After a crazy summer of biking all over Europe, I arrived one night at London's Heathrow Airport, spent my remaining money on a ticket to New York, and with other wingless souls hurried out to the plane and mounted the ramp.

''Better duck your head!'' the stewardess warned as I was about to bump into the top of the low door. ''We wouldn't want to lose you before we get airborne.''

''Or afterwards either, please!'' I said, ducking into the plane and heading for a seat next to a window, where I could keep my eye on things. I'd never trusted planes; they'd seemed to me neither here nor there, neither with gravity nor with God. And this time I was flying over an ocean.

Pretty soon all the window seats were taken, and aisle seats started filling up. Next to me a tall, gray-haired man with tired-looking eyes sat down. I smiled hello to him. Nodding, he returned the greeting.

Engines warmed up and the go-ahead given, the plane took off and winged out over the dark Atlantic. Flight attendants cheerily gave demonstrations of how to put on and inflate a life jacket. It seemed to me an incredibly complicated thing to do, rather like trying to wiggle your way through a maze of rubber donuts, and I was sure I would make a disastrous mess of it.

Noticing my alarm, my seatmate leaned over and said, with a heavy German accent, ''Don't worry, young man! Nothing's going to happen.''

''I'm very glad to hear it.''

''You're going to be all right, I promise you. I was a pilot in the war. I know what I'm talking about. These modern planes aren't like the junkheaps I had to fly.''

''Pardon me for asking, but what war were you in, sir?''

''Do I look that old?'' He laughed. ''In 1940 I flew many bombing missions over that beautiful country we've just left, that country I now call my home. I was a pilot in the Luftwaffe.''

I felt myself stiffen. My first impulse was to nod and turn away, ending the conversation. I knew from books what the Germans had done, in World War II, to countries and peoples. But something - perhaps his kindness to me, perhaps his obvious love for the country he'd once bombed - told me not to prejudge the man. And even the rabbis had written that in this world we never know what, or who, our next link to wisdom may be.

''What was it like being a pilot in the Luftwaffe?'' I asked.

''A young man's unanswerable question,'' he said, smiling.

''Were you ever shot down?''

''Yes. Fortunately!''

''I don't understand.''

''I say 'fortunately,' because if I hadn't been shot down I doubt I would ever have understood something very important. From the cockpit of your bomber, the bombs exploding far below look rather like tulips bursting all at once into blood-red blooms. It's actually beautiful.

''But when you're hanging by your parachute straps from London Bridge, everything becomes hideous. Exploding bombs look like exploding bombs. They demolish buildings. They set fire to children. Suddenly you understand what a great modifier of morality distance is, what a great liar about beauty. . . . After that, you are never the same.''

I'd have asked him more questions but, pleading the drowsiness of older years , he rested his head against the seat and soon drifted off to sleep. Wide-awake, I gazed out the window for many hours, seeing ghostly gardens of tulip-bombs far below.

As we deplaned the next morning he said, ''You see? Here we are.''

''I rejoice.''

''I'm here on business. And you?''

I was a student hurrying back to school. But somehow that sounded like such a young thing to say. In the presence of a man who had known what it was like to be at both ends of bombs, who had chosen truth over distance, and love over hate , I wanted to say something that would impress him with my maturity. So, giving a shrug, I answered, ''I'm just here. After all, I'm only a speck of dust in the world, and can a speck of dust tell you where it's been, or where it's going?''

He smiled thoughtfully. ''So you are a speck of dust, young man. Then be glad. Be glad you aren't what I was, a . . . a spark in a terrifying fire. A fire that almost burned down the world.''

We shook hands, and I watched him go on ahead. Before he disappeared, he turned and looked at me once more. Somehow he knew I wasn't ''a speck of dust'' after all. I was just a boy, wondering what kind of world I would help to make. His eyes were full of hope for me.

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