Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
Sitting alone at the controls of an Air Transport Command C-47 during a night flight over the North Atlantic, civilian pilot Ernest K. Gann realizes an opportunity that perhaps only the lonely can fully appreciate.
“The Army is going to kidnap you.” These words, spoken by a Major Clark at the Goose Bay Air Base, marked a turning point in the life of Ernest K. Gann (1910-1991), then a pilot for fledgling American Airlines.
That’s the way things were in 1942 when the United States Army Air Forces absorbed civilian pilots into the Air Transport Command. Gann’s first assignment required flying thirteen hundred miles across the Labrador Sea from Newfoundland and Labrador to a dubious destination in Greenland. Gann records this experience in Chapter 9 of his memoir, “Fate Is the Hunter.”
Gann and his crew slid eastward beneath the stars on their first mission aboard a Douglas DC-3, a reputable workhorse given the Army nomenclature C-47. Their cargo consisted of girders for delivery to a little base hidden within a fiord on the west coast of Greenland. The distance, the North Atlantic winds, and navigating to an obscure landing site all conspired to make their maiden voyage a dangerous enterprise.
Once the plane settled in for its long trek across the dark waters, the weary crew slept quite peacefully, knowing their fate rested in the skillful hands of their Captain. Gann writes, “There was nothing to do now but hold course and wait.”
Gann set his course, airspeed, altitude, made necessary adjustments for the wind, and then found himself fighting weariness and “resenting it because I knew it to be an ill partner to flying.” To ward off the menace, he smoked one cigarette after another until his mouth became parched.
When Gann looked around and saw his copilot, and other crew members dead to the world, weariness gave way to another sensation. “I was suddenly very lonely. And I found it agreeable.”
Agreeable loneliness? How can this be? Gann explains. “For loneliness, I thought, is an opportunity.”
He found his mind free to entertain private thoughts, “which might prove perilous to explore in company.” Loneliness, he observed, “Is not deadening,” except for those “who contrive against the condition because it forces them to think.”
Gann further surmised that “Loneliness can form a magic platform which may transport the meek to thoughts of courage, or even cause the scoundrel to examine the benefits of honesty.”
A time of separation from other human beings, Gann writes, “can energize new conceptions for those usually incapable of any mental experiment.” Yet, “to be thought lonely is automatically to be pitied.” That’s the prevailing mindset. One might hear, “The poor fellow, he must be terribly lonely living by himself,” or, “How do long-haul truckers deal with the lonliness they suffer?”
This automatic assumption about loneliness, according to Gann, is “nursed by those terrified of separation from the mass.” But loneliness carries with it advantages that can fill a need shared by all humans, and that might remain undiscovered until circumstances impose it.
Sitting in the lonely cockpit, “sustained in space by a heartless machine,” Gann “sank into loneliness gratefully because there was, for whatever time the condition might last, no limitations upon my fancies or conceits.”
Captain Gann thought of his unconscious crew, resting in the assurance that all was as it should be, but did not envy them. “They had simply died momentarily and willed me a legacy of night beauty few men could ever contemplate alone.” Sailing along suspended between the Earth and space, the stigma of loneliness had no place in the thinking of Ernest K. Gann.
The days of the true autopilot lay in the future. The C-47 required flying. Gann carried on the business of changing fuel tanks and carefully resetting the gyrocompass.
Whatever the source of loneliness, whether imposed or chosen, the business of living must continue. Descending into inactivity threatens one’s physical and emotional well-being. Life doesn’t come equipped with an autopilot. Just as neglecting the necessary tasks of flying puts the craft in danger, one invites inevitable peril by ignoring the fundamental requirements of maintaining the mind and body.
Many opportunities, otherwise overlooked, surface during lonely hours. Gann observed the night heavens as never before. Venus rose brilliantly, “changing at once from yellow to green to purple and then reversing the show.” As he later looked out at the gradual lightening of the sky, he thought if such beauty could prevail, he might willingly fly forever.
Then it appeared. The enormous mass of Greenland and Gann could not look away from it. Remembering its colorations and magnificent mountains and awesome icecap rising over the horizon, Gann writes, “I had never in all of my flying seen anything to compare with this fantastic exhibition.” He glanced at the clock and could not believe that the flight had held him in his seat for three hours.
The loneliness in the cockpit during the long uneventful flight afforded Gann a view of our majestic planet that went unnoticed while flying busy routes for commercial airlines. And it was too much to keep to himself.
“This magnificence, I reasoned, must be shared regardless of my companions’ determination to pamper their bodies. Otherwise, my loneliness might become ingrown with selfishness, cherished too long, and thus sour all that had passed before.”
Joseph Campbell, in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” describes the last stage of the Hero’s Journey as a return to everyday life, changed, and bearing an elixir to share with others. The change varies with every returning hero, and the elixir takes many forms.
Ernest K. Gann returned from the world of loneliness bearing the gift of a panoramic view of the spectacular landscape. He woke up the crew, swept his hand across the windshield, and asked how they liked such staging for their return to life. The elixir borne by the returning hero changed everything that morning in the C-47.
Soon our heads were aligned, and we crowded upon each other like standees at a theater. And my joy became complete. For these men, each of so different background and nature, at once cast off their drowsiness and joined the mood. We began chattering and our voices were those of small children enraptured with a show. See this … see that! Look there! Who could believe this? Holy mackerel!
The treasures and personal growth one might glean from times of loneliness through reading, meditation, prayer, remembering, creating, or whatever, mean little if not shared. The payoff for the stressful situation that may have brought about the lonely hours surfaces when one gives of the discovered bounty to others.
Only the lonely find themselves compelled to seek companionship from sources commonly overlooked or excluded from everyday life: The friendship of a book, a musical instrument, a writing tablet, a sketchbook, inspirational music, nature, a piece of wood and a few tools, and the like. Above all, the most valuable asset available to the lonely comes through quiet meditation and prayer, communion with God. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
As a young man, David, the future king of Israel, spent countless hours alone in the fields, tending his father’s sheep. He used his loneliness well, for, without a doubt, the inspiration for songs such as Psalm 23 had their genesis on the lonely slopes around Bethlehem.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
And we cannot overlook Psalm 19, perhaps born one night while the sheep slept in the field. David had nothing to do in his loneliness but look up at the familiar starry sky; only tonight, he saw the celestial heavens as never before.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
The captain of the C-47 sliding “eastward beneath the stars” knew something about that.
Availing one’s self of the positive opportunities of loneliness not only passes the time productively but may well benefit others. Ernest K. Gann’s loneliness in the cockpit on subsequent flights gave birth to novels such as The High and the Mighty, Twilight for the Gods, The Aviator, as well as his memoir, Fate is the Hunter.
All in all, the aviator, author, filmmaker, and conservationist authored over twenty-five books—all shared elixir from one for whom loneliness would always be agreeable and filled with unique opportunities known to only the lonely.