Thomas Wictor

God did a little dance

God did a little dance

Tim likes to say about people who’ve had happy, successful, fulfilling lives, “God did a little dance around him (her).” Like me, he doesn’t actually believe that the Creator singles out individuals for blessings. It’s just Tim’s shorthand for, “It’s great that someone has had such good fortune. I’m glad for them.”

A little more nuance: Like me, Tim believes that we’re all gifted with abilities and opportunities, but it’s up to us to take full advantage of them. The Creator isn’t a puppet master. We ourselves are responsible for our choices during our time(s) here.

I’ve published three books on World War I, and I plan to publish one more. These gave me the opportunity to lecture on “the horrors of war,” but I would never do something so vacuous. For one thing everyone is completely aware of the horrors of war. Also, those who communicate the earth-shattering message that war is bad for children and other living things tend to overestimate their importance in the grand scheme of things.

No book, poem, movie, TV show, song, or interpretative dance ever prevented a war. Nations go to war for reasons of national security; to conquer territory; to exterminate a hated group; to bolster a failing economy; to acquire natural resources; and to settle long-standing racial, ethnic, or religious tensions. Saying, “Give peace a chance!” will have no effect whatsoever on the minds of those taking action for any of the reasons I just stated.

It’s a simple-minded, childish conceit to think that people only go to war because they don’t know how bad it is. What’s even worse is believing that the exalted artist can simply articulate a holy truth—”War is bad!”—and the world will be forever purged of this scourge. The problem is that the people who wage wars do so for their own interests, and many of those who either launch their own wars or require that others launch a war against them are also in the business of slaughtering, torturing, raping, and imprisoning their own people.

The exalted artist is impotent in the world of geopolitics. This is why my military books are purely factual. I trust the readers to know that I’m not celebrating war. There’s no need for me to put in a disclaimer: “Writing a book about flamethrowers or assault troops does not mean that I approve of burning people to death or killing them with hand grenades.”

This is also why I don’t include photos of corpses in my books. It’s not necessary. Those for whom I write understand that war is bad. They’re adults. Some people have said I’m trying to “sanitize” World War I.

If only my books had that power! I’d love to be such a successful writer that my work changed how every single person alive viewed this global conflict. I’d use my godlike influence to change peoples’ minds about lots of things.

No, I choose to withhold photos of corpses because they’re outside the context of the books I publish. I write about weaponry, equipment, tactics, organization, uniforms, and insignia. There’s no place in my books for photos of corpses. Those were actual people, with families. They deserve to be treated with respect.

World War I was full of amazing occurrences that tie in with Tim’s notion of God doing a little dance around people. These are the sorts of stories I like, because they reaffirm my conviction that even in the worst of circumstances, good fortune can often be created.

The Floating Cat-German

On May 24, 1917, First Lieutenant Georg Behrla and Vice-Sergeant Fritz Rosengart of Aviation Detachment 44 took off in their Albatros C.V on a reconnaissance mission. In the German army, the pilot was the chauffeur, and the officer was the one who did the important work. Therefore Rosengart was at the wheel while Behrla manned the flexible machine gun. At a height of 15,000 feet, Rosengart saw enemy fighters and suddenly put the Albatros into a spin. The centrifugal force pinned Behrla to the floor.

At 13,000 feet, Rosengart brought the Albatros out of the spin. As Behrla stood up, the Albatros hit an air pocket and dropped like a stone. Observer-gunners wore neither safety harnesses nor parachutes. Behrla flew out of the cockpit; as the Albatros plunged, Behrla floated in the air about ten feet above it. Like a cat, he twisted his body until he was horizontal and spread his arms and legs to slow his fall and remain stationary relative to the Albatros.

The Albatros regained its lift, and Behrla smashed into the plywood fuselage behind the observer’s cockpit. In his own words, he was crammed in as tightly “as if in a coffin.” Though he’d punched a giant hole in the fuselage, he didn’t damage any of the control cables. Rosengart was able to land the Albatros safely at his base.

Disbelieving, shaken ground crewmen pried Behrla from his coffin, and then he posed for a photo standing in the hole, in full flying gear and holding a riding crop in his left hand. His expression is quite astonishing: It’s a tight-lipped, defiant, chin-down smile. He seems to be daring Providence to do its worst. He can take it. There’s no fear or relief apparent in his face.

In the front cockpit, Vice-Sergeant Rosengart has a similar expression. To him, this is all in a day’s work.

Incredible men. They accepted their fate without resentment. It took me almost fifty years to achieve that mindset.

The Strange Case of Lieutenant Strange

Lieutenant Louis Strange was a member of Number 6 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. He equipped his unarmed Martinsyde S.1 scout with a machine gun on the top wing. The weapon was a Lewis gun, which used a pie-shaped drum for the ammunition. At the time the Lewis gun carried only forty-seven rounds per drum. To change the drum, Strange had to stand up in the cockpit. The drum locked into place on the top of the gun; it had to be twisted in order to change it.

On May 10, 1915, Strange took off in his rattletrap biplane to test his Lewis gun. When he ran across a German two-seater, he fired off all forty-seven rounds without scoring a hit. He unbuckled his safety belt, stood in the cockpit to change the drum, and his Martinsyde immediately flipped over onto its back. Strange was dumped out; he held onto the drum of the Lewis gun with both hands, dangling in the air as his aircraft fell in a flat spin.

Strange tried to swing his legs forward and catch them on the rim of the cockpit, but all he succeeded in doing was kicking his instrument panel to pieces. He then swung his legs behind him and hooked the toes of his boots into the cockpit. By arching his back, he was able to get his entire body into the cockpit. When he was only five hundred feet above the ground, he frantically shoved the control stick to the side and righted the Martinsyde.

This violent maneuver caused him to land in his seat so hard that he flattened it. He now lay on his back on the floor of the aircraft, facing the rear, with his legs sticking out of the cockpit. Somehow he managed to turn himself around and fly back to his base, sitting on the floor, unable to see over the edge of the cockpit and without a single functional instrument to guide him.

His commanding officer reprimanded him for destroying the instrument panel and seat of the Martinsyde. Nobody believed Strange’s story.

After the war Strange read an article in a German newspaper in which two airmen described seeing a British pilot fall out of his plane and hang on to the machine gun. Strange tracked them down, and the three former enemies confirmed that these were indeed the Germans who’d witnessed the Martinsyde flipping over.

The Germans told Strange that as they watched him go down, struggling and kicking, they didn’t have the heart to shoot at him. They were relieved he’d survived the war, because the sight of him hanging helplessly from his Lewis gun had haunted them for years.

I don’t think God did a little dance around First Lieutenant Behrla and Lieutenant Strange. What happened was they kept their heads and overcame nearly insurmountable odds.

But God could easily have helped them keep their heads. That’s well within the realm of possibility.

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