Sunday, October 06, 2013

`Far As Human Eye Could See'

In the nineteen-sixties, my father-in-law, a Canadian citizen born and raised in Peru, now a naturalized American, worked as a commercial pilot in South and Central America. Since boyhood he was smitten with the romance of aviation. He and his family moved to Fredericksburg, Va., more than forty years ago and he switched to commercial real estate, but the romance remains. He was among the early advocates for creation of the Stafford Regional Airport, and served as vice chairman of the Airport Authority. Michael has decided to donate the aviation books in his library to the airport, where they could be borrowed by pilots and other flight crew members. He has designed a book plate to place in each volume, complete with “Ex Libris,” his name and the airport logo.

My job was to scour his shelves, pull the appropriate titles (they were randomly scattered) and draw up a bibliography he could present to the airport commissioners. After an hour I had found fifty-seven volumes (twenty-six fiction, thirty-one non-fiction), and after another hour I had a four-page alphabetized list. Several things occurred to me. I’m fairly well read but have never read even one of these books. The magnitude of my ignorance is staggering. Vast cultures and subcultures exist about which I know absolutely nothing, and my father-in-law carries around worlds I’ll never know.

And yet, that’s not entirely the case. Included among the airport books is The Sound of Wings: Reading for the Air Age, a 1957 anthology edited by two U.S. Air Force officers and dedicated to “all the brave pilots.” I opened the book and felt at home. Part One, “The Early Years,” opens with “Satan’s Flight from Hell,” a selection from Book 2 of Paradise Lost, and moves on to Chapter 6 of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Swift’s “Voyage to Laputa” from Gulliver’s Travels, and an inspired selection from Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” titled “Prophecy” by the editors:

“For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

“Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;

“Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;

“Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro' the thunder-storm;

“Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”

Other things I unearthed during my hunt: a copy, in French, of Sartre’s La Nausée, the most boring novel ever written; New Voices: Canadian University Writing 1956, which includes “The Vicissitudes of Love,” an early poem by the late Daryl Hine; Great Bordellos of the World (1983) by Emmett Murphy, who, in the author’s bio is described as “a graduate of Yale University, [who] devotes his time to writing”; Down with Skool! (1953) by Geoffrey Williams and the late Ronald Searle; the beguilingly titled Art of Drink, or What to Make with What You Have (1930) by Dexter Mason; the equally beguiling Shall We Tell the President? (1977) by Jeffrey Archer; Historia y Romance del Viejo Miraflores (1947), a history of Michael’s place of birth (and my wife’s) in Lima by Luis Alayza Paz Solán; and another Williams/Searle confection, How to Be Topp (1954).

No comments: