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."