The Difficulties of World War I Aviators Adjusting to Peacetime after the War:
Three WWI Aviation Novels
The term PTSD is often heard today: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The term is usually applied to veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, though PTSD symptoms can be displayed by anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. The symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, anxiety, anti-social behavior, and depression. In general, PTSD is characterized by an individual feeling disconnected from daily events and activities and reliving, to a greater or lesser degree, those traumatic experiences. It has been recognized that PTSD occurred in earlier conflicts as well, in World War II, where it was referred to as “battle fatigue,” and in World War I, where it was termed “shell shock.”
Post-conflict memoirs and novels written by veterans have usually included PTSD as the central theme of the book, showing the difficulties of overcoming the effects pf PTSD in the struggles of veterans to return to normal daily life. Such titles as Ron Kovic’s Born on the 4th of July, and Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone are well known. Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed describes his experiences as a Marine in World War II. Verdun, by Jules Roman, is a classic of the World War I experience.
World War I aviators had their stressful reactions to combat just as the front-line soldiers did. Three post-WWI novels written by three American aviators depict a range of postwar reactions by aviators attempting to adjust to living in a peacetime world after their wartime experiences. The three novels are Austin Parker’s Here’s to the Gods (Harpers, 1923), Elliott Springs’ Leave Me with a Smile (Doubleday Doran, 1928), and Ramon Guthrie’s Parachute (Harcourt Brace, 1928). All were published in a five-year period within ten years of the end of World War I. All were written by men who flew actively in combat in Europe and describe the effects of the war on the principal characters in the novels (all aviators returning from the war) to adjust to civilian life.
Austin Parker, Here’s to the Gods
The first novel to be discussed, Here’s to the Gods, was written by Austin Parker. Austin Parker was the son of Willis F. Parker, a mining engineer who lived in Helena, Montana. Parker attended Detroit College and Cornell University before he started working for the New York Times. Austin Parker traveled to France in 1917 and enlisted in the French aviation service on May 2, 1917. He attended flying schools at Avord and Pau, France, from May 8 to December 15. He was briefly assigned to Escadrille SPAD 85, from 19 December 1917 until 9 January, 1918. He was then assigned to Escadrille SPAD 98 for over three months, from January 9 to April 19, 1918. When he left Escadrille 98, Parker transferred to the U. S. Navy, and was commissioned as an ensign on May 24, 1918. While many U. S. Naval Aviation units were assigned to bases in England and France, Parker was assigned to a unit based in Italy. Parker apparently remained with his naval aviation unit in Italy until the end of the war. He received the Italian War Cross for his efforts.
The central character of Here’s to the Gods is Anthony (Tony) Morton, who becomes a pilot during WWI. The novel describes the progress of the central character’s life, from his birth to the years immediately following the war. He is born to a frail mother married to a mining engineer who live most of their lives in the vicinity of Singapore. After his mother and father die of different illnesses, Tony Morton is guided through his upbringing by Peter Kincaid, an American philologist who befriended his father during an encounter in the jungles north of Singapore. The first half of the novel is Dickensian in nature, as it describes the struggles of young Tony to accustom himself to life in America and in his efforts to establish his own identity among classmates in a New York City preparatory school. Then follow chapters describing his first involvements with young women. In the center of the story is a chapter, titled “Interruption,” which depicts Tony’s World War I activities, first as a volunteer ambulance driver and then as a pilot in the French Air Service. The details of this chapter closely match those of Parker’s WWI experiences in France. Tony is wounded and shot down in combat, finishing the war as a prisoner of war (Austin Parker was not shot down, did not become a prisoner of war). Before he is shot down he enjoys a romantic weekend with an American woman, Esther Dineen, during a brief visit to Paris, the memory of which remains with him after the war.
After he returns to the United States, he meets and marries Marga, a beautiful blonde New York sophisticate. With the backing of fellow wartime aviators and investors, he establishes a commercial airline operation, The Atlantic Airlines, Inc., operating out of New York City with flights to Atlantic City, Boston, and Florida. He is the operations manager and part owner of the airline, which flies twin-engine aircraft that can accommodate four passengers and two crew members, capable of landing on water. When one of his pilots dies while flight testing a new aircraft, Marga pleads with Tony to stop flying, which he refuses to do. After he sees her embracing a former beau at an all-night party, Tony decides to change the pattern of his life, and at the close of the novel he determines to fly his own aircraft to the Panama Canal Zone to assist some friends in the exploration for metal deposits following a plan that he found among his father’s papers.
The novel follows the classic bildungsroman pattern, in which the life of a young man is followed from his youth to maturity. According to one definition, in the bildungsroman the novel “starts with a loss or a tragedy that disturbs the main character emotionally,” and the main character seeks to restore emotional balance through his life experiences. During the process, “the protagonist gains maturity gradually and with difficulty. Usually, the plot depicts a conflict between the protagonist and the values of society.” Traditionally the central character accepts and accommodates himself to the values of society and is accepted by the society (“Bildungsroman,” Wikipedia). However, in the case of this novel, at least, that formula is modified. The initial tragedy in this novel is the death of Tony’s mother, which occurs in Chapter 1. His father’s later death (Chapter 2) adds to his sense of loss. His guardian, Peter Kincaid, provides guidance and assistance to Tony, who appears to have been able to establish his sense of emotional balance as his school experiences conclude. Then his World War I experiences occur, which disrupt his emotional balance. As a result of his wartime experiences, Tony returns to the United States with his emotional balance disturbed; due to the stresses of aerial combat he now has a new tragic experience; one of not being able to integrate himself into the new postwar American society. If the first half of the novel is taken up with his attempts to accommodate himself to his first set of tragic circumstances, the second half of the novel describes his efforts to accommodate himself to his second set of tragic circumstances.
The signs that his wartime experiences have disturbed his emotional or psychological balance are first evident when he considers what he will do after the war ends. His first reflection on his situation occurs when he returns to Paris in January of 1919 after being released from a German prison and reads through the letters that have accumulated during his time as a prisoner of war. He reflects that “it was difficult for him to realize that there was another kind of life awaiting him, difficult for him to realize that all these things of Paris and the Front were irrevocably ended.” He was tired of the war, yet he “felt too exhausted to face this frustration of a scheme of things [his wartime activities] which had become established.”
“He knew and understood war, could reckon its values and talk its language; and all the things he had known before his departure for Europe now seemed shadowy, vague, illusory. He wanted the security of peace, really longed to have it; and at the same time dreaded its coming.” (162)
When he returns to the United States he tells Peter Kincaid, that “I’ll have to wait until I get over being surprised that I’m alive, before I’ll know what I want to do. You know, that’s quite a puzzling thing—to realize suddenly that you’re alive. Most people never think of it” (172). Although Morton never states it specifically, he is probably referring to the fact that he, like most combat aviators in WWI, never expected to survive the war and had resigned himself to the fatalistic view that sooner or later he would become a casualty. In a later conversation, he admits to Kincaid that “It’s been difficult, . . . this working back into the world again” (211).
Morton discovers a meaningful purpose in his life in his aviation work, and its success is important to him. Although Morton appears to reject the idea, Kincaid tells him that in his aviation work he is helping “to give us a new means of travel so far superior to every old means that there’s no comparison” (214). When Marga objects to his flying because of the hazards involved, he tells her that
“The children of our generation will take flying as a perfectly normal way of getting from one place to another. They’ll be damning one line for the bad luncheons it serves, and praising another because it has the handiest terminal facilities.” (239)
Morton’s predictions are amazingly prescient, as commercial aviation had hardly begun to develop at the time Parker wrote the book. The idea of his Atlantic Airlines company may have been based on a flying operation that flew guests from New York City to the Traymore Hotel on the beach at Atlantic City. Postcards of the time show single-engine seaplanes (called at that time “hydroaeroplanes”) alighting on the coastal waters near the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Morton states that his company is employing twin-engine seaplanes that had been built for use in the war; the primary candidate for that type of aircraft was the Curtiss H-14 aircraft, which had been designed and built for British use along the English coast and over the English Channel. Later in the novel he bemoans the lack of governmental support for commercial aviation. His comments anticipate the creation of the Air Commerce Act, which was passed in 1926. The Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), forerunner of the Federal Aviation FAA, was established in 1938. (He also predicts—more than once—that there will soon be another, greater war than the war that has just concluded.)
Almost immediately after he decides that he will leave New York City to serve as a pilot on the engineering project in the Canal Zone area, he meets Esther Dineen outside the Biltmore Hotel. He had tried unsuccessfully to locate her in France before he returned to the United States and often had thought of her since. Her unexpected appearance creates a sudden desire to pursue their relationship. However, he quickly restrains that impulse as he tells her that “I’d rather have you remember me as the dashing young warrior, in his go-to-Paris uniform, . . . when all the brothers were valiant and all the sisters virtuous.”
“I’d give a lot, Esther,” he continued feelingly, “if I could saunter out from one of those old shanty barracks today, and see a half-dozen machines all lined up ready for a patrol.” (306)
Tony concludes by telling Esther that
“A person has to find his own sort of anaesthetic against life. One man does it in the rawhide business, another in Wall Street, and another by growing the best strawberries in the lower section of the southwest corner of some damn county in Ohio. It doesn’t make much difference if he only finds it.” (311)
After saying good-bye to Esther in an unkind and abrupt manner, he prepares for his flight to Panama. In the final scene of the novel he is wearing his flying gear, about to test the engines on the aircraft he intends to fly to Panama. He tells Kincaid that “I’ve made up my mind. I’m on my way. And I’m not coming back. . . . . I have to have action in my life.” His final comment to Kincaid is about his father: “He let society, the old social system, come along and put water in his wine. To hell with society! I don’t owe it anything” (321).
Tony Morton’s response to the pressures of accommodating himself to society is to reject the idea of acceptance, and in a romantic and defiant gesture, he uses his airplane as an escape vehicle.
After the war ended, Parker returned to the United States and commenced a career as a writer. After the war, Parker continued his writing career. He wrote two works of fiction for younger readers based on his flying experiences in France, Bob Thorpe, Sky Fighter in the Lafayette Flying Corps (1919), and Bob Thorpe, Sky Fighter in Italy (1920). He wrote another story for younger readers, Tom of the Raiders (1921), about a young boy participating in the U. S. Civil War. In the 1920s he published many stories in The Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines. In the 1930s he wrote screenplays for Hollywood films, including Honor Among Lovers (1931), which starred Claudette Colbert, and The Rich are Always With Us (1932). He married twice, first to Phyllis Duganne, a prolific and successful writer of short stories, and then to Miriam Hopkins, a talented motion picture actress. Both marriages ended in divorce. Austin Parker died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1938 at the age of 46.
Elliott White Springs, Leave Me with a Smile
Like the central figure of Here’s to the Gods, the central figure of Elliott White Spring’s Leave Me With a Smile is an aviator who returns from the war surprised to find himself alive and frustrated in his efforts establish his individual course of action.
Elliott White Springs was a top-scoring American ace during World War I. Son of a wealthy South Carolina mill owner, he graduated from Princeton University and enlisted in the U. S. Air Service. Trained in England, he and two of his best friends joined the Royal Air Force and flew with 85 Squadron, commanded by Billy Bishop, one of the highest-scoring Allied aces. Springs then joined the American 148th Aero Squadron, which flew in support of units of the British army. He was shot down once and badly wounded, and flew in some of the most intense action of the war during the summer of 1918. He was credited with shooting down twelve German aircraft.
When he returned to the United States early in 1919, he embarked briefly on an aviation career before becoming an author. His first publishing success was War Birds, Diary of an Unknown Aviator, which was based on the diary of fellow WWI aviator John Grider, who disappeared in flight while flying a combat patrol with Springs in June of 1918. Springs wrote three collections of short stories and three other novels, all based on his experiences as an aviator during the war. Leave Me With a Smile was published in 1928. Unimpressed with Springs’ literary efforts, his father repeatedly requested that Springs devote his post-war energies to helping him run the family-owned South Carolina mills.
The central figure of Leave Me With a Smile is Henry Winton, whose character appears to be modeled closely on that of the author. Like Springs, Winton is a returned World War I flying ace whose father wants him to return to South Carolina to help run the family mill. When he first returns from the war, Winton thinks of himself as a trained killer whose profession has suddenly been abolished:
“Two years ago he was bombing Cambrai with little twenty-pound bombs, diving down to within a hundred feet of the ground, dodging about the drained canal where the machine guns were hidden. He had been happy then, looking death in the face and laughing; . . . But today, secure, safe, and smug, he was miserable.” (11)
He reflects that “two years abroad—eight months of it at the front—had left his mind hard and brittle” (17).
When Winton attends a dance in New York City given for returning aviators, he meets Phyllis Storm, the attractive and vivacious wife of an American aviator, Harry Storm, whom Winton knew in France. Storm has not yet returned to the United States following war’s end, preferring instead to remain in Europe and fly with the Polish Air Force as part of its efforts to establish independence. Phyllis and Harry married a few days before he departed for France, where Storm apparently engaged with as many women as he did German fliers.
Initially Winton does not realize that Phyllis is Harry Storm’s wife, as she is behaving as if she were single. Winton soon falls in love with her and they impulsively travel to Montreal where they carry on an affair away from the familiar environment of New York City. When they return to New York, Henry’s father informs Henry that the press is reporting their activities, and causing embarrassment to both families. He persuades Henry to return to South Carolina to learn the business of operating a mill.
No sooner does Henry return to South Carolina, however, than he receives a request to speak on behalf of the Liberty Bond effort in the New York City area. The sponsors of the drive believe that his reputation as a flying ace would help draw crowds and increase contributions. Initially Henry does not want to participate, believing that he would not be a good speaker, but his father insists that he do so, stating that it would help the cause and make the family name better known. Henry is happy to return to New York and resume his affair with Phyllis, and discovers to his surprise that he is able to give a convincing bond rally presentation, which invariably causes an enthusiastic response from the crowd. His participation allows him and Phyllis to re-ignite their relationship. However, at one Bond Drive meeting, another bond drive speaker, an army Colonel, makes disparaging comments about the British effort in the war, depicting them as retreating under the German attack until an American division appeared and turned back the Germans. Henry, whose flying activities directly supported British forces during the war (as did Elliott Springs’), becomes enraged, and calls the Colonel a liar. A scuffle follows, during which Henry attacks the Colonel and engages in a fight onstage, which is reported in the press (99-100). Chagrined, Henry returns to the South Carolina mills.
After working in the mills for a brief time, Henry tells his father he no longer wants to work in the mills and returns to New York. When he arrives, however, he is surprised to learn that Phyllis does not want to see him, and he discovers that she is in a relationship with one of his wartime friends, a fellow aviator named Johnny Warren. Angry and hurt, he returns to his life in the South Carolina mills. After a brief period of time, he begins a casual relationship with a South Carolina mill girl. When she informs him that she is pregnant, he makes the gentlemanly response and agrees to marry her. However, his marriage to a mill girl is far beneath his family’s social status, and his father refuses to have anything to do with him and his new wife. Then the girl confesses that she is not pregnant and runs off with another man. The Southern Code demands that Henry avenge this wrong, but when he locates the girl she is dying from a disease. Released from his unhappy relationship with his mill girl and his father, Henry returns to New York. However, when he arrives in New York City, he realizes that he no longer wishes to continue in the relationship with Phyllis, as it is causing him to live life on someone else’s terms, and as the novel ends, he departs on a new life.
Like Tony Morton, Henry Winton experiences problems adjusting to peacetime life in the United States. He repeatedly recalls one mission in which he was the only pilot in his flight to return, all five of the other pilots in his flight having been shot down by attacking German aircraft. Attacked by a larger numbers of Fokkers, Henry had no choice but to turn to engage the German fighters, knowing that many of his men might be shot down. As the flight commander, he feels the loss of his men deeply, as it is the responsibility of the flight leader to protect the safety of the others in his flight to the best of his ability. But the superior numbers of German fighters left him no option but to turn and fight instead of running away. This episode is based on an event that Elliott Springs himself experienced as a flight commander in the 148th Aero Squadron in August 1918, when he was the only one of five aircraft in his flight to return.
Throughout the novel, whenever he feels the pressures of adjusting to peacetime life (acceding to his father’s wishes, accepting responsibility for his actions with the mill girl), he thinks of this wartime episode, in which the Fokkers are descending upon him as he occupies a vulnerable position. In an extended episode after his fight with the Colonel, Henry tells Phyllis about it, reliving the experience in its entirety.
One night, when he and Phyllis are alone together, he looks for something to drink to calm his nerves when suddenly: “The door swung open behind him and his heart jumped as if he had heard the Spandaus [German machine guns] firing. It was racing wildly as he turned around. It was only Phyllis.”
“Why don’t you go to sleep?” she asks.
“I can’t,” he responds. “I’ve come all unraveled. I’ve been trying to forget the damn war. I can’t. It’s still in me.”
“Sit down and tell me about it,” she says.
Together they sat at the pantry table and he took her hand. “I thought I was a man but I’m not—I’m a weakling. I can’t get away from it.” She asks, “Away from what?”
“From the front. It’s always with me. I can’t shove it behind. I was a flight commander last summer, a patrol leader. I had five pilots under me then and sometimes on big shows I led as many as thirty planes in a fight. . . . I trained each one carefully and after every patrol we’d practice for the next one. They trusted me and they followed me and stuck by me. . . . I didn’t lose a single man until one day we were out on patrol protecting the planes that were down on the carpet low straffing and doing infantry contact patrol. . . . Five Fokkers went down first right under me leaving the rest of them up in the edge of the clouds. I had to go after them and my men stuck right with me. I had to go down! If I hadn’t, those machines down low wouldn’t have had a chance. They’d have been shot down like so many ducks. We got to those first five ones and made them turn back to fight us and then the rest of the Fokkers came down on us. We fought ‘em to a finish but I lost every man. They were all killed but me—I led them down—I took them in—and I came back.” (103-106)
As he relates the episode, Henry starts to sob. Phyllis tries to comfort him: “You’ll feel better after talking about it. Now you can sleep. It’s all right now.” But Henry says “No, I can’t sleep. They all come back at night and sit on my bed and talk to me. They come back and we plan patrols again—I tell each one what I expect of him and then we go down on those Fokkers again” (108).
As he leaves Phyllis behind at the New York City train station at the end of the novel, he thinks to himself:
“The battle was won, the Fokkers were driven back. Five men lay in shallow graves. He had not deserted them; he was still at their head; he would go down firing, fighting to the last.” (288)
Although this image is intended to suggest that Henry Winton has successfully survived society’s efforts to limit his behavior in ways that he does not desire, it also suggests that the images of war that had so strongly affected his behavior will continue to do so in the future.
Unlike Henry Winton, Elliott Springs rejected neither his New York City romance nor his father. He married Frances Hubbard Ley, a New York City girl, in 1922. After his father died in 1931, Springs set aside his writing career to manage the Springs Mills industries based in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Through his creative energies, he was able to transform the Springs Mills into an unusually profitable company.
Ramon Guthrie, Parachute
Like Elliott Springs and Austin Parker, Ramon Guthrie was an American aviator during World War I. Before becoming an aviator, he was initially an ambulance driver for the volunteer American Ambulance Service.
Ramon Guthrie was born in New York City on January 1, 1896. He attended public school in Hartford and by the time he was nineteen he was working at the Winchester Arms factory in New Haven. In 1916 he enlisted in the Connecticut National Guard, serving with the 10th Connecticut Field Artillery Regiment. Guthrie eventually resigned from the National Guard and enlisted in the French Army as a volunteer ambulance driver with the American Ambulance Field Service.
He arrived in France in the summer of 1916 and was assigned to Section 9 which was then serving with the French armies fighting in the Vosges Mountain region of Alsace-Lorraine. In 1917 joined Section 3, which had been attached to the French Army of the Orient then engaged in fighting in the Balkans. By November Guthrie found himself dodging shells while driving over the wild and rugged roads in the mountains of Albania and northern Greece.
After the United States entered the war against Germany it took administrative control of the volunteer American ambulance sections. His section was ordered back to Paris where it was disbanded. Guthrie enlisted in the Army Air Service on November 6, 1917. He completed his training by June 14, 1918 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. He served as an observer with the 11th Aero Squadron, with which he flew from September of 1918 until the Armistice. He flew primarily with pilot Lieutenant Vincent P. Oatis. Guthrie was apparently a very good shot with the machine gun. One account describes how, as Oatis and Guthrie were flying in their aircraft, they overtook a covey of partridges and used them for target practice, killing one bird. Both Guthrie and Oatis were awarded the Silver Star for bravery. On September 18, 1918 Guthrie was cited for exceptional gallantry during the Battle of Conflans and credited with the destruction of four enemy planes during a single flight. The Silver Star, a decoration established in July of 1918, was not commonly awarded during World War I.
Unlike the other two novels, Parachute features two central characters, Tony Rickey and Harvey Sayles. Both were pilots in the war and, as the novel begins, are patients at the Elizabeth Warren Clipper Memorial Hospital for Aviators in Berkenmeer, New York, located on the shores of Lake Undega. This fictional hospital in a fictional town is a thinly veiled reference to an actual hospital for aviators, the Mary Imogen Bassett Hospital, located in Cooperstown, New York, on the shores of Lake Otsego. The hospital appears to have served as a rest home for aviators to recover from the mental and physical stresses of combat before returning to civilian life. It is certainly described in that fashion in the novel; Tony Rickey is recovering from an injury to his arm which he received in the process of shooting down a German observation balloon in a SPAD aircraft, and Harvey Sayles has been psychologically damaged as a result of three separate incidents in which the aircraft he was piloting inexplicably caught fire in flight. In the third incident, Sayles barely was able to land the aircraft before it was consumed by fire.
Tony Rickey is a blunt, direct, relatively unpolished individual. He is quite unlike the typical American World War I pilot, who was normally a college graduate and came from a well-to-do family. If Rickey benefitted from a college education, he does not reveal that in his manners and actions in the novel, and the narrator refers to him as “a Wop from Peoria.” Harvey Sayles, on the other hand, is intellectually inquisitive, nervous, and more refined in his tastes and sensibilities. These two individuals, so unlike in manner and traits, become best friends, probably because Sayles admires Rickey’s direct manner and Rickey appreciates Sayles’ insightful comments about how to interact successfully with other people. Sayles is the ego component that complements Rickey’s id. Unfortunately, no superego element appears in the novel to govern the excesses of both.
While other aviators are identified in the novel, the actions of these two individuals are the focus of the novel. The other aviators, cast in the more normal mode, are happy to follow the hospital regimen, but Rickey and Sayles object, each in his own way, to the mechanical and artificial routine of the hospital. At a dance given for the newly arrived aviators, Rickey is drawn to Natalie Gortion, the reserved but attractive wife of a local businessman, Arthur Gortion. Gortion, whose family represents the highest social class of the Berkenmeer society, met his wife while he was working as an undersecretary in the American embassy at Petrograd before the war and married her before his family had a chance to object to, or even meet, her. As the novel opens, the marriage has developed into a relationship more formal than intimate. For some reason that is unexplained to nearly everyone who observes, Natalie is drawn to Tony Rickey, and Harvey Sayles encourages and advises Rickey in his efforts.
Not that Rickey needs any assistance in his efforts to move into the Gortion orbit. Under the pretense of repairing Gortion’s motorboat boat and red Stutz motorcar, Rickey becomes a regular visitor to the Gortion mansion, located some distance along the lake shore from the hospital. Arthur Gortion is unable to see the potential for trouble between his wife and Rickey, due to his wife’s well established hesitancy to engage in social events and Rickey’s often crude and unpolished manner. When Gortion leaves for New York City on business, Rickey and Natalie Gortion begin their affair.
While Rickey is pursuing Natalie Gortion, Harvey Sayles enters into what appears to be an adversarial relationship with Adrienne Halleck, the Red Cross worker assigned to the Berkenmeer Recreation House, where social activities designed to help the aviators reintegrate with society are held. Adrienne Halleck, educated at Vassar, is the perfect Red Cross worker: organized, efficient, and unlikely to be affected by romantic involvements. According to the narrator, “Her family had always deplored her taciturnness and her lack of social tact and had prophesied that she would be an old maid” (40). Adrienne Halleck seems an unlikely candidate to appeal to Harvey Sayles, who is consistently outspoken in his criticism of American society in general and of the social customs of the natives of Berkenmeer in particular.
One example shows Sayles’ argumentative attitude; this episode illustrates his intelligence and also illustrates how dangerously close to the brink of mental instability he is. During one rainy evening, when the aviators and Red Cross girls are engaging in a variety of social activities in the recreation center, Sales and Adrienne Halleck engage in a discussion about effect of the war on its participants. When Adrienne Halleck asks if the war hadn’t shaken Sayles’ faith, he responds:
“Nothing shakes my faith—not even my own intelligence, not even the red-faced, fatherly, fat churches purring Christ into a respectable household pet and making divinity mean conniving at, or placid complicity with, the decorous apathy of their vieux magot, Jehovah!”
“Listen!” Sayles was on his feet, with his clenched fist upraised, shouting, “He sitteth on the right hand of God—in a willow rocking-chair, knitting gloves without fingers for the starving Belgians! Oh, the dirty blasphemy! My Christ, the ruffian, ragged, picaresque disturber of the peace—hangs at the right hand of the thief! His hands are nailed and impotent, his crown of thorns is pressed into the few honest brains of humanity, and the blood of cynics and outcasts, the blood of the enemies of Society, flows from his wounded side!”
Sayles’ outburst brings all social activity to an immediate halt:
“The dancers had stopped in their tracks. A chessboard clattered on the floor. One of the girls uttered a stifled little scream. Miss Halleck was pulling at Sayles’ coat. Tony reached him first and caught his upraised arm. Teddy Bascot came running up and started to paw at him, crying, “It’s all right, old man! Here, calm yourself! It’s all right, old man!” (114-115)
Sayles appears to be drawn to Adrienne’s strength of mind and character. She is one of the few people whom Sales encounters who is able to appreciate the logic of his arguments yet is capable of resisting them. She becomes a figure whom Sayles wants to defeat and win over at the same time. She is one of only two people who are willing to follow Sayles’ unorthodox arguments; the other is Tony Rickey.
Toney Rickey, with Sayles’ grudging support, comes up with an idea to develop a company—the Berkenmeer Aviation Company—to be supported by money from Berkenmeer citizens. Rickey initially believes the company will be a success because “there’s a big future in aviation” (157). He proposes that the money be used to buy to Canadian-built Jenny aircraft (called “Canucks”), the kind used to train aviators during the war, which they will use to give rides, give aerial demonstrations, and offer flight instruction. Sayles sees this as an opportunity to bamboozle the gullible Berkenmeer merchants, but Tony initially insists that the plan will earn a profit, however small. Because Tony does not want to obtain money from the Gortions and their associates, many Berkenmeer merchants, envious of the Gortions’ status, subscribe to the plan, feeling pleased that they are making an opportunity for themselves that does not involve the oversight and governance of the town’s leading financial family.
Initially the plan is successful, as the novelty of aviation does draw crowds at local circuses. But as the summer weather changes into the cool autumn weather, business declines. One of the aircraft has an accident, which eats into profits. In mutual efforts of defiance, both Tony and Harvey essentially discharge themselves from the hospital. Tony and Natalie live together in local hotels as Tony takes his aerial show on a circuit of local communities. Harvey Sayles briefly travels to his home city of Baltimore, Maryland, where he temporarily works as an insurance fraud investigator and unsuccessfully tries to re-integrate himself with his family. But his mother is fearful that Harvey is not really well. Her fears are reinforced when Harvey continues his energetic and caustic denunciations of society. Finally, unable to adapt to life in Baltimore, Harvey rejoins Tony Rickey’s air circus activities, where he persuades Tony to let him perform parachute jumps from the aircraft; he had seen a British airman demonstrate parachute jumping, a new postwar development, when he was in Baltimore. Rickey reluctantly agrees, and for a time the parachute jumping feature increases the success of the air shows.
The crisis in the novel occurs when Sayles, possibly envious of Rickey’s relationship with Natalie Gortion, attempts to gain Adrienne Halleck’s affections or at least approval. Although she remains sympathetic to his efforts to adjust to society, she is never able to feel any kind of attraction for him personally, seeing him as a patient still in need of a cure. When he asks her why she can’t find him attractive, she says that he is still “crazy” and is unable to see himself as other people see him (247)—that is, he has no awareness of the fact that his emotional outbursts make other people uncomfortable. Adrienne’s comment causes Sayles to become profoundly upset; though other people may have made similar comments, because Adrienne makes it, Sayles feels its full force, especially because he was hoping to hear supporting, not negative, comments from her.
Distraught by Adrienne’s remarks, Sayles soon afterwards jumps from the aircraft that Tony Rickey is piloting, but without his parachute. The action is described in an abrupt and disturbing manner, without preliminaries:
“The plane lurched suddenly. Tony, who had not been expecting the jump yet, jerked at the stick to steady it. Harvey had jumped too soon; he would land outside the field. He should have waited for the signal. Tony shook his head and turned to watch the parachute blossom out. What he did see, whether it was a hurtling black dot or just the awful emptiness of the air, he never knew, although it was stamped indelibly on his brain as with a die. He . . . craned over [and looked] into the back cockpit. The parachute lay in a neat bundle on the floor.” (258)
When Rickey hurriedly lands the aircraft and rushes to the spot where Sayles fell, he sees “a bloody, obliterated smear pressed callously into the frozen ground” (259). Sayles’ death brings about a change in Rickey. For a while he is too upset about Sayles’ death to function. Natalie Gortion realizes that she is not attracted to Tony Rickey when he no longer demonstrates his usual self-confidence and gruff belligerency and determines to return to her husband. Rickey persuades her to accompany him one last time as he flies the decrepit and weather-beaten aircraft back to Berkenmeer. The citizens of Berkenmeer, meanwhile, no longer see him as a kind of hero; they believe his actions—in running off with Natalie Gortion and losing money in his flying circus activities—have disgraced the town. In addition, the military hospital has closed and the remaining military aviators have departed, so there is little residual feeling of sympathy for former military aviators. In one last gesture of defiance, he deliberately crashes the aircraft into Lake Undega and swims to shore. The next morning he leaves town on a freight train. His intent is to travel to Peoria and see his father, then continue to California and find a job flying for the movies.
Unlike the main characters in the other two novels considered in the study, neither of the two main characters in Parachute specifically refers to incidents in the war. No flashbacks, dreams, or mental images of the war are mentioned. But it is evident that their characters have been profoundly impacted by their war experiences. Tony Rickey has developed a dogged, survivalist, primitive outlook towards life, in which actions are considered one day at a time with long-term planning nearly absent. Although Harvey Sayles seldom refers to his three fiery aircraft accidents, their cumulative effects have clearly contributed to his occasional near-hysterical outbursts and emotional instability.
Because Guthrie flew as an observer in a two-place observation aircraft during the war, it is tempting to consider that the characters of Tony Rickey and Harvey Sayles are based on himself and the pilot with whom he flew in the war. The pilot with whom he flew in the 11th Aero Squadron was Vincent Oatis, to whom he gives a brief moment of recognition in the novel, when one of the aviators tells the story of “the day they tried to make Vic “Pip” Oatis fly a Breguet with the 96th” (108). No additional details are provided about the episode. There is no information to indicate that the character of Tony Rickey is anything like that of Vic Oatis; in fact, the mention of his name seems to indicate that Oatis should not be identified with Rickey’s character.
However, there is some evidence to suggest that the character of Harvey Sayles is similar to, if not based on, Guthrie’s character. In Kaleidoscope, a commemorative volume of writings celebrating Guthrie’s long post-war career as a poet and teacher at Dartmouth College, one individual describes Guthrie’s habit of arguing in detail:
“His point of view on all things was original. He almost always opened a discussion with a challenging statement. Then as you tried to refute this unacceptable statement, discussion progressed. In the process Ramon explained his position, clarified his initial statement, and invariably led you to accept his original point of view, which through discussion now seemed thoroughly reasonable.” (Meras 72-3)
This is exactly Harvey Sayles’ method.
The hospital setting in which the novel opens is also relevant. According to one of Guthrie’s World War I-era acquaintances, Guthrie suffered a relapse while on the transport ship returning American soldiers to the United States, and he was sent to a Staten Island hospital immediately after the ship docked. (Elliott Springs also suffered a relapse in France at war’s end.) This hospital (one of several in the greater New York City area) served as a kind of holding tank until the individual’s condition was stabilized, when the soldier (or airman) was sent to another hospital for recuperation. The Mary Ware Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown New York was just such a hospital. Guthrie did not leave France until the summer of 1919; he was allowed to enroll in a French university after the armistice; allowing soldiers who wanted to remain in France to study for a period of time slightly eased the problem of transporting thousands of American soldiers back to the United States. However, he was still apparently in a fragile emotional condition a year after the war ended. He certainly had reason to be, having served in the American Ambulance service near the front-line fighting in France and Salonika for a year before joining the American Air Service and flying in three months of intense combat. The same source states that Guthrie was not released from hospital care until 1920 (Fitts 59).
Comparison of the Three Novels
Having reviewed the story lines of these three novels, it is time to review their common elements.
All central characters are aviators who have returned from the war in some kind of damaged physical or emotional condition. All are affected adversely by their war experiences and encounter difficulty reintegrating themselves into American society. The kinds of experiences they lived through in the war caused them to adopt something like fatalistic outlooks, in which they lived for the moment, aware that their lives might be ended the next time that they flew in combat. This mental adjustment to accepting death had become so ingrained that it came as something of a shock to them to discover that when the Armistice occurred, they were still alive. The central characters of the Parker and Springs narratives thought of comrades with whom they fought but who had died during the war. In Guthrie’s narrative, the two central characters had lived through similar experiences. Forming a friendship during their stay in the hospital enabled them to join, however tentatively, together to establish their own individuality in the face of social pressures.
Having survived combat, the central characters were unable to accept the social mores which they had left behind when they went to war. They knew that only those who had shared their experiences (or similar experiences) could ever understand the kinds of perspectives that wartime conditions had created in their psyches.
As a result of the difficulties of returning to a society whose members desired that the aviators re-adopt the “normal” social outlook, the central characters in the novels considered here choose not to do so. Or, rather, they were psychologically unable to make that return. Tony Morton chooses, like Huck Finn, to “light out for the territory,” investing himself in a probably unrealistic scheme to use the airplane to assist in the search for natural resources. Henry Winton rejects both his father’s mills and the woman whose love he has sought for so long, embarking on a train for an unidentified destination. Harvey Sayles leaps to his death from a WWI biplane, and Tony Rickey hops a freight out of Berkenmeer heading west to the promised land of California. Readers might shake their heads at these conclusions, but the wisdom of the central characters’ final decisions is not the point; the aviation training and wartime experiences of these characters (and of their authors) have left them no other choice.
These novels are well above average quality in style and content, and not just because the authors were World War I aviators and therefore knew something about flying; there are actually very few passages directly about flying in any of these novels. There are some wonderfully descriptive passages in each of these novels: Parker’s account of flying into New York City during the winter; Springs’ account of the evolution of the characters and the cultural conditions of the Piedmont South; Guthrie’s description of the social mores of the Berkenmeer citizens. Although it is evident that the authors were aware of the ingredients necessary for a work of successful popular fiction, such as the inner turmoil of the hero (heroes), male-female attraction, and necessity of factual settings, their novels never read as if they were written according to a formula. There are no happy endings here. The women characters are well-developed and serve as the emotional foils against whom the male characters struggle to identify themselves. The women are all fully developed and interesting characters. The other male figures in the stories who significantly impact the development of the central male characters are almost always wartime acquaintances, with whom the central characters can converse with and relate to easily.
Stylistically, these three novels also share a certain amount of world-weary cynicism, as if the authors were aware that any effort on their part to explain the actions of their central characters would meet with some confusion and misunderstanding. Ramon Guthrie’s style is the most acidic (and the wittiest). For a novel that is close to tragic in its conclusion, it is still filled with some of the funniest one-liners in modern literature. A few examples;
Arthur Gortion . . . had just returned from an artillery camp in Oklahoma where he had been a captain and a reliable fourth at bridge. (10-11)
Of Betty Parkinghouse, who saw it as her duty to make every party a lively one: A few minutes of tacit defensive alliance against her joyous spontaneity would form a bond of friendship between people who, when they had been introduced a moment earlier, had failed to catch each other’s names. (24-5)
There were obligatory calisthenics every morning at nine o’clock; but [Harvey] did not believe in the efficacy of the official contortions that pot-bellied medical officers put the aviators through. (27)
A comparison of the characters of Tony Rickey and Harvey Sayles: “The two men had already discovered that they had much in common: they could both walk on their hands, an accomplishment that Sayles held in inordinate esteem, maintaining that the blood thus sent to the head was of great value in nourishing the brain; and they both felt deep contempt for golf, tennis, and rotary motors” (30).
This last example is similar to the style of another, more famous modern classic: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, in which the common and uncommon, the normal and the abnormal, are often linked in a single sentence. Its beginning in a hospital environment and a central character who is either sane in a crazy world or crazy in a sane world is also suggestive of Yossarian in Catch-22. One wonders whether or not Joseph Heller had read Parachute before he started writing his novel.
Guthrie, Ramon. Parachute. Harcourt Brace, 1928.
Nash, John R, editor. Ramon Guthrie Kaleidoscope. Stinehour Press, 1963.
Parker, Austin. Here’s to the Gods. Harpers, 1922.
Springs, Elliott White. Leave ‘Em with a Smile. Doubleday Doran, 1928.