I AM DEAD
This is the testament of Jimmy Collins, the test pilot.
It is, as he himself phrased it, “The word of my life and my death. The dream word that breathed into my nostrils the breath of life and destroyed me too.”
The body of Jimmy Collins was found on Friday in Pinelawn Cemetery, near Farmingdale, L. I., beneath the wreckage of the Grumman ship he had tested for the navy. That body was broken, mangled, twisted, in a 10,000-foot crash.
His testament, the utterance of a poet who flew, first in search of beauty, then in search of bread, is bravely, lyrically alive, straight and whole, as was the spirit of the man who wrote it.
He wrote it—laughingly, he said; grimly, we believe—nine months ago. This is how it happened:
In October Collins went to Buffalo to test a new Curtiss bomber-fighter for the navy. Before he left he took dinner with his old friend Archer Winsten, who conducts the In the Wake of the News column for the Post. Winsten wrote a column about Collins and his spectacular job, begged the flyer to do a guest column for him on his return, telling of the Buffalo feat.
What happened after that is best told in Collins’s own words.
He wrote to his sister, out West: “I got to thinking it over and thought maybe I wouldn’t come back because it was a dangerous job, and then poor Archer would be out of a column.... So I playfully wrote one for him in case I did get bumped off. Thoughtful of me, don’t you think?... I never got bumped off. Too bad, too, because it would have been a scoop for Arch....”
Last Friday’s job was to have been Jimmy’s last as a test pilot. He took it because he needed the money, for his wife and children. Soon he was to have started on a writer’s career.
Jimmy’s writing career ends today with his testament. He prefaced it with the following:
“The next words you read will be those of James H. Collins, and not ‘as told to,’ although you might say ghost-written.”
I AM DEAD.
How can I say that?
Do you remember an old, old story? I shall tell you just the beginning of it: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God....” That’s enough for you to see what I mean.
It is by the word that I can say that.
Not by the spoken word. I cannot say to you by the spoken word, “I am dead.”
But there is not only the spoken word. There is also the written word. It has different dimensions in space and time.
It is by the written word that I can say to you, “I am dead.”
But there is not only the spoken and the written word. There is also the formless, unbreathed word of mood and dream and passion. This is the word that must have been the spirit of God that brooded over the face of the deep in the beginning. It is the word of life and death.
It was the word of my life and my death. The dream word that breathed into my nostrils the breath of life and destroyed me too.
Dreams. And life. And death.
I had a dream. Always I had a dream. I cannot tell you what that dream was. I can only tell you that flying was one of its symbols. Even when I was very young that was true. Even as long as I can remember.
When I became older, it became even more true.
So deep a dream, so great a passion, could not be denied.
Finally I did fly.
“Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, when the evil days drew not nigh....” Part of the same old story.
I remembered the dream of the days of the youth of my flying, that burst of glory, and how the world and my shining youth itself shone with the radiance of it.
It was my creator. It created life for me, for man shall not live by bread alone. Man cannot. Only his dreams and his vision sustain him.
But the evil days drew nigh. The glow died down, and the colors of the earth showed up. Ambition, money. Love and cares and worry. Curious how strong the strength of weakness is, in women and their children, when you can see your own deep dreams, unworded, shining in their eyes. I grew older too, and troublous times beset the world.
Finally there came a time when I would rather eat than fly, and money was a precious thing.
Yes, money was a precious thing, and they offered me money, and there was still a small glow of the deep, strong dream.
The ship was beautiful. Its silver wings glistened in the sun. Its motor was a strong song that lifted it to high heights.
Down out of the blue heights we hurtled. Straight down. Faster. Faster and faster. Testing our strength by diving.
Yes, I had grown older. But grim fear now. The fear of daring and courage. But tempered too with some of the strong power of the old dream now too.
A roar of flashing steel and a streak of glinting ... oh yes, oh yes, now ... breaking wings. Too frail ... the wings ... the dream ... the evil days.
The cold but vibrant fuselage was the last thing to feel my warm and living flesh. The long loud diving roar of the motor, rising to the awful crashing crescendo of its impact with the earth, was my death song.
I am dead now.
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