16 May Arblade to Aire-sur-l’Adour

Today I walk 25 kilometres from Arblade to Aire-sur-l’Adour. It is an easy walk, gentle rolling hills in farmland. At first the crops are mostly vines and barley but it changes to mostly corn as I get nearer to Aire-sur-l’Adour. The last 7 or 8 kilometres are dead flat, almost dead straight on an old railway right-of-way.

And I have to admit an embarrassment. That Roman road that I walked on the other day? I was out by about 1600 years. I mistranslated “ancienne” as ‘ancient’ rather than ‘old’ and I failed to translate ‘voie ferrée’ at all. A voie ferrée is a railroad and an ancienne voie ferrée is an old railway right of way. I still think it would have made a great Roman road.

As I walk today, alone again – this is the third consecutive day of walking alone – I think about helicopters and sex and about the three stages of being.

The helicopters are perhaps because yesterday – I think it was yesterday – as I walked out of Monciel a French military recce helicopter flew overhead at less than 40 metres above the village. As well, I saw then and again today a small helicopter flying circuits. It turns out that there is a military flight training base near here. So that is what triggered the thoughts about helicopters.

What I think about is a story I was told years ago at a party at the home of an American helicopter pilot in Germany. All of the Americans at the party were guys who had completed and survived at least one tour in Vietnam. One of them was a young guy who by any reasonable standard should not have been alive. He should have been one of the more than 55,000 Americans who died in Vietnam.

With a big smile, he showed me a picture on the front cover of a Hughes Aircraft brochure. It was a photo of a Hughes OH5A, universally known as the Loach (LOH, Light Observation Helicopter). It was battered almost beyond recognition. The blades were twisted and bent with chunks out of them. He was flying the aircraft when it sustained the damage.

Here is his story: He was flying low-level, just above the jungle along a road where the Americans were advancing. His job was to reconnoitre the road to keep the American column from being surprised or ambushed.

He flew around a bend in the road and suddenly he was directly above a large unit, hundreds of men, of North Vietnamese or Viet Cong. Either way it was a very, very bad place to be. The aircraft and it crew had no effective protection from small-arms fire and the Vietnamese had learned how to deal with aircraft overhead. Rather than everyone try to shoot at the aircraft, which didn’t work – almost everyone would shoot behind the aircraft – everyone simply pointed his weapon straight up and fired. The pilot had to fly through a hail of bullets and the odds of getting away without many hits was remote.

So he used one of the peculiarities of the Loach. When you pulled up hard on the collective control, the helicopter had a strong tendency to turn hard to the left. He pulled up very hard in desperation, and the helicopter turned hard left – directly into and through the top of a large tree. He was pretty sure that he was dead, but the aircraft flew clear of the tree, shuddering and shaking – but still flying. He looked for a place to land, then realised that the shuddering and shaking had stabilised. It wasn’t getting better, but it wasn’t getting worse either. Landing here was likely going to result in a very unpleasant encounter with the guys on the ground.

He declared a “Mayday” but continued flying and he was able to fly about 40 kilometres to a friendly airfield, where he landed and shut down the engine. He and other member of the crew were unhurt. The aircraft was not even salvageable, but the Hughes Company recognised the marketing possibilities of using the photos of this terribly damaged aircraft as an example of the survivability of their product.

So what is this story doing running around in my head? I haven’t thought about it for years. Perhaps it is the idea of the possibility of life changing in an instant, which happens to people all the time. And perhaps I am thinking about that poor desperate pilgrim who had lost his entire family.

The sex part is easier to explain. There is a big difference in young men thinking about sex and old men thinking about sex. Young men think about sex about 100 times every day. Then they act on the thought as often as possible. Old men think about sex about 100 times every day. Then they act on the thought as often as possible. The difference is in the definition of “as often as possible”.

I am reminded of a wonderful scene from “The Bucket List” in which Jack Nicholson’s character explains his three most important rules for getting old:
Never waste a hard-on,
Never trust a fart, and
Never pass up a toilet

Anyone else out there recognise these truths?

You know that survival and the urge to reproduce the species are two of the most fundamental biological needs for every species. But I don’t think young men sit around and think; “Say, I think that I’ll go out this evening, find a girl, past puberty, of symmetrical features and child-bearing hips and satisfy my primal urge to reproduce the species, since I know how important this is to the future of Homo Sapiens Sapiens.” What they think is; “I really really want to get laid.”

For girls I think that they also don’t sit around thinking: “I’ll go out this evening and find a man who has enough power to protect me and the child we will create together for the period while I am pregnant and for the next 15 to 20 years so that the species can be continued”. I think (apologies to Cindy Lauper) that girls just want to have fun.

My roommate last evening was Franz, a genial and recently retired theology professor from the Universities of Utrecht and Nijmegen. We sat for a long time discussing the phenomenon of the chemin de Saint Jacques. There are so many people walking it for so many personal reasons but they are, according to medieval philosophers, in one of three stages of being. The stages are not necessarily sequential, nor are they all achieved by all people.

The first is the sense of being at one with the universe, everything is all right with the world, or for a person who believes in God, being in a state of grace. This is the feeling that I have at the moment, the sense of being OK with the universe. It gives me a strong sense of inner peace.

The second is the sense of meaninglessness, of terrible solitude, for a Christian the “dark night” when there is a sense of abandonment by God. This, I think, is where the unfortunate man who lost his entire family is at this moment. I hope he can survive it. I think that a lot of people have this quietly desperate sense of meaningless in their lives. I certainly have at times in the past.

The third sense is the sense of simply being, the sense that eastern religions and Buddhism, which is not a God-based ethical and moral system, seek to achieve.

We also talked about positive and negative reassurance, on which I will have more to say soon.

I am in another lovely gite. This one is quite special. Andre has walked the camino 9 times, his wife Odile fewer but still several times. This gite is reserved solely for pilgrims on foot, carrying their backpacks and carrying a credential (the pilgrim passport). There are some unusual rules here. One is that the gite is closed at 9:30, so if you are out on the town, you might as well stay there. A second is that while dinner is offered, it is expected – actually required – that the pilgrims are involved in the meal preparation.

There are two parties of women here, both parties from the area of Lyon. One group of three is finishing here and the other of four women, started yesterday in Arblade and will be walking for four days. The second group is a set of friends who are wives and mothers, in their late 30s, early 40s. Between them they have – are you ready for this? – 26 children. One of them, Valérie, sits across from me at dinner and gets very alert when she discovers that I was once a helicopter pilot. She says that her first husband was a military helicopter pilot as well. I ask; “First?” She tells me that he was a French Marine pilot and when I ask what happened, she says simply; “He fell into the sea”. That kind of ends the discussion for the moment, but we will pick it up tomorrow.

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