Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Lure of the Falcon, by Gerald Summers

The Lure of the Falcon (Simon and Schuster, 1972) is a memoir in which Gerald Summers moves from his love for nature as a boy in pre-World War II England to an account of his experiences in battle in North Africa, his being wounded and captured by the Germans, flown to a POW camp in Sicily, his escape with four others and their recapture, and then his subsequent experiences in other Italian and then German POW camps until he is liberated by the Americans. 

Such a bald account does little to describe what can only be called an extraordinary book.  In the first place, it is imbued with a love for nature.  Although he never mentions the guidebooks he must have begun memorizing as a boy, he apparently could instantly identify any moth, bird, or butterfly that crossed his path.  And many of these he brought home with him.  He also acquires an wonderful bitch, Bracken, that goes with him everywhere and eventually finds the injured female kestrel he nurses back to health and names Cressida.

So far, this is the sort of book someone like Gerald Durrell could have written.  What makes The Lure of the Falcon unique is that Summers enlists in the British Army's Sherwood Foresters, the 4th Regiment of Foot, and calmly takes both Bracken and Cressida with him to basic training.  He then leaves Bracken with his mother, but he stuffs Cressida in his battle jacket and off they go to war.  Cressida becomes a kind of talisman, in fact, for the Foresters.

And there are indeed grounds for thinking that Cressida brings him luck. Wounded in a German assault first by a bullet and then by the explosion of a rifle grenade, he is captured and forced to remove his jacket so his multiple wounds can be attended to.  And there, "with her great lambent eyes scrutinizing the foe, sat Cressida."  Summers fully expects Nemesis to strike, but the German medical officer is staring at Cressida with an expression of rapture.  At last he breaks the complete silence, "Ah," says he, "ein Turmfalke," and all the Germans immediately relax.  It turns out that the German doctor had been a practicing falconer, and he even pulls out a photo of his goshawk to prove it.  And when Summers is shipped out, the MO brings him a tin with three mice in it so he can feed Cressida en route.

On another occasion, following his recapture in Sicily after an escape attempt, he is thrust at bayonet point into an interrogation with an officer of the Gestapo.  His interrogator stops barking questions at him when he spots a suspicious bulge in Summers' jacket.  He grabs Summers and thrusts his hand into his jacket, presumably thinking he will find a pocket radio.  The Gestapo officer yelps and quickly withdraws his hand, dripping with blood.  Summers then pulls Cressida out of his jacket:  she is mantling, her eyes glowing like red coals.  The Gestapo officer retreats.  Nobody says a word, but when Summers dares to look at the other Germans, all of them are trying to suppress their laughter.

Summers has to endure much as a POW, but he does endure.  After Cressida and he finally are liberated by the American troops, he can keep the promise he made to her when they embarked for North Africa:  he brings her safely home, back to a reunion with Bracken and his mother.  Such an ending could easily be sentimental, but Summers's understated prose instead makes us rejoice with him at their newfound freedom.

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