The poem, “High Flight”, was written by a young American pilot, John Magee, flying for the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered World War II.
He wrote the poem a few days prior to his death in December 1941.
The last verse goes like this:
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high un-trespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
We fast forward 72 years to the present and try to imagine yourself as a former pilot riding in the cockpit of a restored B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber.
That grand old plane has been on display for a week at our hometown airport and is being ferried to another location.
You’ve been there each day from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m. to answer questions from visitors who are curious about the old war bird.
You dreamed of taking a ride but didn’t want to deprive someone else who never had the experience.
You sit there in the shade of a massive wing and recall vivid memories of being an aircraft commander at age 21, responsible for the lives of nine other young men.
You talk of giving up flying after the war ended but never losing your love of airplanes, especially the B-17.
You tell anyone who will listen about being a B-17 pilot arriving in England just as that war ended in the spring of 1945.
And again you whisper a secret prayer of thanksgiving that you never had to kill anyone in combat.
Now you are riding in the cockpit of this great plane in the year 2011. You’re at 9,000 feet and the weather is perfect.
Suddenly, without warning, the co-pilot calls you by name and invites you to take his seat.
A few moments later, the command pilot turns to you, smiles and says, “It’s all yours.”
Now you understand why the crew never offered you a free flight during the week, even when the old plane left the ground with empty seats.
It had only been 66 years since you last handled those controls but today it was worth the wait.
Incredibly, at age 87, this proud old soldier piloted a B-17 for 30 exhilarating, unforgettable minutes over the Rocky Mountains.
And – in the twilight of his long life – he got another chance to put out his hand… and touch the face of God.
Keith Kappes is a columnist for The Morehead (Ky.) News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.