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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Masked and Alone


Raoul Lufbery

Born in France to an American father and French mother, Raoul Lufbery is one of the most famous American pilots of the First World War, an ace with at least 17 combat victories.  Early in his military career, he served in the Philippines as a rifleman in the U.S. Army from 1907 – 1909, but when war broke out in Europe, he joined the French Foreign Legion and trained as a pilot. Lufbery flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, and after American joined the war, he was commissioned in the U.S. Army Air Service, where he instructed new pilots, among them Eddie Rickenbacker.

According to American pilot Bert Hall, Lufbery “rode the skies like a fighting demon” and “was always looking for a good scrap.”* Hall also described Lufbery as “a mushroom hound,” for “Every time it rains, he goes out and gathers some mushrooms.  The French say he is going on a reconnaissance des champignons.”**

To Edwin C. Parsons, another pilot with the Escadrille who frequently flew as his wingman, Lufbery was “one of the most tragically outstanding figures of the war in the air.” In his memoir, Parsons wrote,
To me, Luf was one of the great mysteries of the war.  No man alive can truthfully say that he knew him.  I ate, slept, drank and fought beside him for months on end.  I discussed combat tactics and played bridge and went on binges with him…. I was in daily contact with a figure of flesh and blood, but know him? Not a chance.  In contrast to him, the Sphinx was a child’s primer.  He kept his real self shut up like a clam in a shell.  He was a man seemingly devoid of fear or, in fact, emotion of any kind.  But what a man he was in the air!  He had forgotten more about combat flying than most men ever knew.”***
 Lufbery was killed on May 19, 1918 in circumstances that are still debated: he either jumped from his burning plane or, while trying to clear a jam in his machine gun, was thrown from the cockpit when the plane flipped. 

To a Young Aviator

When you go up to die
Some not far distant day,
I wonder will you try
Unidentified Pilot, by Eric Kennington
National Museums of Scotland
To tear your mask away,
And look life in the eyes
For once without disguise?

Behind your mask may hide
What treacherous, covered fires!
What hidden torturing pride!
What sorrow, what desires!
Whatever there may be
There will be none to see.

Yet I think when you meet
Death coming through the skies,
Calmly his face you’ll greet,
Coldly, without surprise;
Then die without a moan,
Still masked although alone.
            —Aline Kilmer

Although it’s highly unlikely that the poem was written specifically for Lufbery, “To a Young Aviator” is an apt memorial for him and all the pilots of the First World War.  The poem captures the cool courage of the fliers, as well as the solitary loneliness of the job that they masked with bravado.

Aline Kilmer
Aline Kilmer is almost unknown today as a writer. Her husband was the American poet Joyce Kilmer (best known for his poems “Trees” and “The Rouge Bouquet”).  Joyce enlisted in the A.E.F. in April of 1917, but just weeks before he left for France, the couple’s daughter Rose died in early September of 1917.  Left with four small children and mourning the loss of her eldest daughter, Aline Kilmer would also have been well-acquainted with death and loneliness.  In early 1918, she wrote another poem:

In Spring

I do not know which is worse when you are away:
Long grey days with the lisping sound of the rain
And then when the lilac dusk is beginning to fall
The thought that perhaps you may never come back again;
Or days when the world is a shimmer of blue and gold,
Sparkling newly all in the dear spring weather,
When with a heart that is torn apart by pain
I walk alone in ways that we went together.  

Joyce Kilmer was killed by a sniper at the Second Battle of the Marne on July 30th, 1918. 
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* Bert Hall, One Man’s War: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, H. Holt, 1929, pp. 135, 144. 167. 
** Hall, One Man’s War, p. 167.
*** Edwin C. Parsons, The Great Adventure: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937, pp. 72-73. 

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