One of the unexpected delights of my new status as a student pilot is the discovery that there exists an entire genre of adventure literature previously unknown to me. Long have I devoured the accounts of mountaineers and polar explorers and the first navigators of great rivers. Throughout the twentieth century, men and women seeking to discover the secret places of our planet also discovered secret places within themselves and within the company of their comrades. (An exquisite example is Deborah (1970) by David Roberts. Aah — my heart stirs at the thought of reading that book again!) Although satellite imagery, National Geographic, and Google Earth give the impression that our wild planet has been fully domesticated, we still seek nature in droves, going outside that we may learn to protect and nourish that which is inside.
I should have guessed, but did not, that the early days of aviation also generates such stories as I find most captivating. My latest findings include some gems, particularly Glacier Pilot (1957), about Alaskan Bob Reeves and company, and The Sky Beyond (1963), Sir Gordon Taylor’s record of daring experimental flights and ocean crossings. (I heartily recommend both.) But, so far, none rivals Wind, Sand and Stars (1939), the lyrical memoir of the French Aéropostale pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. How can it be that such literary treasures exist still to be found!
Saint-Exupéry was an adventuring aviator. For a while he flew the African mails and later explored new air routes in South America, opening up airmail over the Andes. He tells of air crashes and rescues and the romance and anxiety of flying at night without instruments. Saint-Exupéry is most poetic, however, in the chapter “Prisoner of the Sand”, describing his survival with navigator André Prévot after crashing in the Libyan desert and the deprivations of dehydration so severe that they ceased to perspire despite the scorching heat. In desperation, they light their plane on fire in the hope that it might be seen by searchers, but it burns itself out; no help arrives. Hallucinating and wishing they had died in the crash, Saint-Exupéry and Prévot nonetheless provoke one another to carry on until they are rescued by nomads.
Recalling his thoughts as he knew that death was approaching, Saint-Exupéry questioned whether the aviator risks too much, but concluded that rather than being the taker of life, for him, flying had been its source.
For three days I have tramped the desert, have known the pangs of thirst, have followed false scents in the sand, have pinned my faith on the dew. I have struggled to rejoin my kind, whose very existence on earth I had forgotten. These are the cares of men alive in every fibre, and I cannot help thinking them more important than the fretful choosing of a night-club in which to spend the evening. Compare the one life with the other, and all things considered this is luxury! I have no regrets. I have gambled and lost. It was all in the day’s work. At least I have had the unforgettable taste of the sea on my lips. I am not talking about living dangerously. Such words are meaningless to me. The toreador does not stir me to enthusiasm. It is not danger I love. I know what I love. It is life.
Saint-Exupéry discovered this life in the company of aviators such as Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet, wherein he also discovered the blessing-curse of camaraderie forged in dangerous work. Dedicated to seeing the mail delivered on time, Mermoz left Dakar in a plane of questionable airworthiness. He never arrived in Brazil. The seemingly invincible Guillaumet lives by walking day and night for a week after crashing in the Andes in winter, but he cannot survive being shot down over the Mediterranean.
And so, Saint-Exupéry discovers, as all of us fortunate enough to have had such mates, the bitterness that always attaches to the love among true friends.
Bit by bit, nevertheless, it comes over us that we shall never again hear the laughter of our friend, that this one garden is forever locked against us. And at that moment begins our true mourning, which, though it may not be rending, is yet a little bitter. For nothing, in truth, can replace that companion. Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, or trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak… So life goes on. For years we plant the seed, we feel ourselves rich; and then come other years when time does its work and our plantation is made sparse and thin. One by one, our comrades slip away, deprive us of their shade.
But, I make it sound like Wind, Sand and Stars is all literary-philosophical exuberance. It is not. Mostly it is just the reportage in direct and honest (and beautiful) prose of a man who revels in the sky.
To me, however, one of the most intimate episodes is the terrestrial account of an ordinary exchange with weather bureau clerk Monsieur Viaud, prior to an uncompleted December 1935 flight from Paris to Saigon. Saint-Exupéry admires the uncomplicated man whose intelligence is all that separates Saint-Exupéry’s adventure from suicide. Monsieur Viaud is a man who knows his purpose but also keeps his own counsel. There is ambiguity in their exchange about the “atmospheric depressions” that are depicted on Monsieur’s Viaud’s chart.
Saint-Exupéry admires the fellow and envies the ordinariness of the life he had fashioned for himself.
Viaud, I felt, was a man escaped from the world. When he came in here and hung up his hat and coat on the peg, he hung up with them all the confusion in which the rest of mankind lived. Family cares, thoughts of income, concerns of the heart–all that vanished on the threshold of this room as at the door of a hermit’s cell, or an astronomer’s tower, or a radio operator’s shack. Here was one of those men who are able to lock themselves up in the secrecy of their retreat and hold discourse with the universe.
Saint-Exupéry sought magic and meaning by departing the earth. Monsieur Viaud found it staying there. I’ve been looking for it between the two, on the side of a mountain.