|Gervais Raoul Lufbery|
There were a number of us “free-lance” pilots in both the French and British aviation units. Even after America entered the war, its pilots usually worked for commands headed by the more experienced French, British, and Australian air powers. By the time the American Expeditionary Forces were established in summer 1917, I’d already survived Bloody April.
Battles followed battles, not unlike the rat-tat-tat of machine guns. I couldn’t break away to visit Herland. I sent a letter with a government friend to deliver to the supply train; Herland had become a military secret, and I couldn’t trust the regular mail routes. In the letter, I wrote only that I was (still) alive and hoped Alim was well. I had no guarantee that he would ever see my words.
He was strong. He would find a way to achieve his dreams even if I went down in the drink.
When I wasn’t in the air, I entertained myself as pilots always do. Eat, drink, and be merry. Or maybe not so merry. I ate, found bed partners, drank in bars, sang jolly songs. Through it all, I was numb, the entire world reduced to one moment, one minute, one flight at a time.
More than I would have imagined possible, I appreciated the bland peace of Herland. Lying in a cot, trying to sleep despite the incessant noise of planes coming and going, I remembered not the formal pageantry or the monotonous lessons but Solis’s town square in the early morning. In my half-waking dreams, I walked over golden stones on my way to the gym, passing the fountain and the temple. I looked up into a blue sky, unclouded by smoke.
Or I saw myself on the pebbled bank by the stream near the tower. The moon was a shining reflection on the surface water. Alim’s shouts of glee echoed in the glen.
|NYC: Central Park & Cleopatra's Needle|
Let them be well, Alim safe and waiting for me to take him to America.
I missed Herland. I still wanted to go home to New York. I wanted to wander glowing Times Square, visit Cleopatra’s Needle. I wanted to show Alim the Empire State Building, take him on a trolley. I wanted to watch him thrive as a doctor, helping revitalize America’s troubled medical schools.
See—even I can be a revolutionary.
No, I wouldn’t want to mislead the reader. I cared little for the improvement of medical practices in America or even the Flexner Report. But I knew Alim would. I wanted to offer him engagement for his mind, for his heart. I wanted him to wonder.
While I wanted rest, to sleep an actual full night’s sleep without having to staggering awake, responsive to a shouted query or order. I’d begun to think it was an imaginary state to close one’s eyes, and slumber, and stretch awake at one’s choosing.
Yet I never envied Van and Ellador away on their world tour. After her tears over trench warfare and other horrors, Ellador heroically determined that “race-progress” was the ultimate good. If people died, oh, well, it must be for the best, countries being so overpopulated and all. The world would learn from its mistakes and do better next time.
Off they went, searching for the purpose of life. I doubted they would find it. How could they when Ellador’s studies neglected human ties for the sake of theory?. She never peered into the tangle of motives and desires, needs and beliefs that thread through any single event. My family. My friends. My curiosity about the “other”.
But then Ellador was quite adept at dismissing unlikable behavior in communities she approved of while despising it in ones she found objectionable. She went so far as to argue that Germany was merely behaving like a disobedient child: prideful and vengeful, yes, but full of such terribly good and progressive ideas before things went so wrong.
Head over heels in love, Van put up token arguments, then swooned in utter agreement. They retreated into their carefully constructed version of reality, their supposedly modern prejudices against much of the human race intact. I was frankly relieved when they left.
I continued to live at the center of an international conflict. What did I care about? My fellow pilots. The young soldiers arriving daily from home. Alim. My family. I even hoped to see my mother again.
I got out of bed, I flew. The routine continued. I hardly understood why I and others survived when so many pilots died.
And then the day came when I encountered a German fighter plane, a Flying Razor. A dog-fight ensued. I pushed the engines, saw the left wing explode in flames. The lake—the lake below Herland’s cliff wasn’t far. Only, Herland required protection. Women and children: Isn’t that the chivalrous man’s mantra? And Alim was there. And I’d promised to keep him safe.
I turned in a tight arc. I didn’t ram the other plane. I wanted to live. But I let my front Vickers guns loose without bothering to glance through the scope. The other plane spiraled downwards, disappearing into black smoke. I turned my plane again, even as it lost altitude. One wing shredded. No way to assess possible bullet damage to the engine.
Don’t give up. Don’t die. Survive. Get to the lake, to safety. Make it. You promised.
Not all promises can be kept.
Next Chapter 21: Alim