As a lover of aviation, one of my favorite poems is High Flight, by WWII pilot John Gillespie Magee, Jr. How amazing that his beautiful words are spoken at almost every winging ceremony across the world? That they are featured in Arlington National Cemetery. The poem truly resonates with those who know the joy of flight. I am very excited to share an interivew with Ray Haas, who is turning John’s story not only into a book, but a movie as well. Can’t wait!
Ray Haas has written plenty in his life. However, it has all been in personal journals, small essays, and software. “Touching the Face of God” is his first official public offering, but certainly not the last. Aviation is certainly Ray’s passion, followed closely by speculative fiction. He is actively working on projects in both genres.
Ray currently lives in eastern North Carolina, having moved there from Portland, Oregon due to requirements of his day-job. He hopes to someday make it so that his writing eventually becomes his day-job!
Starting his professional career by washing windows, Ray enlisted in the Navy and became first an Electronics Technician, and then a Data Processing Technician. On a Navy research & development project, Ray worked on the first non-tactical shipboard-based computer. Getting his first email account in 1976, Ray started a career that lasts to the present day.
Also in 1976 Ray started taking flying lessons, first learning how to fly a sailplane. After earning his Private Pilot’s License (Gliders – aero-two), Ray went on to obtain his Single-Engine Land (SEL) and Instrument (IFR) ratings. Ray was the proud owner of a Piper Warrior for several years.
What sparked off the idea of your book?
I have always been interested in aircraft and flying. Growing up in the late 50s and 60s, I was entranced with the space program, and really wanted to become an astronaut. That dream was dashed when I found out that my extreme near-sightedness would prevent me from becoming a military pilot, which at that time was the only ticket to flying into space.
Another interest I had early on is in WWII, particularly the early part. Linked with my interest in aircraft and flying, the models I build tended to be of those used in WWII; both fighters and bombers. Of particular interest was the Battle of Britain, which occurred during the summer of 1940.
I had also wanted to be a writer of books and screenplays. I had always thought that there should be a “reboot” of the classic 1969 movie, “The Battle of Britain.” I started doing research about that period of time, and came across the poem, “High Flight.” I had heard the poem recited during the TV sign-off films during the 60s and 70s, and had read it several times while becoming a glider pilot in the 70s. While doing my research, I thought I would track down the exact wording of the poem as well as the story of its author, since there seemed to be a considerable amount of discrepancy in both.
Even with the somewhat limited Internet search capabilities of the time, I was able to start finding out many details about John Gillespie Magee, Jr. and his famous poem. The further I dug, the more fascinating a story it became. And though there had been a couple of books and articles published about Magee, I thought that these barely covered the surface story.
And so, the Battle of Britain story was moved to the back burner, and the Magee/High Flight story became paramount. I started research in earnest in 1990, and it took 24 years to finally feel that I could release the results of a tremendous amount of work! I will eventually get back to the Battle of Britain project, since I believe that that particular battle was the single most important battle of WWII.
Which character, if any, most resembles your personality?
Frankly, I identify (not surprisingly, I suppose) with John Magee. We’re both pretty smart, both pilots, both very stubborn, and both of us were in the military. I have always been somewhat of a rebel, and know what it’s like to be a “peacock among pigeons” (a phrase used to describe Magee). I can learn things quite quickly, as did Magee. I’m not nearly as smart as he was, and don’t have his gift of expression, but I do feel a certain kinship with him. I would’ve like to have known him.
Which character was the hardest to write and why?
I guess I had a bit of difficulty writing about Magee’s relationship with Elinor Lyon. Elinor was the Headmaster’s daughter that John fell in love with. But it was a case of unrequited love. I was actually able to communicate with Elinor and learned the true story from her directly. So it was hard to say that, on the one hand, John laboured long and hard to return to England and Elinor, but on the other hand, Elinor was not too receptive of his advances. Although… I truly think that given more time, Magee might have been able to win her over.
There was never any real plan; the book really grew organically. At first I was going to write a screenplay, and then an A&E style documentary. I finally accumulated so much data that I thought that it would be a shame not to make it into a book, with the added advantage that the book could be used as a “bible” for the eventual making of a feature film and/or documentary. Only in the last year or so did I truly began to put everything else aside and concentrate of getting the book done.
Research also evolved over the years. I started with an article published in the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) magazine, which lead me to Hermann Hagedorn’s 1942 Magee biography (“Sunward I’ve Climbed”), which lead me to an entire range of research leads. I have worked with computers since 1976, so using the Internet & email was a natural thing for me. In the beginning the great search tool was AltaVista, eventually supplanted by Google. I found that more content was added to the Internet every day… so research became a daily practice (what is here today might not have been here yesterday, still true to this day). Simply put, the book would not have been possible without the Internet & email.
Another tool I used extensively was GoogleMaps. I was able to see detailed maps of areas, and also use StreetView to take a look at some of these places.
The final element that brought everything together was the discovery (through the Internet!) of the John Gillespie Magee Family Papers collection at the Yale Divinity Library. It was truly the “mother lode.” I spent five days scanning over 1,800 documents there, and goodness knows how long I spent in organizing all that data. I think it really “made” the book, as I was able to include photographs, quote letters, and so many other things that would have not been possible before. True source data.
What are you working on at the moment?
I self-published the book, so I had to take off my author’s hat and put on the marketing hat. There’s so much to learn about this stuff!
I am also working on getting the book made into a feature film. It is such a great story that I strongly feel that it will attract some interest. And that is another area I need to learn about: how to get the work in front of those who make decisions about such things.
The Battle of Britain project has come off the back burner; not completely, but enough for the moment. I’ve got two books I would like to adapt for film, plus a couple of original screenplays.
Do you write for any websites?
Just my own:
Do you prefer to read paperbacks or ebooks? Why?
These days I prefer ebooks on my Kindle. I tend to read a bunch of books simultaneously, and it’s nice to have them all in my Kindle. But I still love paper books… there’s something about them that is in my blood. Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon remains one of my favourite places… just going through the stacks and leafing through books remains a wonderful experience.
Favorite book as a child and as an adult?
Well… I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books. Hard to pick out a favourite… Let’s see… as a child, I think “Dune” by Frank Herbert (which I read mostly under the covers by flashlight, no wonder I was extremely near-sighted!).
As an adult? Yikes… I’m tempted to break it down into fiction/non-fiction… but I’ll just say “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein.
Whom do you admire and why?
- James Cameron, for being a genius, an innovator and being always true to himself. My dream is to work with Cameron and turn my favourite adult book (shown above) into a movie… filmed, of course, on location (the Moon).
- Anthony Robbins, for his audacity, compassion, and gift of being able to communicate what he has learned to the rest of us.
- Robert Heinlein, one of my spiritual fathers, for taking me to worlds in my imagination, but also giving me some extremely good advice for day-to-day living.
- Richard Bach, another of my spiritual guides. There are few people I have felt quite as connected to as Richard.
Name three people, dead or alive, you would invite to dinner. Why?
- John Gillespie Magee, Jr. I think that John Magee had to have been a very interesting person to know. He was extraordinarily intelligent, well-travelled, and had a curiosity about the world that he lived in.
- Robert Heinlein, for reasons detailed above.
- I’d say Richard Bach, but I’ve actually had dinner with Richard, so that doesn’t count…
- Tom Hanks. Another very intelligent and talented individual. He and I have quite a bit in common.
Now, enjoy a couple of excerpts from this amazing book!
In the first excerpt, John is trying to decide whether or not he should attend Yale, or travel to Canada and join the Royal Canadian Air Force. John has been granted a generous scholarship to Yale, based on his record high scores in the Classics admission examination. And although he had, for all practical purposes, already made up his mind, it was felt that John should meet with Yale President Charles Seymour, if only to explain why John would not be attending Yale that year.
The indented & italicized sections are from a letter that President Seymour wrote to John’s father after the meeting.
John did indeed meet with President Seymour. In a letter written to John’s father, Seymour explains what happened during the meeting:
He [John Jr.] came in this morning and again this afternoon after lunch. He told me that he had practically reached the decision last night in his own mind, but that he did not want to make it final until he had talked to me. He was extremely courteous in expressing the hope that I did not feel that he was belittling the opportunity offered by Yale in admitting him. He said that the decision would have to be his own but that he would be grateful if I could throw any new light on his problem which might lead him to alter the decision he had reached.
Charles Seymour himself had been educated in England and might have had a good grasp of what John was struggling with.
In all honesty I had to tell him that this was a personal problem which he would have to decide himself, that in general I thought that young men in his position, or in positions similar to his, would do greater service if they accepted the educational opportunity offered, but that if his inclination against college at this time was so strong that he count not concentrate happily upon his work here, I on my side could not urge him to undertake it. He said that after balancing all the factors, he was quite clear that he would not be happy this year in New Haven and that the only peace of mind he could find would be by seeking his commission in Canada…
John seems to have decided to hedge his bet, and try to leave the door to Yale open:
He went on to say that he had also decided that it would be better for him to ultimately come to Yale rather than to go to Oxford, and he asked what arrangements could be made for admission in a later year. I advised him that if he had definitely made up his mind he should inform the Chairman of the Board of Admissions that he wished to defer matriculation and that later, when the opportunity offered, he should apply again for admission. In the circumstances such admission would be certain to be granted.
President Seymour then presented his final analysis of the conversation, as well as an apology to John Sr. for not making a more concerted effort to persuade John Jr. to attend Yale:
I was so taken with him and his approach to his problem that I am deeply disappointed in a personal sense that apparently he is not to be with us, but there can be no question of the depth of his feeling. I think that it is entirely likely that he would be unhappy here under present conditions…
I can understand your own feelings with regard to the immediate future of your boy. I hope that you will not feel that I let you down in not bringing the strongest sort of pressure to bear upon him, but in all conscience I believe that this is the kind of problem which can only be settled by the man himself.
Amidst all this conflicted opinion and in the pressure of seeing his adopted homeland viciously attacked, John made up his mind suddenly and finally: he had to return to England.
John had decided to give up a generous scholarship to Yale, give up the relative safety of his family and of the United States, and to go into harm’s way.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr., age 18, was going to war.
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