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   Chapter 4 AT G. D. E.

High Adventure By James Norman Hall Characters: 30411

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Somewhere to the north of Paris, in the zone des armées, there is a village, known to all aviators in the French service as G. D. E. It is the village through which pilots who have completed their training at the aviation schools pass on their way to the front; and it is here that I again take up this journal of aerial adventure.

We are in lodgings, Drew and I, at the H?tel de la Bonne Rencontre, which belies its name in the most villainous fashion. An inn at Rochester in the days of Henry the Fourth must have been a fair match for it, and yet there is something to commend it other than its convenience to the flying field. Since the early days of the Escadrille Lafayette, many Americans have lodged here while awaiting their orders for active service. As I write, J. B. is asleep in a bed which has done service for a long line of them. It is for this reason that he chose it, in preference to one in a much better state of repair which he might have had. And he has made plans for its purchase after the war. Madame Rodel is to keep careful record of all its American occupants, just as she has done in the past. She is pledged not to repair it beyond the bare necessity which its uses as a bed may require, an injunction which it was hardly necessary to lay upon her, judging by the other furniture in our apartment. Drew is not sentimental, but he sometimes carries sentiment to extremities which appear to me absurd.

When I attempt to define, even to myself, the charm of our adventures thus far, I find it impossible. How, then, make it real to others? To tell of aerial adventure one needs a new language, or, at least, a parcel of new adjectives, sparkling with bright and vivid meaning, as crisp and fresh as just-minted bank-notes. They should have no taint of flatness or insipidity. They should show not the faintest trace of wear. With them, one might hope, now and then, to startle the imagination, to set it running in channels which are strange and delightful to it. For there is something new under the sun: aerial adventure; and the most lively and unjaded fancy may, at first, need direction toward the realization of this fact. Soon it will have a literature of its own, of prose and poetry, of fiction, biography, memoirs, of history which will read like the romance it really is. The essayists will turn to it with joy. And the poets will discover new aspects of beauty which have been hidden from them through the ages; and as men's experience "in the wide fields of air" increases, epic material which will tax their most splendid powers.

This brings me sadly back to my own purpose, which is, despite many wistful longings of a more ambitious nature, to write a plain tale of the adventures of two members-prospective up to this point-of the Escadrille Lafayette. To go back to some of those earlier ones, when we were making our first cross-country flights, I remember them now with a delight which, at the time, was not unmixed with other emotions. Indeed, an aviator, and a fledgling aviator in particular, often runs the whole gamut of human feeling during a single flight. I did in the course of half an hour, reaching the high C of acute panic as I came tumbling out of the first cloud of my aerial experience. Fortunately, in the air the sense of equilibrium usually compels one to do the right thing, and so, after some desperate handling of my "broom-stick," as the control is called which governs ailerons and elevating planes, I soon had the horizons nicely adjusted again. What a relief it was! I shut down my motor and commenced a more gradual descent, for I was lost, of course, and it seemed wiser to land and make inquiries than to go cruising over half of France looking for one among hundreds of picturesque old towns. There were at least a dozen within view. Some of them were at least a three hours' walk distant from each other. But in the air! I was free to go whither I would, and swiftly.

After leisurely deliberation I selected one surrounded by wide fields which appeared to be as level as a floor. But as I descended the landscape widened, billowing into hills and folding into valleys. By sheer good luck, nothing more, I made a landing without accident. My Caudron barely missed colliding with a hedge of fruit trees, rolled down a long incline, and stopped not ten feet short of a small stream. The experience taught me the folly of choosing landing-ground from high altitudes. I needn't have landed, of course, but I was then so much an amateur that the buffeting of cross-currents of air near the ground awed me into it, come what might. The village was out of sight over the crest of the hill. However, thinking that some one must have seen me, I decided to await developments where I was.

Very soon I heard a shrill, jubilant shout. A boy of eight or ten years was running along the ridge as fast as he could go. Outlined against the sky, he reminded me of silhouettes I had seen in Paris shops, of children dancing, the very embodiment of joy in movement. He turned and waved to some one behind, whom I could not see, then came on again, stopping a short distance away, and looking at me with an air of awe, which, having been a small boy myself, I was able to understand and appreciate. I said, "Bonjour, mon petit," as cordially as I could, but he just stood there and gazed without saying a word. Then the others began to appear: scores of children, and old men as well, and women of all ages, some with babies in their arms, and young girls. The whole village came, I am sure. I was mightily impressed by the haleness of the old men and women, which one rarely sees in America. Some of them were evidently well over seventy, and yet, with one or two exceptions, they had sound limbs, clear eyes, and healthy complexions. As for the young girls, many of them were exceptionally pretty; and the children were sturdy youngsters, not the wan, thin-legged little creatures one sees in Paris. In fact, all of these people appeared to belong to a different race from that of the Parisians, to come from finer, more vigorous stock.

They were very curious, but equally courteous, and stood in a large circle around my machine, waiting for me to make my wishes known. For several minutes I pretended to be busy attending to dials and valves inside the car. While trying to screw my courage up to the point of making a verbless explanation of my difficulty, some one pushed through the crowd, and to my great relief began speaking to me. It was Monsieur the Mayor. As best I could, I explained that I had lost my way and had found it necessary to come down for the purpose of making inquiries. I knew that it was awful French, but hoped that it would be intelligible, in part at least. However, the Mayor understood not a word, and I knew by the curious expression in his eyes that he must be wondering from what weird province I hailed. After a moment's thought he said, "Vous êtes Anglais, monsieur?" with a smile of very real pleasure. I said, "Non, monsieur, Américain."

That magic word! What potency it has in France, the more so at that time, perhaps, for America had placed herself definitely upon the side of the Allies only a short time before. I enjoyed that moment. I might have had the village for the asking. I willingly accepted the r?le of ambassador of the American people. Had it not been for the language barrier, I think I would have made a speech, for I felt the generous spirit of Uncle Sam prompting me to give those fathers and mothers, whose husbands and sons were at the front, the promise of our unqualified support. I wanted to tell them that we were with them now, not only in sympathy, but with all our resources in men and guns and ships and aircraft. I wanted to convince them of our new understanding of the significance of the war. Alas! this was impossible. Instead I gave each one of an army of small boys the privilege of sitting in the pilot's seat, and showed them how to manage the controls.

The astonishing thing to me was, that while this village was not twenty kilometres off the much-frequented air route between C-- and R--, mine was the first aeroplane which most of them had seen. During long months at various aviation schools pilots grow accustomed to thinking that aircraft are as familiar a sight to others as to them. But here was a village, not far distant from several aviation schools, where an aviator was looked upon with wonder. To have an American aviator drop down upon them was an event even in the history of that ancient village. To have been that aviator,-well, it was an unforgettable experience, coming as it did so opportunely with America's entry into the war. I shall always have it in the background of memory, and one day it will be among the pleasantest of many pleasant tales which I shall have in store for my grandchildren.

However, it is not their potentialities as memories which endear these adventures now, but rather it is because they are in such contrast to any that we had known before. We are always comparing this new life with the old, so different in every respect as to seem a separate existence, almost a previous incarnation.

Having been set right about my course, I pushed my biplane to more level ground, with the willing help of all the boys, started my motor, and was away again. Their shrill cheers reached me even above the roar of the motor. As a lad in a small, Middle-Western town, I have known the rapture of holding to a balloon guy-rope at a county fair, until "the world's most famous aeronaut" shouted, "Let 'er go, boys!" and swung off into space. I kept his memory green until I had passed the first age of hero worship. I know that every youngster in a small village in central France will so keep mine. Such fame is the only kind worth having.

A flight of fifteen minutes brought me within sight of the large white circle which marks the landing-field at R--. J. B. had not yet arrived. This was a great disappointment, for we had planned a race home. I was anxious about him, too, knowing that the godfather of all adventurers can be very stern at times, particularly with his aerial godchildren. I waited for an hour and then decided to go on alone. The weather having cleared, the opportunity was too favorable to be lost. The cloud formations were the most remarkable that I had ever seen. I flew around and over and under them, watching at close hand the play of light and shade over their great, billowing folds. Sometimes I skirted them so closely that the current of air from my propeller raveled out fragments of shining vapor, which streamed into the clear spaces like wisps of filmy silk. I knew that I ought to be savoring this experience, but for some reason I couldn't. One usually pays for a fine mood by a sudden and unaccountable change of feeling which shades off into a kind of dull, colorless depression.

I passed a twin-motor Caudron going in the opposite direction. It was fantastically painted, the wings a bright yellow and the circular hoods, over the two motors, a fiery red. As it approached, it looked like some prehistoric bird with great ravenous eyes. The thing startled me, not so much because of its weird appearance as by the mere fact of its being there. Strangely enough, for a moment it seemed impossible that I should meet another avion. Despite a long apprenticeship in aviation, in these days when one's mind has only begun to grasp the fact that the mastery of the air has been accomplished, the sudden presentation of a bit of evidence sometimes shocks it into a moment of amazement bordering upon incredulity.

As I watched the big biplane pass, I was conscious of a feeling of loneliness. I remembered what J. B. had said that morning. There was something unpleasant in the isolation; it made us look longingly down to earth, wondering whether we shall ever feel really at home in the air. I, too, longed for the sound of human voices, and all that I heard was the roar of the motor and the swish of the wind through wires and struts, sounds which have no human quality in them, and are no more companionable than the lapping of the waves to a man adrift on a raft in mid-ocean. Underlying this feeling, and no doubt in part responsible for it, was the knowledge of the fallibility of that seemingly perfect mechanism which rode so steadily through the air; of the quick response that ingenious arrangement of inanimate matter would make to an eternal and inexorable law if a few frail wires should part; of the equally quick, but less phlegmatic response of another fallible mechanism, capable of registering horror, capable-it is said-of passing its past life in review in the space of a few seconds, and then-capable of becoming equally inanimate matter.

Luckily nothing of this sort happened, and the feeling of loneliness passed the moment I came in sight of the long rows of barracks, the hangars and machine shops of the aviation school. My joy when I saw them can only be appreciated in full by fellow aviators who remember the end of their own first long flight. I had been away for years. I would not have been surprised to find great changes. If the brevet monitor had come hobbling out to meet me holding an ear trumpet in his withered hand, the sight would have been quite in keeping with my own sense of the lapse of time. However, he approached with his ancient springy, businesslike step, as I climbed down from my machine. I swallowed to clear the passage to my ears, and heard him say, "Alors ?a va?" in a most disappointingly perfunctory tone of voice.

I nodded.

"Where's your biograph?"

My biograph! It is the altitude-registering instrument which also marks, on a cross-lined chart, the time consumed on each lap of an aerial voyage. My card should have shown four neat outlines in ink, something like this-

one for each stage of my journey, including the forced landing when I had lost my way. But having started the mechanism going upon leaving A--, I had then forgotten all about it, so that it had gone on running while my machine was on the ground as well as during the time it was in the air. The result was a sketch of a magnificent mountain range which might have been drawn by the futurist son, aged five, of a futurist artist. Silently I handed over the instrument. The monitor looked at it, and then at me without comment. But there is an international language of facial expression, and his said, unmistakably, "You poor, simple prune! You choice sample of mouldy American cheese!"

J. B. didn't return until the following afternoon. After leaving me over C--, he had blown out two spark-plugs. For a while he limped along on six cylinders, and then landed in a field three kilometres from the nearest town. His French, which is worse, if that is possible, than mine, aroused the suspicions of a patriot farmer, who collared him as a possible German spy. Under a bodyguard of two peasants, armed with hoes, he was marched to a neighboring chateau. And then, I should have thought, he would have had another historical illusion,-this time with a French Revolutionary setting. He says not, however. All his f

aculties were concentrated in enjoying this unusual adventure; and he was wondering what the outcome of it would be. At the chateau he met a fine old gentleman who spoke English with that nicety of utterance which only a cultivated Frenchman can achieve. He had no difficulty in clearing himself. Then he had dinner in a hall hung with armor and hunting trophies, was shown to a chamber half as large as the lounge at the Harvard Club, and slept in a bed which he got into by means of a ladder of carved oak. This is a mere outline. Out of regard for J. B.'s opinions about the sanctities of his own personal adventures, I refrain from giving further details.

These were the usual experiences which every American pilot has had while on his brevet flights. As I write I think of scores of others, for they were of almost daily occurrence.

Jackson landed-unintentionally, of course-in a town square and was banqueted by the Mayor, although he had nearly run him down a few hours earlier, and had ruined forever his reputation as a man of dignified bearing. But the Mayor was not alone in his forced display of unseemly haste. Many other townspeople, long past the nimbleness of youth, rushed for shelter; and pride goeth before a collision with a wayward aeroplane. Jackson said the sky rained hats, market baskets, and wooden shoes for five minutes after his Blériot had come to rest on the steps of the bureau de poste. And no one was hurt.

Murphy's defective motor provided him with the names and addresses of every possible and impossible marraine in the town of Y--, near which he was compelled to land. While waiting for the arrival of his mechanician with a new supply of spark-plugs, he left his monoplane in a field close by. A path to the place was worn by the feet of the young women of the town, whose dearest wish appeared to be to have an aviator as a filleul. They covered the wings of his avion with messages in pencil. The least pointed of these hints were, "écrivez le plus t?t possible"; and, "Je voudrais bien un filleul américain, très gentil, comme vous."

Matthews' biplane crashed through the roof of a camp bakery. If he had practiced this unusual atterrissage a thousand times he could not have done it so neatly as at the first attempt. He followed the motor through to the kitchen and finally hung suspended a few feet from the ceiling. The army bread-bakers stared up at him with faces as white as fear and flour could make them. The commandant of the camp rushed in. He asked, "What have you done with the corpse?" The bread-bakers pointed to Matthews, who apologized for his bad choice of landing-ground. He was hardly scratched.

Mac lost his way in the clouds and landed near a small village for gasoline and information. The information he had easily, but gasoline was scarce. After laborious search through several neighboring villages he found a supply and had it carried to the field where his machine was waiting. Some farmer lads agreed to hold on to the tail while Mac started the engine. At the first roar of the rotary motor they all let loose. The Blériot pushed Mac contemptuously aside, lifted its tail and rushed away. He followed it over a level tract of country miles in extent, and found it at last in a ditch, nose down, tail in air, like a duck hunting bugs in the mud. This story loses nine tenths of its interest for want of Mac's pungent method of telling it.

One of the bona-fide godchildren of Chance was Millard. The circumstances leading to his engagement in the French service as a member of the Franco-American Corps proves this. Millard was a real human being,-he had no grammar, no polish, no razor, safety or otherwise, but likewise no pretense, no "swank." He was persona non grata to a few, but the great majority liked him very much, although they wondered how in the name of all that is curious he had ever decided to join the French air service. Once he told us his history at great length. He had been a scout in the Philippine service of the American army. He had been a roustabout on cattle boats. He had boiled his coffee down by the stockyards in every sizable town on every transcontinental railroad in America. In the spring of 1916 he had employment with a roofing company which had contracted for a job in Richmond, Virginia, I think it was. But Richmond went "dry" in the State elections; the roofing job fell through, owing, so Millard insisted, to the natural and inevitable depression which follows a dry election. Having lost his prospective employment as a roofer, what more natural than that he should turn to this other high calling?

He was game. He tried hard and at last reached his brevet tests. Three times he started off on triangles. No one expected to see him return, but he surprised them every time. He could never find the towns where he was supposed to land, so he would keep on going till his gas gave out. Then his machine would come down of itself, and Millard would crawl out from under the wreckage and come back by train.

"I don't know," he would say doubtfully, rubbing his eight-days' growth of beard; "I'm seeing a lot of France, but this coming-down business ain't what it's cracked up to be. I can swing in on the rods of a box car with the train going hell bent for election, but I guess I'm too old to learn to fly."

The War Office came to this opinion after Millard had smashed three machines in three tries. Wherever he may be now, I am sure that Chance is still ruling his destiny, and I hope, with all my heart, benevolently.

Our final triangle was completed uneventfully. J. B.'s motor behaved splendidly; I remembered my biograph at every stage of the journey, and we were at home again within three hours. We did our altitude tests and were then no longer élèves-pilotes, but pilotes aviateurs. By reason of this distinction we passed from the rank of soldier of the second class to that of corporal. At the tailor's shop the wings and star insignia were sewn upon our collars and our corporal's stripes upon our sleeves. For we were proud, as every aviator is proud, who reaches the end of his apprenticeship and enters into the dignity of a brevetted military pilot.

Six months have passed since I made the last entry in my journal. J. B. was asleep in his historic bed, and I was sitting at a rickety table writing by candle-light, stopping now and then to listen to the mutter of guns on the Aisne front. It was only at night that we could hear them, and then not often, the very ghost of sound, as faint as the beating of the pulses in one's ears. That was a May evening, and this, one late in November. I arrived at the Gare du Nord only a few hours ago. Never before have I come to Paris with a finer sense of the joy of living. I walked down the rue Lafayette, through the rue de Provence, the rue du Havre, to a little hotel in the vicinity of the Gare Saint-Lazare. Under ordinary circumstances none of these streets, nor the people in them, would have appeared particularly interesting. But on this occasion-it was the finest walk of my life. I saw everything with the eyes of the permissionnaire, and sniffed the odors of roasting chestnuts, of restaurants, of shops, of people, never so keenly aware of their numberless variety.

After dinner I walked out on the boulevards from the Madeleine to the Place de la République, through the maze of narrow streets to the river, and over the Pont Neuf to Notre Dame. I was surprised that the spell which Hugo gives it should have lost none of its old potency for me after coming direct from the realities of modern warfare. If he were writing this journal, what a story it would be!

It will be necessary to pass rapidly over the period between the day when we received our brevets militaires and that upon which we started for the front. The event which bulked largest to us was, of course, the departure on active service. Preceding it, and next in importance, was the last phase of our training and the culmination of it all, at the School of Acrobacy. Preliminary to our work there, we had a six weeks' course of instruction, first on the twin-motor Caudron and then on various types of the Nieuport biplane. We thought the Caudron a magnificent machine. We liked the steady throb of its powerful motors, the enormous spread of its wings, the slow, ponderous way it had of answering to the controls. It was our business to take officer observers for long trips about the country while they made photographs, spotted dummy batteries, and perfected themselves in the wireless code. At that time the Caudron had almost passed its period of usefulness at the front, and there was a prospect of our being transferred to the yet larger and more powerful Letord, a three-passenger biplane carrying two machine gunners besides the pilot, and from three to five machine guns. This appealed to us mightily. J. B. was always talking of the time when he would command not only a machine, but also a "gang of men." However, being Americans, and recruited for a particular combat corps which flies only single-seater avions de chasse, we eventually followed the usual course of training for such pilots. We passed in turn to the Nieuport biplane, which compares in speed and grace with these larger craft as the flight of a swallow with the movements of a great lazy buzzard. And now the Nieuport has been surpassed, and almost entirely supplanted, by the Spad of 140, 180, 200, and 230 horse-power, and we have transferred our allegiance to each in turn, marveling at the genius of the French in motor and aircraft construction.

At last we were ready for acrobacy. I will not give an account of the trials by means of which one's ability as a combat pilot is most severely tested. This belongs among the pages of a textbook rather than in those of a journal of this kind. But to us who were to undergo the ordeal,-for it is an ordeal for the untried pilot,-our typewritten notes on acrobacy read like the pages of a fascinating romance. A year or two ago these aerial maneuvers would have been thought impossible. Now we were all to do them as a matter of routine training.

The worst of it was, that our civilian pursuits offered no criterion upon which to base forecasts of our ability as acrobats. There was J. B., for example. He knew a mixed metaphor when he saw one, for he had had wide experience with them as an English instructor at a New England "prep" school. But he had never done a barrel turn, or anything resembling it. How was he to know what his reaction would be to this bewildering maneuver, a series of rapid, horizontal, corkscrew turns? And to what use could I put my hazy knowledge of Massachusetts statutes dealing with neglect and non-support of family, in that exciting moment when, for the first time, I should be whirling earthward in a spinning nose-dive? Accidents and fatalities were most frequent at the school of acrobacy, for the reason that one could not know, beforehand, whether he would be able to keep his head, with the earth gone mad, spinning like a top, standing on one rim, turning upside down.

In the end we all mastered it after a fashion, for the tests are by no means so difficult of accomplishment as they appear to be. Up to this time, November 28, 1917, there has been but one American killed at it in French schools. We were not all good acrobats. One must have a knack for it which many of us will never be able to acquire. The French have it in larger proportion than do we Americans. I can think of no sight more pleasing than that of a Spad in the air, under the control of a skillful French pilot. Swallows perch in envious silence on the chimney pots, and the crows caw in sullen despair from the hedgerows.

At G. D. E., while awaiting our call to the front, we perfected ourselves in these maneuvers, and practiced them in combat and group flying. There, the restraints of the schools were removed, for we were supposed to be accomplished pilots. We flew when and in what manner we liked. Sometimes we went out in large formations, for a long flight; sometimes, in groups of two or three, we made sham attacks on villages, or trains, or motor convoys on the roads. It was forbidden to fly over Paris, and for this reason we took all the more delight in doing it. J. B. and I saw it in all its moods: in the haze of early morning, at midday when the air had been washed clean by spring rains, in the soft light of afternoon,-domes, theaters, temples, spires, streets, parks, the river, bridges, all of it spread out in magnificent panorama. We would circle over Montmartre, Neuilly, the Bois, Saint-Cloud, the Latin Quarter, and then full speed homeward, listening anxiously to the sound of our motors until we spiraled safely down over our aerodrome. Our monitor never asked questions. He is one of many Frenchmen whom we shall always remember with gratitude.

We learned the songs of all motors, the peculiarities and uses of all types of French avions, pushers and tractors, single motor and bimotor, monoplace, biplace, and triplace, monoplane and biplane. And we mingled with the pilots of all these many kinds of aircraft. They were arriving and departing by every train, for G. D. E. is the dép?t for old pilots from the front, transferring from one branch of aviation to another, as well as for new ones fresh from the schools. In our talks with them, we became convinced that the air service is forming its traditions and developing a new type of mind. It even has an odor, as peculiar to itself as the smell of the sea to a ship. There are those who say that it is only a compound of burnt castor oil and gasoline. One might, with no more truth, call the odor of a ship a mixture of tar and stale cooking. But let it pass. It will be all things to all men; I can sense it as I write, for it gets into one's clothing, one's hair, one's very blood.

We were as happy during those days at G. D. E. as any one has the right to be. Our whole duty was to fly, and never was the voice of Duty heard more gladly. It was hard to keep in mind the stern purpose behind this seeming indulgence. At times I remembered Drew's warning that we were military pilots and had no right to forget the seriousness of the work before us. But he himself often forgot it for days together. War on the earth may be reasonable and natural, but in the air it seems the most senseless folly. How is an airman, who has just learned a new meaning for the joy of life, to reconcile himself to the insane business of killing a fellow aviator who may have just learned it too? This was a question which we sometimes put to ourselves in purely Arcadian moments. We answered it, of course.

I was sitting at our two-legged table, writing up my carnet de vol. Suzanne, the maid of all work at the Bonne Rencontre, was sweeping a passageway along the center of the room, telling me, as she worked, about her family. She was ticking off the names of her brothers and sisters, when Drew put his head through the doorway.

"Il y a Pierre," said Suzanne.

"We're posted," said J. B.

"Et Hélène," she continued.

I shall never know the names of the others.

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