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Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 5c - Our First Patrol

When we had all assembled, Talbott headed northeast, the rest of us falling into our places behind him. Then I found that, despite the new motor, my machine was not a rapid climber. Talbott noticed this and kept me well in the group, he and the others losing height in renversements and retournements, diving under me and climbing up again. It was fascinating to watch them doing stunts, to observe the constant changing of positions. Sometimes we seemed, all of us, to be hanging motionless, then rising and falling like small boats riding a heavy swell. Another glance would show one of them suspended bottom up, falling sidewise, tipped vertically on a wing, standing on its tail, as though being blown about by the wind, out of all control. It is only in the air, when moving with them, that one can really appreciate the variety and grace of movement of a flock of high-powered avions de chasse.

I was close to Talbott as we reached the cloudbank. I saw him in dim silhouette as the mist, sunlight-filtered, closed around us. Emerging into the clear, fine air above it, we might have been looking at early morning from the casement

"opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn."

The sun was just rising, and the floor of cloud glowed with delicate shades of rose and amethyst and gold. I saw the others rising through it at widely scattered points. It was a glorious sight.

Then, forming up and turning northward again, just as we passed over the receding edge of the cloud-bank, I saw the lines. It was still dusk on the ground and my first view was that of thousands of winking lights, the flashes of guns and of bursting shells. At that time the Germans were making trials of the French positions along the Chemin des Dames, and the artillery fire was unusually heavy.

The lights soon faded and the long, winding battle-front emerged from the shadow, a broad strip of desert land through a fair, green country. We turned westward along the sector, several kilometres within the French lines, for J. B. and I were to have a general view of it all before we crossed to the other side. The fort of Malmaison was a minute square, not as large as a postage-stamp. With thumb and forefinger I could have spanned the distance between Soissons and Laon. Clouds of smoke were rising from Allemant to Craonne, and these were constantly added to by infinitesimal puffs in black and white. I knew that shells of enormous calibre were wrecking trenches, blasting out huge craters; and yet not a sound, not the faintest reverberation of a gun. Here was a sight almost to make one laugh at man's idea of the importance of his pygmy wars.

But the Olympian mood is a fleeting one. I think of Paradis rising on one elbow out of the slime where he and his comrades were lying, waving his hand toward the wide, unspeakable landscape. "What are we, we chaps? And what's all this here? Nothing at all. All we can see is only a speck. When one speaks of the whole war, it's as if you said nothing at all— the words are strangled. We're here, and we look at it like blind men."

To look down from a height of more than two miles, on an endless panorama of suffering and horror, is to have the sense of one's littleness even more painfully quickened. The best that the airman can do is to repeat, "We're here, and we look at it like blind men." We passed on to the point where the line bends northward, then turned back. I tried to concentrate my attention on the work of identifying landmarks. It was useless. One might as well attempt to study Latin grammar at his first visit to the Grand Canon. My thoughts went wool-gathering. Looking up suddenly, I found that I was alone.

To the new pilot the sudden appearance or disappearance of other avions is a weird thing. He turns his head for a moment. When he looks again, his patrol has vanished. Combats are matters of a few seconds' duration, rarely of more than two or three minutes. The opportunity for attack comes almost with the swiftness of thought and has passed as quickly. Looking behind me, I was in time to see one machine tip and dive. Then it, too, vanished as though it had melted into the air. Shutting my motor, I started down, swiftly, I thought; but I had not yet learned to fall vertically, and the others —I can say almost with truth — were miles below me. I passed long streamers of white smoke, crossing and recrossing in the air. I knew the meaning of these, machine-gun tracer bullets. The delicately penciled lines had not yet frayed out in the wind. I went on down in a steep spiral, guiding myself by them, and seeing nothing. At the point where they ended, I repressed and put on my motor. My altimeter registered two thousand metres. By a curious chance, while searching the empty sky, I saw a live shell passing through the air. It was just at the second when it reached the top of its trajectory and started to fall. "Lord!" I thought, "I have seen a shell, and yet I can't find my patrol!"

While coming down I had given no attention to my direction. I had lost twenty-five hundred metres in height. The trenches were now plainly visible, and the brown strip of sterile country where they lay was vastly broader. Several times I felt the concussion of shell explosions, my machine being lifted and then dropped gently with an uneasy motion. Constantly searching the air, I gave no thought to my position with reference to the lines, nor to the possibility of anti-aircraft fire. Talbott had said: "Never fly in a straight line for more than fifteen seconds. Keep changing your direction constantly, but be careful not to fly in a regularly irregular fashion. The German gunners may let you alone at first, hoping that you will become careless, or they may be plotting out your style of flight. Then they make their calculations and they let you have it. If you have been careless, they'll put 'em so close, there'll be no question about the kind of a scare you will have."

There wasn't in my case. I was looking for my patrol to the exclusion of thought of anything else. The first shell burst so close that I lost control of my machine for a moment. Three others followed, two in front, and one behind, which I believed had wrecked my tail. They burst with a terrific rending sound in clouds of coal-black smoke. A few days before I had been watching without emotion the bombardment of a German plane. I had seen it twisting and turning through the eclatements, and had heard the shells popping faintly, with a sound like the bursting of seed-pods in the sun.

My feeling was not that of fear, exactly. It was more like despair. Every airman must have known it at one time or another, a sudden overwhelming realization of the pitilessness of the forces which men let loose in war. In that moment one doesn't remember that men have loosed them. He is alone, and he sees the face of an utterly evil thing. Miller's advice was, "Think down to the gunners"; but this is impossible at first. Once a French captain told me that he talked to the shells. "I say, 'Bon- jour, mon vieux! Tiens! Comment ca va, toi! Ah, non! je suis presse!' or something like that. It amuses one." This need of some means of humanizing shell fire is common. Aviators know little of modern warfare as it touches the infantryman; but in one respect, at least, they are less fortunate. They miss the human companionship which helps a little to mask its ugliness.

However, it is seldom that one is quite alone, without the sight of friendly planes near at hand, and there is a language of signs which, in a way, fills this need. One may "waggle his flippers," or "flap his wings," to use the common expressions, and thus communicate with his comrades. Unfortunately for my ease of mind, there were no comrades present with whom I could have conversed in this way. Miller was within five hundred metres and saw me all the time, although I did n't know this until later.

Talbott's instructions were, "If you get lost, go home"—somewhat ambiguous. I knew that my course to the aerodrome was southwest. At any rate, by flying in that direction I was certain to land in France. But with German gunners so keen on the baptism-of-fire business, I had been turning in every direction, and the floating disk of my compass was revolving first to the right, then to the left. In order to let it settle, I should have to fly straight for some fixed point for at least half a minute. Under the circumstances I was not willing to do this. A compass which would point north immediately and always would be a heaven-sent blessing to the inexperienced pilot during his first few weeks at the front. Mine was saying North — northwest — west — southwest — south — southeast — east — and after a moment of hesitation reading off the points in the reverse order. The wind was blowing into Germany, and unconsciously, in trying to find a way out of the eclatements, I was getting farther and farther away from home and coming within range of additional batteries of hostile anti-aircraft guns.

I might have landed at Karlsruhe or Cologne, had it not been for Miller. My love for concentric circles of red, white, and blue dates from the moment when I saw the French cocarde on his Spad.

"And if I had been a Hun!"" he said, when we landed at the aerodome. "Oh, man! you were fruit salad! Fruit salad, I tell you! I could have speared you with my eyes shut."

I resented the implication of defenselessness. I said that I was keeping my eyes open, and if he had been a Hun, the fruit salad might not have been so palatable as it looked.
"Tell me this: Did you see me?"
I thought for a moment, and then said, "Yes.
"When you passed over my head."
"And twenty seconds before that you would have been a sieve, if either of us had been a Boche."
I yielded the point to save further argument.

He had come swooping down fairly suddenly. When I saw him making his way so saucily among the eclatements I felt my confidence returning in increasing waves. I began to use my head, and found that it was possible to make the German gunners guess badly. There was no menace in the sound of shells barking at a distance, and we were soon clear of all of them.

J. B. took me aside the moment I landed. He had one of his fur boots in his hand and was wearing the other. He had also lighted the cork end of his cigarette. To one acquainted with his magisterial orderliness of mind and habit, these signs were eloquent.

"Now, keep this quiet!" he said. "I don't want the others to know it, but I've just had the adventure of my life. I attacked a German. Great Scott! what an opportunity! and I bungled it through being too eager !" "When was this?" "Just after the others dove. You remember—"

I told him, briefly, of my experience, adding, "And I did n't know there was a German in sight until I saw the smoke of the tracer bullets."

"Neither did I, only I did n't see even the smoke."

This cheered me immensely. "What! you did n't —'

"No. I saw nothing but sky where the others had disappeared. I was looking for them when I saw the German. He was about four hundred metres below me. He could n't have seen me, I think, because he kept straight on. I dove, but did n't open fire until I could have a nearer view of his black crosses. I wanted to be sure. I had no idea that I was going so much faster. The first thing I knew I was right on him. Had to pull back on my stick to keep from crashing into him. Up I went and fell into a nose-dive. When I came out of it there was no sign of the German, and I had n't fired a shot!" "Did you come home alone?" "No; I had the luck to meet the others just afterward. Now, not a word of this to any one!"

But there was no need for secrecy. The near combat had been seen by both Talbott and Porter. At luncheon we both came in for our share of ragging.

"You should have seen them following us down!" said Porter; "like two old rheumatics going into the subway. We saw them both when we were taking height again. The scrap was all over hours before, and they were still a thousand metres away."

"You want to dive vertically. Need n't worry about your old 'bus. She'll stand it."

"Well, the Lord has certainly protected the innocent to-day!" "One of them was wandering off into Germany. Bill had to waggle Miller to page him."

"And there was Drew, going down on that biplane we were chasing. I've been trying to think of one wrong thing he might have done which he did n't do. First he dove with the sun in his face, when he might have had it at his back. Then he came all the way in full view, Instead of getting under his tail. Good thing the mitrailleur was firing at us. After that, when he had the chance of a lifetime, he fell into a vrille and scared the life out of the rest of us. I thought the gunner had turned on him. And while we were following him down to see where he was going to splash, the Boche got away."

All this happened months ago, but every trifling incident connected with our first patrol is still fresh in mind. And twenty years from now, if I chance to hear the "Chansons sans Paroles," or if I hum to myself a few bars of a ballad, then sure to be long forgotten by the world at large, "Oh, movin' man, don't take ma baby grand!" I shall have only to close my eyes, and wait passively. First Tiffin will come with the lighted candle: "Beau temps, monsieur." I shall hear Talbott shouting, "Rendezvous two thousand over field. If — get lost —better—-home." J. B. will rush up smoking the cork end of a cigarette. "I've just had the adventure of my life!" And Miller, sitting on an essence-case, will have lost none of his old conviction. "Oh, man! you were fruit salad! Fruit salad, I tell you! I could have speared you with my eyes shut!"

And in those days, happily still far off, there will be many another old gray-beard with such memories; unless they are all to wear out their days uselessly regretting that they are no longer young, there must be clubs where they may exchange reminiscences. These need not be pretentious affairs. Let there be a strong odor of burnt castor oil and gasoline as you enter the door; a wide view from the verandas of earth and sky; maps on the walls; arid on the roof a canvas "pantaloon-leg" to catch the wind. Nothing else matters very much. There they will be as happy as any old airman can expect to be, arguing about the winds and disputing one another's judgment about the height of the clouds.

If you say to one of them, "Tell us something about the Great War," as likely as not he will tell you a pleasant story enough. And the pity of it will be that, hearing the tale, a young man will long for another war. Then you must say to him, "But what about the shell fire? Tell us something of machines falling in flames." Then, if he is an honest old airman whose memory is still unimpaired, the young one who has been listening will have sober second thoughts.


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