Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Young's reply:
Very seldom do I reread a book. But I have just reread Wind, Sand and Stars by the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.Visit Thomas W. Young's website and blog.
Saint-Ex’s lyrical descriptions of flight, his gift for word pictures, and his humanist philosophy captivated me when I first read him. I was still in my teens, and I knew nothing about flying. But Saint-Ex gave me the urge to fly. His airplane took him through an exotic world of foreign lands to visit, storms to battle, great distances to traverse. I wanted to live in that world.
Now that I have just retired as an Air National Guard flight engineer with nearly 5,000 hours of flying in more than 40 countries, I returned to the book that helped send me into that career.
Through the printed word, I traveled again with Saint-Ex. Turns out I have flown to many of the places he described in Wind, Sand and Stars. Revisiting his descriptions felt like a conversation with a longtime squadron mate.
I agreed with him wholeheartedly when he said, “I know of nothing, nothing in the world, equal to the wonder of nightfall in the air.” The horizon reddens and fades, and as the moon rises over the landscape, a certain optical illusion can make it appear you will fly over the moon. I can recall climbing away from Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, with an orange moon hanging above the mountains. The beauty of evening seemed all out of accord with the strife on the ground.
Then came the full dark of night. Saint-Ex wrote, “I have seen the sky streaked with so many trailing sparks that it seemed to me a great gale must be blowing through the outer heavens.”
Roger that, Saint-Ex. Sounds like the Afghan sky viewed through night-vision goggles.
He also captured brilliantly the image of desert dust storms that “turn the sky into a yellow furnace and wipe out hills, towns, and river-banks, drowning earth and sky in one great conflagration.” From the flight deck of a C-130 Hercules, I once watched such a storm roll across Iraq. I can imagine how ominous it might have appeared to the pilot of a cloth-winged plane of the 1930s.
If you fly for long enough, you will eventually know the pain of losing comrades. Saint-Ex wrote eloquently of such losses, and of the hazards that inflict them. One of his lines struck me when I first read it as a kid, and as an older flier I know its truth all too well: “below the sea of clouds lies eternity.” The line now brings to mind flag-draped boxes and a flyover above Arlington National Cemetery.
Saint-Ex entered that eternity beneath the clouds during a mission in his P-38 Lightning in World War II. I’ve often thought it a shame that he didn’t get to live longer and write more. But he left an immortal body of work, and in his pages, any reader can take flight.
My Book, The Movie: The Mullah's Storm.
Writers Read: Thomas W. Young (August 2011).
Writers Read: Tom Young (August 2012).