Jul. 26, 2012

Swaggering to the Flight Line

by Walter McDonald

Out of cram sessions in the bar,
we practiced crashing after midnight,
emergency steps we drilled
until we could fly blindfolded
stumbling up stairs of the barracks.
We turned unnatural acts around
in our minds, spins and loops

we would have to do perfect,
alone. Out of bachelor bunks,
out of accident reports and training films,
we swaggered to the flight line,
living on flames in the belly of jets,
five thousand pounds of thrust.
Wings and three good friends

sustained us, men we would die for,
table mates straining to take
the IP's brain and luck
and make them ours, aping his stride,
the cock of his flight cap. No coach
ever drove us like that brash
instructor pilot, almost a god,

a man with wings and battle ribbons
and touch on controls we coveted.
One by one he launched us solo
in December skies he owned, cold wind
whipping the ramp when I strapped in
and taxied out without his breath
in my headset—exciting silence,

nothing but these two fists to save me,
the runway thudding faster and faster
and falling away, the moon floating up
from Savannah, the force in my hand massive,
banking with blazing power out of traffic,
climbing through baffling darkness
into the splendor of stars.

"Swaggering to the Flight Line" by Walt McDonald, from All Occasions. © University of Notre Dame Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Aldous Huxley (books by this author), born in Surrey, England (1894). Huxley's grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was one of the great scientists of the previous century, a man who helped popularize Darwin's theories of evolution. Huxley considered becoming a scientist himself, but when he was 17 years old, he came down with an eye disease that rendered him nearly blind. Since his eyesight made scientific research impossible, Huxley decided to be a writer. He wrote his first novel in the months after he lost his eyesight. He typed the whole thing without even being able to see what he was typing, and he never read it, having lost the manuscript.

Huxley's first successful novel was Point Counter Point (1928), about a group of artists and intellectuals who don't realize that one of the men in their company is a budding fascist revolutionary. It was an extremely ambitious book, with numerous characters and a complex interweaving structure, so Huxley decided that his next book would be something light. He had been reading some H.G. Wells, and thought he'd have fun trying to write something about what the future might be like. But once he got started, he got caught up in the excitement of his own ideas. He wound up writing a much more serious book than he'd intended.

The result was Brave New World (1932), about a future in which most human beings are born in test tube factories, genetically engineered to belong in one of five castes: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. There are no families, people have sex all the time and never fall in love, and they keep themselves happy by taking a drug called "soma."

Brave New World was one of the first novels to predict the future existence of genetic engineering, test-tube babies, anti-depression medication, and virtual reality. When George Orwell's 1984 came out a few years later, many critics compared the two novels, trying to decide which one was more likely to come true. Huxley argued that his imagined future was more likely, because it would be easier to control people by keeping them happy than it would be by threatening them with violence.

Huxley spent most of the rest of his life writing essays. He published only six novels in all. When people met him, they were always impressed by his brilliance. He seemed to know something about everything. This was mainly because he always carried with him a micro-sized edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, printed on extremely thin paper.

Aldous Huxley said, "Most of one's life is one prolonged effort to prevent oneself from thinking."

It's the birthday of playwright George Bernard Shaw (books by this author), born in Dublin (1856), who wrote more than 50 plays, including Man and Superman (1902), Major Barbara (1905), Pygmalion (1912), and Saint Joan (1923). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1925; he considered refusing the prize, but his wife talked him into accepting it. He still refused the money.

He died at the age of 94. He was up on a ladder pruning one of his trees, and he fell and broke his hip. He died a couple of months later as a result of complications from the injury. On the night before his death, he was visited by a friend, and he said to her: "Well, it will be a new experience anyway."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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