Chuck Yeager

I keep trying to write up the Chuck Yeager story, and it’s just not working. Remember? That’s one of those not-nearly-as-good-as-I-can-make-it-sound stories I love telling. Telling it is fun, but writing it up has been a chore – I get a few pages in, then when I look back at what I’ve written, it’s awful. Awful, awful, stilted drivel.

It’s sad, because it’s a fun story to tell. I like to save it for when I’m with other pilots, and we’re all bellying up to the proverbial bar to pull out our best “There I was…” stories. We’re pilots, and we like to do the “Aw shucks” thing and then casually pull out a big-gun boast to prove our flying prowess. I like to pull out the Yeager story something like this: “Yeager? Yeah, I’ve met Chuck Yeager a few times. Last time was at the TRARON Formation Flying Clinic. We didn’t get to spend too much time talking then, but I did get to ride backseat with him.”

Pause for dramatic effect. Hear the whistle. Feel the awe and envy radiating like a heat lamp from the face of every other pilot within earshot. Watch as they bite their lips and sloooowly tuck their hotshot “There I was…” story back in its holster. Save it, pal, no way you’re gonna win this gunfight. Smile knowingly, and savor the moment.

Then finish the story: “Yeah, I got to ride backseat with him, all right. In his rental car.”

Heh. I get called some pretty bad things after dropping that other shoe, but it’s always by someone with a smile on their face.

Sad thing is, it wasn’t even Yeager who offered me the ride. Everyone was heading out to dinner together after the last flights of the day, and I didn’t have any ground transportation. I was looking rather bewildered at the prospect of having to walk to the restaurant and his wife took pity on me. “You need a ride?” I nodded with all the piteous appreciation of a middle-aged Oliver Twist, and she offered that I could ride with them. Yeager climbed in, noticed me in the back seat and gave me the sort of “Who left that in our car?” look you’d reserve for discovering a week-old Domino’s pizza wedged in the seat cushions, but the Missus mollified him “It’s okay honey – he just needs a ride to the restaurant.” I got a resigned harrumph, and tried to make myself as small and quiet as I could for the duration of the three-mile drive.

But here’s the thing: Yeager does have a reputation as a cranky old SOB, but I understand. You would too, if every time you opened a door you got a face full of General-Yeager-it’s-an-honor-to-meet-you-can-you-please-sign-my-son’s-forehead-with-this-Sharpie? I imagine it kind of wears you down. You want to just sit down at the end of the day, pop open a beer, and share flying stories with your buddies (“Hey did I tell you about the time I gave Pablo Cohn a ride in my rental car?” Sorry… drifting off a bit there). And there are all these military wannabe groupies who get all breathless pushing in like a rugby scrum wanting a picture and a piece of your story.

Not that I’m blaming the groupies – I’ve been a groupie with the best of them. But I can tell when a man is done and wants to be left alone. And that afternoon in hangar, after the last flight was done, I could tell he wanted to be left alone. Wanted to kick back on the couch and shoot the breeze with Eberhardt and Vance and the other old warbird pilots without 40 complete strangers wearing camo and “Prowlers Rule” t-shirts people leaning in to hang on his every word. And I could tell it just wasn’t going to happen. This goes on for, say, 50 years or so? You’re going to get cranky, I guarantee it.

So it was with great trepidation that I got in that car that night. Didn’t want to be One of Those People. But I did need a ride or I was going to be hoofing it for the next hour through the back streets of Merced in the dark, arriving when everyone else was pushing back their plates and wondering what was on the dessert menu.

I thought back to the last time I met Yeager. Wasn’t a proper “meeting” that time, either, I guess. Was at Oshkosh, the annual EAA fly-in. Mecca for aviators and all – I’ve written about it a couple of times.

It was yet another one of those insanely hot, humid afternoons they get in July there. I was ducking back to the flight line between a maze of support trailers, trying to stay in the shade as best as I could, when I popped out into a little open area just big enough to give the two guys sitting there room to stretch out in their lawn chairs. They were eating ice cream, having a quiet moment away from the craziness of the crowd. I just about tripped over Yeager’s legs as I came around the corner and lost myself in a sea of apology.

He smiled absently and said something like “Eh, don’t worry about it.”

I said something about appreciating the really nice flying I’d seen him do that morning.

“What? The airplane was doing the flying. I was just riding along, wiggling the controls.”

I got brave: “Maybe. But couldn’t help but notice that airplanes seem to fly much nicer when it’s you who’s wiggling the controls.”

He looked me in the eye, right in the eye now, and gave me a real smile.

“Eh, maybe.”

That was enough to make my day. I thanked him again, and got the hell out of there. He’d indulged this groupie long enough, and I wanted him to get a chance to finish his ice cream in peace.

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