Wednesday, January 12, 2011

High Flight

As the news media puzzles over how President Obama will eulogize the victims of Saturday’s Tucson massacre, they’ve harkened back to speeches by President Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing and President Reagan after the Challenger disaster.

While Reagan was indisputably eloquent, it’s a mistake to think he or his speech writers conceived the lines “… slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

He was loosely quoting the poem High Flight, written by Gillespie Magee, an American pilot serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the early days of World War II.

I was surprised to learn, while researching Magee, that he did some of his RCAF pilot training at the RCAF base in Trenton, Ontario, right next door to the venue of the 2002 BMW Motorcycle Owners of America rally. We were entertained daily by the landings, takeoffs and low passes of the RCAF Hornet fighters.

He joined the RCAF to fight the Germans several months before the U.S. entered World War II. Magee was killed in a mid-air collision with a trailer aircraft in clouds over the English village of Roxholm and is buried in England. He was 19 years old.


High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
No 412 squadron, RCAF
Killed 11 December 1941

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