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Remember when networks signed off?,best bets [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

October 14, 2013


Question: In the 1970s-'80s, on CBS or NBC, words from the poem "High Flight" were used in the nightly sign-off. Can you tell me the name of the music that played with it?

Answer: The mention of "High Flight" probably resonated with night owls and insomniacs around the country who remember when TV stations would actually go off the air for a bit in the wee hours, leaving behind static or a test pattern. Before the stations signed off, they would run something ceremonial like an image of a waving flag and the sound of "The Star-Spangled Banner." And another sign- off standard was a reading, with musical accompaniment, of John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s poem "High Flight."

You might know phrases from the poem like "slipped the surly bonds of Earth," which were used in then-President Ronald Reagan's tribute to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 following its explosion. The poem itself is much older. Magee was a U.S. citizen serving as a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot when he wrote the poem and sent it to his family in September 1941.

Then, in December, just days after Pearl Harbor, 19-year-old Magee died in a collision with another aircraft. As reporters covered Magee's death, the poem became more widely known,

Indeed, the website of the Library of Congress -- which has Magee's original manuscript -- says, "Within days of Magee's death, 'High Flight' had been reprinted in newspapers across the United States."

There have been audio recordings of the poem, among them one by Orson Welles; a 1957 movie inspired by it and a John Denver song adapted from it. Then, there are the short films made by the Air Force showing different planes in flight to the accompaniment of music and readings of the poem. Those films were sent to TV stations and used as their sign-offs from the 1960s to the '80s. In fact, a 2008 episode of "Mad Men" has a "High Flight" film playing on a TV set as Pete is in the middle of a late-night assignation.

It's possible that TV stations were using a "High Flight" piece as a sign-off.

You can see some of the films on YouTube.

Rich Heldenfels is a staff writer for the Akron Beacon Journal. Write him at,How I Met Your Mother

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