High Voice

I was asked yesterday about the “surly bonds of Earth” reference in the post about Neil Armstrong’s death.  There is indeed a story behind that and a very unusual young man.

John Gillespie McGee Jr. was born in Shanghai to a US ambassador, thus was American. His initial school was in Shanghai, “The American School” there — no doubt he was fluent in multiple languages by the time he left around age 10. As a boy in the US in the Rugby School, he became fascinated with poetry. And when war broke out in Europe, he was ready — but the US was not. In 1940, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and wound up eventually in the UK flying Supermarine Spitfires protecting London from bombing attacks.

On December 8, 1941, the US joined World War II officially after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Three days later, McGee and two squad mates were diving together through an opening in the clouds near London, only to have a trainee suddenly appear in their path.  In the collision, McGee’s aircraft was badly damaged, and he was unable to get out before the craft struck the ground. Witnesses suggested that he’d just gotten the canopy open.  He was 19.

Weeks before, across the back of a letter to home, McGee had scrawled this text after a particularly inspiring flight:

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.
  Hovering 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 wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God.

This piece wound up quickly in the local paper, in the Library of Congress, in school books, and it became the sign-off for television stations in the United States. My memories of this are old enough that I saw this video countless times on a black and white television:

But there is another version, set to music, by a different young man. This fellow, Henry John Deutchendorf, added a chorus to the poem and did a nice job with it:  Here is Deutchendorf, better known as John Denver, with that song (and some banter with Bob Hope) in 1983.

John Denver had a personal interest, as he said in the clip above.  Not long after that tribute to NASA, Denver went to NASA and went through the physical qualification process for astronaut, to be part of their Civilian Astronaut program.  He passed the physical, but was later turned down in favor of Christa McAuliffe.   Her flight, the ill-fated Challenger, moved Denver to write the song “Flying for Me.”

This week’s tributes to Neil Armstrong show that, in a sense, he flew for all of us.  There at Tranquility Base (a name he coined on the spot) is a plaque that reads: “We came in peace for all mankind.”

Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon
July 1969 A. D.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle