Sagittarius Rising


My mother came down to say goodbye. She behaved as all good mothers should, gave me a cigarette case, talked of everything except the front, adjured me to write regularly, said she was not going to worry as I was quite certain to come through all right, and said goodbye at the station without breaking down. Seventeen is not a grateful age. So much is taken for granted.

The parent's care and solicitude become a burden to be cast off. So I record with some remorse how little that parting meant. I was full of the new life, and utterly failed to grasp the blank my going would leave, the daily searching through the long casualty lists, the daily listening for the knock which might mean a word, a line, some message, however meagre, from "somewhere in France".

There was every excuse for a last farewell; but, mercifully, we did not know it. It is only now I can look back, judge of the hazards, and get a vague idea of the miracle that passed me through those years unscathed. She had made me have my photograph taken, too, and I hated it!

The only one I cared about showed the Wings prominently; but, of course, she liked another, in profile, where they did not show at all -- liked the expression, she said. Sentimental, mothers were; but she was proud too. I was not to know that photo was to stand on her desk if "anything happened", for her to say; "This was my son!" and try to find something to justify a belief in the worthiness of my death when, in her heart, she knew that the world could never be richer or nobler for butchering a million of its sons. — p21

The sight of poison gas
As I turned to come back from the lines one evening, I saw to the north of Thiepval a long creeping wraith of yellow mist. I stared for a moment before I realised: gas! Then instinctively, although I was a mile above the earth, I pulled back the stick to climb higher, away from the horror.

Men were dying there, under me, from a whiff of it: not dying quickly, nor even  maimed or shattered, but dying whole, retching  and vomiting blood and guts; and those who lived would be wrecks with seared poisoned lungs, rotten for life.

I stared at the yellow drift, hypnotised. I can see it at this moment as clearly as I could that day, for it remains with me as the most pregnant memory of the war. It was, in fact, the symbol of our enlightened twentieth century: science, in the pursuit of knowledge, being exploited by a world without standards or scruples, spiritually bankrupt. — p83

One dreary grey morning I went up alone on patrol. The clouds were at two hundred feet, but they might break further east over the lines. I rose into the cloud-bank -- a featureless obscurity, a white dark, as you might say-and started climbing. A pilot flies by his horizon. He keeps his machine on an even keel, or indeed in any position, by reference to it. Take away the horizon and he doesn't know where he is.

This is the reason for gyroscopic controls, false horizon indicators, and all the modern gadgets (to say nothing of beam wireless) which enable a man to fly blind, and a commercial pilot to bring his thirty-eight passengers on to Croydon aerodrome in a pea-soup fog without too much anxiety. But in 1916 a chap had an airspeed indicator and a lateral bubble (which was supposed to tell him if he was on an even keel) , and the rest was the luck of the game and his native "nous".

In a cloud there is no horizon, nothing above, below, in front, behind, but thick white mist. It's apt to make you panic after a while, and many a man has fallen out of the clouds in a spin through losing his head and, without knowing it, standing his machine on its ear.

Usually low cloud-banks aren't so very deep, so if you go carefully and watch the controls closely you get up through them all right; but on this particular morning there seemed to be no top to them. I climbed and climbed, looking up all the time, hoping to see that thinning of the mist and the halo of the sun above which means you're almost through. But it wasn't until I reached two thousand feet that I saw the welcome sheen of gold overhead. It thinned. Mist wraiths drew back and showed blue. They curled away. I was out.

But what in heaven had happened to this cloud-bank? It wasn't level. It was tilted as steeply as the side of a house. The machine was all right-airspeed constant, bubble central-and yet here were the clouds defying all natural laws! I suppose it took me a second to realise that I was tilted, bubble or no bubble, that I had been flying for the best part of fifteen minutes at an angle of thirty degrees to the horizon-and had never noticed it! If I had tried to fly this way on purpose, it would have seemed impossible, at the best most unpleasant. The machine would have shuddered and slipped. I should have been in a dither after half a minute. If you'd told me anyone could fly like it quite happily for ten minutes, I should just have laughed. It shows what a little ignorance can do.

I put the machine level and gazed around in wonder. Here it was still summer. Below, life was dying back into the earth. Gold plumes fluttering from the poplars. The mournful voice of the October wind. But here! As far as the eye could reach, to the four horizons, a level plain of radiant whiteness, sparkling in the sun. The light seemed not to come from a single source, but to pervade and permeate every atom of air-a dazzling, perfect, empty basin of blue.

A hundred miles, north, south, east, west. Thirty thousand square miles of unbroken cloud-plains! No traveller in the desert, no pioneer to the poles, had ever seen such an expanse of sand or snow. Only the lonely threshers of the sky, hidden from the earth, had gazed on it. Only we who went up into the high places under the shadow of wings!

I sailed on for a time, alone in the wonderful skies, as happy as I have ever been or ever shall be, I suppose, in this life, looking lazily for some rift in the white floor; but there was none. It was complete, unbroken, absolute. I was about to turn west again when I saw, in the distance, a cloud floating above the floor, small, no bigger than a man's hand; but even as I looked, it seemed to grow. It swelled, budded, massed, and I realised I was watching the very birth of a cloud -- the cumulus cloud that chiefly makes the glory of the sky, the castles, battlements, cathedrals of the heavens. What laws had governed its birth at that moment, at that place, amid the long savannahs of the blue? Heaven, that bore it, knew. Still it was there, creating a growing loveliness out of nothing! A marriage of light and water, fostered by the sun, nourished by the sky!

I turned towards it, fascinated. It grew rapidly. Soon it was vast, towering, magnificent, its edges sharp, seemingly solid, though constantly swelling and changing. And it was alive with light. Radiant white, satin soft, and again gold, rose-tinted, shadowed and graded into blue and mauve shadows-an orient pearl in the oyster shell of heaven! And all the time I knew that I had but to come close enough for all the illusion to be gone, the solidity and beauty to dissolve, the edges to fray and dull, and that within it would be the same grey mist that you may meet on any moor in England.

Wisdom said: Keep distance and admire. Curiosity asked: How much closer without losing the illusion? I edged nearer. I was utterly alone in the sky, yet suddenly, against the wall of the cloud, I saw another machine. It was so close that instinctively; as an instantaneous reaction to the threat of collision, I yanked the stick and reeled away, my heart in my mouth. A second later, I looked round and laughed. There was nothing there! It was my own shadow I had seen, the silhouette of the machine on the white cheek of the cloud. I came back to observe the strange and rare phenomenon. There on the cloud was my shadow, dark, clean-cut; but more than the shadow, for around it was a bright halo of light, and outside that a perfect circular rainbow, and outside that again another rainbow, fainter, reversed.

From the ground the rainbow is an arch spanning the visible heaven. From the next hilltop, so it seems, one would be high enough to solve the riddle of where it ends. But here it was small, bright, compact, a perfect circle, and at the centre the shadow of the Parasol, like the stamped image on a golden coin. — p103-105

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