The writer and the general were at Grass Valley discussing three decades of books about Chuck Yeager. Yeager was working at home, putting his best twinkle forward for a magazine photographer.
Yeager on the patio. Yeager in his pickup. Yeager out by the woodpile. He'd promised 30 minutes and the session was stretching to an hour. "That's because it's a woman photographer," smiled Glennis Yeager. "Chuck doesn't growl when he's around a pretty woman."
What of the first book, I asked, "Across the High Frontier" by William Lundgren in 1955?
Not bad, said Yeager. Light on the program. A little heavy on the white knuckles. But that's how writers interpret a test pilot's life. That's what the public expects.
What of the biggest, Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff?" Is Wolfe's Yeager overdrawn?
"I don't know .... I haven't read the book from cover to cover to analyze it," said Yeager. "The bit on me only covers the public domain."
And the new autobiography?
It's all Yeager, Yeager enthused. Yeager talked into a tape recorder, Yeager somehow survived the transition to printed word, and Yeager is delighted with the results. "The way he (writer Leo Janos) wrote it is exactly how I would have written it if I had the writing talent . . . It'll be a best seller."
It will. "Yeager," a by-with autobiography in the identical format of thunderous best-seller "Iacocca" and from the same publisher, who obviously is working a pattern around salty, persevering, unorthodox and self-made American heroes, is another flyaway.
No doubt about it. Here's a book in basic blunt that flies, rolls and booms. The knit--where Yeager stops talking and Janos starts writing--is perfect. Chapters by others--wife Glennis Yeager, fellow ace and 42-year friend Bud Anderson, former commanders and previous rivals--are interspersed to add dimension and sometimes gentle opposition to Yeager talking about himself.
And that self, patina intact, language and anecdote edited to PG-13, emerges true as . . . as the tough, self-reliant person we all wanted to be before reality and conformity tamed our self-confidence.
Yeager's feats are legend. World War II fighter ace at 22. First man to fly faster than the speed of sound at 25. Winner of aviation's Collier and Harmon trophies. In the latter days, winner of a bit part in the movie version of "The Right Stuff" . . . playing a bartender serving Sam Shepard playing Chuck Yeager.
Then there's the lore atop the legend, the popular and beloved media portrait of Yeager: the accent, bare schooling and hell-raising image of the hillbilly from Hamlin, W. Va., who became a genuine American hero.
Now comes the rest of the man--not just the Yeager who calls a spade a spade but also the Yeager who calls a spade a bloody shovel and sometimes trips over it.
Yeager was court-martialed as a corporal for shooting a horse with a machine gun. He lost a command in Europe after his pilots trashed a bar and the celebrating Yeager banged up a staff car. Those personal qualities so essential to the consummate fighter pilot--arrogance, showmanship, defiance, stubbornness, ruthlessness and a definite inclination to judge lesser men as peckerwoods--have produced enemies and once probably cost Yeager a military assignment.
On the other hand, there is much more than hard-nosed cockiness to this fighter pilot. Yeager emerges in these pages as a man of unquestioning devotion (and gratitude) to his country and its military. Fun is his daily vitamin, dogfighting his drug. His philosophy centers on integrity and loyalty, his code is black and white. He is an anachronism with all the fixings, and yet match his performance and you gain his respect.
Boyhood learnings: "Whatever I did, I determined to do the best I could at it. I was prideful about keeping my word and starting what I finished. I never got into fights, but nobody pushed me around, either. I'm stubborn and strong-willed too, and opinionated as hell . . . "
A wartime credo of toughness: "I turned my back on lousy fliers as if their mistakes were catching. When one of them became a grease spot on the Tarmac, I almost felt relieved: it was better to bury a weak sister in training than in combat where he might not only bust his ass but do something (or, more than likely, fail to do something) that would bust two or three other asses.
"Anger was my defense mechanism . . . those who couldn't put a lid on their grief couldn't hack combat . . . they were either sent home or became a basket case."
Yet, there is tenderness: "When Glennis got sick, friends said to me: 'If anyone can beat cancer, she's the one.' That's exactly right. I had seen guys doing all they could to survive in an airplane out of control, but their best just wasn't good enough. Glennis did her best and won. It was her tremendous victory. She toughed out the long ordeal and wouldn't allow herself to be defeated.
"My wife would have been one helluva great pilot."
Yeager has supreme confidence, but his self-evaluation is finally balanced. He does not claim to be the best at what he does--just "damned good . . . one of the title contenders." He does not see himself as a pilot of unimaginable courage, superhuman reflexes or mystical instincts. It is, he reports, all a question of luck, timing, mechanical aptitude, knowledge absorbed and a total greed for experience; plus a talent for measuring risk and physical margins just a hair closer than the next man.
If he hadn't been born with youth to spare for World War II . . . if he hadn't learned the basics of leading and trajectory by hunting quail with a slingshot before his teens . . . if he hadn't been born with 20/10 vision, an almost freakish edge in aerial combat . . . if he hadn't been at Muroc Air Base as a young fighter pilot with an aircraft maintenance background just when the test program at Muroc needed a young fighter pilot with an aircraft maintenance background . . . well, it might have been Mr. C. Elwood Yeager of Century 21.
Here's a book that, at last, ranges far beyond that 1947 day at Muroc (now Edwards Air Force Base) when Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in the rocket-powered Bell X-1. It follows his 34-year Air Force career until retirement in 1975 as a brigadier general and pursues the passion for test flying that he indulges today as a consultant to Northrop's F-20 program.
In the '50s, Yeager was testing everything from supersonic interceptors to prototype bombers at Edwards, challenging what the 120-pilot team (give or take the weekly fatalities) knew as the Ughnown .
But many civilian pilots working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (forerunner of NASA) were rated by Yeager "about as high as my shoelaces . . . Neil Armstrong may have been the first astronaut on the moon, but he was the last guy at Edwards to take any advice from a military pilot . . . "
Yeager evaluated jets for the French; dived a captured MiG-15 vertically so American pilots would know their enemy's mechanical limits during Korean dogfights; combined his assignment as copilot-escort to aviatrix Jackie Cochrane with a quiet photo-spy mission to Russia; was a U. S. military adviser during the India-Pakistan War; and flew 123 missions as a B-57 pilot during the Vietnam War.
Janos has done well to stay in back of his character. Yeager was wise to avoid literary airs. We must accept that a warrior's world is brutal and his temperament titanium. That leaves us with an old-fashioned flying adventure yarn; the easy memoirs of an airplane mechanic who volunteered for pilot training for the most romantic of reasons--sergeant's stripes and exemption from guard duty.
There is bumptious Cadet Yeager, buzzing his hometown, scaring the flaps off lesser students in mock dogfights and deliberately trimming a friendly farmer's overgrown tree with his wing tip.
There is Lt. Yeager, shot down over France only to continue the war as an explosives technician with the Maquis--then walking to freedom through Spain with a wounded evacuee (Yeager amputated the flier's leg with a penknife) on his back.
There is Capt. Yeager getting to know himself better: "Risks are the spice of life and this (flying supersonic rocket ships) is the kind of moment that a test pilot lives for. The butterflies are fluttering but you feed off fear as if it's a high energy candy bar. It keeps you alert and focused."
And there is that softer Yeager, a middle-aged colonel sneaking an F-4 Phantom into Vietnam so he could go out on a ground patrol with his paratrooper son. "I flew back to the air base in a chopper with (son) Don as a gunner, kind of riding shotgun for the old man. I got a kick out of it."
In these years from student flier to test pilot emeritus, Yeager, now 62, apparently hasn't changed much. Adjusted, maybe.
"If the day comes when a flight surgeon tells me I can't fly anymore in high performance jets, I can always sneak out back and fly ultra-lights. You do what you can for as long as you can, and when you finally can't you do the next best thing. You back up but you don't give up."