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Horses Don't Fly

by Frederick Libby. Arcade Publishing, 2000. 274 pp., $24.95 (hardcover).

This is a delightful yarn about a boy in the early years of the century, breaking horses and punching cows from Colorado to Arizona to California. At 20, Fred Libby decided to try his luck in South America, but the next boat happened to be going north. After losing his grubstake in an oil-well fraud, Libby joined the Canadian army's Motor Transport, nothing daunted by the fact that he didn't know how to drive.

On the Western Front in World War I, wrangling a truck proved to be wetter work than he'd bargained for, so when the British Royal Flying Corps (predecessor to the RAF) advertised looking for "observers," Libby signed on. He soon learned that he actual job was to man the forward gun in a Farnum fighter--and the rear gun as well, by standing up, facing about, and shooting over the wing. "This doesn't seem possible," he says of his briefing by the squadron commander. "I left my base at seven-thirty, it is now ten-thirty, and if [the major's] orders work out, hell, I could well be dead by noon."

Instead, he downed a German fighter on his first flight over "Hun Land." Nine more victories followed, earning him a commission and a medal from the hand of King George. He then became a pilot--as you might expect, soloing on his first day--and brought his kills to 14 before the U.S. entered the war. He returned home to join the infant and astoundingly inept Aviation Section that was America's response to the air age. (He especially disliked the army's uniform policy, a far cry from his bespoke tailor in London.) Perhaps fortunately, Libby never flew in combat for the U.S. Army, but rode out the war as a victim of the great influenza epidemic.

There are photos of the author as cowboy, truck driver, and British officer; an introduction and footnotes by the novelist Winston Groom; and an afterword by Libby's granddaughter, who sounds every bit as charming as he was.

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