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A Life Worth Living Vicariously
on May 3, 2006
If I could jump inside one person's head Being-John-Malkovich style and experience their entire life, beginning-to-end, without regard to anything but the sheer roller coaster thrill of it, I'd probably pick Chuck Yeager. (Granted, the guy's not dead yet. But unless he meets a truly horrendous end--eaten alive, say, by Bengal Tigers, while slow-roasting over a barbecue pit--I'd consider myself a truly lucky man to see everything he's seen and do everything he's done.)
Ripping through the sound barrier in a bullet-shaped orange rocket plane, battling Messerschmitts in the cold European skies, testing exotic aircraft of all shapes and sizes in the bleak Mojave desert, hunting and fishing and hiking the high Sierras, hooting and hollering with friends on crazy drunken misadventures--it all sounds too fun to be legal, and except for the hooting and hollering part, I haven't done any of it.
What's more, he lived the kind of life that people don't seem to believe in anymore, the life of the self-made man who rises from nothing, who picks himself up by his own bootstraps and succeeds through good ol' Yankee Doodle initiative, ability and gumption. One of the nice things about this book, though, is that he doesn't rub it in. He's the first one to acknowledge how lucky he's been to live the life he's lived and live to tell about it. An upside-down-bolt on an airplane aileron, parachute shroud lines that almost burnt through after an ejection gone awry--any of these things could have ended this remarkable life long before old age, and he knows it.
Beyond the good luck, though, he knew enough not to press his luck. One realizes, reading this book, that Yeager's flying career's remarkable not because he took chances, but because he didn't get so cocky and full of himself that he took one chance too many. In the test pilot business, it's better to fade away than to burn out (or up).
I last read this when I was a kid, not long after it came out--I'd been blown away by "The Right Stuff" and was nuts about everything aviation-and-space related. I don't think I've seen it in twenty years, but I've had a hankering to read it for a while now, so I picked it up, put down the boring weighty intellectual tomes I usually read, and ripped through it in a couple days, eagerly smuggling it into the bathroom at work to steal some pleasure out of the boring workday. I'll never live this life, never get a pilot's license--with my narcolepsy and my bad eyes, I probably shouldn't even have a driver's license--but thanks to this book I can live Chuck Yeager's life vicariously, for a couple days, anyway.