The Poetry of Flying
From Beowulf to T.S. Eliot, English lit takes wing with WWII fighter pilot Geoffrey Morley-Mower
"In the end is our beginning." Reciting this line from a T.S. Eliot poem, English professor Geoffrey Morley-Mower conjures up images of death and regeneration. The words take on even greater significance when they come from the lips of a man who was born in 1918. But the tall, trim physique, on this day dressed in khaki shorts and knee-hi golfer's socks, conjures anything but the stereotype of an octogenarian.
There is an energy about him that fills the room and brings one to wonder out loud how he stays so fit. He pauses for a moment from recounting the inexhaustible supply of personal stories attesting to a long and singular career and notes with a laugh, "Hardly a week goes by that I don't get in a round of golf. With any luck I will die on the 18th green like Bing Crosby."
Only the white hair and somewhat weathered face marked with crow's feet speak of time, certainly not the deep, clear eyes that glisten with the mischief and curiosity of a 10-year-old boy.
However, let the record show there is considerable history here. This British-born professor has returned to the classrooms of Keezell Hall year after year since 1968, compelled by his deep love of literature.
He readily admits, "I love to see young faces waiting to be instructed and to make them feel romantic about literature as I do."
Teaching the entire span of British literature, from Beowulf to modern times and classes on the novel and poetry is a substantial load for any instructor during one semester. But Morley-Mower never repeats a class. "I cannot bear to repeat anything. I like to be spontaneous. This way while they're learning something new, so am I."
By these means he sustains the excitement of teaching and his own love of learning, which may be, in part, the secret to his vitality and keenness of mind.
Speaking with gratitude of his 30 years of teaching, he says, "Immodest as this sounds, I enjoy some success at JMU and in my life as a whole. And I have never been happier than I am now. My colleagues are the cleverest and nicest people I have ever associated with. It is the best of all worlds here at JMU, with its collegial atmosphere and its glorious mission to educate young Americans - in my opinion the finest young people on this earth."
Having lived in many parts of the world, he prefers the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley and its people. He firmly believes that from his or any other foreigner's point of view, "Americans are the most charitable and welcoming people. They open their arms to everyone." But "they often don't even see their own virtues, not seeing themselves as the great people they are."
When the professor is not teaching, he can be found reading voraciously anything on hand or hard at work on articles for future publication. While he refuses comparison with the masters, he is an adept and lyrical writer in his own right and has found a substantial audience for his work. But at the suggestion of taking up fiction, he says, "I don't have the gift of fiction; of imagining other characters in situations I have not encountered myself."
His work, he admits, is autobiographical in nature, originally "intended for the benefit of my children." Morley-Mower draws from his experiences during World War II as a British front-line reconnaissance pilot stationed along the Afghanistan border of India, then assigned to an Australian squadron in the Western Desert of the Middle East, where Rommel commanded center stage. He writes with surprising candor, recording his failures of nerve, his youthful errors of judgment and the occasional humiliation.
The first of his two books, Messerschmitt Roulette, was published in 1993. The second, Flying Blind, was published this year by Yucca Tree Press.
In his preface to Flying Blind he writes: "This is a book about the joy of flying, the intoxicating and dangerous freedom to move though the blue air in three directions at once. It is also a history, tied to my flying log book and personal journal. The period is 1937-1941. World War II had broken out in Europe in September, 1939, but I was stationed in India where time stood still. The overseas British continued to live in splendour, waited upon by armies of servants, as if nothing had happened. I found myself flying biplanes of ancient vintage over the most exotic frontier in the world, keeping order among tribes that had not changed since the invasion of India by Mahmud of Ghazni in the Middle Ages. So this book is also a history of army and air operations in tribal Waziristan during the last years before the idea of controlling them was abandoned forever. Since then the British Empire has passed away, and all the old-fashioned aircraft are in museums."
Both narratives introduce Morley-Mower as a young and somewhat quixotic character, the eternal romantic, whose quest is to become a pilot of the British Royal Air Force. Though at first, he confesses, "my motives for joining up in 1937 (an ominous date in history) were not to defend my country or to fight a war." Rather it was the offer of a small gratuity that would allow him to join his brother Ken in a walking trek across the back of Asia into China.
By happenstance, he falls in love with flying and allows nothing to stand in the way of achieving his wings. Having defective eyesight from an early age, he resorts to faking his way through medical eye exams and the scrutiny of his flight instructors. But with a mad self-confidence that characterizes him throughout his life, he pulls it off with finesse.
The art of flying becomes a passion Morley-Mower pursues throughout the rest of his 31-year military career. And when he can no longer fly in the literal sense, he later ascends through language and literature.
Flying, both literally and figuratively, endows him with an almost mystical ability to regenerate himself by means of faith and determination one only finds in lovers, poets and visionaries.
"Just as in a good marriage the experience of falling in love can be constantly renewed, so with flying my heart never lost its amazement at rising into the air and seeing the familiar earth from the point of view of a visiting angel," the professor says in Messerschmitt Roulette.
Ironically, this transcendent vision hangs in counterbalance to great tragedy in his life. Many of Morley-Mower's experiences have at their dark center the deaths of those closest to him: an idolized brother, a beloved first wife, his 3-year-old son, and one after another of his many companions during World War II.
As he records in his book Flying Blind: "...coping with sudden death on a daily basis is atrociously hardening to the spirit. ... I have listed the known dead of No. 451 Squadron in reverence, but in 1942 I counted myself among them. I did not allow myself to hope that I would survive the war."
One might expect such a view of life from harsh experiences, which is exactly what Morley-Mower later describes as the consequence: "I developed a philosophy of fatalism. There was little to do but endure the Russian roulette of the barrages and wait to see if some fighters came along to pick you off," he says in Messerschmitt Roulette.
But oddly enough, this philosophy gives him the calm detachment that enables him to survive, to avoid the panic and rash judgments that contribute to the multitude of deaths surrounding him, claiming more than half of his "Aussie" squadron. He is the only one to survive out of the four original RAF members to go together to the Western Desert.
He thought of himself as a "dead man walking about," and his tendency to turn everything into poetry made him believe he would die in the air. His favorite lines from W.B. Yeats were: "I know that I shall meet my fate somewhere among the clouds above."
Flying out of the besieged fortress of Tobruk, he refuses to wear the conventional tin hat issued to all soldiers; nor will he dig himself in. He is the only one to sleep above the ground, even though every other man obediently buries himself deep into the earth for protection against the incessant artillery barrages.
In the air, however, he is too busy responding to the danger to feel fear. When attacked by the much superior Messerschmitts he is confident that he can out-maneuver them. For him the secret to holding fear at bay is to keep flying. And so he found himself volunteering for every reconnaissance mission, even the most loathsome. His most critical struggle was flying the photographic sorties, which required him to remain passive under stress. He volunteered, however, for these unwelcome flights: "During the next eight months I must have spent days flying though light and heavy anti-aircraft fire. One of our jobs was taking line overlap photographs of the forward areas. It meant flying straight and level for an hour at 6,000 feet, completely at the mercy of the German 88 millimetre guns. I loathed the feeling of helplessness it gave me. The more accurately I flew for the three downward facing cameras - unwavering course, steady speed and constant height - the easier for the guns on the ground to destroy me. But I volunteered for these revolting assignments because they forced me to be unflinching. It was a way of facing what I most feared…," he recounts in Flying Blind.
Time and again he withstands this test. But nowhere more dramatically than when he crosses enemy lines to report on Rommel's 5th Panzer Regiment as it marches upon the British Army in the Western Desert. Upon returning with a plane shredded with bullet holes just barely missing the fuel tank, he steps away from the plane. An engineering officer takes one look at the bullet-ridden shell and tells him that all that can be done with it now "is to tow it to one side and put a match to it."
Post haste Morley-Mower delivers the critical information in person to General Cunningham. Moments later the impact of what he has done hits him as he realizes he, single-handedly, has just performed a personal sortie for the Commanding General of the 8th Army, a moment of glory not soon to be forgotten. As Morley-Mower puts it: "Let's face it, a downtrodden reconnaissance pilot doesn't have many such moments."
By the war's end, he has flown more sorties than any other pilot in his squadron, proving that he, the sole representative of Britain amongst his Aussie squadron, can outfly "the finest group of fighting men," and once and for all prove that the English aren't "pansies."
For his heroism in the No. 451 Squadron, he is summoned during the war to Buckingham Palace where none other than King George VI decorates him with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Whether the professor's happy and fulfilled life is the result of these war experiences or is in spite of them remains unknown. The connection may be the uncanny way in which he sees the world and himself. Through some amazing gift he has distilled the essence of these experiences into a vision that is sublime. He communicates this with an enthusiasm that is infectious, as is his sense of awe and boyish wonder at what the world has to offer. The professor often remarks, "Isn't life grand!" with that distinguished British accent that Americans are known to envy. But this is not a perfunctory expression. For when he utters these words it's as though he has crossed over to the other world and brought back its secret, one he may well have gleaned early on as a pilot conquering "the empire of the night."
As he so poetically notes in Flying Blind, "Flying is such an ungraspably beautiful thing, superior to its technology - somewhere between a skill and an art and a pure exercise of the imagination..."
An undying romantic to this day, Geoffrey Morley-Mower finds in his end his beginning. Still flying, he rises into the air on the wings of the great literature he teaches and writes, but now by the power of the written word.
By Christine Leontie
Photos by DeeDee Elliott and Courtesy of Geoffrey Morley-Mower