I heard the most heartrending story recently. I’ll tell it in a moment.
First, it needs a setting … and that’s the beloved story of a little prince.
Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote his classic, world-famous novella The Little Prince in 1943. It came at the end of a stellar literary career that would on its own have made the French-born author the stuff of legend.
But Saint Exupery was even more famous for his other career—as an aviator. After failing a final exam at prep school as a young man, after a dead-end career as an architect student, after an office job and a failed romance and other unsatisfying work in his mid-twenties, this son of French nobility from Lyon left the ground to find his feet.
He had learned to fly in the French military shortly after WWI, at a time when the glamour of flight undeniably fired the dreams of young men and women. Six years after Saint Exupery learned to fly, Lindbergh soloed the Atlantic. That event launched another two generations of pilots toward the moon itself, a world beyond this one.
The skyrush for fame like Lucky Lindy’s was on, of course, after the American taxied to a stop in that wild mob in Paris in 1927. Young pilots fired up, and took off in hot pursuit not just of dreams, but adventures. And so it was that Saint Exupery found himself flying fragile planes all over the world … and writing about his experiences.
He flew a postal route from Casablanca to Dakar in 1929, the year his first novel was published … a book called Southern Mail. He served that same year as the director of an airfield in stony Morocco. Then he took a position as director of the Aeroposta Argentina Company. That service led to the 1931 novel that made him famous, Vol de Nuit, or Night Flight.
Four years after celebrity sprinkled him with stardust, Saint Exupery was back adventuring. He and a navigator left Paris in an effort to fly to Saigon, Vietnam, faster than anyone ever had. Nineteen hours into the trip, their Caudron C-630 Simoun crashed in the Sahara Desert. Saint Exupery told reporters later that all the two men had for survival was chocolate, sweet coffee and some crackers – enough for one day. By day three, after hallucinations and dehydration, death hovered. The men couldn’t even sweat … the desert had baked the water out of them.
But like some miracle from a Thousand and One Nights … or a David Lean movie … along came a Bedouin on a camel. The fliers were saved … and from this experience came the great book of Saint Exupery’s life.
The Little Prince tells of a pilot marooned in the Sahara. As he sets about repairing his plane, a small blond-haired child appears from nowhere, uttering the famous and eternally strange opening line: “Please … draw me a sheep.” It happens that the boy is an alien from a far asteroid, which baobab trees threaten to overrun, and where a mysterious rose has popped up. The boy falls in love with the rose until the very vain, very beautiful flower tells a fib one day. The Little Prince’s disappointment sends him out searching the universe for a cure to the human condition—heartache.
The Little Prince relates all this to the pilot over a seven-day period, and despite dwindling food and water, the pilot grows so fond of the child and his innocence that he gives his complete attention to the tale. The boy tells him of the different people he encountered as he flew about the universe. These adults, all narrow, lacked childlike wonder; all proved unable to grasp the possibility—no, the reality—of things that can’t be seen with the eye. There’s a businessman, a vain man, a king, a drunkard, a geographer, a lamplighter.
The little prince grows more and more lonely for home, and his beloved rose. The feeling crescendos when he befriends a fox, who teaches him to trust—to realize that only the heart makes visible the most important things. And, now able to trust, the little prince leads the stranded pilot across the sands to a well, where they are nourished and restored by cool water.
The little prince must go away in the end, of course, and without telling how—it would spoil a story precious as a rose to do that—he leaves the pilot and heads home to his love and his asteroid. Left to remember the little prince are the stars—those stars that cross so many lovers, but here serve as both a sad and happy reminder of the rare friendship between two brave searchers.
When Saint Exupery’s timeless story was published in 1944, the writer was living in New York City, and Germans soldiers occupied his beloved France. Finally unable to sit idly by, the writer returned to France. He volunteered to fly reconnaissance for the Free French over the south of his country, in advance of an Allied invasion that would follow D-Day. He was middle-aged now, and his body ached from old injuries suffered in plane crashes.
Here’s the heartrending story.
One afternoon, on what would have been his last reconnaissance mission, Saint Exupery did not return to base. His fate was a mystery for decades, until 1998, when a French fisherman dredged up his bracelet in a fishnet. A few years later, a diver discovered the wrecked plane Saint Exupery was flying when he disappeared.
In March 2008, an 88-year-old German, a man who once flew for the Luftwaffe and then later made a career as a writer himself, confessed a secret to an author researching a book on Saint Exupery: The old German believed he was the pilot who shot down the author of The Little Prince that afternoon in 1944. The German had kept his secret for years, reluctant to confess such a deed.
How the knowledge must have tormented him.
He told the researcher that reading Saint Exupery’s books as a child had first made him want to fly. The old German confessed that the Frenchman’s beautiful books about airplanes and flight fired his youthful dreams … so that he become a pilot … and joined Hitler’s air force.
We’re told the old German burst into tears during this confession. Saint Exupery was my hero, he is reported to have said. Saint Exupery … author of one of the world’s most beautiful fables of innocence and trust … was the man the old German may have shot down and killed … and taken from the world like The Little Prince.
Strange, isn’t it, how the stars of fate line up sometimes?