Last Friday, April 26th, 2013, I made a trip of about 250 miles, the distance between my home in North Carolina and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. This particular journey, however, had its true origins nearly 73 years ago on an airfield in Llandow, Wales. On a September day in 1941, a pilot wrote a letter to his parents. In many ways, this letter was what you could expect from a young man serving in combat, nothing really earth-shaking, just general news and happenings. The pilot did include a poem; a sonnet, really, something written for his parents, particularly his father. Again, nothing special, he called it a “ditty.”
This young man would have never, in his wildest dreams, suspected what would ultimately become of that letter and sonnet. How could he have known that he had succeeded in capturing lightning in a bottle? The young pilot had managed to distill what it meant to fly, and committed it to paper. He included the resulting sonnet in a letter to his parents, dated September 3rd, 1941.
The author, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., and his sonnet, “High Flight,” would come to be read and heard by millions of people around the world. To the present day, “High Flight” continues to inspire.
My own journey had begun when I first heard the poem on television in the 1970s. Accompanied by music and a jet cavorting with the clouds, a voice recited this amazing poem. I was entranced. In 1990, I took on the task of finding out all I could about the author, and bringing his story to the world. This journey has taken me thousands of miles, introduced me to hundreds of people, and finally took me to the source. The ultimate source, you might say. The original letter containing “High Flight” that John Magee wrote to his parents.
The years have not been kind to the letter. It has been publicly exhibited at least twice; the first at the Library of Congress starting in February 1942, and the second time by the US Air Force Museum in 1975. It has been copied, perhaps several times, being subjected to very bright light each time. And so, much more than other letters written during that period, the original letter is barely legible. But it can be read.
I was allowed to view the original letter only after pleading my case many times. My efforts paid off last Friday, when I was allowed by Dr. Alice Birney to view the letter. I couldn’t touch it, since it was in a special case and further protected by special plastic. But… I got as close to it as anybody will be able to from here on out, as the Library of Congress is taking special precautions to limit exposure to even regular light.
And so… my journey has taken me to this spot, to see the very letter that has inspired me and millions of other people. And now I can say that I have seen, with my own eyes, John Magee’s own summation of “slipping the surly bonds of earth” and “touching the face of God.”
And that, surely, is good enough.
Dr. Alice Birney and I examine “High Flight.”