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High Flight

Posted: September 4, 2017 10:16 a.m.
Updated: September 5, 2017 1:00 a.m.

“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. 

Hovering 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.” – John Magee

I have heard this poem, “High Flight,” quoted for years. It was one of my grandfather’s favorites, and a favorite of his children, particularly his youngest, my uncle, Gene.

I love it, too, although I can neither quote it in full nor pretend to identify with it. But Gene, indeed, all my uncles, my parents, that whole generation, could certainly relate. They all flew pretty danged high.

Clearly, I am not worthy. But I’ll try.

We lost Gene earlier this week. Ever a fighter, he finally had to stop punching after more than a decade of battling a particularly cruel and pernicious form of Parkinson’s Disease.

For a man who loved such activities as snow skiing and tennis, to have your body betray you with a slow slide that you get to watch unfold a little more every day is tough enough. But for a man also possessed of a deeply intellectual nature and a love of verbal jousting, a man who built a stellar career with language, for that man to have to struggle to find words and formulate thoughts is as hard a combination gut punch, as I can imagine.

Rule number one, kid; life ain’t fair. I learned that lesson one night, when I was but an obnoxious high school punk, playing poker with him and two other uncles. I learned quite a few valuable lessons that evening.  “If you can’t win, don’t play,” and, “never, ever try to draw to an inside straight” are two that immediately come to mind -- although far more important realizations -- such as there’s no free ride, no honorable shortcut from hard work and no such thing as “disposable” income -- would come later.  

I don’t really have the words for this. I’ve been grieving and rejoicing since I got the news. I will miss him terribly. I am glad he is no longer suffering. I hate that the world has lost yet another good and bright light. I love that he is reunited with loved ones. 

And so it goes.

It’s not enough to say Gene was larger than life -- he was.  He and his wife (my wonderful Aunt Mary Allen, whom we lost in 1996) were who we kids wanted to be. They lived in a cool apartment in a cool city. They had cool jobs and did cool things. He was a journalist -- one of the best -- and I can remember getting an incredible thrill seeing Uncle Gene on some TV show like “Meet the Press.”

They always, but always, were wonderfully welcoming, nurturing and fun. As they had no children, they did a lot with nieces and nephews. One of my earliest memories is seeing the Preservation Jazz Society perform at Wolf Trap Park when I was maybe 7. We sat on the lawn with a blanket and a big picnic basket and my aunt and I wound up in the conga line in front of the band at the end of the night. Another time, he got us into the White House Rose Garden to see President Richard Nixon meet Russian Premiere Leonid Brezhnev. When United Press International sent Gene to cover the ’72 Democratic Convention in Miami, my older brother and sisters went, too. 

They really enjoyed being with us even more than we loved being with them.

Gene was a highly accomplished man possessed of a quick wit, deep intelligence, feisty, irascible streak, wonderful and acerbic sense of humor, and kind, humble demeanor. I’ve never known anyone better able to engage with anyone, anywhere, in my life. Even as the downhill slide steepened and he had to move from the apartment to an assisted living facility, within the first three days he had met -- and teased out the life stories -- of probably a dozen or so of his fellow residents.

Recently, my sister was visiting Gene and they started talking about a poem he loved but couldn’t quite remember. She finally figured out it was “High Flight,” and Googled it for him. Within moments, with a little prompting, it came back to him and she recorded this wonderful video of him reciting the poem – clearly, happily, perfectly, from memory.

Fly high, Gene, and touch the face of God.


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