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Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 9 - Lonely as a Cloud

The French attack which has been in preparation for the past month is to begin at dawn tomorrow. It has been hard, waiting, but it must have been a great deal worse for the infantrymen who are billeted in all of the surrounding villages. They are moving up to-night to the first lines, for these are the shock troops who are to lead the attack. They are chiefly regiments of Chasseurs — small men in stature, but clean, hard, well-knit—splendid types. They talk of the attack confidently. It is an inspiration to listen to them. Hundreds of them have visited our aerodome during the past week, mainly, I think, for a glimpse of Whiskey and Soda, our lions, who are known to French soldiers from one end of the line to the other. Whiskey is almost full-grown, and Soda about the size of a wild cat. They have the freedom of the camp and run about everywhere. The guns are thundering at a terrific rate,the concussions shaking our barracks and rattling the dishes on the table. In the messroom the gramophone is playing, "I'm going way back home and have a wonderful time." Music at the front is sometimes a doubtful blessing.

We are keyed up, some of us, rather nervous in anticipation of to-morrow. Porter is trying to give Irving a light from his own cigarette. Irving, who does n't know the meaning of nerves, asks him who in hell he is waving at. Poor old Porter! His usefulness as a combat pilot has long past, but he hangs on, doing the best he can. He should have been sent to the rear months ago.

The first phase of the battle is over. The French have taken eleven thousand prisoners, and have driven the enemy from all the hills' down to the low ground along the canal. For the most part, we have been too high above them to see the infantry actions; but knowing the plans and the objectives beforehand, we have been able to follow, quite closely, the progress of the battle. It opened on a wet morning with the clouds very low. We were to have gone on patrol immediately the attack commenced, but this was impossible. About nine o'clock the rain stopped, and Rodman and Davis were sent out to learn weather conditions over the lines. They came back with the report that flying was possible at two hundred metres. This was too low an altitude to serve any useful purpose, and the commandant gave us orders to stand by.

About noon the clouds began to break up, and both high and low patrols prepared to leave the ground. Drew, Dunham, and I were on high patrol, with Lieutenant Barry leading. Our orders were to go up through the clouds, using them as cover for making surprise attacks upon enemy reglage machines. We were also to attack any enemy formations sighted within three kilometres of their old first lines. The clouds soon disappeared and so we climbed to forty-five hundred metres and lay in wait for combat patrols.

Barry sighted one and signaled. Before I had placed it, he dived, almost full motor, I believe, for he dropped like a stone. We went down on his tail and saw him attack the top-most of three Albatross single-seaters. The other two dived at once, far into their own lines. Dunham, Drew, and I took long shots at them, but they were far outside effective range. The topmost German made a feeble effort to maneuver for position. Barry made a renversement with the utmost nicety of judgment and came out of it about thirty metres behind and above the Albatross. He fired about twenty shots, when the German began falling out of control, spinning round and round, then diving straight, then past the vertical, so that we could see the silver under-surface of his wings and tail, spinning again until we lost sight of him.

Lieutenant Talbott joined us as we were taking our height again. He took command of the patrol and Barry went off hunting by himself, as he likes best to do. There were planes everywhere, of both nationalities. Mounting to four thousand metres within our own lines, we crossed over again, and at that moment I saw a Letord, a three-passenger reglage machine, burst into flames and fall. There was no time either to watch or to think of this horrible sight. We encountered a patrol of five Albatross planes almost on our level. Talbott dived at once. I was behind him and picked a German who was spiraling either upward or downward, for a few seconds I was not sure which. It was upward. He was climbing to offer combat. This was disconcerting. It always is to a green pilot. If your foe is running, you may be sure he is at least as badly rattled as you are. If he is a single-seater and climbing, you may be equally certain that he is not a novice; and that he has plenty of sand. Otherwise he would not accept battle at a disadvantage in the hope of having his inning next.

I was foolish enough to begin firing while still about three hundred metres distant. My opponent ungraciously offered the poorest kind of a target, getting out of the range of my sights by some very skillful maneuvering. I did n't want him to think that he had an inexperienced pilot to deal with. Therefore, judging my distance very carefully , I did a renversement in the Lieutenant Barry fashion. But it was not so well done. Instead of coming out of it above and behind the German, when I pulled up in ligne de vol I was under him !

I don't know exactly what happened then, but the next moment I was falling in a vrille ( spinning nose dive) and heard the well-known crackling sound of machine-gun fire. I kept on falling in a vrille, thinking this would give the German the poorest possible target.

Pulling up in ligne de vol I looked over my shoulder again. The German had lost sight of me for a moment in the swiftness of his dive, but evidently he saw me just before I pulled out of the vrille. He was turning up for another shot, in exactly the same position in which I had last seen him. And he was very close, not more than fifty metres distant.

I believed, of course, that I was lost; and why that German did n't bag me remains a mystery. Heaven knows I gave him opportunity enough! In the end, by the merciful intervention of Chance, our godfather, I escaped. I have said that the sky had cleared. But there was one strand of cloud left, not very broad, not very long; but a refuge,—oh!wtjwhat a welcome refuge! It was right in my path and I tumbled into it, literally, head over heels. I came skid-ding out, but pulled up, put on my motor, and climbed back at once; and I kept turning round and round in it for several minutes. If the German had waited, he must have seen me raveling it out like a cat tangled in a ball of cotton. I thought that he was waiting. I even expected him to come nosing into it, in search of me. In that case there would have been a glorious smash, for there was n't room for two of us. I almost hoped that he would try this. If I could n't bag a German with my gun, the next best thing was to run into him and so be gathered to my fathers while he was being gathered to his. There was no crash, and taking sudden resolution, I dived vertically out of the cloud, head over shoulder, expecting to see my relentless foe. He was nowhere in sight..

In that wild tumble, and while chasing my tail in the cloud, I lost my bearings. The compass, which was mounted on a swinging holder, had been tilled upside down. It stuck in that position. I could not get it loose. I had fallen to six hundred metres, so that I could not get a large view of the landscape. Under the continuous bombardment the air was filled with smoke, and through it nothing looked familiar. I knew the direction of our lines by the position of the sun, but I was in a suspicious mood. My motor, which I had praised to the heavens to the other pilots, had let me down at a critical moment. The sun might be ready to play some fantastic trick. I had to steer by it, although I was uneasy until I came within sight of our observation balloons. I identified them as French by sailing close to one of them so that I could see the tricolor pennant floating out from a cord on the bag.

Then, being safe, I put my old Spad through every antic we two had ever done together. The observers in the balloons must have thought me crazy, a pilot running amuck from aerial shell shock. I had discovered a new meaning for that "grand and glorious feelings which is so often the subject of Briggs's cartoons. Looking at my watch I received the same old start of surprise upon learning how much of wisdom one may accumulate in a half-hour of aerial adventure. I had still an hour and a half to get through with before I could go home with a clear conscience. Therefore, taking height again, I went cautiously, gingerly, watchfully, toward the lines.


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