Ninety years ago—nearly a century. I look into the eyes of an ancient photograph, looking across time.
I doubt he could have ever guessed that ninety years after his death anyone would remember him. In that cataclysmic war at the beginning of the bloody twentieth century, so many were dying and he didn’t seem to think he was anyone remarkable. Even the modest fame that came his way during his lifetime seemed to bemuse him. He could not have guessed how the public—inflamed by the gaudy press of the 1920s and 30s—would seize upon “the bloody Red Baron” and create from his life an icon of ruthlessness. Time and legend and the sensationalism of our culture would create a caricature of the man, a lens to focus our fears, dreams, and lusts.
I doubt he would recognize himself, interpreted by the twentieth century.
The sunlight that illuminated that face in 1918 also shone down on my grandmother—just fourteen years old. She lived her life and died in the span of years that separate Manfred and me. His own mother and sister died over forty years ago. No one now lives who knew him. Perhaps that eases the pain—the knowledge that we never could have known each other as adults. We are forever sundered by time, forever destined to never meet.
I can’t explain the feeling of connection. He left too few words behind and his life has been interpreted by others and shaded by their perceptions. I have a sense of him, a person remade in my own imaginings, but I can never know how close to the actuality I have come. But the feeling of recognition remains.
"Like Lufbery and many of the others who never came back from that war, Richthofen is hard to know.” --Lou Cameron, Iron Men With Wooden Wings
The skies remain—but even the skies have changed. Or rather, the way we interact with the sky. It is less a frontier to us than a thoroughfare, a pathway from one point to another. We thoughtlessly board a craft in Atlanta and arc over the continent to Seattle, Los Angeles, or Anchorage. The sleek and sturdy Cessna that I learned to fly in was generations removed from his quirky, hard-to-handle Fokkers with their open cockpits and rudimentary control systems. Could he have foreseen the day when the skies would be familiar to the general populace, when the view from ten thousand feet seemed normal? Even here, in remote Alaska, the turboprops that depart our airport are followed by radar and kept in radio contact with us as they fly invisible airways over the trackless wilderness.
A half-century after his day, human beings stood on the moon and looked back at the Earth. And those human beings were pilots. Undoubtedly, they knew his name.