HE comes from Texas and his eyes have kept the blue innocence of its skies. He is over six feet, sparing of gesture, conceals the stump of his amputated forefinger. From the corner of the right eye to the base of the skull runs a purplish scar, and his face is a network of wrinkles and lines that make him appear almost forty; but he is eight years younger, and when I looked in the candid, shadowless eyes I knew that I was talking to a boy.
It was pleasant to sit on the deck and listen to his low voice. Oh yes, he was telling me his troubles. They were like all agonies, for men suffer in much the same way. The fog drifted in past the islands, the wind grew chilly; we went to the lower deck where the seaplanes rest on their catapults.
He explained carefully how they were shot off by compressed air, going in forty feet from perfect stillness to sixty miles an hour, and how it was necessary to guide them straight and then up into the air, not letting them touch the water, and this was not easy. He had been flying for nine years. Yes, he was ‘pretty good.’ One bad crash. Only two men in the Navy had more ‘hours in the air.’ Sorry he could not show me the engine. It was a lovely engine.
I looked up at the seaplanes and I wondered what characteristics were imperative for the man that flew in that tiny, deadly seat. Elegant as a wasp; small and cruel and fascinating; what was it in men’s brains that made them capable of flying, or hopelessly incapable of even the first violent rush from the catapult? There are born artists, engineers, lawyers — what was an aviator? That flying aged men prematurely, I saw; that they were, all I had met, very quiet in manner, I remembered and observed. Courage — but what kind of nerves? Imagination? What did he think of death? Death that flew with him, did it grin or smile, promise or end all things? Or did he not see the companion that soared with him? I could not ask. Only observe carefully, listen patiently, and hope for the unconscious revelation.
We left the ship, came to the house. He talked — of Texas, of his family, of his life, of the war, and of the problem that was consuming him; but still I did not hear the words that would tell me of his inner and secret attitude toward the invisible companion. Did he, like a Regular Army man I know, have to chew gum to control fear? No man is without fear, and by now I knew that he had nerves.
We went for a drive. The ocean, the hills, the glowing beauty of the evening sky, he seemed hardly to observe. There were fifteen minutes left, and I should probably never see him again. I decided to take the risk of indirect attack. Money, root of all evil, would be the Navy’s criterion of his risk. To my discreet inquiries he said simply: ‘I get almost as much as the captain of the ship.’
I brought it out very simply: ‘Are you ever afraid?’
He did n’t move an eyelash. ‘An aviator,’ he answered slowly, ‘never has time to feel.’
‘ I’d like to fly,’ I told him. ‘ Will you take me?’
‘ You’d be afraid.’
‘Yes,’ I confessed. ‘Yes, but I want to go up. Will you take me?’
‘In the seaplane?’
‘ In the seaplane.’
His face relaxed just a little. ‘It’s against regulations. A woman went up once; got scared — hysterical; grabbed the controls. She was killed. But I could arrange it — in New York.’ ‘Good.’
’Remember this: Never go up except in an Army or Navy machine.’
‘I ’ll remember.’
He looked at me now with a different expression. ‘Tell me,’— I was to tell him! what do you think happens after death?’
I waited, not answering.
He went on: ‘Are we just animals? When we die, are we simply dead? I’ve seen so many men die.’
' This certainly is a pretty place,’ he went on, apparently with the same train of thought. ‘It’s right pretty. Ever been to Yosemite?’
No, never. And I did n’t, at this moment, want to talk about it. But, by the mercy of an all-wise Providence, I kept silent.
’Yes,’ he continued, ‘I’m slow, not quick-minded. That’s best for an aviator — because then you’re quickminded for the machines, see? You can’t ever lose your head — and you have to be sort of quiet — phlegmatic — and when you know you’re going to die — and be dead — and not have time to think is n’t that best? When I came to your house the other night, as soon as I saw you I knew.’
He nodded his head. ‘That you understood; that I could tell you. Listen, don’t you ever write comedies. You write about men — as they really are. You know better than any other woman I’ve met.’
We were almost at the village. Had I heard all that there was to hear? He was silent again, evidently thinking. ‘The Yosemite,’ he drawled, ‘is the best there is on earth. It can’t be beat.’
‘So I have heard.’
‘But when you get to foolin’ round with clouds, you’re sort of less interested down here.’
My heart almost stopped beating. There it was, all of it! At last the words that expressed everything. Had I searched a hundred years for them I could not have found them. That phrase would have made hours of boredom worth while! He had said it absolutely. Perfectly. There was nothing more, nothing less, to be said. But he continued, slowly. ‘I’d like to take you up, to show them to you — big white ones — their canyons, colors, shapes — up there. With the earth beneath you. Nothing much makes any difference. Will you come?’
‘This is a mighty pretty place,’ he said politely. ‘You’ve been very, very kind; I’ve enjoyed the drive.’
I’d shown him my place, my corner of the world; he’d do the same, show me his: ‘ I ’ll take you up, and we’ll dive into a big white one — with canyons.’ Then he added slowly: ‘We’ll fool around with the clouds.’