Wednesday, April 06, 2011
In March of 1944, Nicholas Alkemade was the tail gunner in a British Lancaster bomber on a night mission to Berlin when his plane was attacked by German fighters. When the captain ordered the crew to bail out, Alkemade looked back into the plane and discovered that his parachute was in flames. He chose to jump without a parachute rather than to stay in the burning plane. He fell 18,000 feet, landing in trees, underbrush, and drifted snow. He twisted his knee and had some cuts, but was otherwise all right.
Suddenly all is quiet
All the noise has stopped and I am falling
And now I know the time of my death.
I have 100 seconds left
And I will be smashed into the soft black Dutch earth.
At 18,000 feet
That’s three and half miles to you
It will take me a full minute and a half
The air rushing by my leather flying cap
Whistles and roars
But now I am at peace
In a world at war
Knowing that I am falling
Falling towards the earth.
I have chosen this course
I have chosen to die by jumping
My parachute a mass of flames
So I launched myself
Past the jagged metal
Fighting hard against
The groaning spars.
The trail of fuel flame
Lighting the night sky in a streamer of glory descending
How many times over the past months
Have I done the calculation
As have all the beery boys in the mess
In that time when we are walking back
In grim fraternity when the alcohol leaves only a bitter taste.
And now I am alone
With only the stars for company
As in some Suffolk lane trailing the others home
Turning and rolling I spread my arms
Like an angel
Like an eagle
Like the son of man upon the coss.
How long have I been falling
In No more than thirty seconds
The ground wil rise to meet me
Like a soft dark lover coming out of the darkness
Of a hidden doorway to embrace me with
I have lived with death all around me
But never thought I’d experience
The time of dying so clearly,
Falling through the winter night sky.
For a moment I am buoyed by the air
But I know that I am accelerating
Second by second until I reach terminal velocity
Of around 125 miles an hour
And the ground embraces me.
In the mess we always said it would be better to jump
Than to go down in a burning coffin
The flames scorching and scouring with pain
Here there is no pain
Just apprehension at approaching oblivion
I am the only man
Apart from the one facing the firing squad
Or with a noose around his neck
Who knows the exact moment
When he will reach the great darkness and whatever lies beyond.
And lying in the snow, in the now
Wrenched with exquisite pain
But, by some miracle, living,
To face the sort of death
That other men look forward to
And never know the time of its coming.