When I heard the sad news that aviation legend Chuck Yeager had died this week at age 97, it immediately sent me to a specific time and place in my childhood.
In 1983, a film version of Tom Wolfe’s novel, “The Right Stuff,” exploring the lives of test pilots and America’s first astronauts, was released in theaters and, despite being a darling of critics, promptly bombed.
Maybe no one was interested in a dramatization of the breaking of the sound barrier by West Virginia native Yeager, or Alan Shepard’s historic, first U.S. manned-flight into space. Maybe a run time of more than three hours was a bit much for the fast-paced, consumer obsessed, synth-pop culture of the early 1980s.
Whatever it was, it meant nothing to me and my younger brother, who had the movie on a VHS tape recorded from Showtime. It was probably around 1985 when we got it. And it seems like we watched that movie — or portions of it, anyway — every day for about a year. “Wang it down!” was a common saying in our household, as was an insult used by female aviator and bar-owner Poncho Barnes, portrayed by Kim Stanley. I don’t know if it’s safe for print or not, because I’ve never heard anyone else use it. Best to err on the side of caution.
We were obsessed with the people portrayed in the film — Sam Shepard’s quiet, but intense Yeager; Ed Harris’ “Clean Marine” John Glenn; Fred Ward’s all-too-eager but later uncertain Gus Grissom and many more.
I enjoyed the drama of it all, but was more enamored by the bizarre humor throughout. It shows up a lot in the training sequences, in the tension between the hotshot Mercury Seven astronauts and scientists who would rather (and did) send monkeys instead of men on the first flights into space, and, of course, the scenes of Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum trying to recruit pilots to become astronauts.
My brother was much more consumed with the pilots, planes and rockets.
In fact, my brother was one of those rare individuals who pretty much knew what he wanted to do with his life by the time he could walk and talk. Our own home videos are full of sandlot baseball or football games where he stops everything to stare at the sky as some sort of aircraft made its way overhead.
We went to a lot of airshows in those days, mainly prompted by my brother’s fascination with anything that could fly.
For years, whenever my family traveled to a large city, we’d take at least one day to go to the airport — even if we’d already been there on our way in — so my brother could hang out in one of the terminals and watch planes take off and land. He’d probably still be doing it, if it weren’t for the fact that you can’t go to airport terminals anymore without a boarding pass. He continues to frequent smaller, general aviation facilities.
My brother had his pilot’s license before it was legal for him to drive a car. The idea of joining the U.S. Air Force or the prospect of professional piloting was limited for him because of his poor eyesight. He failed a vision screening in kindergarten. So he wound up being an air traffic controller. He talks to pilots and guides them safely every day. While it’s a notoriously high-stress profession, he seems to genuinely love it.
I honestly didn’t know, until reading coverage of Yeager’s death, that the former World War II flying ace and giant among test pilots wasn’t a fan of Wolfe’s novel or the subsequent film. His main criticism, at least from what I read, was that Wolfe’s interpretation implied men like Yeager had an innate fearlessness and natural ability for what the situation demanded to make those giant leaps in aviation and space exploration (the titular “right stuff”). Yeager reportedly said it undermined all of the hard work and training he had gone through to go from a kid with a high school education from Lincoln County, West Virginia, to a war hero and test pilot.
I get that. I respect it. But I think Yeager would get a kick out of the fact that the movie was a launching point for one kid born in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and raised in Ashland, Kentucky, to work just as hard to become a licensed pilot by 15 and eventually an air traffic controller in Atlanta. I’m sure there are plenty of others who saw the film or read the book, before going on to learn much more about the heroes of that era, and pursuing similar careers.
In the end, no matter how it was dramatized or how it came off, Yeager was and remains a hero, and his influence and example will remain significant for kids looking up to the sky from their yards for generations to come.