Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Touching the Face of God ...

High Flight

The first time I heard this poem was watching a TV station sign off during the 1970s, such as shown in the video clip below. It was much later that I learned the story behind it and how I would be personally affected by it.

In the summer and through the fall of 1940, the Battle of Britain was waging and the London Blitz demoralizing this one island nation that did break as Hitler's juggernaut was steamrolling across the rest of Europe. During such desperate times, Sir Winston Churchill gave his famous speech: Their Finest Hour

Before the United States entered into World War II, hundreds of Americans crossed the border into Canada to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force to volunteer to fight the Nazis. Though they knowingly broke the law, they had the tacit approval of the then officially neutral United States government.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was one such American, who was 18 years old when he entered flight training. Within the year, he was sent to England and flew the Supermarine Spitfire. As he flew fighters over France and in the air defense over England against the German Luftwaffe, Magee rose to the rank of Pilot Officer.

On September 3, 1941, while flying a high altitude (30,000 feet) test flight, Magee orbited and climbed upward, a sight that inspired his line - "To touch the face of God."

Back on earth, he wrote about his experience in a letter to his parents. In it he commented, "I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed." On the back of the letter, he jotted down his poem - "High Flight."

Sign off for KSAT

Pilot John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was killed in England at the age of 19 years old when his Spitfire collided with another airplane while descending out of the clouds. That was on December 11, 1941 - four days after Pearl Harbor - 70 years ago this year.

Magee's father was then rector of a Washington, DC church and printed his son's poem in church publications. Not long after that, High Flight was included in an exhibition of poems called Faith and Freedom at the Library of Congress in February 1942 and has been quoted many times world wide. Archibald MacLeish had proclaimed Magee as the first poet of the War.

In the past 70 years, "High Flight" has been reprinted and put on plaques at many air force training fields. And it has been quoted many times world wide.

Twenty-five years ago was one of those times ...

I had just been transferred to another state and that Tuesday, January 28, 1986, I had scheduled a visit to the local utilities company to have the power connected to my new house. Before leaving work early, I was taking a class that morning when one of my co-workers broke into the room with a wild look in his eyes.

"The Challenger Exploded!"

We were all incredulous, and quickly gathered in the lobby. There, we watched the replays of the disaster as the contrails forked in the air and the shuttle exploded. Our world was shaken. None of us - especially the instructor - had any enthusiasm for continuing our class.

Later, that afternoon while making the trip to turn on the utilities I turned on the radio, hearing the chatter of this national disaster. Then President Reagan, who had his State of the Union Address planned for that evening, instead gave the nation and the world the following address:

"The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them. ...

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

from the Speech on the Challenger Disaster by Ronald Reagan

In my humble opinion, this speech to a nation in shock by this tragedy was one of President Reagan's finest hours.

Question: Do you have any stories about the Challenger disaster or the words in the poem "High Flight" that you would like to share?


Picture from My View


  1. Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
    I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air.
    Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
    I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
    Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
    And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
    The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

    Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
    No 412 squadron, RCAF
    Killed 11 December 1941

  2. Beautiful poem!
    This American gave his life defending Great Britian - one which Sir Winston Churchill said - "Never was so much owed by so many to so few."

  3. For reference to the poem posted in the first comment, according to this Canadian source, the poem, "High Flight" is in effect in the public domain.

  4. Thank you for this! God bless.