Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The day I met Chuck Yeager

There was a time, back in the day, when I worked as a hotel security guard at night to pay my way through school. It was a good job for this, as it paid me enough that I was able to directly pay my tuition each semester instead of relying on loans or other student aid, and also because my night hours allowed me to do all of my reading and paper-writing during working hours after the hotel bar was closed and the guests were mostly asleep. I could come in directly following my evening classes, get my (free to employees) dinner from the hotel kitchen's night crew, be available for a while when the guests were about, then study until the end of my shift, at which time I'd grab a (free) breakfast from the same kitchen's morning crew and head off to morning classes. It was a great gig for a student, let me tell you.

One of the things about this hotel was that it was near the office of a particular defense contractor and offered a special rate to that contractor's employees. One of those people at this time was none other than General Chuck Yeager, USAF (ret.) Naturally, as an enthusiastic student of both military history and aviation even back then, I was in awe of this man, and even thought I'd never seen him personally, the mere fact that he was actually in the hotel filled me with pride, right up until it almost got me fired one day.

You see, it was the task of hotel security to deliver the express checkout receipts to guests who requested that option. we got the job by default since there was no bell staff in the early morning hours, and I regularly made the rounds of the halls at about 4:30 or so and slipped one under each early-bird guest's door. Well one morning, as I was distributing them, I saw one with General Yeager's name on it. I took a few seconds and wrote out a brief note stating that I personally considered it a great honor that he was there and thanked him for his years of service to our country. Who could find fault with that, right?

Well when I got in the next evening, I found out who could find fault with that: My department head, the hotel's night manager, and the hotel's general manager. All three of them were present for a special sit-down meeting with me that evening in which I was warned that if I ever bothered another guest like that again, I'd be out the door immediately. Apparently my little note was the source of a complaint at check-out, and it rolled downhill exponentially from there. To say that I was shocked and seriously disappointed in my hero, Chuck Yeager, was an understatement.

I got over it, however, although not without some resentment. Was my note that inappropriate? I didn't think so, but even if it was, the hammer that got dropped on me certainly wasn't proportionate to the harm. I decided that the General was just a pompous ass, and it served me right for getting so caught up in his public image.

This was my belief for the next few months, and then one night, I got a call from the night desk clerk. He said that a guest who couldn't sleep was in the lobby asking if he could get a cup of coffee. Now the kitchen was closed at this hour and the night clerk knew that if there was any coffee in the building, it would have been the pot that I made for myself to help keep me focused while I studied. I always brewed a pot, and much to the annoyance of the morning restaurant manager, I made it super-strength by turning up the setting on the coffee grinder to about twice what it was supposed to be. It worked for me, but invariably, the morning kitchen staff neglected to notice this and poisoned the first batch of morning customers with coffee that made espresso seem like tea.

Well I told the desk monkey that yes, I had some coffee, but that it was pretty strong stuff. He knew how I made it and he advised the guest, but the guest said that he liked it strong, so I shrugged and poured a carafe full and took it out to the lobby on a tray with a couple of cups and the cream and sugar that wusses like to put in their coffee.

Imagine my surprise when the guest in the lobby turned out to be General Yeager himself, sitting on the lobby couch.

I set the coffee down on the table in front of him, still butt-hurt from my last experience. However he thanked me with what seemed like genuine warmth, and he asked my my name. I told him, hoping that he wouldn't remember the note episode, and he took a sip of the coffee and smiled, saying that it tasted like coffee was actually supposed to taste. I told him that it was my own mix, made up to help me stay awake while studying, and he asked me what I was studying. Well one thing led to another, and we started talking. And not only did we talk, but it wasn't long before I found myself sitting on the couch next to him and drinking coffee from the other cup while he told me all sorts of flying stories. And what stories they were--I was amazed at the detail with which he recalled the exact take-off and landing speeds of the aircraft that he flew back in the 1940's and 50's. He took me right through the start-up procedures for both the P-51 Mustang and the old P-39 Airacobra, a plane that I'd always thought was some kind of a dog but which Yeager thought was one of the best planes he'd ever flown. I still remember how much he talked about that old P-39. And he spoke highly of the F-86, too--another one of my personal favorites. I loved old warbirds even back then, and here was a man who'd flown almost all of them sitting right here and only too willing to tell me all about them. His detailed recall of these individual aircraft was simply astounding. My only regret to this day was not asking about his historic X-1 flight!

We spent over an hour and a half sitting there drinking coffee and talking, the time broken only by my going back to the kitchen to get more coffee after we drank the first batch up. I learned all about the Northrop F-20 Tigershark program, Northrop's attempt to develop a low-cost, high-performance jet fighter for private sale on the foreign market.

General Yeager, who'd flown the F-20 extensively, told me how in the hands of a good pilot, it was the equal of almost anything in the current US Air Force inventory but much, much cheaper due to the absence of the sophisticated avionics that our current aircraft flew and fought with. The idea was to offer this low-budget hotrod to developing nations, and General Yeager thought so much of the F-20 that he invested a lot of his own money into it, only to lose it when the US government undercut Northrop's sales by subsidizing sales of the F-15 and F-16 to the same countries that the F-20 was being marketed towards, in effect making it cheaper for those countries to buy the more expensive fighters by absorbing much of the cost. He said that it was a real tragedy that such a fine aircraft had been killed off like that, and he wasn't too happy about losing his own money on it, but he was still working with Northrop and going on despite the burn. He was no quitter, that was for sure.

I couldn't help but be impressed by his positive attitude on that and other things we talked about. This guy was clearly a winner right from jump street--he had that winner's positive mindset and he knew how to put it into practice.

Finally the desk clerk came over and asked me to get another guest's keys from the valet stand, and I looked at my watch and realized that I'd been off duty for the past twenty minutes. When I told the desk clerk that, the General realized that he needed to get going too, so he stood up, addressed me by name, and shook my hand, telling me how much he'd enjoyed the coffee and our chat.

Well seeing as how we were getting on so well, I couldn't let him get away without finding out what the fuss over my note had been. So I asked him if he recalled the letter that I'd put under his door a few months ago. I told him that I hadn't meant to offend him, and that if I had, I was sure sorry about it. He looked puzzled for a few seconds, then told me that he'd never seen any note from me or anyone else. I related the story about how I'd left it for him and then been ripped apart for it, and he laughed and shook his head. "My aide always handles those things, so he probably got it." Then he leaned in close to me and whispered: "He's fantastic at what he does, but just between you and me, he can be a real tight-ass sometimes."

I'll never forget that morning, and Chuck Yeager rose right back to the top of my "I want to be like that guy when I grow up" list.

Oh--and just to make a point of personal pride--General Yeager is a West Virginian, born and bred. Sal-LOOT!


  1. What a great story with a wonderful outcome. (Although for the entire first paragraph, my brain was thinking that you typed Chuck "Norris" until I saw the pic and had the duh moment---I hear Chuck and automatically think...oh never mind).


  2. That's an amazing story, and I'm so glad your hero turned out to be everything you expected and more.

    I envy you, but I'll just have to content myself with once shaking Paul Tibbett's hand and telling him, "Thank you."

  3. Bob! You're still alive! Missed ya, fella.

  4. Thanks! Kind of went underground for a while, but peeking out now and then. Still see you and I disagree here and there -- but probably not as often as we agree. Hope all is well there at the Ferry- give Lagniappe a pat for me and enjoy the Coffee Mill ice cream.

  5. that guy is a true American Hero and it's so cool that you got to meet him. Congrats on the memories!