Classic Air Pilot Memoir. I’ve not read one of these a long time, not since the West with the Night by Beryl Markham. Furthermore, given the misery of March in a Northern place – damp, cold, grey, wintry mix, disoriented due to time change insomnia - one turns to works of inspiration, corny as they may be.
In the early days of trans-oceanic flight the writer worked as pilot delivering mail and passengers over the Andes or across the Sahara. He flew in a primitive plane, literally flying by the seat of his pants, navigating by constellations or looking out the side windows for landmarks like The Nile River. So much sacrifice and dedication to deliver bank statements, pay or quit notices, and dear john kiss-offs. Sure, one part of me wants to roll my eyes at the purple prose, another part of me (the child of two postal workers) tears up at the nobility of getting the job done despite snow, rain, heat and gloom of night.
Overwritten romanticism mars this book. Some corn on being in the moment, in appreciation of the labor that has gone into the production of a morning cup of java:
An old peasant woman finds her God only through a painted image, or a primitive medallion, or her rosary; we too must hear a simple language if we are to hear truly. And so the joy of being alive was gathered in that aromatic and burning first taste, in that blend of milk, coffee and wheat which brings communion with peaceful pastures, with exotic plantation and with harvests, communion with all the earth.
And there’s unbecoming injustice disguised as commiseration with people who get along in the world differently from the writer.
Old bureaucrat, my companion here present, no man ever opened an escape route for you, and you are not to blame. You built peace for yourself by blocking up every chink of light, as termites do. You rolled yourself into your ball of bourgeois existence, you built your humble rampart against winds and tides and stars. You have no wish to ponder great questions, you had enough trouble suppressing awareness of your human condition. You do not dwell on a wandering planet, you ask yourself no unanswerable questions; lower-middle-class Toulouse, that’s you. No man ever grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay that formed you has dried and hardened, and no man could now awaken in you the dormant musician, the poet or the astronomer who perhaps once dwelt within you.
Careful there with that “you,” buddy, don’t cut too close to the knuckle when your readers might be among state employees that don’t cotton to be likened unto “termites.” An aristocrat such as de Saint-Exupéry would have a lofty attitude about policies and procedures and paperwork, and be too narrow-minded to see that nobody dislikes red tape more than bureaucrat.
But the stoicism is interesting and useful, given combatting the misery of March in a Northern place is a goal of the weary reader. This, on welcoming adversity to practice embracing emotional and physical discomfort and coming back from setbacks:
The earth teaches us more about ourselves than all the books in the world, because it is resistant to us. Self-discovery comes when man measures himself against an obstacle.
The writer de Saint-Exupéry provides charms, or slogans, that the stoics suggest we have ready to hand when bogies loom:
Sometimes the storms and the fog and the snow will get you down. But think of all those who have been through it before you, and just tell yourself: “They did it, so it can be done again.”
As for stoic cosmopolitanism, remember that we live in a community of human beings, and we all have roles in building something new and lasting, obligations we have to discharge:
To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to know shame at the sight of poverty which is not of our making. It is to be proud of a victory won by our comrades. It is to feel, as we place our stone, that we are contributing to the building of the world.
We get only one life, so we’d better pay attention. Look at people, places and things with care, with respect. We don’t have to fly over the Andes to get plugged into the universe. We can get that view from above in our own yard.
I used to love that ironic grass in Paraguay, pushing its nose up between the cobblestones of the capital to see, on behalf of the invisible yet always present virgin forest, whether men still hold the city, whether perhaps the hour has come to shove all these stones aside. I loved that form of dilapidation which expresses merely an excess of wealth. But here I was overcome with wonder.
Enough quoting of that sense of wonder. There are also kickass stories of survival after crashes, almost dying of thirst, and flying in an Andean cyclone, which are the prime reasons we read flying memoirs. I’ve not read The Little Prince but I have read The Alchemist so for when self-help you can’t help but despise at least a little bit is the only reading that will fit the bill (given the misery of March in a Northern place), this is it.