Heroes

The Morning Call notices that 2020 continues to be 2020

So…what follows here is likely to be something of a jumble of thoughts.  Still, as those thoughts occurred to us in rapid succession, only to flee in the face of new thoughts, colliding and becoming jumbled with the rest, we nevertheless concluded that something unnervingly profound happened to this country yesterday.

As you may know, last night, at about 9:00 EDT, Victoria Yeager, the wife of American hero and legend, General Chuck Yeager, announced that her husband, age 97, had passed away.  Our first reaction upon seeing the news was one of beleaguered sadness: “2020 strikes again.”  What a loss, we thought.  America will likely never produce a hero like that again.

In a technical sense, we suppose that’s true.  Yeager’s feats were pretty remarkable.  He was shot down over France in World War II.  He was rescued by the French Resistance, whom he then taught how to make bombs to deploy against the Nazis.  Eventually, he escaped over Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and along the way, earned himself a bronze star for saving the life of bombardier Omar M. "Pat" Patterson, who would otherwise have frozen to death.  Upon returning to Britain, he was scheduled, by military law, to be sent back home, rather than be reinstated as a pilot over territory where he had been shot down previously.  But he pled his case, in person, to the Supreme Allied Commander himself, General Eisenhower, who decided to allow Yeager and Fred Glover continue to fly missions over Europe.  Yeager then went onto become an ace – an “ace-in-a-day,” technically, shooting down five enemy aircraft in one day.

And all of that was BEFORE he broke the sound barrier, broke the world air speed record (at Mach 2.44), commanded the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, at which he trained the Mercury Seven astronauts; and then commanded the 405th Tactical Fighter Wing in Southeast Asia from 1966-’68, flying some 127 missions in, around, and over Vietnam.

“Hero” seems a bit inadequate, we think.  And we feel a bit inadequate.  Yeager was “a man in full,” to coin a phrase – a perfectly fitting phrase.

You see, that term – “a man in full” – was the title of a novel by the late, great Tom Wolfe.  And as fate would have it, most of us – particularly those of us of a certain age – know what we know about Chuck Yeager because of the very same Tom Wolfe, who described Yeager and his test-pilot ilk as follows in his all-time classic The Right Stuff:

As to just what this ineffable quality was… well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite—and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.

THAT was Chuck Yeager.

As we thought a bit about Yeager and his legacy, it occurred to us that we were almost certainly wrong in our initial supposition that “America will likely never produce a hero like that again.”  Indeed, we’d guess that America produces heroes all the time – especially among those who, like Yeager, serve their nation in uniform.  There might not be many heroes quite as accomplished and consistently noble as Yeager, but there are heroes, many of them, we’d guess.

The difference between them and Yeager is, as Linus van Pelt said of Santa Claus in his annual letter to the Great Pumpkin, “Well, let's face it; Santa Claus has had more publicity….”

Don’t get us wrong.  We’re not saying that Yeager was “hyped” by publicity.  Heavens, no.  We have no intention here of diminishing Yeager’s accomplishments, his heroicness, his bravery, or anything else.  We’re fans, to say the least.  Besides, we figure that anyone who is played on the silver screen by Sam Shepard has to have done something remarkable.

Still, when we get down to trying to figure out why everyone knows why Chuck Yeager was a hero, but no one knows why any of his contemporary successors are heroes – much less who they are – one of the biggest reasons is that Yeager had more publicity, which is to say that Yeager had Tom Wolfe.  And none of the new heroes will EVER have anyone similar.  It turns out that It’s NOT that this country can’t produce heroes like Chuck Yeager.  It’s that it can’t – or won’t allow itself – to produce chroniclers of that heroism like Tom Wolfe.

Wolfe, who died three years ago this spring, was one of a handful of writers over the last half-century who combined, humor with thoughtful, engaging writing and a willingness to speak REAL truth to REAL power.  And today, he – and those few like him – would be immediately and permanently “canceled” for daring to call out the ruling class for its ruling-class dumbassery.  He’d be called a fascist, a Nazi, a racist.  Actually, he was called all of those names back in 1970.  It’s just that his editors and publishers back then knew better than to take such defamation seriously, and they knew brilliant and insightful writing when they read it.

Their successors, however, wouldn’t know “insight” if it bit them on the backside.  They wouldn’t understand those insights anyway.  And they would never, ever dream of publishing anything that dares to question the ruling-class orthodoxy.  Wolfe’s most enduring beclowning of the liberal establishment and its perpetual sense of self-loathing, “Radical Chic,” would be dead-on-arrival in any mainstream publication today.  Heck, it would be cause to roll out the fainting couches.  A sharp, biting account of Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers?  How dare you, Tom! 

[T]he moment is saved. Suddenly there is a much more urgent question from the rear:

“Who do you call to give a party? Who do you call to give a party?”

Every head spins around … Quite a sight … It’s a slender blond man who has pushed his way up to the front ranks of the standees. He’s wearing a tuxedo. He’s wearing black-frame glasses and his blond hair is combed back straight in the Eaton Square manner. He looks like the intense Yale man from out of one of those 1927 Frigidaire ads in the Saturday Evening Post, when the way to sell anything was to show Harry Yale in the background, in a tuxedo, with his pageboy-bobbed young lovely, heading off to dinner at the New Haven Lawn Club. The man still has his hand up in the air like the star student of the junior class.

“I won’t be able to stay for everything you have to say,” he says, “but who do you call to give a party?”

In fact, it is Richard Feigen, owner of the Feigen Gallery, 79th and Madison. He arrived on the art scene and the social scene from Chicago three years ago … He’s been moving up hand over hand ever since … like a champion … Tonight—the tuxedo—tonight there is a reception at the Museum of Modern Art … right on … a “contributing members’” reception, a private viewing not open to mere “members” … But before the museum reception itself, which is at 8:30, there are private dinners … right? … which are the real openings … in the homes of great collectors or great climbers or the old Protestant elite, marvelous dinner parties, the real thing, black tie, and these dinners are the only true certification of where one stands in this whole realm of Art & Society … The whole game depends on whose home one is invited to before the opening … And the game ends as the host gathers everyone up about 8:45 for the trek to the museum itself, and the guests say, almost ritually, “God! I wish we could see the show from here! It’s too delightful! I simply don’t want to move!!’ … And, of course, they mean it! Absolutely! For them, the opening is already over, the hand is played … And Richard Feigen, man of the hour, replica 1927 Yale man, black tie and Eaton Square hair, has dropped in, on the way, en passant, to the Bernsteins’, to take in the other end of the Culture tandem, Radical Chic … and the rightness of it, the exhilaration, seems to sweep through him, and he thrusts his hand into the air, and somehow Radical Chic reaches its highest, purest state in that moment … as Richard Feigen, in his tuxedo, breaks in to ask, from the bottom of his heart, “Who do you call to give a party?” There you had a trend, a fashion, in its moment of naked triumph. How extraordinary that just 30 minutes later Radical Chic would be—

That, we suppose, is probably enough about Wolfe.  It is, after all, Chuck Yeager who has just passed away.  Nevertheless, as we give thanks for the likes of Yeager, we might also give thanks for the likes of Wolfe, who told Yeager’s story.  He didn’t make Yeager a hero.  He just made the rest of us aware of Yeager’s heroism and made us proud of our country in the process.

Today, of course, that would NEVER be allowed.

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