One of the first poems I ever encountered was “High Flight” by Maj. John Gillespie Magee. Written in iambic pentameter (which I did not recognize as a child) and describing the sensations inherent to piloting, Magee’s piece was given to my grandfather by the US Army Air Corps during granddad’s 51-mission career during World War II. He hung the poem in his family room just above his medals, of which there were many. The Distinguished Flying Cross (pictured above) and the Air Medal (pictured below) were among them. He had been offered the Silver Star, but asked that it be awarded to his navigator instead for valor during the raid on Ploesti, Hitler’s oil fields.
Before I could read, the medals caught my eye. As a boy with dreams of achievement and distinction, they glimmered beneath old glass with the ideals of courage, willingness to sacrifice, and loyalty to one’s country. My grandfather held God-like status to me, and the medals seemed to reinforce my notions. Here, framed in gold-painted wood and blue velvet, were the emblems of a man who put himself in harm’s way with nothing more than a bible in his pocket and the thin metal and glass of his B-24 around him.
It wasn’t until I could read that I began to understand the significance of that other framed item — Magee’s High Flight: “Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/ and danced the skies on laughter-silver’d wings…” it began. Reading it time and time again, I eventually committed it to memory. No one told me to. It just seemed that something equal to or greater than those medals must be relevant enough to memorize.
I caught my oldest son the other day in a gaze very familiar to me — that same one I wore when looking at my grandfather’s medals and Magee’s poem on the wall of that old farmhouse. The only difference was, my son wasn’t looking at medals, he was examining my three framed diplomas– a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications, a Master of Education degree, and the most recent addition, my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. All three are framed in the same red-and-white display, and I’m sure that the Old English font and gold seals caught his eye in much the same way that my grandfather’s medals and accompanying poem once mesmerized me.
Seeing him in that trance — that spell of admiration and wonder — gave me pause for realization. These pieces of paper: will they be the emblems he associates with me one day when I, too, am gone? And furthermore, am I comfortable with that association as part of my legacy?
Let’s not kid ourselves — diplomas and academic laurels are no equal to military honors. The two exist in disparate circumstances and realms, for certain. My pursuit of knowledge and proficiency is in no way a parallel to my grandfather’s hard-earned Air Force record of integrity and valor.
But in the eyes of a small boy, all that glitters truly is gold. These degrees gleam with the same curious light that influenced me toward seeking personal greatness those many, many years ago. Posted above all those military medals, Magee’s words were just as instrumental in my pursuit of poetry as Robert Frost’s, William Shakespeare’s, or “The Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee.”
The battles I have fought have been bloodless and abstract. Won in the classroom and in the mind, they have come and gone without scars. But their significations are as hypnotic as glinting metallic wings. The freedom my grandfather won has allowed me to attain “ranks” that he never would have considered.
As my son matures, my hope is that he sees past or through the thin sheepskins on our wall. I hope he finds his own medals, his own diplomas, in his own way. Whether his course involves poetry, planes, or something else entirely, I hope that he reflects upon the lives offered by those before him. And when greatness finds him, I hope he displays it for his children, as well.