Post Road Magazine #8

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupéry -Pete Hausler

Best known for his classic children's book The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was also an accomplished novelist and memoirist. In fact, it could be argued that he was far more competent at writing than at the subject of most of his books: piloting airplanes. For a dozen-plus years preceding the outbreak of World War II, he was a commercial aviator, flying for the French courier company Aéropostale. He was stationed both in South America (flying the spine of the Andes through Chile and Argentina) and in French West Africa (navigating between Toulouse and such African cities as Dakar, Marrakech, Casablanca, and Cairo, and secluded military outposts in the Sahara). Sadly, in 1944 he disappeared without a trace while flying a war-related reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean.

By most accounts, Saint-Exupéry was an average pilot, even after the benefit of the doubt given to aviators of that fledgling era. (An amusingly large number of his chapters begin with phrases like “A minor accident had forced me down.”) But he possessed the inherent character traits of all pioneering airmen; namely, the can-do spirit of a Victorian explorer, and a sanguine and fatalistic acceptance of his dangerous job (like when he offhandedly mentions, “In those days our planes frequently fell apart in mid-air”). Throw in the heart of a philosopher-poet, and what results is the lyrical and sublime aviation narrative Wind, Sand and Stars.

Fans of The Little Prince will gain insight into that strange little book, by reading this strange little book. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that Wind, Sand and Stars is the Ur-consciousness of The Little Prince, and its essence can be found in Wind: the little desert foxes, the plane crashes, the calm acceptance of an impending Saharan death, and finally, the thirst-induced hallucinations, during which Saint-Exupéry likely conjured his children's story.

For example, you can see the kernel of the very idea for Prince in the chapter, “The Plane and the Planet.” Saint-Exupéry writes from the Sahara, atop “the flat top of the frustum of a cone, an isolated vestige of a plateau,” where he had been forced down by some unnamed mechanical malady. Despite his dire situation, he takes great delight in supposing—probably correctly—that he is the first human to walk that particular plateau. While exploring his few acres of virgin sand, he kicks up a black rock and deduces—again probably correctly—that it is a small piece of meteorite. Further reconnoitering turns up a dozen similar stones, and this cosmic observation: “And here is where my adventure became magical, for in a striking foreshortening of time that embraced thousands of years, I had become the witness of this miserly rain from the stars.”

When reading Wind, Sand and Stars, it helps to keep in mind the context. That is, its publication date was 1939, a time when most people had never flown in an airplane. Therefore a reader picking up this book fresh off the press most likely couldn't picture a river, or forest, or a desert, or mountains viewed from thousands of feet in the air. The power of Saint-Exupéry's description and rumination make maps animate. When, prior to his first courier flight, Saint-Exupéry asks a veteran pilot to give him some pointers on the route, “Guillaumet did not teach Spain to me, he made the country my friend.” He speaks of three orange trees on the edge of a small town that are problematic when flying low. He describes a small, hidden brook west of the town of Motril, that “breaks up a whole field,” and consequently earns the grudging compliment “that serpent in the grass.” He chronicles an otherwise innocent, empty meadow where if he tried to land, “suddenly bang! there are thirty sheep in your wheels.” The Spain thus described by Guillaumet, becomes to Saint-Exupéry “a sort of fairyland,” where he marks on his map not only “the farmer, the thirty sheep, the brook,” but also “a shepherdess forgotten by the geographers.”

The most gripping chapters in Wind feature Saint-Exupéry describing the harrowing dangers faced by early aviators. These risks mostly involved crashing, and the subsequent extrication from hostile or barren landscapes. In the chapter, “The Men,” Saint-Exupéry describes the miraculous self-rescue of Guillaumet, the above-mentioned mentor. Guillaumet's plane is brought down by stormy winter weather high in the Andes, and after five days of fruitless searching from the air by his fellow pilots, he's given up for dead. Seven days after disappearing, news comes that Guillaumet is indeed alive, that he has dragged his ill-clad and injured body over mountain peaks, in sub-zero temperatures, through fifteen-foot snow drifts until reaching a settlement. His first words to his friend Saint-Exupéry are: “I swear that what I went through, no animal would have gone through.” From that point on, Guillaumet is elevated to status of demi-god, and his tenacious joie de vivre runs as an inspirational thread throughout the rest of the author's own risky adventures and near-tragic mishaps.

One of those adventures is a breathtaking account of an afternoon-long battle to keep his plane in the air over the Andes, after being caught in hurricane-force winds. Saint-Exupéry modestly starts his account with the proclamation, “In beginning my story of a revolt of the elements . . . I have no feeling that I shall write something which you will find dramatic.” This had me wondering if it was false modesty, for I have seldom read anything so dramatic as this thirteen-page depiction of man versus nature. The pacing is exquisite, near perfect. Saint-Exupéry manages to convey the acute sense of his sheer physical exhaustion during his prolonged fight, yet the description never feels overlong or exaggerated. And considering the seeming ease with which these early planes crashed and/or fell apart, you really have no idea if he will keep his plane aloft, or if it will be dashed into the side of a mountain and require a Guillaumet-type miracle escape.

Guillaumet's escape is invoked again in “Prisoners of the Sand,” except this time it is Saint-Exupéry himself who defies death. While attempting a long-distance flight between Paris and Saigon, Saint-Exupéry drifts off-course over the Sahara, and an ensuing crash totals his plane. Miraculously, both he and his mechanic, Prévot, survive the crash virtually unscathed. However, they only have a quart of water, one orange, a few grapes, and a bit of cake. And to make matters worse, they have drifted so far from the intended flight path, they have little hope of rescue. What ensues is a trek in hopes of finding a desert outpost or oasis before the ravages of thirst and dehydration strike them down. Adding to the hardship is one dismal fact that Saint-Exupéry knows: under typical weather conditions, man can last approximately nineteen hours in the Sahara without water. A favorable, cooling wind initially prolongs their magical nineteen-hour window. After a day, however, the wind changes direction, normal weather conditions return, and clock starts ticking

On the second night, Saint-Exupéry seemingly gives up; he digs a hole, covers himself with sand and calmly awaits death. In the morning, finding that he's still alive, he scrambles to his feet, his will to live restored, and admonishes his companion: “Our throats are still open. Get along, man!” By the third day, pilot and mechanic have each trekked an unbelievable 125 miles, on almost no water. Finally, when they start seeing spots in front of their eyes, when they have to rest every 200 yards, when they can no longer swallow from lack of saliva, when the delirium-induced mirages are nearly constant, salvation: “I had one last hallucination—three dogs chasing one another. Prévot looked, but could not see them. However, both of us waved our arms at a Bedouin.” The Bedouin rescues them, and in gratitude, Saint-Exupéry addresses an earnest and eloquent coda to him:

[Y]ou will dwell forever in my memory yet I shall never be able to recapture your features. You are Humanity and your face comes into my mind simply as man incarnate...All my friends and all my enemies marched towards me in your person. It did not seem to me that you were rescuing me: rather did it seem that you were forgiving me. And I felt I had no enemy left in all the world.

It is these heart-warming paeans to his fellow Man, that keep Wind, Sand and Stars spinning. Pilots by their very nature are loners and Saint-Exupéry is no different. He clearly loves the solitude of the cockpit, where he can ruminate on man's place in the universe. And yet his glee in the company of humanity is ever-apparent •

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