A Bit of Gray in a Blue Sky (1919)

by Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968)

GBS.1 He woke every morning before the sun lifted its rim above the roof tops of Paris and gilded their edges with its first pale gold. His round, bright eyes looked through grayness at his world, and he knew that it was good. Little nestling sounds were all about him; there was the first flutter of wings and the low, throaty murmuring, now here, now there, swelling and blending into the deep vibrating cooing of his many neighbors. He stretched a long, unfolding wing. The silver-gray feathers spread like a great fan, then snapped together again and settled against his side. His own throat swelled and became musical.
GBS.2 Then the sunlight came. It filled the air with happiness. From all sides rose the whirring of eager wings, and his own wings spread and carried him swiftly up into the w arm blueness. The air flowed past him like water, rippling against his downy sides, pouring along the straight red legs. His smooth breast rested upon it as he rose and rose, circling, swooping, curving in and out among his neighbors.
GBS.3 The roof tops of Paris were small beneath him. White little clouds were his companions. Around and over him was the vast blueness of the sky, stirring with impulses that he knew, alive with familiar meanings. Life was his; life beat warmly within the soft feathers that shut it from the cold high air, and he knew that life was good.
GBS.4 Curving, swooping, circling and circling again, he came home. He came home to his own roof top, his one roof top among all the roofs of Paris. His claws were again on the edge of the eaves, and his folded wings touched the wings of his friends. Their throaty murmuring filled the air; the sun was warm on their backs. Water gleamed as it always had, in the stone trough in the courtyard, and there was food in the boxes. Strange and mysterious were the hands that placed the water and the food; purposes he could not know governed them. They came from another world, a world that did not concern him, a world that for him was not.
GBS.5 Water gleamed in the stone trough, and innumerable wings fluttered over it. His own wings fluttered in the water. Oh, the coolness of cool water against his skin, beneath the soft feathers! Sparkling drops flickered above him as he beat his wings in ecstasy.
GBS.6 He rose, and his claws curved again on the edge of the eaves. He ruffled his feathers; they stood upright, warm in the sun. Carefully, one by one, he smoothed and straightened them. Then his throat swelled again, and he murmured aloud to the sun and the wind his happiness and content. This was his life. He knew no other. He dreamed of no world that was not made of long silver feathers, of iridescent gleams, of sunlight and blueness and water and grain.
GBS.7 Beneath the roof tops of Paris there was blackness and despair. The fields of France were tortured by war; on a battle line that circled half the world men were killing each other. The cities of America were filled with the sound of marching feet.
GBS.8 The great machinery of human living was turned to human destruction. Women by millions had gone out of their shattered homes. Factories and shipyards blazed all night against dark skies. Huge buildings by thousands were rising to the clang of hurrying hammers. Administrative organizations that covered the globe were being created out of chaos. Somewhere among vast masses of papers there was a line of ink on a white page: “Carrier pigeon 43678; Cher Ami. Pigeon Division Number One; U.S.A. Signal Corps; 77th Div’n U.S. Inf., A.E.F.”
GBS.9 These were words. And words were nothing to Cher Ami (Dear Friend). Man might dream of the celestial music of the stars in their courses, but he did not dream that men spoke to each other with words. His world was sunlight and feathers, the coolness of water, the roundness of grain golden and tempting, the blueness of skies, the swiftness of wings, home and his own roof top. These things he felt and knew; they were his life, and life was good.
GBS.10 Into this life of his, then, there came a vast purpose beyond the rim of things known, and it seized upon him and carried him away. He was in a box, a narrow space in which he could barely stretch his idle wings, and all the world was a jolting and a noise. When at last the box opened he was in a strange country. He sat on a roof top that was not a roof top. It was small and flat, it crawled over the ground on wheels, and his box was in it, and the boxes of his unhappy companions. They sat together, with heavy wings, and looked at a sky that was filled with sudden black clouds and bursts of white sound. Something called to them, saying “Come home!” but they could not rise and go. Never again would he see the happy roof tops of Paris.
GBS.11 But something else came to him that wiped away their memory. Out of the unknown again, it came and cooed beside him. The vast purpose he did not know had given him a mate. From all the strange birds that came to this roof top that was not a roof top, he chose her in a free and happy choice. She was his now as long as he should live, for that is the way of mating in his world. She was small and gray and gentle. She cooed beside him, and he did not hear again the voice that said “Come home!” He was at home!
GBS.12 When he was free again, they circled together in the golden blueness as the sun rose. They came together to the troughs where the grain was, and again water was provided for them, and they bathed in the sunlight. In their box appeared a bowl, a beautiful round bowl in which to build a nest. With gentle blows and scoldings in his throat he drove her to it. He would not let her stay away from it, for there were eggs in the nest. He felt the whiteness and the warm roundness of eggs; his soul was passionately concerned with them.
GBS.13 The roads of France were brown with marching ranks of soldiers in khaki. Great transport docks were being built upon the French shores. Airplanes filled the sky. Camps rose on land that had been orchards. Generals conferred in Paris. The air thrilled with invisible electric messages.
GBS.14 Cher Ami’s mate sat upon her nest, and all his world was beneath her folded wings. Torn from her and carried far away, he sped back to her, panting. He brought her food. He watched her jealously when she stirred. He hurried her back when she paused too long on the edge of the bathing trough. And then there came a day when there were small birds in the nest. The crackle of shrapnel and the whir of airplanes were nothing to him then. He did not hear them. He did not know that they existed.
GBS.15 On the morning of October second orders came form the headquarters of the Seventy-seventh Division of Infantry, A.E.F., commanding the entire divisional line to advance to the La Viergette-Moulin de Charlevaux road and the railroad paralleling it. The object was to be gained “without regard to losses and without regard to the exposed condition of the flanks.” Complying with these orders, the advance began about midnight.
GBS.16 Cher Ami was seized in the darkness. Horror and agony descended upon him, without purpose or meaning. His little gray mate, his nest, the core of his life was gone. His wings struck implacable barriers. The night was a roar and a blackness, shot with intolerable flashes of light. Into the Argonne woods, under the merciless fire of the Germans, thousands of men were marching in the dark, and he went with them.
GBS.17 Under the torn trees, tangled in barbed wire, mangled by machine-gun fire, the troops went forward. And dawn and day and evening again came to a heartbroken bird in a basket, beating against the inexorable bars that kept him from his gentle mate and his nest.
GBS.18 At dusk that night the Americans went down a slope, crossed a stream, and stopped on the steep side of a hill, just under the road they had been sent to reach. They had fought for eighteen hours under ceaseless fire, through a wood filled with machine-gun nests and barbed-wire entanglements, and over a system of German trenches. A hundred men lay dead behind them. Runners carried back to headquarters the message: “The objective has been reached.” And the men rested.
GBS.19 On the map at headquarters General Alexander marked their position. On the right, the 154th Brigade had been stopped. On the left, the line held its own place. In the center, the First Battalion of the 308th Infantry and part of the Second Battalion had broken through, and lay unsupported on either side, having won to the advance line as they had been ordered to do. The orders contemplated that the remainder of the line, advancing on each side, would reorganize, consolidate its position and prepare for a further advance.
GBS.20 Four hundred and eighty men, therefore, dropped where they stood, and slept. Their line of communication was established to the rear. Their position, on the precipitous side of the hill, protected by thickets and bowlders, furnished with water from the stream in the valley, was good. They lay there and slept, dead to the roar of the guns.
GBS.2 And Cher Ami in his basket lay with them.
GBS.22 At daybreak the officers heard commands from the wood behind them, commands spoken in German! A patrol was sent back along the line of communication. It found that the men who had been posted in the rear were dead, and the line broken. A hundred and fifty men were then sent out to break through the German lines, join their comrades in the rear, and attack with them. Of these men, eighteen got through to the south, and a platoon returned to the battalion.
GBS.23 The Germans in the night had closed in behind the peak of the advance line, cutting it off and completely surrounding the Americans.
GBS.24 The men were not greatly alarmed. Each man dug himself in on the steep clay bank, looked to his ammunition, and prepared to hold the hill until the line advanced on either side and wiped out the enemy behind. But the line did not advance. The sun rose on a day torn by the rattling crackle of machine guns raking the hill. The solid earth spouted geysers of dust under showers of hand grenades. At noon began the ceaseless, shattering roar of the trench mortars, and the air became a torturing chaos of sound.
GBS.25 Beyond the forest smashing artillery fire heralded the attacks of rescuers. Five times the attack was launched, and each time beaten back. Still embedded within the stubborn German lines more than four hundred men clung to the side of the hill and fought desperately under an incessant crossfire. So the first day and the first night passed.
GBS.26 And in his basket Cher Ami lay palpitating and sick with uncomprehending horror.
GBS.27 The second day found the men with little ammunition and no food. The nerve-breaking roar had not for a second abated. The hill was torn to pieces. The stream in the valley was battered into a morass. In the shell holes, wounded men lay and moaned for water. Cher Ami, in his basket, watched his four companions depart, one by one, rising into the smoke darkened air, circling and disappearing.
GBS.28 At headquarters no word came from the Lost Battalion. General Alexander, ordering attacks toward its position, dispatched airplanes to search for it from the sky. Two planes were shot down. The others, circling above smoke clouds and thickets of underbrush, brought back no information. On the hill the men who were left tightened their belts, smiled grimly at Major Whittlesay’s encouragement, and fought. At night the Germans attacked in force. The Americans held the hill. Toward dawn they buried their dead.
GBS.29 The third day many of the men were delirious for want of water. Runners were sent to the springs to fill canteens. The runners died. German machine guns covered the springs. The hollow where the stream had been was a marsh. Men crawled to it and sucked handfuls of the mud. They gathered the liquid ooze in cups and waited hours for it to settle that the wounded might drink.
GBS.30 The third night the Germans attacked again. But the Americans held the hill. The fourth morning found the men eating berries, leaves and bark. Airplanes, flying overhead in storms of bullets, dropped packages of food, but they fell in the woods where the Germans were.
GBS.31 Men rose from the shallow holes that were their only protection and waved signal flags, but the airmen did not see them. The Germans did. The men fell.
GBS.32 That day an American, desperately searching for one of the dropped packages, was captured by the Germans. He returned that afternoon bearing a message asking for surrender. Major Whittlesey read the letter slowly. Then he turned to Sergeant-Major Baldwin. “take in the airplane signals,” he said. They were white, and it might be that the enemy would think they meant surrender.
GBS.33 Over the rent and broken earth that had been a hill the air did not cease to shudder and crash with the roar of German guns. In the pits men bound the wounds of their comrades with strips of underclothing, leggings, string. Dead and living were flung together by the earth-exploding shells.
GBS.34 Upon this scene, then, there began to fall a steady, even, rapid shell fire from beyond the German lines. The guns of the French were trained on the hill. For five days no word had come from the Lost Battalion. All attempts to reach it had failed. The French, therefore, sure that it had been wiped out or had surrendered, were shelling its position, against the protests of General Alexander. The tortured men remaining were being killed by their own guns.
GBS.35 It was then that a blackened hand came into Cher Ami’s basket and fastened to his left leg a strange thing, long and gray and hard. For five days he had lived without food or water. Now he was seized again and flung upward into smoke and fire and shrieking things.
GBS.36 Flung upward, but into stinging, blinding pain. For hardly had his wings taken hold of the air when agony struck him, stopped him, pierced him through and through. He fluttered and fell, fluttered, caught at the air and reeled. “God!” said the haggard man in the shell hole below. “He’s done for.”
GBS.37 Convulsively the strong wings struck out again. Then they steadied and held the air. Cher Ami wavered, rose and wavered again. Then he vanished above the smoke. There was clear air around him. Beneath him was such a world as he had never seen, a hideous world without meaning or purpose. Only his wings were the wings he had known, and they carried him around and around, in weary circles.
GBS.38 As he circled he heard a silent voice, a voice without words, that said: “Come!” “Come!” said the wordless message. “This is the right way. Follow it. Come!”
GBS.39 Without knowing how he knew, and without questioning, he followed the call through the trackless air. His wings carried him up, stroke by painful stroke, against the strong invisible current. Past the smoke and the roar, past blurring green fields and curling, moving lines of tan, over and beyond into a strange country he went, a throb of pain that answered a voiceless call.
GBS.40 There was water there below him, but he did not stop. There would have been grain, perhaps, in the fields, but he did not think of it. He went on till his eyes were blind and his sobbing heart ached in his aching breast.
GBS.41 Forty miles from the spot where the Lost Battalion, crazed but fighting, was dying under the guns of both friend and foe, Sergeant Kochler at headquarters in Rampont saw a handful of bloody feathers drop from the sky. It struck breast first that roof top which was not a roof top. It fluttered a second, came reeling on one bleeding leg, and hopped blindly toward that landing board beyond which had been a nest.
GBS.42 Sergeant Kochler lifted a gaunt and quivering little body in his hands. Dangling still on the ligaments of a leg that had been shot away was the aluminum message carrier. Inside was the first message that had come from the Lost Battalion. It recorded position and situation, and said, “Your barrage is falling on us. For God’s sake, stop it!”
GBS.43 The barrage was stopped. That night the 307th Infantry broke through the German lines to the hill, and a hundred and ninety-four men, all that was let of the Lost Battalion, staggered or were carried to safety.
GBS.44 Cher Ami, doomed never again to grip with two firm red feet the happy eaves of Paris, lay bandaged and helpless beneath the incomprehensible hands that had shaped his life.
GBS.45 And now he lives again in his own world, a world of long silver-gray feathers of iridescent gleams, of sunlight and blueness and water and grain, a world whose core and meaning is the gentle mate and the fledglings in the beautiful brown bowl.
GBS.46 Cher Ami is carried sometimes, for unknown reasons, in a cage, and on the cage there will soon be something that sparkles. It will be a Distinguished Service Cross, the only bird to receive such an honor, presented to him because, wounded, he saved the lives of one hundred and ninety-four American soldiers. But to him it is only a sparkle.
GBS.47 In his world there are no generals, no soldiers, no great struggles of mankind toward a light that leads them. He does not know what vast and mysterious purposes may lie beyond his imagining. He does not know what he did, nor why. For he, like a man or a star, lives in a universe shut in by walls of the things he knows.

[Online editor’s note: This story was published in Ladies Home Journal (August 1919) as
“A Bit of Gray in a Blue Sky: The Beautiful Story of the Bird That Saved the Lost Battalion.”

Below is a photograph of the actual pigeon (stuffed and on display
at the Smithsonian) that inspired this story. – RTL]

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