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When simple words touch our hearts
“After midnight the moon set and I was alone with the stars. I have often said that the lure of flying is the lure of beauty, and I need no other flight to convince me that the reason flyers fly, whether they know it or not, is the aesthetic appeal of flying.” — Amelia Earhart, 1935
Today, January 28, marks the anniversary of the tragic end of the space shuttle Challenger, the first mission to carry a school teacher.
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So it seems like the appropriate date to educate ourselves about a particular piece of communication from that date.
That evening, rather than giving the State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan chose to address a nation that was grappling with collective grief, mourning the unexpected loss of those seven brave explorers.
The speech has gone down in history as one of the greats, referring to the human history of exploration and even noting the death of Sir Francis Drake on the very same date, nearly 400 years before.
The four-minute speech is a remarkable piece of writing that managed to capture the moment with solemnity, sincerity, and poetry, closing with this paragraph:
“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
Notice there are two phrases that are quotations: “slipped the surly bonds of earth” and “touch the face of God.”
These phrases were borrowed from the sonnet “High Flight,” written in 1941 by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an Anglo-American Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fighter pilot.
Magee was born in Shanghai in 1922, the son of missionary parents, Rev. and Mrs. John Gillespie Magee; his father was an American and his mother was originally a British citizen.
He was offered a scholarship to Yale in 1940 but did not enroll, decided instead to join the RCAF. He was sent to England for combat duty in July 1941.
In late August / early September, inspired by a high-altitude test flight, Magee composed “High Flight” and sent a copy to his parents.
By John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
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. Hov’ring 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.
On December 11, 1941, his Spitfire collided mid-air with another plane over England, killing Magee.
He was 19 years old.
The poem was displayed in the Library of Congress, and posters with the poem, a portrait of Magee, and a sketch of the plane he flew were distributed to British airfields.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
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