Legend Has It: The Passing of Chuck Yeager
In eulogizing Chuck Yeager, a broken telephone pole in West Virginia seems an unlikely place to start. But it is the perfect place to start.
Of all the things that will be said, written, and remembered in eulogizing legendary pilot Chuck Yeager now that he has passed on, a broken telephone pole would seem an unlikely place to start. But it is the perfect place to start.
Jutting out over the embankment, where the sliver of flat land on which the doublewide I spent my first decade of life living in sat turned to a steep drop down to the Elk River, no one cared, much less asked, how it got there in the first place. With one end buried who-knows-how deep and the other sticking six or seven feet out into the air at a 70 degree angle to the river below, to adults — had they noticed it at all — it was an eye sore. To my mother, whose only son insisted on climbing all over it, feet dangling above what she was sure was my imminent fall and certain death, it was a terrifying menace. To my father, it was a good place to look for a missing hammer or screwdriver, or his missing son for that matter, as I put nails and screws near the airborne end of the pole in semi-planned rows and clusters. That’s the problem with adults sometimes, and parents in particular; they just don’t get it, can’t see it, won’t appreciate how awesome something is with all their stuffy rules and silly warnings and fussing over minor technicalities. I never did fall, at least that my mother ever found out about lest I be banned from further adventures. Those weren’t nails and screws, despite what the grownups thought — they were controls. Suspended between sky and ground and river I wasn’t a boy astride a broken telephone pole in a place that to this day doesn’t have cell reception.
That was my airplane, I was Chuck Yeager, and I was going wherever I pleased at a great rate of speed getting there.
* * *
Despite his well-earned reputation as a no-nonsense, often abrasive straight shooter — and the slightly embellished “The Right Stuff” version of being a sometimes hard-to-handle genius/rebel — Chuck Yeager was motivated to legendary greatness by the most base of human desires. “I was always afraid of dying” the general explained: “Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.” And learn he did. Self-taught at that, whatever the Army Air Corps and later the United States Air Force didn’t teach him first. He had already enlisted in September of 1941, some three months before Pearl Harbor, but because of his lack of education was denied flight training and sent off to be an aircraft mechanic. World War 2 and the need for pilots gave him a second chance, and he was accepted for enlisted flight training in 1943. For a guy who threw up the first time he went up in an airplane, it worked out ok in the end for him.
As it turned out, Corporal Yeager, the crew chief and mechanic, would be the foundation for the legend that would become General Yeager later on. “He could give extremely detailed reports that the engineers found extremely useful,” Bob van der Linden of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington explained. “It’s not just flying the airplane; it’s interpreting how the airplane is flying and understanding that. And he understood that, just because he understood machines so well. And was just such a superb pilot.”
The flying part of the legend of Chuck Yeager is, well, legendary. First man to break the sound barrier. Shot down but escaped and evaded the Nazis in France. The epitome of a test pilot in an era where aviation technology went from biplanes to the moon in one generation. Combat ace, including the now-fabled “ace in a day” mission. Holder of records, trophies, and achievements that could make anyone jealous. More one-liner quotes than you can shake a stick at, like “The first jet I ever saw I shot down.” But fame mostly came from “The Right Stuff”, the book and 1983 film that depicted the early days of the space program. The book, more so than the movie, really centered on test pilots in California led by Yeager that instilled not just the maniacal drive for faster, better, stronger that made for good stories and movies, but also the relentless attention to detail in the technical aspects of the craft of aviation that made it happen. The “the most righteous of all those with the right stuff “ wasn’t just the craziness, but the proficiency to know the right thing to do under pressure at just the right moment.
Dealing with your own legend, however, took more than just technical expertise or inherent feel of being a veteran pilot. At some point between setting records and becoming an icon, Chuck Yeager passed from being gruff, to endearingly gruff, the privilege of being a living legend making what numerous higher-ups always thought was Yeager’s worst characteristics now part of what made him just so darn cool. Asking him what he did to make Ava Gardner laugh so hard and you would get a coy reply. Get the details wrong on one of his flying exploits, however, and you’d get a phone call:
After listening to decades of debate and rumors about his legendary flight under the (Charleston, WV) South Side Bridge in 1948, a year after he broke the sound barrier, Yeager just got tired of hearing the exaggerations, the tall tales and the flat-out lies. He finally tried to clear things up about the stunt over the Kanawha River in an opinion piece published Wednesday in the Charleston Gazette. It was another tidbit in the Gazette, a short Potpourri item published earlier this month, which annoyed Yeager enough to address the issue publicly for the first time. That piece, which appeared April 5, said former Gazette editor Frank Knight solicited Yeager to fly over the Kanawha River during a series of boat races sponsored by the newspaper. Knight allegedly went through Yeager’s friend and former combat partner, Charleston lawyer Paul Bowles, to convince the general to wow the crowd with a dynamic flight near Haddad Riverfront Park.
Not true, the general says.
But the flight was planned well in advance, right?
Nope, Yeager says.
He made two passes under the span?
He also zipped under the Patrick Street bridge and the old Florida railroad bridge?
Most definitely not, he says.
People who say they were there that day swear they know what they saw.
“All you’re seeing happen is that people, when they get old, they forget what really happened,” Yeager, 87, said in a telephone interview Wednesday from his home in California. “Every year it gets worse. Guys tell things that happened and, hell, none of that happened. I don’t know how they come up with that stuff. There have been guys that say they have photos, and there’s no way. Hell, they’ve got me going the wrong way down the river. As time goes on, hell, people just let their imaginations run away with them.”
The more mundane truth, Yeager had snuck off from the test pilot center in California to visit his parents in West Virginia briefly. “The Air Force probably didn’t even know what was I was doing…I was on the other side of the country at Edwards (Air Force Base) doing research, and I just decided on the spur of the moment to visit Momma and Dad. I hadn’t seen them in over a year.” After taking off from the then-new Kanawha airfield that today is named Yeager Airport, he was flying by the West Virginia state capitol, admiring the dome, and then: “I looked up and saw the bridge and within a second I knew I had clearance,” Yeager said about flying under the bridge. “I pulled up and then when I saw the guys getting off their boats, I got the hell out of there…You fly so damn many dangerous maneuvers, it just didn’t seem like anything.”
Amazing things that don’t seem like anything at the time was par for the course for Yeager, and folks like him who manage to make the historic and epic sound mundane when they themselves talk about it. That’s the trick though, isn’t it? To really break barriers and push limits and live to tell about it, the devil is in the details, in doing the job, in being better at what you do than whatever fate and physics and gravity conspire against your mortal self to keep you in your previous place. Those metaphysical things sometimes come up against the Chuck Yeagers of the world, those once in a generation type of humans, and are met with a grunt and a mumbled curse for fate to get out of the way as the legend zips by going wherever he pleased at a great rate of speed getting there.
* * *
Much like the “airplane” of my youth, Chuck Yeager is now gone. Time and tides and whatnot. I always liked the phrasing of “shuffling off the mortal coil” when trying to wax poetic about death. The phrase comes from Shakespeare of course, adjacent to the “To be or not to be” of Hamlet fame. But the wording is actually a bastardization of a German phrase. The shuffling here isn’t that of feet or crouched old aged, but of the weaver’s tools. The shuttle passed back and forth through the threads, the actual weaving portion of creating something coherent from various individual threads. By the time the bard got ahold of the wording, it meant an “unraveling” as in a mess, or fuss, or making much ado, if you will. As if the carefully balled up yarns and tales of our lives in death are explosively released, stray threads that get less connected as time goes on and they become part of other stories, other lives, other weaves.
So it is with trying to untangle so much myth surround the passing of a legend like Chuck Yeager. So many stories, so many exploits, so many things that have a mixture of truth and embellishment because no matter how great the event was, someone just knows it was just a wee bit more awesome than that. And so on and so on. But if you get the right thread, and follow it back far enough, you just might get to the essence, and if not the truth, at least a place from which you can take the right path to finding it.
“My beginnings back in West Virginia tell who I am to this day,” Yeager wrote in his autobiography. “My accomplishments as a test pilot tell more about luck, happenstance and a person’s destiny. But the guy who broke the sound barrier was the kid who swam the Mud River with a swiped watermelon or shot the head off a squirrel before going to school.”
Which makes my broken telephone pole behind our doublewide overlooking the Elk River in West Virginia all the more important, and the perfect place to start and end when trying to honor and remember someone I pretended to be in my boyhood imagination. My accomplishments — such as they are — in the military, in business, in writing, in life since then, tell more about luck, happenstance and whatever it is that is supposed to be my destiny. But to the kid proudly mounting his airplane to fly out of that valley, over the mountains and off to great things both real and imagined because I wanted to be Chuck Yeager, it was as fine a beginning point as anyone could have asked for, regardless where this ride ends up.
“What really strikes me looking over all those years is how lucky I was, how lucky, for example, to have been born in 1923 and not 1963 so that I came of age just as aviation itself was entering the modern era” Yeager said in a December 1985 speech at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
“I was just a lucky kid who caught the right ride,” he said.
Maybe it was luck. Maybe it was destiny. Maybe Chuck Yeager knows a lot more about it all than I do, especially now. But I do know I was a lucky kid to get to grow up with my very own “airplane”, that when I was on it I was Chuck Yeager, and I was going wherever I pleased at a great rate of speed getting there.
Godspeed, Chuck Yeager. And, thank you.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on December 8, 2020.