The American Spirit
LETTERS OF BRIGGS ADAMS
CAMP BORDEN, October 6, 1917.
DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER,—
The weather remains unsettled, — windy and bitterly cold, — so we are working under difficulties. I made three flights this morning, of about an hour each. The clouds were low, so I had a lot of valuable practice going through them. They are veritable whirlpools of criss-cross currents. I worked in them about an hour, till I felt fairly confident. When I came down, my machine was glazed with ice from the condensed vapor freezing. I never was so cold, in spite of two sweaters, coat, and lined leather overcoat. But a sixty-mile wind below freezing-point is bound to get through anything. I honestly don’t see how they can keep this place going a month longer, as they intend to, the days are getting so short and the weather so bad. I would rather have been spanked than go up again after my second trip, but I had to go just the same.
Before breakfast I went up to about 5000 feet, where there was n’t a bump, — about 1000 feet above the clouds, — and I sailed along for an hour watching a glorious sunrise. The clouds looked so fleecy white, all billows and projections; and an occasional one towered up like an iceberg. It made me feel as if I might be standing at the North Pole on a snow-covered ice floe. The place seemed to have the stillness of the North Pole; not a sound, nothing stirring the least bit. I could n’t see the ground, so the illusion was complete — particularly the cold, there was no illusion about that. I spoke of the stillness, which is a fact. For the noise of the engine is smoothed into a sort of roar by the wind, and this roar being absolutely constant, you cease to notice it after a time, and it becomes a state; thus absolutely whispering silence is there in effect. But let that engine miss or slow down the least bit, and at once you hear it, just as when you hear a clock stop which you have not noticed ticking.
I went way up then, because I wanted to try some vertical banks, and whenever trying anything new, the higher you are, the safer, for it gives you more time to recover in case of trouble. A fellow was killed here to-day because he tried a stunt when only a few hundred feet over the ground. Whereas another fellow yesterday tried the same stunt, missed it the same way, and went into a nose-dive, but after 1500 feet was able to get out of it. A little time and space is all that is necessary to recover from any imaginable position. So you see I am very cautious, and I was n’t even trying anything very difficult. The nearest example to a vertical bank that I can think of is what you may have seen at some vaudeville or circus some time, where a man gets inside of a huge barrel-shaped affair made of slats and rides a bicycle round in it. As he gains in speed he can move farther and farther up the sides till he is perpendicular to them. Ordinarily you take an easy bank or something less than 45. But when you bank steeper, you have to use your elevator as rudder and rudder as elevator. The transition came more naturally than I expected it would. But the way that nose swept round the horizon was a caution. You know, sighting along the top of the engine-cover to the radiator, you always keep your level by the horizon line. That is why, when in a cloud, you no longer can be sure she is longitudinally level. You can always see a lateral change in the machine itself.
I tried several vertical banks on each side, till I was sure I had the idea. Now I have three things I did n’t have when I came up, all of the utmost value — the spiral glide, which makes a safe landing possible in case of engine failure; confidence in clouds, which often have to be traversed; and a vertical bank, of great value in avoiding a collision. That vertical bank will turn you about in a circle that must be no greater than one hundred feet in diameter; and when you consider that you are traveling in one direction in that small radius, it is some turning. It took me quite a while to start the first vertical bank, for, unlike making the first landing, you did n’t have to make this. Something kept urging, ‘Oh, go in; wait till another time; no one will ever know the difference.’ And then, ‘Well, you have got to do it some time or go down and be a mechanic.’ So do it I did, and the doing was many times easier than the determining. And each thing I do will make it easier to do the next, like a habit; also each accomplishment gives such a gain in confidence.
CAMP BORDEN, October 14, 1917.
DEAREST MOTHER, —
Now, I want to tell you something which I have n’t up to this time, because I wanted to save you needless anxiety. It can’t make you anxious now, for I have completed it, and shall do no more stunts. I did not expect to do any when I first came here, but finally decided I must, for I was afraid to. The fellow who had done them seemed to have more to him than I, and I am determined to be as good as any, and better than most, for only so can I expect much chance of coming back. The dubs and boneheads get picked off quickly, and likewise those who lack the nerve to do something and hesitate an instant too long in an emergency. So you see I had to get rid of every atom of fear and gain this quality, which a few others seemed to have. It isn’t daredeviltry or rashness; before going up I had the mechanic look at the machine and give it a thorough inspection, so that I could be sure it would not give way. Then I talked with the officer, and found exactly what to do. First I tried a loop, and that is the easiest of all stunts, requiring a simple gain in speed by nosing down slightly and then pulling straight up until she gets up over. It is a wonderful sensation, to feel the machine rise up and up on its graceful curve as if some giant hand were tossing it; then the swoop down and out onto the level. I tried several, until I lost all sense of confusion and was perfectly aware where I was, in any position. It is ten times easier to do than the vertical bank, for that requires a reversal of the controls and use of all three. In the loop there is only one simple straight bank, the other two being neutral. Next time I went up, I tried a stall and tail-slide. That is much the same as a loop, only having less speed. You merely go up until the machine is vertical up and down. There you lose headway, shutting off the engine, and slide tail first for the ground. And as you begin to move, the air gets under the tail and begins to lift it. The weight of the engine drops the nose, and you come out in a simple glide. It is easier even than the loop. I did it second because the sensation was rather strong.
Then we had a couple of bad days until to-day. Meanwhile, I was figuring. I asked myself what is the worst possible sensation I can get. I decided it would be the tail-slide upside down, so I worked out a way that I could do it. Starting out at a simple stall, I went slightly past top vertical; then pushed the elevator clear forward, which allowed the air when dropping to hit the top side of the tail instead of the bottom, as in the ordinary tail-slide. This got the desired motion — tail-sliding upside down; but very quickly the tail was lifted farther, the engine dropping, and the machine completed the backward somersault, coming out as usual in the simple nose-down glide, when I pulled up level.
Next I tried the so-called Immelman turn, where you nose up nearly vertical, slide down sideways, and pull up out of the nose-glide going in the opposite direction. It is a turn invented by Immelman, and is the shortest possible way of going in the opposite direction — far quicker than vertical bank turn, and a most effective manœuvre for an aerial fighter. Having done now all possible stunts that the Curtis machine is capable of, and in addition invented a stunt of my own, I started in and just threw the machine around this way and that, letting it fall sideways, backwards, every way, chucking the controls this way, criss-crossing them, letting them go entirely; always the weight of the engine would swing her down and straighten out in a simple nose-glide from which it is easy to pull out level.
Now I feel that I have banished every single atom of fear of this new element, air. I feel quite gratified that I have done so, for now, no matter what happens, I can’t feel afraid and get rattled. Many fellow’s have been killed by being thrown accidentally in a bad position and getting scared and rattled. I can’t be killed in flying now. You see, when I get to fighting, not having to think of my machine, I can concentrate on the fighting, and so bring down an adversary.
There are only a dozen out of the whole camp, exclusive of officers, who have done even the simplest stunts; and my rather novel stunt, has caused quite a little interest, which is, naturally, fun for me. Of course it has often been done before in different machines, but it is a new one for this camp.
Now I have accomplished my purpose, I shall do no more until we get over to the other side, where the machines are built and adapted for such things. Ever so much love.
CAMP BORDEN, October 16, 1917.
This afternoon the sky was full of those great broken masses of thick, puffy white clouds, with sky appearing so clear and deep blue between them. I climbed up between some until I was on top a thousand feet; then I flew along for an hour or more, with the wheel just touching their upper surface. I could almost imagine they were turning. It seemed like riding in a mythical chariot of the gods, racing along this vast, infinitely white field, stretching off endlessly in every direction. The clear open sky above veritably is Heaven, as we imagined it in childhood. Occasionally I would pass over an opening so I could look down and get my location direction; but except for these occasional breaks, the world was completely shut out. The celestial illusion was perfect, and it was hard to come away from it — really quite a tug. Then came the glide down — a wonderful sensation to pass through the air with engine shut off so that you really seemed to be floating, or rather swimming like a fish in water, making great sweeping spiral curves. . . . Sometimes I would drop and tear through the air like a meteor at 150 miles an hour, with the wires shrieking with the wind; then nose up again and slow down. O! I wish so much you could have been with me on that ride, for you would have enjoyed it. It was so beautiful, and to get away above the world that way — outside of it — in a heaven of absolutely unmarred beauty! . . . You seem to expand with it — where there is no measure, there are no bonds.
I went up again just before sunset and remained until the sun had gone down. I flew toward the sunset, until I was actually in those frail mists of vapor which assume such exquisite colors. When seen from the ground, they seem to be color-painted on the plane surface of the sky. Up there the different strata of color and the irregular bits of cloud seem to stand out in relief, like the figures in a picture seen through a stereoscope. Flying close to one of these wisps so intangible in substance, and yet so clothed in color, I felt the impulse to put out my hand and touch it, touch and feel color in its substanceless essence.
CAMP BORDEN, October 23, 1917.
I have felt when I was above there, with the world shut out, that I might, meet Carol, for it does not seem as though I were in this life at all. The beauty and unreality and the absolute aloneness are so totally different from any known experience in all the world’s history, that you cannot feel yourself. It seems as if it was just your spirit. The grotesque fanciful shapes of cloudprojections, as you wind in and out among them, are so incomparably white, the air is so cold and so devoid of dust and moist particles, that it seems as if there were no air at all. With the illusion of absolute awful stillness, little wonder that I can feel that I might come upon her on the other side of the next cloud.
Love to all.
CAMP BORDEN, October 24, 1917.
MOTHER DEAR, — I feel no bitterness against the Huns as individuals or as a race. It is war that I hate, and war that I am willing to give all to end as permanently as possible; for it is n’t the men that war kills, it is the mother’s heart which it destroys that makes it hateful to me. War personified should not be the figure of death on a body-strewn battlefield, as it so often is. It should be pictured as a loathsome male striking a woman from behind — a woman with arms tied, but eyes wide open. To kill that figure because it has struck my own mother — that is what I am exerting myself and all the will in my being to accomplish. It hurts me so to think of the ever-growing hopelessness that a mother has to bear. The impotency to do anything — just sit and wait, wait, wait. It is so immeasurably harder than to go out and risk death, or meet it, as we can. To me it seems like a great final examination in college for a degree summa vita in mortem, and it challenges the best in me — spurs me on to dig down for every last reserve of energy, strength, and thought. As I said in my letter to Dr. Mills, — a thought suggested by Dr. Black, — ‘Death is the greatest event in life,’ and it is seldom anything is made of it. What a privilege then to be able to meet it in a manner suitable to its greatness! Once in your life to have met a crisis which required the use of every last latent capacity! It is like being able to exercise a muscle which has been in a sling for a long time. So for me the examination is comparatively easy to pass. But for you it is so much harder and the degree conferred so much more obscure.
I found it a great help to work with another fellow preparing for examinations in college, even if he knew less about the subject than I, for there were always things he could help me with, in return for something I could help him with, and just the fact that we were working together gave comfort and strength. We will buckle to it for a long ‘grind’ . . . and if I should complete my course before you, which means that your exam, will be even longer and harder, then don’t give up; work all the harder. I think I realize how much harder it will be, but I count on you to do it. That will be your life’s great opportunity, to live on when the weariness is so great that everything in you cries out for ‘eternal leisure.’ If that occasion arises, you must hear in it the supreme challenge, and hold up your head and respond; and then, when the time comes, you will have lived a life infinitely more worth while than mine can be at best, because it will present so much larger an opportunity. It is because, as a rule, men’s lives never have such an opportunity presented, that they look to another life hereafter. But with a righteous struggle such as this, life would be complete. There would be no need for another, and if there is another, so much the better; but it can take care of itself, and there is no need to bother one way or another about it.
Deepest love and affection always.
School of A. G., FORT WORTH, TEXAS. I am taking too much pride in my clear record thus far to let anything break it. I have never been checked up for being late on parade, dirty buttons, needing shine, or shave, as almost everyone has, one time or another. That is one reason I was picked for a corporal. There are a hundred and fifty cadets in this course, and fifteen corporals, so that puts me among the first fifteen of the bunch. That does n’t mean much, and yet it is significant of what I have been aiming at in all my work — to be better than the average, that is, as in my last year at college; not only, not be in the D or E class, and not in the C or good-enough average class, but in the B and A class — better than is absolutely necessary. For considering the curve of mortality, it is drawn to fit the average and indicates a certain percentage of that average that must be killed. Being in the above-the-average class, the curve is no longer true, the percentage is far less. In the average class, say you have a fifty-fifty draw, then it is as likely to be you as the next fellow. In this class you reduce the element of chance. That, I believe, was one of Napoleon’s plans. He made a plan considering all known contingencies, then, in addition, he gave it extra strength to reduce the element of chance, until its success could not be thrown in doubt even by something unforeseen. So you see it is n’t any virtue in one to be trying for a good record: it is the desire to come back and enjoy my life, the family, the farm, etc., that gives the incentive. I knew I could learn to fly all right, but I was n’t sure of the gunnery, for that requires a different sort of skill; but I find I am beginning to get considerable accuracy, and before I finish I shall get it good. Then let the Hun do his worst, and I will go him a point better.
This gunnery is great fun, for we have so many different sorts of practice. The range-work consists in plain target-shooting, shooting at silhouettes of machines with aerial sights, which allow for the speed of travel, etc. — that is, learning to give the proper deflection of aim so your bullets will cross the enemy’s line of flight when he is crossing the bullet’s line. Then we have surprise targets, which pop up at certain intervals here and there, and you load, aim, and shoot a burst. It is a training in quickness and precision. The idea is to make shooting as much a second nature as flying. We also have shooting at toy balloons and clay pigeons. Occasionally buzzards fly over, and we all pot away at them. In the air we have the camera gun-practice, flying the machine and shooting at the same time. Then, flying with a pilot, while you stand in the rear cockpit with a gun on a swivel and shoot at a target towed by another machine, or at silhouettes of machines on the ground, getting practice in diving down within a few hundred feet, firing a burst, and soaring up again. You can see it is all very valuable and practical work, and very interesting.
Then, in addition, there is the work on the guns, the care and cleaning, and the knowledge of the action and names of parts, etc. All this I have absolutely cold, for it requires only study. We also have practice on jams, so we can quickly fix the gun, spot the trouble instantly, and know just what to do. Air-battles are a matter of seconds only, each second may mean a lifetime, so an absolute knowledge of the gun is essential. Some fellows borrow others’ notes and skin through any old way, but that seems shortsighted to me.
In case you see reports of men being killed down here, — there have been three this week, — you don’t need to worry about me, for in each case it has been their own fault, ‘stunting’ and taking chances too close to the ground, so they did n’t have a chance to get out of their trouble before they hit. And in this gunnery course there is no chance of trouble, for it is straight work and no solo work, always with an experienced pilot.
Lots of love to all the family.
January 12, 1918.
DEAR FATHER AND MOTHER, — I have begun flying one type of machine which is not much different from the one I learned on, and shall have no trouble at all handling the other types we must fly. Yesterday two of the machines we are to fly at the front arrived and are being put together. They are wonderfully big powerful machines, holding the altitude record for the world, some 29,000 feet, and will climb up four miles in about half an hour. They certainly will be a joy to fly. Bombing is particularly attractive to me, for, instead of aiming to kill men, as in fighting on the ground or even in scout-fighting, we aim to destroy war manufactories, material things made to kill men. Thus we are striking at the very base of war. And this is most satisfying to me. For I am not in here for the sake of international treaties or patriotism, but to make war on war, because two summers ago I learned how much worse it is than the mere killing of men.
In this branch of aviation there is not the opportunity for personal distinction that there is in the scout-fighting; but even if I do not return a hero, I guess you won’t mind much, and probably my chances of returning are better. Meanwhile there is a great deal to be learned, — all about the science of bombing, navigation, and night-flying, — which will occupy two or three months; so, all in all, you have far less to worry about than we supposed when I left. Oh, that was such a perfect two weeks, absolutely satisfying and complete in every possible way; and I live it over and over, and it helps pass the time till some more mail comes. It seems as if some must come now in a day or so, for the other fellows have been receiving American mail the last few days, so mail is being forwarded, I expect.
You would have been amused yesterday, father, at tea. One of the fellows — English he was — came in and noticed we had toast instead of plain bread. ‘Oh, toast! I say, orderly, have you a few drippings, you know?’ You can imagine the intonation. Instead of having butter, we use a very good grade of margarine, but in asking for it at table we say, ‘Will you pass me the camouflage?’
Much love to all.
January 25, 1918.
DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER, —
The day before yesterday they finished assembling two of the machines of the type we are to fly at the front, and one of the English fellows who has been here longest was given instruction on it all afternoon, and then put back on one of the old machines till he could make better landings. Yesterday morning I was taken up for ten minutes’ instruction, made one landing, and allowed to go off solo. It is a wonderful big machine, a regular thoroughbred, as different from these other machines as a Pierce-Arrow is from a Ford. And they are very careful of them, for they represent about, I should say, twenty thousand dollars, and with a little carelessness you could wipe out in a minute the work of skilled laborers for many months. So I appreciated their confidence in me, being the first pupil in the whole squadron to fly it alone. I think I gained their confidence by the way I brought in the machine I wrote about in the letter to Wilson yesterday.
Well, I took it off and went up for a while, to try it out in the air and get used to it. Most machines have a very limited range of speed, having to land almost as fast as they fly. But this has a device by which you can regulate the angle of a certain plane, and so make the machine fly level, hands off, or climb, or glide down at an astonishing slow speed for landing compared to what it will fly at. You can land as slow as sixty, and it will fly well over a hundred, and, with the engines which the machines are equipped with at the front, quite a bit faster. But on account of the larger size and weight, a hundred and twenty miles in these does not seem much faster than sixty in the others, unless you pass one of them in the air, or fly down to the ground. Then I made a few landings successfully, and went up about a mile and made several successive loops. The major was most delighted when I came in, for not even an instructor had stunted these machines here. But I have never seen such strength, such response to the controls, such a real engine. These are built for service, and you can have confidence in them, and it is a real joy to drive them.
After lunch I went up again and climbed to 16,000 feet — that is over three miles. I noticed not the slightest difficulty in heart or breathing, and I believe that those who do have trouble, have it mainly from apprehension. At this height it was exceedingly cold, but keeping my head in the centre behind the cowling, I wus perfectly warm. I flew west over the plains of Salisbury, where so many famous battles of English history have taken place. Then down to Southampton, and out away over the Channel. If it had been a clear day, I could easily have seen France. On the way back I glided down a mile, going at times nearly a hundred and sixty miles an hour. Even in the air you can appreciate that that was traveling. I leveled off to rest my ears a bit. Then, directly over the aerodrome, I went into a nose-spin, that is, nose and tail vertical, revolving round the axis of the body like a corkscrew. I kept in that for a mile straight down, and found it delightful and not a bit confusing. In fact, I would glance at my altitudes to see how low I was getting, look at the air speed-indicator, see to the temperature of pressure-gauges, look out on the revolving country, perfectly clear-headed and comfortable and calm in what, until it was understood, was supposed to be a fatal stunt. To come out, I merely released all the controls, and she came out and leveled off at once of her own accord. I have seen one or two loops over the aerodrome, but not a spin. Then the last mile I glided down in long graceful spirals and turns, and came in.
I found the camp, all work stopped, standing round watching. The colonel of the wing himself was there, and complimented me on my flying — ‘ Splendid exhibition, Adams!’ He is the funny, former-actor colonel, with the monocle. He even removed it to have a look at me, for he can’t see with it on. Two or three of the Canadians were asking me how she flew, and they said they were glad I had shown up some of these ‘lead-swinging’ Englishmen. Leadswingers are those that stall along, doing as little as they possibly can, hoping the war will be over before they finish. There are quite a lot of them. You see the best of them are already over there or dead.
Flying this machine graduates me, so my papers are to be sent in at once, and now I shall draw full pay, plus flying pay, and get full pay not drawn since I was commissioned, made up from that date. If it goes through by the first of the month, I shall be comfortably fixed and be able to get a few things I need very badly. I have only one more hour to fly on this machine now, a few simple ground tests in machine-guns, etc., and I shall be finished. It ought not to take more than two or three days more. Then I go to the Aerial Gunnery Squadron in Scotland, near Glasgow, I believe, for a week or two, and then I’m ready for business in France; where, I trust, I shall be able to do some creditable work, for I do feel very well prepared. With such a machine you need have little worry. I mean that. Best love to all.
January 27, 1918.
DEAR MOTHER, —
I have now only to wait for a clear day to finish just an hour’s work, and I shall be done here. I am so pleased, for I am ahead of everyone else in the squadron, regardless of how long they have been here, and have won the confidence of the instructors as well as of several fellows who have asked to go up with me. When one pupil is willing to go up with another, it is quite a mark of confidence, for generally you feel nervous unless you are with an instructor or driving the machine yourself. And when I get to France, I am determined it shall be the same way. Before I finish, I want to be the first man in the squadron. It is best that way. You know it is the last man the Huns always watch out for. But you must n’t expect immediate advancement, as in the case of Oswald, for our work is done more in squadrons than as individuals; it is team-work, so I won’t be winning distinction. However, if I can hold up my position in the team and play with them, I shall be content.
January 30, 1918.
DEAR BETH, —
I am feeling rather badly off to-night, in consequence of a most unfortunate accident to-day in which I was really a contributing cause, if indirectly. You see, I was the first one in the squadron to fly one of the new machines, and I gave a pretty good exhibition to these Englishmen of what American blood can do. So another Canadian, next furthest advanced to me, naturally wanted to try the same things, and as a result, the machine collapsed, both wings falling off 4,000 feet up, and he was killed. A perfectly wonderful fellow, jolly, and liked by everyone. You would n’t have felt so badly about it if he had been shot down at the front, for there is so much satisfaction in such a death; or even if he had been killed doing something foolish, or stunting close to the ground. Those accidents happen frequently, and we just shrug our shoulders and carry on. But this was absolutely no fault of his. Furthermore, it happened in the same machine I had stunted in, and while these are warmachines, built to stand anything, I feel, perhaps, I may have strained something which gave way under the stress this time. Of course I am in no way responsible, but it does bring it pretty close to me, and I feel terribly about it.
Affectionately your brother.
TURNBURY, AYRSHIRE, SCOTLAND February 19, 1918.
DEAR FATHER AND MOTHER, —
Reports in our papers from America are a little more optimistic in tone, but nevertheless, even though tremendous things are being done, they are awfully slow and every minute counts. But they seem to be gathering a moment um which, once started, nothing can stop, and that is what we want. We don’t want to stop till the job is satisfactorily completed, but it is a big job; some of its proportions will be sure to be larger than any one conceived of, I believe, in the next few months. It is going to be great to be in on it, so tremendous that the thought fairly sweeps one off one’s feet. It puts all of life on such a simple balance; here is a tremendous bit of work to be done which completely obliterates the little things of life which always seemed so important in the past. All one has to do is to give all one’s energy, just put everything in with one simple sweep, and when every one has done the same, the job will be finished; and the gain is so much bigger than what it may cost in these little things that they don’t have to be even thought of. I have often wondered what we shall do when it is over and we go back to the little things. I don’t think the new growth and breadth it gives will be lost in a reaction of apathy. I believe that after the war this energy will keep on and will never be lost. It will be turned toward making the little things of life bigger in each individual’s case, and we shall see a rate of progress and achievement in the peaceful work of the world never before approached.
I enjoyed Mr. P—’s letter with its farm concerns. It makes one feel attached to something substantial, to know the old things are going on — getting out firewood, and pulp, and so on. So old Colonel is gone. He certainly was a good old animal and gave us lots of service. I remember how we used to alternate week by week with him and Madge and Bell in the old days when we drove to school ten years ago. It does n’t seem so long as that, for that winter is so vivid to me: Miss Davy, Carol, Linc, and I together. I can even remember the toothache Carol spoke of in one of her letters to you. The work in the woods, Sid Clarke with his winter growth of beard, the daily lunches with Auntie and Uncle Dan, Grandpa Kilburn — they all are so vivid to me. I can hear their voices and see little gestures. Uncle Dan and his inevitable newspaper, Auntie with her bills at lunch, old Colonel reaching out a bit on the last stretch, coming home from school in the early twilight of the winter months, the light of the library lamp shining out with its promise of home warmth, supper, family, content. When these things go with me as now, they are n’t dead, they are immortal, living, real, and in them is such sweet satisfaction. That is why I have been so determined about living with you at Irvingcroft when I come back; so, when things begin to drop out of your lives, we will have the home running to give a basis to keep all these memories alive, and new interests ever growing to keep life ever full — our nurseries, grandchildren, reunions, etc. And if for any reason I can’t be the one to help bring this about, there is all the rest of the family, and you must all keep as close together as possible and carry on the Adams family just the same, for if I am anywhere, that is where I shall be, at Irvingcroft and the farm always. But I shall see to it that I am actually there, never fear.
Deepest love to all.
February 21, 1918.
DEAR FATHER, —
In the old days of college, when a man received a high mark and mine was just passing or average, I accepted it as a matter of course, thinking that the high man received his mark because of superior inherited brain-power, and I was meant to be only average. There seemed such a distance between us that it never occurred to me to attempt to catch up to him; it was preordained otherwise. And yet, ever since the double shake-up I received in the early part of last July, I began to make the effort to move out of the deadly limitations of the middle lot, and was astounded to discover, in the various phases of my training in Canada and Texas, that the high man had probably little better brain than mine. It was merely a matter of seeing that the bonds holding me in the middle class were bonds of imagination, and it required moving one’s feet to step out of the protecting but crushing crowd. So I began to be up nearer the top in various examinations, and in the flying, and found it is not a matter of superior mentality or any such thing, but merely more desire, more will. I figured that war is a risky business, but the risk is largely chance. Consequently, if I could master my particular job in all its branches, I could reduce the element of chance to a minimum. You see, I have great incentive to return, so it does n’t take much will. But, all in all, I think it has been a real discovery for myself, and that I can profit by the same procedure in my work when I come back. It seems to me now that there is nothing impossible or out of reach if imagined obstacles coming from one’s own mind are got rid of, and if one can stretch his imagination beyond what he supposed were the limits of his capacity, and see ‘big.’ Then it is a simple matter of getting up and going after it with a will.
I think my experiences have taught me to see things in a larger way than I ever could before — the bigness of the forces in this war. And searching for the good in it, and some of its fundamental causes in human nature, and its outcome in generations to come, has all stretched my mind a bit to grasp it. Then also, more concretely, the new spaces I have run from high altitudes, the new breadth which comes in moving in three dimensions, the sense of terrific force when moving through the air at such new speeds. ‘Like sixty’ was the idiomatic expression of speed, a limit of our previous experience. Yet I have moved at sixty and a hundred more on top of that, when, protected from the force of the air, you could feel it in the sort of bursting feeling it gives your head and the fearful roar. Then the new sense of utter abandon and freedom in falling. We used to jump into the hay from ten to fifteen feet safely. I have let the machine fall its natural way when uncontrolled, a nosespin, for a full mile down vertical. These new things are outside all previous experience, beyond the limiting wall which confines our vision, because we do not know we can look, till victory. These have all broken down limits in one place or another, so that, when I come back and start on other work, it should be easier to step over the apparent limits.
This is n’t much of a letter as letters go; but I started out to say that I received the highest mark in the examinations of our group of eighteen today; so you can see there is sound basis when I assure you that you need not worry about my welfare. This is substantial evidence of chance. If I am better than the average here, I should be better than the average Hun as well. So you must not worry, and must only feel joy that I am having the great privilege of being in the biggest thing in the history of the world. Affectionately.
TURNBURY, February 23.
MOTHER DEAR, —
I am afraid, mother, you are taking things much harder than you need — the tantalizing slowness of things at home, the bad administration, etc. It does no good to get worked up about them, for it makes one feel so impotent, and yet it makes the desire to effect some change so keen that one can’t be happy, and being unhappy won’t help. Many things are discouraging, and yet, if you don’t look at them too closely but stand off and see them as a whole, then you can see how much has really been done, and that it is all so new and on such a scale that it can’t be done all of a sudden; the men in control are not used to such dimensions, and so temporarily cannot think in such large numbers; but they will grow as the work does. On such a tremendous scale, where so many complexities are involved, it would be impossible for the whole thing to be managed properly, efficiently, and swiftly all at once. But it will come about in time; it is all the time gathering up momentum which, once started, cannot be stopped. The Allies are still very strong, and can well keep going till America is completely ready. If America were nowhere in sight, the Allies might be discouraged, for, though they could not be beaten, it would be a long costly struggle. But with the sure knowledge of the ultimate unlimited power which America will furnish, the whole morale is braced; they say, ‘Not only will we win, but we will win decisively.’ They pluck up their courage, and can do even more than they normally would; so it will not matter if America does n’t start for six months or a year; once she does, it will be with a strength that can’t be resisted.
Over here, after nearly four years of experience, things are often mismanaged, and valuable time wasted, yet all in all there is always slow but certain improvement. So it will be the same there. Don’t let an immediate difficulty shut out, by its narrowness, the whole truth which can be seen by standing off at a distance. Coal is short, but that is not so much present-day mismanagement as conditions brought about by bad management and financial exploitation long before the war. It is a nuisance and discomfort, but it will be straightened out in time.
You know what meat-eaters and teadrinkers the English have always been. Then to have but a few ounces of meat per week and frequently drink their tea with little or no sugar is bringing the sense of war pretty close; yet it really is remarkable how very little complaint and criticism there is. You know how natural it is for people to think that everything is wrong when something close to them, a lifelong physical taste, is meddled with, even if there is no direct connection. I think the way rationing has been accepted in England is one of the most encouraging things I have found. There is enough food but none to waste, and it is very regular, so one often wishes for just one feast of something that can’t be had. So the fact that the situation is accepted so well speaks volumes for the way things are going.
Of course they are more used to the idea of privations of one sort or another here; but America will get used to it in time. So when trying conditions come, and evils are revealed, you must hold them in their right value and not let them depress you. And never let things get into you personally. It is one thing to think about them, and another to get all heated up about them. I am conscious of things I don’t like, or discomforts sometimes, and things I wish could be true, etc., but I won’t let them get into the inside, where they hurt. If I can change them, I can do it just as well keeping them outside; and if I can’t change them, well, what does it matter, it’s outside. It does n’t make me indifferent to things which deserve consideration, but merely insensible. You must do this; it’s not hard, and you will find how much more quickly a day goes by, and after all how pleasant it is. So much for your concern about outside things.
Of course, being my mother, you feel concerned about me; but, except for just missing me, I don’t want you to have another uncomfortable feeling in your heart, no worry about my health, comfort, or happiness — nothing of this sort. For any limitations of physical comfort are so ridiculously slight, especially compared with most, that it would really be good for me if I had more. And little petty annoyances are good for one’s self-control; besides, as I said, I don’t let them get inside. I have never been in better health. And I am completely content, for it seems as if I was never so rich or ever hoped to be. I have absolutely nothing in the world to ask for, for myself. My friends and family have never meant so much to me, and you are all so good to me. And in addition the interest and satisfaction of my work is of such a nature that nothing that can happen matters to me. You see you have no need to feel anything but gladness for me, so no more must you have any troublesome feelings in your heart except harmless missing, which does n’t hurt when you know I am happy, as I am. Don’t say to yourself, ‘ I must n’t let him see my depression or worries.’ Don’t even get all braced and say you won’t let yourself feel them. Just relax and don’t feel them. Even when I’m out there, you must n’t feel any dread or worry. We get better food out there and are done with the petty things of training, and we will be right at the real work, so I shall be even happier than now. And if it should happen that I just stopped being conscious, it would n’t matter, because there will be no regret and no dread, just perfect content. And you will not dread any such event, for it is not a bit likely to happen.
My examination mark has n’t been reached yet by the two groups which have passed out since my group. It was 94 per cent, the average on all the tests we had, and they never give much higher. But if the event came, you may miss me, but it won’t hurt, for there will be no vain regret, because I am so perfectly content. So remember, mother mine, you are going to relax, begin at once and keep it up, and people will wonder at you, that you are so serene and can do so much because your strength is n’t being wasted by groundless or ineffective troubles; and when they ask your secret, you can say that we are both so content with our situation as it is, that one can’t be otherwise than serene.
You spoke of being more conscious of the grim realities than heretofore. To me the grim things somehow fade into unrealities in comparison with the realities of the heart and mind which are so vivid to me. I spend so many long happy hours with you all every day, that my heart is completely filled with them, and I am very happy. I am glad you sent the little farm album, for so many of my hours are spent over it. I often go way back to the days when we were kids, with Ned, and the Blodgetts, and Miss Noyes, over at Hilltop, and again later at the knoll, when Vincent and the Platts and the slews of kids gave plays and had picnics. There is n’t one single unhappy memory anywhere in the whole review. And I often roam there in the future, planning the things I shall do and the fun it will be to show all the corners to Grace, the little trips we can take to Port River, etc. And those drives up back of Harvey Hill, and down into Ryman, etc. That wonderful ride we had with Betty and Mrs. Dodge was such fun. It does n’t do any harm to live in these things at this time if I wish, so long as I do my work well, does it? You see I never realized what a happy life you had made for me till I had this chance to get away and look at it. Now when I come back I shall be able, I hope, to give some of it back to you because I think I know better how to do it. I sometimes feel as if I am taking too much good out of such a rotten thing as war. But still, if we all do, it will be worth the cost, and there must not be another because it is n’t fair to mothers. You must tell me all your feelings. Don’t hide them, but do abolish them.
R. F. C. B. E. F., FRANCE,
March 4, 1918.
DEAR FATHER AND MOTHER, —
We live in a cosy little hut, and I am getting it all fixed up with the little conveniences which make for one’s comfort. I dare say we shall be here perhaps permanently as long as I am in France, so I can completely unpack and feel at home. I am going to tack up the various pictures which I have of you all, and of my friends, and so I will seem actually with you all the time. We have a new piano in the mess and several fairly good players, and I shall get a lot of pleasure out of it, for I can take myself completely out of my surroundings when playing, and find lots of calm comfort in it.
R. F. C., B. E. F., FRANCE,
March 7, 1918.
DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER, —
Every morning our batman reports on the weather prospects, and when it is clear, we have to get up a bit earlier. After breakfast a conference is held, at which the purpose and objective of the trip are given, and any details arranged for. Then the men who are going put on their flying kit and go out to the machines. These have previously been rolled out of the hangars, filled up with fuel, guns loaded, bombs, cameras, etc., attached, and everything ship-shape. Each pilot gets in, the engine is started and warmed up; finally, the chocks are pulled away from the wheels, and the machines taxi out on to the aerodrome and line up ready to take off, the engine snorting and sputtering impatiently. As they wabble over the ground, the machines look so clumsy and ill at ease with tails dragging and bumping, noses up in the air. The leader takes his place on the line, his machine indicated by some streamers. There have been no farewells or good-luck wishes; the men have started off as if they were off in a car to go to an office; it is not masked indifference, it is a simple matter of course.
All are ready and the leader, followed immediately by the others, opens out the throttle, and the machines move faster and faster, tails up now and noses low and level, like a runner stooping a bit on his run before a spring. The wheels trip along each time, touching more lightly, till with a final bound the machine is clear. What a fearful roar they make, great powerful engines unmuffled, wide open! One after another they leap into the air, and at once are transformed from ugly ducklings to beautiful swans, at home and happy in their natural element, as they arch round and round, even higher. Finally, when they are sufficiently high, they move off in their close formation in an arrow line for their objective, finally fading out of sight.
Some hours later they come in sight again, and glide in, some as fresh as when they left, others so badly cut up that you wonder how the machine could hold together. Then we hear the story told in the form of a simple report, still all as a matter of course. How they flew undisturbed to their objective, though noticing a large number of Huns in various parts of the sky as they flew along. But when they turned to come back, the Huns had gathered over thirty, counted against our four, a veritable swarm between them and home. And yet, without hesitation, our machines fly straight at them. They break up into groups and surround our machines on all sides, above, below, right and left, before, behind, all discharging their venomous sting when a good sight is obtained, darting in for a burst of shots, soaring up or diving away one after another, a continuous mêlée. Our machines zig-zag from time to time, but always progress toward home unless some Hun, more persistent than others, has to be turned on.
Meanwhile our men, scarcely knowing which machine to pick out to fire at, keep sending off bursts whenever they get a good sight. When a Hun receives a burst a bit too close, he dives for home, and when a machine is hit, several others accompany it down for a way, to cool off. They are no sports, these Huns; they will never attack unless with overwhelming odds, and even then they never come across the lines; so in case of engine-failure they are sure to get safely home. Yet our few machines over hostile territory fly straight into the swarm of them, bring down six, and all return and have but one man hit. It is n’t luck that they come through; it is superior shooting, due to a large steady machine, and a sporting blood in the men that makes them play the game, no matter what the odds.
Though the Hun has a decided advantage fighting over his own territory, it is a large factor in his defeat, for it is an open acknowledgment of his inferiority, and it takes but a little spirit and some cool shooting to make him sick. You see, mother, no matter what the odds, we have all the advantage; and, after all, it is seldom that they get as large a bunch as that together. For instance, on the ‘show’ to-day, not a single one was sighted. So at their worst, you see, you have little to worry about, and they are seldom at their worst. Also, we never fight except defensively, only when they interfere with our work or try to keep us from getting home, and then they regret it, for we are well equipped for defense.
I would n’t have given all these details, if I were not sure you would extract the interest and not let the exciting features make you worry. For I want you to know all about the work, and yet see in it the small element of danger and the very great interest, which you could n’t have if I told nothing about it for fear of worrying you. There are some Hun machines which will go higher than these we use, but there is no machine made by any nation as fast at the high altitudes where we work; and speed is king.
Must get to bed now. Much love to all.
March 11, 1918.
In a very few months we are to have even better machines, the same as these, only improved. Our work is safer than others because of the machines, the height, and the fact that we don’t look for trouble, but fight only when attacked; and on Wednesday last, when Haig congratulated the brigade for bringing down eighteen Huns, our one squadron, perfectly peaceable by nature, taught six out of that number that we can well defend ourselves. On that occasion, over thirty Huns attacked only four of ours, and ours all came back. But while we are on the subject, I want to caution you about a possibility. One of our machines has been reported missing a day or so ago, but it was only engine-failure, and the machine was seen to have landed safely; so the occupants are safe, but unhappily detained in Hun-land. Frequently no word is brought from them, and no one sees what became of a machine. So you see a man may be quite all right who simply disappeared and was reported missing. The case is not likely to arise, however, as our engines, as a rule, are very reliable. It is merely a possibility, and in case it happens, I want you to know there is no need to worry — less than ever, for it would mean simply a safe but long wait for the war to end.
Love to all.
MOTHER MINE, —
This is just a little Easter greeting, to make you know I am actually close by you all the time. May it give you much cheer and happiness.
(Received on Easter Morning, 1918.)
[On March 14, a stormy and misty day, Briggs Adams was flying at the Front, with two or three comrades of his squadron. They missed him; and one of them, descending, found him dead in his air-plane in a field. It is not known whether he was brought down in combat or was the victim of an accident. All that is certain is that he was killed while flying on the battlefront.]