in his forced display of
unseemly haste. Many other townspeople, long past the nimbleness of youth,
rushed for shelter; and pride goeth before a collision with a wayward
aeroplane. Jackson said the sky rained hats, market baskets, and wooden shoes
for five minutes after his Bleriot had come to rest on the steps of the
bureau de poste. And no one was hurt.
Murphy's defective motor provided him with the names and
addresses of every possible and impossible marraine in the town of Y,
near which he was compelled to land. While waiting for the arrival of his
mechanician with a new supply of spark-plugs, he left his monoplane in a field
close by. A path to the place was worn by the feet of the young women of the
town, whose dearest wish appeared to be to have an aviator as a filleul.
They covered the wings of his avion with messages in pencil. The least pointed
of these hints were, "Ecrivez ie plus tot possible"; and, "Je voudrais bien un
filleul americain, tres gentil, comme vous."
Matthews' biplane crashed through the roof of a camp bakery.
If he had practiced this unusual atterrissage a thousand times he could
not have done it so neatly as at the first attempt. He followed the motor
through to the kitchen and finally hung suspended a few feet from the ceiling.
The army bread-bakers stared up at him with faces as white as fear and flour
could make them. The commandant of the camp rushed in. He asked, "What have you
done with the corpse?" The bread-bakers pointed to Matthews, who apologized for
his bad choice of landing-ground. He was hardly scratched.
Mac lost his way in the clouds and landed near a small
village for gasoline and information. The information he had easily, but
gasoline was scarce. After laborious search through several neighboring
villages he found a supply and had it carried to the field where his machine
was waiting. Some farmer lads agreed to hold on to the tail while Mac started
the engine. At the first roar of the rotary motor they all let loose. The
Bleriot pushed Mac contemptuously aside, lifted its tail and rushed away. He
followed it over a level tract of country miles in extent, and found it at last
in a ditch, nose down, tail in air, like a duck hunting bugs in the mud. This
story loses nine tenths of its interest for want of Mac's pungent method of
One of the bona-fide godchildren of Chance was Millard. The
circumstances leading to his engagement in the French service as a member of
the Franco-American Corps proves this. Millard was a real human being,
he had no grammar, no polish, no razor, safety or otherwise, but likewise no
pretense, no "swank." He was persona non grata to a few, but the great majority
liked him very much, although they wondered how in the name of all that is
curious he had ever decided to join the French air service. Once he told us his
history at great length. He had been a scout in the Philippine service of the
American army. He had been a roustabout on cattle boats. He had boiled his
coffee down by the stockyards in every sizable town on every transcontinental
railroad in America. In the spring of 1916 he had employment with a roofing
company which had contracted for a job in Richmond, Virginia, I think it was.
But Richmond went "dry" in the State elections; the roofing job fell through,
owing, so Millard insisted, to the natural and inevitable depression which
follows a dry election. Having lost his prospective employment as a roofer,
what more natural than that he should turn to this other high calling?
He was game. He tried hard and at last reached his brevet
tests. Three times he started off on triangles. No one expected to see him
return, but he surprised them every time. He could never find the towns where
he was supposed to land, so he would keep on going till his gas gave out. Then
his machine would come down of itself, and Millard would crawl out from under
the wreckage and come back by train.
"I don't know," he would say doubtfully, rubbing his
eight-days' growth of beard; "I'm seeing a lot of France, but this coming-down
business ain't what it's cracked up to be. I can swing in on the rods of a box
car with the train going hell bent for election, but I guess I'm too old to
learn to fly."
The War Office came to this opinion after Millard had
smashed three machines in three tries. Wherever he may be now, I am sure that
Chance is still ruling his destiny, and I hope, with all my heart,
Our final triangle was completed uneventfully. J. B.'s motor
behaved splendidly; I remembered my biograph at every stage of the journey, and
we were at home again within three hours. We did our altitude tests and were
then no longer élèves pilotes, but pilotes
aviateurs. By reason of this distinction we passed from the rank of soldier
of the second class to that of corporal. At the tailor's shop the wings and
star insignia were sewn upon our collars and our corporal's stripes upon our
sleeves. For we were proud, as every aviator is proud, who reaches the end of
his apprenticeship and enters into the dignity of a brevetted military pilot.
Six months have passed since I made the last entry in my
journal. J. B. was asleep in his historic bed, and I was sitting at a rickety
table writing by candle-light, stopping now and then to listen to the mutter of
guns on the Aisne front. It was only at night that we could hear them, and then
not often, the very ghost of sound, as faint as the beating of the pulses in
one's ears. That was a May evening, and this, one late in November. I arrived
at the Gare du Nord only a few hours ago. Never before have I come to Paris
with a finer sense of the joy of living. I walked down the rue Lafayette,
through the rue de Provence, the rue du Havre, to a little hotel in the
vicinity of the Gare Saint- Lazare. Under ordinary circumstances none of these
streets, nor the people in them, would have appeared particularly interesting.
But on this occasion it was the finest walk of my life. I saw everything
with the eyes of the permissionnaire, and sniffed the odors of roasting
chestnuts, of restaurants, of shops, of people, never so keenly aware of their
After dinner I walked out on the boulevards from the
Madeleine to the Place de la Republique, through the maze of narrow streets to
the river, and over the Pont Neuf to Notre Dame. I was surprised that the spell
which Hugo gives it should have lost none of its old potency for me after
coming direct from the realities of modern warfare. If he were writing this
journal, what a story it would be!
It will be necessary to pass rapidly over the period between
the day when we received our brevets militaires and that upon which we started
for the front. The event which bulked largest to us was, of course, the
departure on active service. Preceding it, and next in importance, was the last
phase of our training and the culmination of it all, at the School of Acrobacy.
Preliminary to our work there, we had a six weeks' course of instruction, first
on the twin-motor Caudron and then on various types of the Nieuport biplane. We
thought the Caudron a magnificent machine. We liked the steady throb of its
powerful motors, the enormous spread of its wings, the slow, ponderous way it
had of answering to the controls. It was our business to take officer observers
for long trips about the country while they made photo- graphs, spotted dummy
batteries, and perfected themselves in the wireless code. At that time the
Caudron had almost passed its period of usefulness at the front, and there was
a prospect of our being transferred to the yet larger and more powerful
Leotard, a three-passenger biplane carrying two machine gunners besides the
pilot, and from three to five machine guns. This appealed to us mightily. J. B.
was always talking of the time when he would command not only a machine, but
also a "gang of men." However, being Americans, and recruited for a particular
combat corps which flies only single-seater avions de chasse, we eventually
followed the usual course of training for such pilots. We passed in turn to the
Nieuport biplane, which compares in speed and grace with these larger craft as
the flight of a swallow with the movements of a great lazy buzzard. And now the
Nieuport has been surpassed, and almost entirely supplanted, by the Spad of
140, 180, 200, and 230 horse-power, and we have transferred our allegiance to
each in turn, marveling at the genius of the French in motor and aircraft
At last we were ready for acrobacy. I will not give an
account of the trials by means of which one's ability as a combat pilot is most
severely tested. This belongs among the pages of a textbook rather than in
those of a journal of this kind. But to us who were to undergo the ordeal,
for it is an ordeal for the untried pilot,our typewritten notes on
acrobacy read like the pages of a fascinating romance. A year or two ago these
aerial maneuvers would have been thought impossible. Now we were all to do them
as a matter of routine training.
The worst of it was, that our civilian pursuits offered no
criterion upon which to base forecasts of our ability as acrobats. There was J.
B., for example. He knew a mixed metaphor when he saw one, for he had had wide
experience with them as an English instructor at a New England "prep" school.
But he had never done a barrel turn, or anything resembling it. How was he to
know what his reaction would be to this bewildering maneuver, a series of
rapid, horizontal, corkscrew turns? And to what use could I put my hazy
knowledge of Massachusetts statutes dealing with neglect and non-support of
family, in that exciting moment when, for the first time, I should be whirling
earthward in a spinning nose-dive? Accidents and fatalities were most frequent
at the school of acrobacy, for the reason that one could not know, beforehand,
whether he would be able to keep his head, with the earth gone mad, spinning
like a top, standing on one rim, turning upside down.
In the end we all mastered it after a fashion, for the tests
are by no means so difficult of accomplishment as they appear to be. Up to this
time, November 28, 1917, there has been but one American killed at it in French
schools. We were not all good acrobats. One must have a knack for it which many
of us will never be able to acquire. The French have it in larger proportion
than do we Americans. I can think of no sight more pleasing than that of a Spad
in the air, under the control of a skillful French pilot. Swallows perch in
envious silence on the chimney pots, and the crows caw in sullen despair from
At G. D. E., while awaiting our call to the front, we
perfected ourselves in these maneuvers, and practiced them in combat and group
flying. There, the restraints of the schools were removed, for we were supposed
to be accomplished pilots. We flew when and in what manner we liked. Sometimes
we went out in large formations, for a long flight; sometimes, in groups of two
or three, we made sham attacks on villages, or trains, or motor convoys on the
roads. It was forbidden to fly over Paris, and for this reason we took all the
more delight in doing it. J. B. and I saw it in all its moods: in the haze of
early morning, at midday when the air had been washed clean by spring rains, in
the soft light of afternoon, domes, theaters, temples, spires, streets,
parks, the river, bridges, all of it spread out in magnificent panorama. We
would circle over Montmartre, Neuilly, the Bois, Saint-Cloud, the Latin
Quarter, and then full speed homeward, listening anxiously to the sound of our
motors until we spiraled safely down over our aerodrome. Our monitor never
asked questions. He is one of many Frenchmen whom we shall always remember with
We learned the songs of all motors, the peculiarities and
uses of all types of French avions, pushers and tractors, single motor and
bimotor, monoplace, biplace, and triplace, monoplane and biplane. And we
mingled with the pilots of all these many kinds of aircraft. They were arriving
and departing by every train, for G. D. E. is the depot for old pilots from the
front, transferring from one branch of aviation to another, as well as for new
ones fresh from the schools. In our talks with them, we became convinced that
the air service is forming its traditions and developing a new type of mind. It
even has an odor, as peculiar to itself as the smell of the sea to a ship.
There are those who say that it is only a compound of burnt castor oil and
gasoline. One might, with no more truth, call the odor of a ship a mixture of
tar and stale cooking. But let it pass. It will be all things to all men; I can
sense it as I write, for it gets into one's clothing, one's hair, one's very
We were as happy during those days at G. D. E. as any one
has the right to be. Our whole duty was to fly, and never was the voice of Duty
heard more gladly. It was hard to keep in mind the stern purpose behind this
seeming indulgence. At times I remembered Drew's warning that we were military
pilots and had no right to forget the seriousness of the work before us. But he
himself often forgot it for days together. War on the earth may be reasonable
and natural, but in the air it seems the most senseless folly. How is an
airman, who has just learned a new meaning for the joy of life, to reconcile
himself to the insane business of killing a fellow aviator who may have just
learned it too? This was a question which we sometimes put to ourselves in
purely Arcadian moments. We answered it, of course.
I was sitting at our two-legged table, writing up my carnet
de vol. Suzanne, the maid of all work at the Bonne Rencontre, was sweeping a
passageway along the center of the room, telling me, as she worked, about her
family. She was ticking off the names of her brothers and sisters, when Drew
put his head through the doorway. "
Il y'a Pierre," said Suzanne.
"We're posted," said J. B.
"Et Helene," she continued.
I shall never know the names of the others.
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