- First published:
- March 1945 issue of Ladies Home Journal
- The character called “The Stag” also appears in the story “Madame Rosette”
- Related books:
- Magazine publications:
- Audio Books:
- “They Shall Not Grow Old” read by Cillian Murphy
Spoiler warning! The narrator of this story is an RAF pilot fighting the Vichy French in Palestine during WW2. As the story begins, he and another pilot (“The Stag”) are waiting for the return of Fin, who flew out to check on some enemy ships. Eventually they realize that he should have been back by now, and even if he hadn’t been shot down, he’d have run out of gas. They inform the other pilots and officers that Fin is missing and discuss his girlfriend Nikki, a caberet singer in Haifa.
Two days later, an airplane is heard approaching the base. It turns out to be Fin, who lands and acts surprised when they ask him where he’s been. According to him, he’s only been gone for an “hour and five minutes”. He thinks they’re pulling a joke on him. It’s only when he goes to report to the commanding officer that he realizes he really has been gone for two days. He gets upset when he can’t explain what happened to him. The men decide to give him some time so he can try to remember.
A week later, the entire squadron is out attacking an enemy aerodrome. A pilot called Paddy is shot down and killed. Immediately Fin’s voice is heard on the radio: “I’ve remembered it… I’ve remembered it all.” When the men return to the base, Fin tells his story. He says that while he was flying his mission, he was suddenly enveloped in a thick white cloud. He tried everything to get out of it, and eventually he just put his plane into a dive in frustration. He didn’t hit land or sea though; he just kept diving. Suddenly the cloud disappeared, and he found himself flying in an endless sky of blinding blue. He saw a line of aircraft flying on the horizon, as far as the eye could see. He saw planes of every description. He somehow knew that “these were the pilots and air crews who had been killed in battle, who now, in their own aircraft were making their last flight, their last journey.” His own plane was caught up in a wind vortex of some kind and soon took its place in the line. Fin found that he wasn’t even flying and that all the controls were dead. The pilots on either side of him waved and he waved back. He felt supremely happy.
Eventually the line of planes began to dive and bank to the left. Fin saw a beautiful green plain below them, which “reached to the far edges of the horizon where the blue of the sky came down and merged with the green of the plain.” He also saw in the distance a bright white light, far bigger than the sun but without shape or form. It was brilliant but not blinding. He couldn’t look away from it. He wanted to fly towards it but the plane wouldn’t respond. As he descended further, he saw the the planes were all landing on the green plain. Hundreds of them were parked around. Fin came in for a landing but his plane wouldn’t touch down. It began to pick up speed. Fin gazed longingly at the light, knowing that if he had landed he would have been running towards it. He grew desperate as the plane continued to fly away from it. He tried to commit suicide by crashing the plane or ejecting, but something prevented him. He found himself back in the white cloud, and he gave up his struggle. He went to sleep and began to dream about his normal life. He dreamed about his mission, and then about landing at the squadron. This dreaming became reality, and he was unable to remember about the cloud and the pilots and the light. It wasn’t until he saw Paddy killed that he found himself saying, “You lucky bastard.” That’s when he remembered it all.
After Fin’s story, the squadron returned to normal. No one ever spoke of it. The campaign was coming to an end. One on of the last flights, the narrator saw Fin’s plane catch fire. “Hello Fin,” he called on the radio. “You’d better jump.” “It’s not so easy,” Fin replied. He said that his arms had been shot and he couldn’t undo his straps. As his plane dipped towards the sea, the narrator heard Fin saying over the radio, “I’m a lucky bastard. A lucky, lucky bastard.”