If you could have lunch with anyone in aviation history, living or dead, who would you choose? The Wright Brothers, of course, would be high on anyone’s list. Charles Lindbergh? Without a doubt. Amelia Earhart? I’d find it fascinating. Who else? Wiley Post? Howard Hughes? John Glenn?
Let me tell you a story about lunch with a historic figure in aviation.
My first trip to Oshkosh didn’t happen until 2005 – I’m always slow on the uptake. I was there as a worker-bee, manning the King Schools booth at the show. It’s a hard gig, the set-up and tear-down are an enormous pain, and chatting up pilots and others for nearly seven days straight can get old after a while.
Sure, we got to have fun. Dinners with colleagues, the occasional vendor-oriented parties, perhaps the occasional adult beverage – which always added to the joy of 6am wake-ups to be shited, showered, shaved, standing, and smiling, at the booth at 8am every morning.
Anyway, one day early in the week, the guy in charge of the booth asked four of us to take a very early lunch in anticipation of a big sales day. At the time, Flying Magazine had use of one of EAA’s on-campus building from which they served a free lunch to the worker-bees who were representing the magazine’s advertisers – and John and Martha spend a lotta money with Flying, or they did then.
So the four of us are waiting in line for the lunch venue to open at 11:30am – we’d been there for about fifteen minutes, and we were, maybe, 20th in line. Off about 50 yards or so I noticed an attractive woman standing with an older gent and both of them were wearing what looked to be red P-51 ball caps. I noticed the attractive woman because she was looking at me in a way that I recall other attractive women had looked at me in the past – in my younger and, of course, single days. “Still got it,” I thought, chuckling. Then the attractive woman started walking in my direction.
“Glenn?” she said … and I thought, “Wow. How do I know her? She’s even cuter up close.” Then of course I realized that I was wearing a “King Schools” polo shirt which sported a badge advertising my name. “Damn.”
“Yes,” I replied, ever so coolly …yeah, right.
“I’m Victoria Yeager. We’re friends with the Kings and Chuck has to give a talk at one pm, and we were wondering if you guys would let us join you in the line.” The line behind us was now snaking its way through the grass and out of the fenced enclosure – a good fifty other freeloaders had filled in behind us.
I looked over at the old gent, who now looked vaguely familiar. Victoria? Yeager? Of course, this was the trophy wife the General had met after Glamorous Glynnis had passed away. OMG. Chuck Yeager’s wife wants me to let Chuck Yeager cut the line.
Chuck? Yeager? Yeah, I’m a little slow on the uptake. Chuck. Yeager. The first man to break the speed of sound. A P-51 ace in WWII. Yes. General. Chuck. Yeager. Was going to cut a lunch line with my help.
“Victoria,” I said, when I finally started breathing again, “The hell with cutting this line. I’ll just knock those fifteen assholes out of your way and let you and the General go to the front.”
“Oh, no, Glenn. We like you guys and we’d be delighted if you’d let us into the line.”
Duh. If Orville asked you to help him cut a line, what would you say?
So … here comes General Chuck Yeager and his trophy wife and we let them join us in the line. We do the introductions. He’s gracious and courteous, and thankful that we’d let him join us.
Being ex-military (okay, 6 years in the Army Reserve, so anything but a veteran), when I spoke with Yeager, I always called him “General”. Wouldn’t you? I mean, if you were a pal, or another General, you could get away with calling him, “Chuck,” but I qualified on neither count so … .
“General,” I said, “I met a friend of yours a half dozen years ago at the QB Roundup on Jack Broome’s ranch in Point Magu.
“Who was that,” asked the General.
“Bob Hoover,” I replied. (Hoover had been a war time pal of Yeager’s, and the chase plane pilot when Yeager broke the speed of sound.)
“Hoover,” Yeager hooted, “That old _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _. ” (The General used a term that inferred that Hoover was the direct descendant of a female of the canine species. Ex-military guys talk like that. Hell, all guys talk like that.)
The General was enthused. “You know, right after the war, Hoover got himself one of them GI-issue war surplus P-38’s and he’d use it in air shows. You know that stunt he pulled in the Rockwell Commander, when he’d cut both engines just in front of the grandstand, pull it up into a loop, lowered the gear and touched down right in front of the grandstand?”
I assured the General that I was familiar with one of Hoover’s air show trade marks.
“Well,” continued the General, “When you cut both engines in a P-38, you lose the hydraulic power.” He paused for effect, then said, “It took 144 pumps on the auxiliary hand pump to get the gear down and locked. So, here comes Ol’ Hoover in front of the grandstand. He cuts both engines and pulls her up into a loop, then he starts PUMPIN’ like a _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (that same word, again) on that auxiliary hand pump.” He laughed at the memory. “Ol’ Hoover,” said the General. “A helluva pilot.”
The chow line remained stationary while the General told his story, and the General’s voice had a vaguely Texican twang to it, a common trait in many military and airline pilots. It was part of his charm.
As the line shuffled forward after the lunch room doors opened, I asked the General another question. “General, I said, “Over all the years you’ve flown, and all the airplanes you’ve handled, do you have a favorite?”
The General didn’t hesitate. “The best airplane I ever flew was the one that killed the best.”
He could see me flinch at the thought. It didn’t stop him.
“Well that’s what I did, son. I was a fighter pilot. If you flew a better killing machine, you had a better chance to win your combat. And, right now, that airplane is the F-15E Strike Eagle. That is one mean killing machine.”
I let those words sink in. I had always flown for fun – even when I was getting paid to do it. The idea of flying to kill was a hard one for me – yet where would we be if guys like Yeager and Hoover and all the rest hadn’t done what they’d had to do?
We finally hit the head of the chow line, got our tickets punched, then made our food choices. (It was “Sloppy Joe” day, but there were always a large selection of salads and sides.) When we cleared the line and started heading for a large, empty table, I turned to Victoria.
“Victoria,” I said, “Would you mind if we join you guys?”
“Mind?” she replied. “We’d be hurt if you didn’t.” Classy lady.
So the 6 of us shared a table. The General was a couple of seats away, and I had chosen to sit with the prettiest woman in the room, Victoria. (Well, you can still dream, can’t ya?) The others at the table asked the General a number of questions, but I spent most of my time talking with Victoria. Every now and then the General would look up from his lunch, or look away from his conversation, and take a look at me. Then he’d smile, as if to say, “Try all you want, kid. You know she’s going home with the General.” I’d smile back and he’d nod at our understanding.
So … lunch is coming to a close – we’ve gotta get back and peddle King courses. As we make our goodbyes, a voice shrieks from across the whole room.
“CHUCK. CHUCK YEAGER. YOU’RE MY HERO.” I big, burly, goofy looking twenty-something rushes up to the table, thrusts his ball cap into the General’s hand and says, “Would you sign my cap, Chuck?”
The General pauses in the conversation he was having with a colleague, slowly looks up at the kid, his eyes narrowing as if he’d found a Messerschmitt in his sights. “Ya’ got a pen, Son?” he said.
The kid fumbles around for a magic marker, hands it to the General.
The General signs the hat, hands it and the marker back to him with barely a glance. The kid looks at the signature.
It reads, “GENERAL YEAGER.”
The goofy kid winces, almost realizing what a gauche lout he’d been. “Uh, General, Sir, Yessir.” A pause. “Uh … thank you, General Sir.” He slouched off, shoulders hunched.
At that moment, I was grateful that I had remembered protocol and polite behavior. You ain’t ever really been scolded, until you’ve been politely, publicly scolded by a General. Bet that goofy-looking kid remembered it too.
So … that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Over more than a decade, the memory may have faded and, perhaps, each conversation may not have been letter perfect. But when you meet an historic figure, your memory snaps to attention and the details of that meeting are etched brightly in your mind. I’ve heard stories that General Yeager could be difficult to deal with. Perhaps those stories were told by some who didn’t behave quite as politely and respectfully as we did that late July day in 2005. At no time was General Yeager, or his wife, Victoria, anything less than gracious and thoughtful to the four of us. The delight with which he told his stories was genuine. I will always cherish these memories.