It was 1926. I had just signed on as a trainee airline pilot with the Latécoère Company, which operated the Toulouse–Dakar route before it was taken over by Aéropostale and later by Air France. I was learning the trade. Like my comrades, I was passing in my turn through the novitiate before being granted the honour of piloting the mail. Air trials, Toulouse–Perpignan shuttles, dismal meteorology classes in a freezing hangar. We lived in fear of the yet unknown Spanish mountains, and in reverence for our elders.
We used to meet those veterans in the canteen. Gruff and a little distant, they passed on their condescending advice. And when one of them came in late after a flight from Alicante or Casablanca, in his rain-soaked leathers, and one of us asked him timid questions about his journey, his terse replies constructed in our minds on those stormy days a fabulous world filled with traps and snares, with cliffs that loom up suddenly and whirling currents that could uproot cedars. Dark dragons guarded the valley gateways, sprays of lightning crowned the mountain crests. In the art of maintaining our reverence those veterans were masters. But from time to time one of them, revered for eternity, did not come back.
I remember one such homecoming. It was old Bury, who died later in the Corbières. He had just sat down at our table, and was eating his food in a leaden silence, his shoulders still hunched from his exertions. It was the end of one of those bad days when the sky is filthy from start to finish of the route, when the pilot’s eye sees all the mountains wallowing in slime like loose cannon churning up the deck of an old sailing ship. I gazed at Bury, swallowed hard, and ventured to ask him if it had been a tough flight. Bent over his plate, his brow furrowed, Bury didn’t hear me. In bad weather, you had to lean out of those open planes to see anything, and the crashing of the wind went on reverberating long afterwards in your ears. At last Bury raised his head, seemed to hear me and to remember, then burst into ringing laughter. His laughter was a thing of wonder, for he laughed so rarely; it illumined his weariness. He gave no further explanation of his achievement, but lowered his head and went on chewing in silence. But in that colourless dining-room, among humble clerks repairing the petty wear and tear of the day, that heavy-shouldered comrade struck me as having a strange nobility; through his rough hide he had let us glimpse the angel who had vanquished the dragon.
At last came the night when it was my turn to be called to the manager’s office. He said, simply, ‘You’re flying tomorrow.’
I stood motionless, waiting for leave to go. But after a silence he added, ‘I take it you know the regulations?’
Engines, at that time, were not safe like today’s engines. They would often give up on you without warning, with a great crashing of breaking crockery. And you gave the plane its head towards the rocky crust of Spain which offered precious few refuges. ‘Up here,’ we used to say, ‘when your engine cracks up, your plane isn’t far behind.’ But a plane can be replaced. The vital thing was not to fly blindly into a rock face, so we were forbidden, under threat of the most severe disciplinary action, to fly over the oceans of cloud above mountainous regions. A pilot in trouble, sinking into the white flax, might crash into a peak without ever seeing it.
That is why a slow voice, that evening, was giving the regulation its full and final weight:
‘It’s a great thing, flying by the compass over an ocean of Spanish clouds; it’s very stylish, but . . .’
And the voice spoke even more deliberately:
‘. . . but remember what is under the ocean of clouds: eternity.’
And suddenly that tranquil world, the world of such simple harmony that you discover as you rise above the clouds, took on an unfamiliar quality in my eyes. All that gentleness became a trap. In my mind’s eye I saw that vast white trap laid out, right under my feet. Beneath it reigned neither the restlessness of men nor the living tumult and motion of cities, as one might have thought, but a silence that was even more absolute, a more final peace. That viscous whiteness was turning before my eyes into the boundary between the real and the unreal, between the known and the unknowable. And I was already beginning to sense that a spectacle has no meaning except when seen through a culture, a civilization, a professional craft. Mountain people knew the sea of clouds too, and yet they did not see in it this fabulous curtain.
When I left the office I felt a childish pride. My turn had come. At daybreak I would be responsible for a cargo of passengers, and for the African mail. But I also experienced a great sense of humility. I felt unprepared. There were few safe places in Spain; faced with the threat of engine failure, I feared that I would not know where to look for a welcoming emergency field. I had pored over my unrewarding maps, not finding in them the lessons I needed. And so I went, my heart filled with a mix of uncertainty and pride, to spend that knightly vigil with my comrade Guillaumet. Guillaumet had done those routes before me. He knew the tricks of the trade, the ones that opened Spanish locks. I needed to be initiated by Guillaumet.
When I walked in he smiled:
‘I’ve heard the news. Are you pleased?’
He went to the cupboard for glasses and a bottle of port, then turned back towards me, still smiling:
‘Let’s drink to it. It’ll be fine, you’ll see.’
He gave off confidence as a lamp gives light, this comrade who was later to break the records for postal crossings of the Andean Cordillera and of the South Atlantic. Some years before that, sitting there that evening in his shirtsleeves, his arms folded in the lamplight, smiling the most heartening of smiles, he said to me simply:
‘Sometimes the storms and the fog and the snow will get you down. But think of all those who have been through it before you, and just tell yourself: “They did it, so it can be done again.” ’
But I unrolled my maps all the same, and asked him to go over the journey with me, just briefly. And in the lamplight, leaning on the veteran’s shoulder, I felt a peace unknown since my schooldays.
But what a strange geography lesson I was given! Guillaumet didn’t teach me about Spain, he made Spain my friend. He didn’t talk about hydrography, or population figures, or livestock. Instead of talking about Guadix, he spoke of three orange trees at the edge of a field near Guadix: ‘Watch out for those, mark them on your map . . .’ And from then on the three orange trees had more significance than the Sierra Nevada. He didn’t talk about Lorca, but about an ordinary farm near Lorca. A living farm, with its farmer and its farmer’s wife. And that couple, lost in emptiness a thousand miles away from us, took on an importance beyond measure. Settled there on their mountain slope, they were ready, like lighthouse-keepers under their stars, to give help to men.
From their oblivion, from their inconceivable remoteness we rescued such details, known to no geographer in the world. Only the Ebro, which waters great cities, is of interest to geographers. Not that little stream hidden in the weeds to the west of Motril, that stream that fosters thirty species of flowers. ‘Beware of that stream, it ruins the field for landing . . . Mark that on your map too.’ Oh, I would remember that snake at Motril! It looked like nothing at all, it enchanted no more than a few frogs with its gentle murmur, but it slept with only one eye closed. In the paradise of that emergency landing-field, it lay in wait for me in the grasses, twelve hundred miles away. Given the chance, it would transform me into a sheaf of flames . . .
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