erik lundegaard


Wednesday December 09, 2020

Chuck Yeager (1923-2020)

The man who broke the sound barrier (right), and the man who portrayed him (left).

I think of Chuck Yeager every time I fly.

I'm not a pilot, by the way. I'm talking about flying commercially. As a passenger. 

I think of Yeager because of something Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff that may or may not be true—I have no idea—but it certainly feels true. It's about airline pilot's voices, or voice, that singular sound we all want to hear, “with a particular drawl,” Wolfe wrote, “a particular folksiness, a paricular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself ... the voice that tells you, as the airline is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because 'it might get a little choppy.'” Wolfe said that voice, that drawl, originated in a specific place: the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. Not that all pilots came from there; they just wanted to sound as if they came from there. They wanted “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

Yeager, of course, is the man who broke the sound barrier. It was a thing they didn't think could be done until he did it: 700+ miles an hour. Mach 1. It wasn't until I read The Right Stuff that I realized what Gene Roddenberry and “Star Trek” had been playing off of all that time with speed of light and Warp 1, 2, etc. I guess even Capt. Kirk wanted to be Chuck Yeager.

The Right Stuff became a great movie in 1983, and Yeager lucked out getting Sam Shepherd, whom he outlived, to play him, and everyone who's a fan will remember one of the movie's last lines. As the Mercury astronauts are being feted in Houston by MC LBJ, while Sally Rand does her famous fan dance, Yeager is testing out a new plane and loses control and crashes in the desert. Two men are riding in a jeep to the crash site, including Yeager's friend Jack Ridley, played by Levon Helm of The Band; and the other man, the driver, sees something moving up ahead, and asks, “Sir? Over there. Is that a man?” and Jack Ridley looks, smiles, and responds, “You damn right it is,” while the music wells triumphantly, and we get a close up of Yeager walking toward the jeep with his rolled-up parachute under his arm, his face half-charred, still calmly chewing his stick of Beemans. It's one of the great movie scenes. The movie should've ended there, but I think it went on a bit longer, unncessarily, returning us to the Mercury astronauts, about whose heroism the movie was ambivalent. But it was never ambivalent about Yeager's. He was the movie's true hero, the man who did the thing for the doing of it, even when attention went elsewhere.

Think of it: the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. We did those things then for the doing of them.

Posted at 02:46 PM on Wednesday December 09, 2020 in category U.S. History