Dwight Moody was a Technical Sergeant in the Army Air Force from 1944 to
1945. He left college in order to volunteer for the service. He was majoring in engineering when he volunteered; as a result he was trained in electrical engineering and worked in developing technology for the military in Wisconsin. His primary contribution was in helping to design an assisted landing system for use in landing planes in inclement weather. The final product, ingenious in its simplicity, was undoubtedly instrumental in saving the lives of British and American pilots. What follows is a vignette inspired by his story.
High above the Atlantic Ocean, a solitary plane traces out a linear path through the dim sky. Like a strand of web propelled from a spider, the contrail of the plane divides the clouds into two distinct halves. Below, the setting sun reflects upon the vastness of the water… water that imbues the entire curvature of the earth with the orange hues of the fading day. Inside the cockpit, a pilot wearied from his journey takes comfort in the thought of a warm bed and home; Great Britain, he thinks, quiet appreciation manifesting itself in a smile veiled by the coming darkness, great indeed…
Far from the Atlantic Ocean, separated from this man and this airplane not only by miles and circumstance, but also by months, a man sat at his desk in Madison, Wisconsin. His name was Dwight Moody. The pensive look upon his face (lines showing at the corners of the mouth and eyes from the quiet exertion which accompanies thought) hinted at secret introspection; his detachment from the present was complete and allowed him the luxury of unobstructed reflection. Technical sergeant, he thought. Carefully following the contours and intersections of the past, he traced with his mind the chronology of events which led up to the present: college in Maine, a war in Europe, training in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Madison… He had risen quickly up the ranks, becoming a technical sergeant in the United States Army Air Force in three months. All this, however, the places and titles and faces and facts, were secondary to the light that waited at the end of every precious survey of the past: success.
The transition from day to night has been completed; gone is the dance of pinks and orange existing as final tribute to the glories of daylight. It has been replaced by night, with its own innumerable mysteries and triumphs, all represented by the pricks of stars washing over vast shade. It won’t be much longer, thinks the nameless British pilot as he approaches the final assurance of a day without serious incident: Great Britain, the runway. He checks the altitude gauge; its reading, though expected, pleases him. The few clouds that are present are harmlessly crowded in clusters, busily assuring themselves that while stars are bright and numerous, they are but intangible abstractions, far inferior to a cloud’s life-giving and practical utility. Suddenly, as if sensing the wonderful ease that a clear view of the stars instills in any pilot, the clouds renege on their unspoken contract. Drawing on every discrete unit of vapor within their grasp, they hide the light of the moon, and all else, in impenetrable haze. Gone with the promise of an easy landing is the promise of any landing; with the disappearance of the celestial heavens comes a similarity between the stars and the prospect of the runway, of Great Britain, of life… all appear as abstractions, obscured and unreachable.
From the start, the problem was with knowing where you were oriented, not up or down (they had gauges for that), but left and right… Dwight Moody was lost among his thoughts. His journey through the winding gates of memory was reaching its climax, an area of thought distinguished by a seemingly random and ceaseless pattern of specifications and data. The weather in England is so bad, pilots would crash trying to land… they just couldn’t see. Some turned back to France… He recounted these things in his mind to himself with a clearness of vision only attainable by those directly involved with the project. On the wall of his office at the Army Air Force base in Madison, Wisconsin, a clock chimed, indicating that it was twelve o’clock.
The problem he and his colleagues had been presented with months ago was simple enough: how could the allies improve their ability to land under less than ideal circumstances? A problem so simple begged for a simple solution. It was to have one.
A series of radio waves were to be emitted from both the runway and the cockpit. A simple pattern of dashes and dots in the headset of the pilot would indicate whether or not he was within the safe confines of the runway—Dot-dash, dash-dot on the left and right, a constant signal in the middle of the runway. The solution was satisfying and it was beautiful: satisfying in its effectiveness and beautiful in its simplicity.
With these final reminiscences came the return of reality. Dwight Moody reclined slightly in his desk chair and it seemed as if satisfaction was inhaled in place of oxygen. He returned to his paperwork.
The lights of the British skyline are suffused through thick fog. They appear as fireflies might if seen through wax paper: blurry and undefined. The pilot knows he is fast approaching his destination, the runway. With every second he is more sure of the inevitability of a conclusion… any conclusion, be it a fiery crash or the mild bumps of a flawless landing. The only thing he can be sure of, his absolute faith in this fact compounding with every inch traversed through air by the plane, is that he will see some end, be it good or bad, likely somewhere near his anticipated destination. He thinks he sees the runway. His breath is held. The urge to close his eyes is countered only by his will to survive. He blinks…
The most euphonious sound ever experienced by a man was not produced by Beethoven or Mozart to be played by a violin or flute or orchestra; it was created in labs and offices and meetings, by Dwight Moody and others. It can only be heard, savored and appreciated, loved, in the noisy silence of a cockpit: dash-dot, dash-dot… then a stream of monotonous sound uninterrupted by the confusion of pauses and changes in tone. This sound, and the sentiment this sound elicits, are so far removed from The Rites of Spring that to compare them almost seems disrespectful. While a symphony can create, with tremendous accuracy, an analog of life in the mind of the listener, this sound, a single tone, is life. It is all of spring, not just the rites, and so much more. It is babies and sunsets and warm beds. It is stepping down from an airplane and collapsing from relief.
In Madison, Wisconsin, Dwight Moody falls asleep to the sound of cricket bows. Somehow the insect has found its way into his flat; at intervals its legs play the music of the cockpit: dash-dot, dash-dot, dash-dot, dash…