The Doric Column
December 16, 1998
"And at night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will be just one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens... They will all be your friends."
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
In memory of Carl Sagan
One day in late September my cousin Scott and I went to attend Mass at the 14th Century Gothic church in Parisot en Rouergue, the little French village of our ancestors.
Parisot is about 90 minutes northwest of Toulouse, "la ville rose," the pink city, the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.
When we arrived at the church we encountered an short elderly woman about to unlock the door. She began speaking to us immediately. We understood, in our limited grasp of French, that the parish priest had died and there would be no Mass that day.
Scott explained that we were Americans visiting the village in search of our ancestors. Did she know anyone by that name? A flurry of words and gestures sufficed to alert us that we were in luck.
There was a fellow in town from Toulouse with the same last name visiting his sister. The woman ushered us around the corner and there he was, Jean-Louis, a silver-haired man, about 60, with a friendliness endemic to Occitania, the country of the language of "Oc" in southern France.
We made out that he had been looking into his family history, too. When Scott mentoned the name of our ancestor who left in the 17th century, Jean-Louis exclaimed, stressing the last syllable, "Canada." Ah, a connection!
We promised him we would be in touch to arrange the exchange of genealogies. Scott gave him his business card, and Jean-Louis wrote his address on the back of a scrap of paper he retrieved from his sister's house. Blagnac.
Within the hour I saw the word Blagnac for the only the second time, this time on the cover of the Sunday magazine to "La Dépéche du Midi," the leading newspaper in the region, the September 27, 1998 edition.
Under the title "100 ans D'Avions" ["100 years of aviation"] the magazine cover featured pictures of early pilots, such as Clément Ader and Jean Mermoz, and their air fields -- Toulouse, Montaudran, Blagnac.
In the first three decades of the century, despite the heroics of the Americans Wilbur and Orville Wright and Charles Lindbergh, France led the way in aviation. Since then Blagnac has given birth to the supersonic Concorde, the Ariane rocket, and Airbus industries.
And it gave the world "la poèt," Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Saint-Ex, author of The Little Prince.
The classic children's book has been translated into 103 languages world wide, with Albanian, Bosnian, Tibetan and Braille waiting in the wings. And it would be difficult to overestimate Saint-Ex's stature at home. He adorns the 50 franc bank note, and activities are carried out in his honor every month of the year all over the country.
The article in "La Dépéche" describes Saint-Ex as the consummate dreamer and also a "man of action." Two photos accompany the article. One shows him standing nonchalant with his mechanic Prévot, hands in pockets, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, looking coyly into the camera. The other shows him in the cockpit of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning preparing to depart from Corsica on his final flight, his flight to eternity, July 31, 1944.
Saint-Ex was never heard from again.
But he was heard from again, just the day before, September 26th, only hours before I read about him in "La Dépéche." The great aviator-romantic, born with the new century, was heard from at last after 54 years of silence.
That day Jean-Claude Bianco was doing what he does most days of the week. He was fishing for sole and mullet.
On September 26th he was trawling near a rocky inlet about 115 miles west of Marseilles. His net brought up a silver chain bracelet.
The bracelet was inscribed with the names of Saint-Exupéry, his Argentine wife Consuelo, and Reynal & Hitchcock, the New York publishers of The Little Prince.
No sooner had Bianco reported his find when Henri-Germain Delauze, president of the professional diving society COMEX, announced that he would undertake a search for Saint-Ex's plane. Delauze's "Virtual Diving" operation has already used a robot submarine to investigate a pre-Christian wreck off Marseilles.
Recently, I checked out Saint-Ex's book Wind, Sand and Stars (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939) at my neighborhood library.
In it, Saint-Ex describes his crash in the Sahara Desert, his experience as a "Prisoner of the Sand," and his deliverance along with Prévot by a "Bedouin of Libya." That experience supplied the backdrop for The Little Prince.
I was in the library looking for books about Charles Lindbergh for a previous column. Saint-Ex's book popped up on the monitor because Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote an introduction to it, "An Appreciation" that first appeared in The Saturday Review of Literature.
Lindbergh calls attention to the inner world of adventure. Adventure is experienced not only through daring feats and courageous acts against the elements and the odds, but also in the spiritual realm, and Saint-Ex succeeds brilliantly in both. "What a chameleon touch that can write of flying, and create flying...."
The "childish incredulity" of it amazed her. "How is it possible, I ask myself, that he kept his mind on the gas consumption while pondering the mysteries of the universe? How can he navigate by stars when they are to him 'the frozen glitter of diamonds'?
"Did he really think those things while he was flying? And is it possible, then, that a person can be that rare combination, the actor and the onlooker, at precisely the same moments? One thinks of T.E. Lawrence, but no one else comes immediately to the mind who was capable of this ordeal."
Anne Morrow Lindbergh's fascination with Saint-Ex was transparent in all she wrote about him, as might be expected when one aviator-writer romantic is writing about another.
Saint-Ex visited with Anne and Charles just once, for an hour. Charles didn't speak French, and Saint-Ex didn't speak or understand English. So the only encounter of the two legends was less than a rousing success. Moreover, Charles was not happy about his wife's vast esteem for the French adventurer.
Last month, an avalanche swept Michel Trudeau off the side a mountain and into Kokanee Lake in British Columbia. He struggled in the water, but the weight of his backpack took him under. He is still in the lake.
Michel, 23, was the son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his ex-wife Margaret Kemper. An emotional memorial service was held in Montréal at St. Viateur Church, which the Trudeau family has attended for generations.
Last week, Margaret Kemper read poetry she wrote about her son and his tragic death on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's radio program "As It Happens."
I listened to her reading, not knowing at the time it was the former Margaret Trudeau. It was a heart-wrenching tribute and has prompted an outpouring from listeners.
Yet I couldn't help but note her representations of Marcel's feeling about technology, his view of its destructiveness to so much he held sacred. I thought about Saint-Ex's view of technology expressed in a chapter entitled "The Tool" in Wind, Sand and Stars.
The mechanical civilization is not the enemy of the spiritual civilization, Saint-Ex wrote, but its partner. "The central struggle of men has ever been to understand one another, to join together for the commonweal. And it is this very thing that the machine helps them to do! It begins by annihilating time and space."
He used the example of a transatlantic telephone call. "To me, in France, a friend speaks from America. The energy that brings me his voice is born of dammed-up waters a thousand miles from where he sits. The energy I burn up in listening to him is dispensed in the same instant by a lake formed in the River Yser which, four thousand miles from him and five hundred from me, melts like snow in the action of turbines."
The next passage is often quoted. I found it unexpectedly in the concluding chapter of a book I bought at Half-Priced Books a couple weeks ago, The Road Ahead by Bill Gates:
"I think Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote so eloquently about how people came to think of railroad locomotives and other forms of technology as friendly, would applaud the information highway and dismiss as backward-looking those who resist it. Fifty years ago he wrote:
"'Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of flickering pictures--in this century as in others our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing men together. Do our dreamers hold that the invention of writing, of printing, of the sailing ship, degraded the human spirit?'"
Bill Gates, perhaps invoking his inner child, wants people to think that Saint-Ex would applaud the Web, and he would. But for all his words about connecting people, Saint-Ex preferred convex horizons, mental vistas, and the solitude of the cockpit. Roads, whether trafficked by people or electrons, "shape themselves to man's needs." They're too practical.
Freed from the "happy servitude" of roads and viewing the world "from the height of our rectilinear trajectories," pilots are uniquely positioned to "discover the essential foundation, the fundament of rock and sand and salt in which here and there and from time to time life like a little moss in the crevices of ruins has risked its precarious existence."
"We were haunted for hours by this vision of a plane in distress. But the hands of the clock were going round and little by little it began to grow late. Slowly the truth was borne in upon us that our comrades would never return, that they were sleeping in that South Atlantic whose skies they had so often ploughed. Mermoz had done his job and slipped away to rest, like a gleaner who, having carefully bound his sheaf, lies down in the field to sleep."
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The photograph my mother kept out was of a young man in a military uniform, a second lieutenant wearing wings.
James Gregory, Uncle Greg, the uncle I never knew.
His dark features were striking. People in the community where I grew up said the features were typical of the whole clan, features of a family that came to the U.S. from Montréal in the mid-19th century and perhaps those of a patriarch who came to Montréal from Parisot en Rouergue northwest of Toulouse.
I thought of the photograph of my uncle when I looked at pictures of France's pantheon of early aviators in the "La Dépéche" magazine--at Saint-Exupéry and at Jean Mermoz "l'archange," the archangel of the Andes, and the others.
Uncle Greg was youngest in a family of seven. His father, the son of French-Canadian immigrants, was born in Wisconsin the day Lincoln was elected president. Greg was born in south central Minnesota, just after World War I.
In July 1944, when Saint-Ex was flying high-altitude reconnaissance missions for the Free French forces and exasperating the American command with his antics, Greg was training with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Soon he would be joining the Allied Forces in Europe which were preparing to invade German-occupied southern France.
But he never did. Two weeks before Saint-Ex disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea, July 15th, Greg died when his Curtiss P-40 Warhawk crashed in Thomasville, Georgia.
Sometimes I wonder what he thought about while he was on the way down. He was no Saint-Ex, no Mermoz. He had no magnificent sea to cushion him. He had no legend to cushion him. He was not part of a brotherhood like the "Aéropostale" that regularly tempted fate en route from Toulouse to Santiago, Chile, that had "the night flight with its hundred thousand stars," its window on eternity.
He was a 21-year-old farm boy from the Midwest caught up in a war. Then he "slipped away to rest." Today he sleeps, pax aeterna, near fields that he plowed.
Soon after Germain-Henri Delauze announced he would lead a search to find the P-38, the family of Saint-Ex implored Delauze to let la poèt rest in peace. "He is very well wherever he is," said Saint-Ex's nephew, Jean-Giraud d'Agay. "We do not want the sea to be ploughed in order to find him."
Another relative, Frédérick d'Agay, president of the "Projet de Fondation Antoine de Saint Exupéry," also asked that the marine sepulcher remain undisturbed. In a tribute to the eternal spirit of Saint-Ex, he recalled the words of the pilot narrator of The Little Prince after the little prince has returned to his planet:
"Now my sorrow is comforted a little. That is to say--not entirely. But I know that he did go back to his planet, because I did not find his body at daybreak.
"It was not such a heavy body...and at night I love to listen to the stars. It is like five hundred million little bells..."
--William Hoffman email@example.com