Published in 2013 in Niche Magazine
I stand in a small wicker basket hanging below an enormous white balloon floating above the green French countryside, the chaos of battle three-thousand feet below, spread before me as gaping wound running north and south. Flashes of red, clouds of dust and smoke, I am expected to observe where the shells are falling. I am the eyes of the artillery set up miles from the battle, firing blindly, counting on spotters such as myself to ensure the shells are finding their purchase, or, at least, not blowing up our own. My balloon is tethered via a cable to a spot a mile behind the French lines so that the Hun on their side of no-man’s-land cannot shoot me. Windswept and cold, I look through binoculars, yelling instructions into a field telephone to a man below. Five degrees left! Two degrees right! Up six degrees! That’s it! Six panzers, three o’clock!
Bullets rip through my wicker basket, wood splintering; my hands instinctively cover my face from flying shards. The binoculars fall through what had been part of the floor and side of my basket, and I watch them spin, tumble out of sight. A bright blue Fokker tri-plane roars by at a hundred miles-per-hour chased by two of my Sopwith Camel protectors. Careless! I neglected to spot the enemy plane coming in from behind me for the kill. A real boner, I should have jumped before the plane got near; that is what we are trained to do. The hydrogen above is highly explosive and my position puts me ridiculously in peril. Time to correct my mistake, and I prepare to jump. I pull on my harness connected to the parachute in a bag hanging below, but there is no tension in the straps. I’ve made the jump seven times before—not a high number, many of my balloon corps colleagues have jumped twenty even thirty times—and I know the straps should have some tension, but instead it’s light as thread. I pull and pull, until the ends appear, shredded, unattached.
I yell into the phone, I’ve been hit! The parachute is gone! Bring me down! But no one answers, the phone, dead. I look through the gaping hole. Not only is the parachute gone, so is the cable holding me in place and the phone line that went with it. I look up to see which direction the cigar-shaped kite balloon points and thus where the wind is blowing, but I already know the answer: from the west, from the French positions to the Germans.
My fate is sealed. I will die today—minutes, maybe hours, I’m not sure, but today. There is no escape, nothing to try, no one to make my case to.
Around me, the air battle boils between three Camels and the now two Fokkers who want me dead, the rattle of machine guns, brightly colored planes dodging and spinning in the three-dimensional battlefield. The second Fokker makes a pass at the balloon itself, bullets passing through the fabric envelope without obvious or at least immediate consequences. The bullets alone usually do not ignite the hydrogen, but they do create leaks and tears. The Fokker who sealed my fate sets up to make another pass, but before he can, a Camel scores a hit, the blue tri-plane disintegrating as if papier-mâché, the pilot tumbling out into the air. No parachute opens. I feel no triumph. Nor do I feel animosity against my killer. Quite the opposite. He was one of my brothers, people of the air. If he didn’t kill me, someone else will. That has been my fate since I was assigned the balloon corps; this is the nature of this war. In fact, I hold no grudge against anyone below, no matter their nationality. I’m sure they don’t belong there any more than I do here.
I am not a soldier, at least not at heart. I am a philosopher, a graduate from Notre Dame. However, while Plato said “Knowledge is the food of the soul,” it doesn’t put dinner on the table. I am a pharmacist by training. Or, more accurately, training to be a pharmacist, apprenticing at a small apothecary in my neighborhood. When I went through draft processing in April, America had just declared war joining the side of the Brits and French. When they asked me my profession, I said “pharmacist” but the apparently deaf-in-one-ear old clerk heard “farmer,” guaranteeing my enlistment not in the medical corps but in the infantry. I got lucky, or I thought so at the time, by being assigned to the balloon corps. No trench foot, no lice. But it was not luck; anyone could see I would have made for a poor poilu. Not that the standards are high, but a farmer would have made a better choice. I am only five-foot-two and weigh no more than one-hundred-twenty pounds. In basic training, I wasn’t strong enough to drive a bayonet into a muslin dummy; one could only imagine what a failure I would be on a real Hun.
But being light is of benefit to me now, as the basket is severely weakened. I lean on the side to avoid the hole, holding onto one of the ropes connecting me to the balloon. I consider jumping, be done with it, but no, I won’t do that. Not that I am afraid to die. As an atheist, I have no soul to reconcile, no lord to sit in judgment. However, I certainly do not covet death, either. I value life, in fact, at this moment more than ever. Socrates said that “Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.” I don’t know about that, but I’m going to find out soon enough. No, all that is left is to extend my life as long as possible. Isn’t that all any of us can do, no matter what the time left? Make the best of the time we have, however limited? The reality that in my case it is a matter of minutes, maybe an hour at the most, makes no difference. Who am I to say what the value is?
The wind is gone for me as I am moving with it across the countryside. Before me is the front, but I prefer to look behind me, at the rolling verdant hills, lush, a patchwork of farm fields framed by hedgerows and stands of trees. “Nature is the art of God,” said Dante, although, in my case, it would have to be a metaphorical god. A town in the distance—white houses with tile roofs, a church steeple—seems strangely quiet, peaceful, despite the proximity of the horror below. A town much like my own Midwestern American town. Tree-lined streets, white fences. I can see my little brother, wearing his professional baseball uniform for the first time, so proud, Mom and Pop smiling. Eighteen and off to play town ball after being the high school star, next stop the bigs, who knows. It was not to happen, though. War.
The basket is crumbling, little by little, the remaining floor sagging, pulling apart. The basket is only five by five feet, a quarter of which is already gone, so there isn’t room for more disintegration. I loop my arms around a rope in case of sudden failure and to perhaps take a little weight off the weakened structure.
The explosions from mortars and artillery grow louder. I pass over the French lines into no-man’s-land, stretching from horizon to horizon. Now probably fifteen hundred feet off the ground, I am going down, the holes taking their toll. I feel cold to my marrow. No longer green and sage, the land around me is in scarred in various shades of gray: light gray earth, dark gray trunks of burned trees, medium gray smoke from fire, and light gray smoke from the gas. Accenting the otherwise colorless field below are flashes of red explosions. I cannot yet see the red of the blood spilled between the trenches. Dust and smoke increasingly obscure the sun; what had been a bright blue day is now brown, hazy. Below, I see a straight line through no-man’s-land, what appears to be a short stone wall; yes, this must have been a pasture, horses, perhaps. I can imagine a lush green paddock with wild grape vines crawling over the wall, maybe trees. There are no trees now, no grape vines, no horses.
I hear a sound as if Hades has opened its doors to the screams of the damned. To my right, thousands of French boys jump over the top, running into the gray landscape, getting maybe twenty or thirty feet before dropping on top of those who came before. Some get as far as the stone wall where they huddle three, four, five or more deep, but it’s a false hope, and the artillery and machine guns find them soon enough. Quickly tens, hundreds, thousands are now dead or dying from ripped open bodies, smashed organs, severed arteries or the choking gray mist of chlorine gas. Funny—up in my balloon at three-thousand feet, the war was abstract even though it was splayed out in front of me. Now that I am getting closer and closer, the artillery, the guns, mines, are for the first time all too real. Had I thought myself a mere spectator?
I am well within range of German rifles. I release my bowels—something one spends an entire lifetime trying not to do when dressed is now completely irrelevant. No one fires. They are focused on the charging poilu; I am no threat to them. A curiosity, I am sure, but not a threat.
I smell the battle, the acrid odor of gunpowder and ozone. Still, now that they are quite finite, all my breaths are sweet. I remember lying with a French prostitute I had hired for the night in Paris on my last leave. “An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris,” said Friedrich Nietzsche, and she surely was an artist. After she had taken my virginity, she slept next to me, and, even though it was quite dark and I was quite drunk, I remember watching her chest rise and fall, amazed at the wonder of it all.
The basket finally gives in and cracks in half. Holding onto the rope, I swing above the tattered remains of wicker, trying unsuccessfully to find somewhere to place my feet, the broken wood swinging away each time my foot makes contact. The jute cuts into my hands. The balloon is fast losing shape, and fabric blows and whips around me. The ground is getting closer fast, but I am still high enough to see the German lines ahead of me, boys behind the parapet, guns all pointing ahead. I hear hundreds yelling behind me, what remains of the push. I can’t believe anyone has made it this far. I enter a cloud of smoke prepared for my next breath to be my last, but the smoke is from simple fire, not chlorine gas. It reminds me of camping with my family on an island in the river when I was ten. The campfire seemed to follow me no matter where I sat. My parents, my little brother, and I fishing, singing songs. A happy time. In the dark next to the fire, I laughed at my pop’s attempts at scary stories, although they seemed to work on my brother.
Below me, the ground is littered with bodies. I hear the screams now, see the French boys jerk and drop in rows, as the machine gun sweeps from right to left, left to right. My younger brother willingly joined and went off to war to—in the words of President Wilson—make the world safe for democracy. The Frenchman Ernest Renan said a half-century ago, that “The greatest men of a nation are those it puts to death.” I remember getting a letter in May from Pop telling me their son, my brother, had died in the Battle of Cantigny. Indeed. The greatest men.
I see heads turn skyward as the huge, barely inflated white fabric slowly falls from the sky with its cargo of one man holding onto a rope kicking in the air. I am grateful for my diminutive frame, and remember how, despite my stature, I could do more chin-ups than any other boy in school. The earth approaches, and judging from the pace of my descent, it occurs to me for the first time that I might just make it to the ground in one piece. What happens then is anybody’s bet. For now, no one shoots at me, and I am grateful if puzzled, why not. I am low enough to see their faces. Both the French and the Germans stare in wonder as I descend between them.
I touch down, as gentle as can be, and suddenly, strangely, inexplicably, I am standing on the ground. Still a bit of hydrogen left, the fabric of the balloon billows around me as if I were walking in a cumulus cloud. All I see is the gray ash of the battlefield at my feet and the undulating fabric making up my private world of white. I remember hiding under the covers with my brother; I must have been no more than five, he then three, laughing, our father pretending he couldn’t find us. The sound of battle, so loud moments ago from above, are muted, muffled, removed from my reality. But I know my world is an illusion; the battle all too real. At any moment, I am sure to be shot or have the remains of the balloon hit a mine or be hit by a shell and burn. But I find peace, if only for a moment, in pretending the war cannot find me.