Whoever said that man was not meant to fly must have never been to a skate park.
To see someone get this kind of air on the sheer force of momentum, wheels and skill is exhilarating. It brings to mind the oft-quoted words of airman and poet John Magee, “I broke the surly bonds of earth, and touched the face of God.”
John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was an American test pilot who tested fighter planes for the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II. His poem High Flight (1941) was inspired by test flights in the U.K. where his task was to fly high-performance planes straight up into the air, as fast and as high as he could, until the engine failed. He would then recover control of the plane on the way down, restart the engine, and land. Reaching higher into the sky than probably anyone before them, the pilots who performed these tests certainly had a unique perspective on the heavens. In fact, the final line of the poem came to Magee just as he was reaching peak altitude of 30,000 feet in a Spitfire Mk1. Upon safely landing the plane, he returned to his desk and finished writing the poem. Sadly, only a few months later, during a similar flight test there was a mid-air collision, and, unable to eject because of a mechanical error with the plane’s canopy, Magee died in the crash. He died doing what he loved, however, and he served the Allies bravely. He also left us with some immortal lines of poetry.
Interestingly, there is a lesser-known line that Magee also wrote, but which is almost always left out when people quote the poem. Even though the words as quoted are impactful, the omitted line has always provided an important dimension to the poem’s meaning, for me, so I have decided to include it here for you. With the additional middle line, Magee’s poem reads, “I broke the surly bonds of earth, reached out my hand, and touched the face of God.” [my emphasis] It seems to me that the reaching out of the hand is a vital part of the act. We can fly high, yes, but unless we reach out our hand, perhaps we can never hope to touch the face of God. We should aspire, most definitely, but then we must also take action, take risk, reach out our hand. It seems to me that there is a very important message contained in this line, namely: the Universe responds to the reach.
So even if we are not leaping through the air on a skateboard, or climbing 30,000 feet in a fighter plane, we can each find inspiration to reach for new heights in our own lives. And as we do, we should keep this in mind: It is not the nature of the task, but the quality of the striving, that is of the essence.