Growing up, I was told the story of Mike McCoy, an Air Force pilot who died in 1957 in a crash near my eventual home in the Orlando suburb of College Park. The story, which ― alas! ― may not be completely true, was that he stayed with the plane to ensure that it would miss Robert E. Lee Junior High School at the cost of his life and the lives of his three crewmen. The only loss of life on the ground was a single cow. This is why Orlando’s airport was long known as McCoy International and still carries the airport abbreviation MCO.
I was thinking about the events in Ferguson, the tremendous changes in American policing, and the heroism of the police and firemen nearly 13 years ago on September 11th. And this called to mind an essay of John Ciardi’s from 1962.
If our police forces must be militarized, then let them be militarized like the pilots Ciardi describes. We should honor those who serve us; and we honor our policemen, firemen, soldiers, sailors, and marines because we believe that they are willing to die for us. When they put their own safety above that of the civilians they serve, they lose all claim to honor ― and should also lose such emoluments as salary and pension.
Ciardi is known today, if at all, as a translator of Dante. In the sixties, however, he was one of our pre-eminent men of letters. Among other things, he was the poetry editor and a columnist for the Saturday Review.
Here is his essay from October 6th, 1962 entitled “Ride a Hot Horse” (from Manner of Speaking, 1972, Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ). I call this fair use, fwiw.
Note that Ciardi was a gunner on B-29s during WWII and flew 20 or so missions over Japan.
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The opening of the Seattle World’s Fair was marred by an incident in which a disabled jet crashed into a row of houses, killing an elderly man and woman under their own roof while the pilot parachuted to safety miles away. A sad accident and one that is becoming sadly common as the jets fill the sky above and the housing developments fill the ground below.
But was it entirely an accident? It is possible, to be sure, that the plane was hopelessly out of control. But it is just as possible that the pilot, had he stayed with it all the way, could have managed to crash into an empty field rather than into those houses. I am asking if a pilot has the right to bail out of a disabled plane over thickly settled country, and I am moved to argue that he has not.
Nobody wants to splash the boys over the landscape. If a pilot runs into trouble and bails out over a desert, who could blame him for that, even if his jet happens by freak chance to come down on the one house within range or on a passing automobile? But to bail out over an urban or a suburban area is another case, and there, I must insist, the pilot clearly funks if he fails to ride it all the way down. There is always that chance that he can at the last instant avoid visiting his disaster on those below. And even if he cannot, even if his death goes for nothing, it is his job to try.
It is his job for the simple reason that he asked for it. No one gets drafted into flying jets. The boys have to want to, they have to fight for the chance to try, and they have to buck hard to get through their training. How can a would-be pilot ask for the job ― and ask for it that hard ― without understanding that he has a moral contract to spend everything, including his own life, to avoid dumping his disabled buzzer on the people below? Suppose, to select a horrendous example, that house with the elderly couple in it had been a school building. How does the pilot walk away from his parachute after that?
It may be that we have entered the age of the final moral funk, wherein sentiment can justify all. The government certainly went a long way toward justifying the funk of pilot Powers in the U-2 incident. Our government, to be sure, is now imitating the Communists in handing out only that information it wants the people to have, and perhaps, therefore, the whole truth will never be known. It is on record, however, that Powers was drawing $30,000 a year [note: the equivalent of about $236,000 in 2013] for occasional flights over Russia, and that his equipment included a destruction button and a poisoned pin. What can one conclude but that the button and the pin were meant for use and that the $30,000 salary was jeopardy pay? And what can one then conclude but that Powers took the cash and then funked it?
The boys know what they are asking for when they buck for wings. They like the flying pay, they like the badges, and they like the glamour the badges bring. Perhaps, above all, they like the feel of the hot horse under them. The hottest horse of all is, of course, death, and so long as there are boys in this world, some of them will fall in love with the sensation of riding him. As Melville wrote, “All wars are boyish and are fought by boys.” That love affair with the hot horse is of the boyhood of the race. But once a boy is on that horse, then it is his man’s job to ride it all the way.
T. E. Shaw (Lawrence of Arabia) was such a boy-man. He lived with his itch to ride the hottest horse. He died, foolishly enough (if I recall correctly what I read years ago and have since forgotten where), of his passion for riding a motorcycle too fast. The motorcycle happened to be his hot horse of the moment. But if he was still boy enough to have to open it up all the way, he was man enough to know it was not a free ride. He died of a choice he had made within himself long before. Gunning his crazy machine down the road, he came to that instant when he must kill either an innocent pedestrian or himself. He swerved off the road and killed himself.
There is no need to grow romantic about the splendor of his choice. What was splendid about the man, finally, was his talent. What sent the boy hightailing down the road was no splendor but a problem for the psychiatrist’s couch. What remains is the fact that, between man and boy, Shaw made his choice clean.
The boys that fly the hot ones have the same choice to make. And like Shaw they have to make that choice in their own minds long before the moment of truth. It has to be made firmly beforehand, or their reflexes will make the wrong choice too late.
It may be a crazy choice to have forced upon oneself. Maybe they have to be a bit crazy to want to fly the hot ones. Maybe we are all crazy for having made a world in which we need a sky full of hot horses. But no boy ― and he has to be a boy, whatever bar, leaf, eagle, or star he wears on his collar ― can be allowed to go for crazy up to the time his buzzer runs into trouble, and then to dump his trouble on a row of houses while he floats sanely down in his parachute.
As the best, and least printable, of World War II’s flying songs starts off:
I wanted wings,
Now I’ve got the goddamn things.
Hell, I don’t want them anymore.
A lot of the hotshot boys, who had a high stateside fling flashing their wings for the girls, discovered in combat that they didn’t really want them anymore. But the fact remains that few of them broke and funked out. They had signed a contract with themselves. They had accepted the glamour, the flight pay, and the gravy-train freedom from all the nasty chores an ingrate army can dream up for noncrew members. They had asked for it and they had taken it. That adds up to a contract, and, like it or not, you keep that contract come flak, fighters, fire, or the heebie-jeebies. You may not want those wings anymore, but you’ve got them: they are tattooed on you. If you get killed flying, that’s tough, buddy, but nobody wrote out any special dispensation for your special skin. The contract itself was written on skin, on skin that was always of the most special kind ― the only kind there is.
If the boys in those jet cockpits do not have their contract clearly enough understood as a moral decision, it may be time to make it a court-martial decision. The gentle among us may cry out in horror against such a decision. It is no way to treat our dear boys, they will cry; the boys risk enough just in flying those ships to protect us.
But what we have to realize is that we cannot be protected by boys who risk enough. Nothing will cover us sufficiently until they risk everything. And, remember, the boys have not been forced. They asked for it. Every one of those bright badges has a piece of skin under it, and if the civilians insist on funking that fact, the boys had better get it clear, or clear out and go back to being civilians.