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The Blue Max


Since the early years of the last century, when the bewildering sight of flying machines began to fill the sky, the dreams of young boys and girls were lit by a new fire, one painted in lofty colours of blue and warmed by the unearthly possibility of dancing among the clouds, with hearts pounding as the sun sent shadows spinning through their imaginations.

The boys grew into the men and the girls into the women who became the pilots who filled the years of aviation history; the brave ones, the enduring ones, the wild ones, the famous ones and the nameless ones. Universally they walked with swagger and spoke with bravado but, underneath that outer coating of dauntless weathered braggadocio, beat the staccato hearts of wing-struck young boys and girls whose precious dreams were unfolding around them.

As it was then, it remains now. Children still wonder what it is to look down upon the patchwork of the land and rush headlong through canyons of brilliant white. For so many, flight is the stuff of their dreams and those that embrace it will someday take to the sky.

On the first day of October 1992, as autumn flared around him like a fanned ember, 13-year-old Adam Kirkpatrick sat at the desk in his room and wrote a simple story. Every night that school year, he attempted to pen a simple and short story—an exercise to gain a hard-earned skill in writing. Writing did not come easy for Adam but he worked diligently and when he wrote from his young heart, his words broke from his hand onto the page and, what at first was difficult work, became a gentle and clear minded statement.

That cool October evening so long ago, he wrote, “When we are on the ground staring into the sky, wishing we could fly without a plane. Thinking, wishing, dreaming of flying in the sky, flying so high about the clouds that when I look down at the world it looks like toy cars, like little dolls, like Lego buildings. But you need a plane, a glider or a hand [sic] glider. When you have a hand glider you are as close as you can be to not having a plane so I want to try it someday. I really want to fly a hand glider. The end.”

He dated the sheet of three-ring-binder paper 01,10,92 and placed it aside. He planned to show it the following day to his mother.

The next day was Friday and the end of the school week brought out the exuberance of life fuelled by the crispness of the autumn air, fragrant with woodsmoke, turned earth and sun-dried leaves. As twilight fell, a boisterous game of Hide and Seek set Adam’s neighbourhood in a happy din of shouts and flashing colour. Breathless children laughed and shrieked, calling to one another in the low light of a dying sun.

Adam, with his heart lit with joy, laughter and friendship, made a dash for the safety of “Home Free”, cutting across the busy street just below a rise in the road. He was struck down by a car. He took into his coma the glee and perfection of that last moment. His story sat unnoticed at home on his desk.

For many days, Adam lay in a coma, his brave fight for life hidden deep inside, beneath gentle lashes. His mother, Anne, found his last story and shared it with me while they held a vigil in the hospital. From a cabinet at home, I took a replica First World War German medal which my brother had given me. It was the famous “Blue Max”—the medal bestowed upon German pilots in the “Great War”, usually the result of continuous bravery and accomplishment in combat. Many of Germany’s highest performing aces were awarded the medal, and all wore it with tremendous pride. The inscription it bore said simply “Pour le Mérite”—For Merit. It felt right as I handed it to his aunt (my wife) who in turn gave it to Adam’s mother. The medal stayed with him for the next two weeks as he lay slender and motionless in his intensive care hospital bed. For everyone at the hospital, it stood for the silent fight that Adam was caught in. It stood for the bravery of a little boy’s soul, the courage of his mother and her sister. It gave a small focus. It wasn’t everything. I wasn’t even much, but it was something.

The Red Baron and his Blue Max. Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (2 May 1892 – 21 April 1918), also widely known as the Red Baron, was a German fighter pilot with the Imperial German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte) during the First World War. He is considered the top ace of that war, being officially credited with 80 air combat victories and is perhaps the best known fighter pilot in history.

Third-ranked German ace of the First World War Erich Löwenhardt with his Blue Max. Löwenhardt was only 8 years older than Adam when he died in combat near Chaulnes, France after a four year combat career. The Blue Max was the most coveted of all Imperial German military decorations, worn at the throat and trumping even the Iron Cross. Originally called the Pour le Mérite (for merit), the Blue Max was the German Kingdom of Prussia’s highest order of merit. The Pour le Mérite gained international fame during the First World War. Although it could be awarded to any military officer, its most famous recipients were the pilots of the German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte), whose exploits were celebrated in wartime propaganda. In aerial warfare, a fighter pilot was initially entitled to the award upon downing eight enemy aircraft. Aces Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke were the first airmen to receive the award. Although it has been reported that, because of Immelmann’s renown among his fellow pilots and the nation at large, the Pour le Mérite became known, due to its colour and this early famous recipient, as the Blue Max, this story is probably an urban legend.

Some of Germany’s greatest flying heroes of the First World War proudly wearing their Blue Max decorations. Clockwise from upper left: Oswald Boelcke, considered the father of the German fighter air force, as well as the “Father of Air Fighting Tactics”. He was the first to formalize rules of air fighting, which he presented as the Dicta Boelcke. Boelcke died in combat at age 25; Ernst Udet was the second-highest scoring German flying ace of the First World War. He was one of the youngest aces and was the highest scoring German ace to survive the war (at the age of 22). He began his fighter pilot career when he was just four years older than Adam Kirkpatrick; Werner Voss, a friend and rival of the famous “Red Baron”. After he fell in solo opposition to eight British aces, he was described by his preeminent foe, James McCudden, as “the bravest German airman”. Voss was just 20 years old; Fritz Rumey shot down more fighter/scout aircraft than even the Red Baron with 35 of his confirmed 45 victories being fighter airplanes; Lothar von Richthofen was a German First World War fighter ace credited with 40 victories. He was a younger brother of top-scoring ace Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron) and is credited with shooting down famous British ace Albert Ball.

After two and a half weeks, Adam let go and slipped gently from this world, with the joy of an autumn evening still locked within his heart. The Blue Max still hung next to him. That very night, three airplanes, from Toronto, London and Montréal, came to Ottawa, landing in the dark of night, carrying anxious nurses and doctors fighting for other people’s lives. Adam sent them home with gifts from his body for waiting and grateful recipients. That cold October night in 1992, Adam was finally flying.

Somewhere in Montréal the next morning, a child’s new heart began to beat a steady rhythm and perhaps filled his or her soul with an unexplained and previously unnoticed desire to fly a hang-glider.

When I went to the funeral home, there was much I wished to say to his mother, but as we stood next to Adam’s slender body I knew that, despite my ineloquence, she was comforted by the presence of myself and the hundreds of others who came to help her carry her burden. As Adam lay there, Anne took from the breast pocket of his shirt the Blue Max and pressed it to my hand. “Take this with you when you fly Dave” she said. “Look for my son. Tell him I love him.”

A week later, as I opened the throttle on the Challenger ultralight and lifted from the cool grassy strip in the mountains near Buckingham, Québec, the Blue Max lay thrust deep in my pants pocket, its metal cool against my thigh.

Settling out at a thousand feet, I felt my way through a few turns in the cold blue sky then swung north towards the hazy mountains. Beneath me, the trees, now bare of leaves, stretched in rolling smokey ridges to the horizon, exposing small farm houses and tiny villages—Adam’s Lego world just beginning its long winter sleep.

A silent thought completed my promise to Anne as I took my hand from the throttle and touched the Blue Max through glove and denim. I looked out over the horizon and the town to the toy-like world Adam had imagined and the final words of John Gillespie Magee’s poem came to me as I knew they would:

 And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
 The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
 - Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

By Dave O’Malley

It is 23 years this week since my nephew Adam died. He would be 36, but to his mother and family, he is forever thirteen. To save and enhance lives through the gift of organ and tissue donation and transplantation, click here.

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