Definitely the Right Stuff

Amidst the book geek’s ravings, this post also includes 3 quizzes. Here’s the first…

Quiz 1: Name these Mercury 7 astronauts.*

(photo credit: NASA)

Recently I spent a weekend re-reading Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, forsaking all other books.

It was one of the best reading experiences of my adult life.

’Twas my second time reading The Right Stuff, and I think it was even better this time around. Last time I read it, it launched me (ha! space pun!) on a space reading kick that’s lasted ever since. But when I first read it, back in 2007, I didn’t know much about most of the people in the book. Pete Conrad, Gus Grissom… who were they?

Well, now I’ve read about those fellows, and I’ve read John Glenn’s autobiography (and I just bought a copy of Chuck Yeager’s, but I haven’t cracked it yet—thus bolstering one of Wolfe’s points about the astronauts getting all the glory while the other pilots were treated more or less like chopped liver) and lots of other space books.

But this one… this one is the Thing.
The first time I read it, and the second time I read it, this book had me at page 11. Here’s the sentence that just killed me: “And the bridge coats came out and they sang about those in peril in the air and the bridge coats were put away, and the little Indians remarked that the departed was a swell guy and a brilliant student of flying; a little too much of a student, in fact; he hadn’t bothered to look out the window at the real world soon enough.” (p. 11)
It’s the third time the bridge coats are evoked, and those fine bridge coats mean death. They’re funeral clothes, and the image of those young pilots hauling out their best uniform coats and then storing them again, then pulling them out again… it gets a person, you know?
Wolfe is a gorgeous stylist—an utter genius at putting together a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter. This book is a masterpiece.
And the thing is, it’s so darn readable!
Often, when people speak of a writer’s gorgeous writing, it seems they’re talking about writing that is all lush and overblown and complicated and hard to read. This book is not like that. It’s easy to read, it’s a pleasure to read, and it just flows. But it’s not at all simple
While the writing is stunning, the thing about this book that makes me love it is the sense of heroism. And the way the actual pilots and astronauts were horrified by such a word.
For example: After Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, journalists descended upon Muroc Field. “The real problem was that reporters violated the invisible walls of the fraternity. They blurted out questions and spoke boorish words about… all the unspoken things!—about fear and bravery (they would say the words!) and how you felt at such-and-such a moment! It was obscene!” (p. 47)
I love and adore this.
Quiz 2: Who is in the cockpit of the P-51 Mustang in the picture on the left? Hint: He’s the guy wearing the tan shirt and white cap in the picture on the right.**

(photo credit: My dad, who took the pictures because he’s hella tall. But I was there, too, back in 1992, and saw, with my very own eyes, Chuck Yeager flying an airplane and then riding down the flight line in a convertible!! I know: Lucky, right?)
(Oops. Just gave away the answer to Quiz 2 in its photo credit)
So we’ll try another one…

Quiz 3: The Mercury 7 again! Name ’em!***

(photo credit: NASA)
And now, just because he makes my heart throb:
Gratuitous photo of John Glenn, after being picked up by the USS Noa after splashdown in Friendship 7
(photo credit: NASA)
Wolfe also describes the way grown men—hardened men: police officers along the parade route—would weep upon seeing John Glenn after his successful Earth orbit. Wolfe (correctly, I think) chalks it up to the notion of the single combat warrior: the designation of a single man to represent his tribe in a fight to the death against a single warrior from another tribe. We simple beings tend to get overwhelmed by such things.

And I get it. I still get choked up every single time I hear Scott Carpenter say, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” as the countdown begins. (I actually can’t even think of those words without my face crumpling up.)

The only other things that can create the same feeling of ecstasy are visiting the National Air & Space Museum (where I have been known to do the following: a) stand with my mouth hanging open in sheer awe; b) blink rapidly and look at the floor in order to avoid embarrassing crying-for-joy episodes; and c) smile so broadly my face nearly cracks) and the spectacular documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (to which I am fully addicted. I’ve watched it at least 1o times, and I’ve only just begun.)

So, here it is. A book with that kind of power, it’s going on my Top 10 list. And now I own a copy, so I can rest easy, knowing it’s under my roof and available to re-read at a moment’s notice.
And in these ways, I know life is good. 

* Quiz 1 answers—Back row, l-r: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper; Front row, l-r: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter

** Quiz 2 answer—Just in case you missed the way I spoiled the quiz by answering it in the photo credit note, that dude is Chuck Yeager himself!

*** Quiz 3 answers—l-r: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton
If you named ’em all, you have earned serious bragging rights. Truly. Also: Welcome to my club; you’re now a certified space geek.

I’ll never complain about long airport security lines again

Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper by Geoffrey Gray
Smiling, I am smiling. Because I’ve found a true crime book I can love.
And this is it.
Normally, true crime either freaks me out completely or makes me irritated because it’s all about some miscreant who doesn’t deserve the honor of having a whole book about them. (not so wild about criminal types)
But this book, from page 1, just worked.
And here’s why. The author is part of the story from the start. Sometimes this is a technique that fails spectacularly, and sometimes it’s a genius move. This was one of them genius examples.
Gray tells the story of how he learned about the (apparently famous, though I’d never heard of it) 1971 skyjacking case from a PI who was certain he had a solid lead on D.B. Cooper’s (the skyjacker’s) identity.
And then we’re off to the races. Gray senses a blockbuster story, and he chases it for three years, only to end up drinking the Kool-Aid himself by the end. (Cooper Curse, anyone?)
So, no, he didn’t discover the guy’s identity, but his search for information is filled with all kinds of wonderfully strange folks—suspects, families of suspects, and the people who have become obsessed with the search for the skyjacker and his loot. It’s a fabulous story, plus Gray’s writing is fun to read.
By the book’s end, I was kind of glad we don’t know who D.B. Cooper really was. Sometimes it’s kind of nice to just let the bogeyman roam.

The @BlueAngels aren’t books

No, they are pilots. Nevertheless, I’m a-gonna review them.
Since this here’s a book blog, we’re going to talk about the flight demonstration as though it were a book. (Books and Blue Angels. What more could a person want?)
Here goes:

Plot: While the flight demonstration has its own plotline, there is a back story to this particular airshow. This was the Blue Angels’ comeback show after a distressing thing that caused the cancellation of some previously scheduled appearances (one of which I had planned to attend—practice show and all; the fact that I was sadder for them than for me is a testimony to the depth of my adoration).
So there was some added drama to the thing because this was their first flight demonstration after the personnel change. Given that fact, and given that it’s still fairly early in the season, I was expecting the formations to be somewhat loose and the maneuvers perhaps a bit loose, also. But man, they looked darn good. There was only one maneuver in which my eye could spot a lack of symmetry. (Oh, it hurts me to say it, but there it was. They’re darn-near perfect, and what they’re doing is hard.)
Anyway, the plot of the flight demonstration itself leads us to the next topic…

Pacing: I’m really not sure how they do it, but it seems to me the Blue Angels just keep tightening up the show, so the time between maneuvers is very short indeed.

So what I’m saying here is: Fast-paced.
We got ourselves an event that just rages forward with a purpose. You shall not be bored. Even if some ingrate were tempted to tune out, the sneak pass would happen, and that’ll get their attention.
At this particular airshow, since the skies were severely overcast and the ceiling low, the Blue Angels did either the low show or the flat show, and I sure as the dickens wish I knew how to tell the difference between the two. So it seemed that we got to see the aircraft up-close a little more than you do when they perform the high show.

Character: It’s in this all-important category that I suffered a disappointment right there on a visit to my home state of Iowa. One of my most favorite things in all the world is to see the Blue Angels on the ground and in the air. And at this show, we didn’t get the full flight-line Blue Angels experience. They took off from another airport and flew in, which always bums me out.
I like to see the walkdown.
I like to see the ground crew.
I like to see the takeoffs.
I like to see the landings.
Doggone it, I like to see the pilots.
However, since my mood on airshow days (see “Tone/Mood” below) is positively altered by jet fumes and general elation, I focused on the characters I could see.
First off, you can, actually, see the pilots, sort of. Check out those gold helmets in those there jets.
That’s CAPT Greg McWherter upside down in #1, LCDR Jim Tomaszeski in #2, MAJ Brent Stevens in #3, and LT Rob Kurrle upside down in #4. The fellas are Double Farvel-ing there; I love it when they Double Farvel.
And here we got LT C.J. Simonsen flying #6 all up into the sky and LT Ben Walborn flying #5 straight and level so as to gain some serious airspeed.
Even if I can only see their helmets as they scream by, I’m still saying hello to them all by name.
And also, I could see the Narrator. On the ground. And that dude’s a pilot, even though he’s on talking duty for a year. He gets to fly the #7 jet, and he does the VIP flights.
(An aside: It is my fervent wish to somehow, someway, in this life, experience a flight in the #7 jet. I have this theory that my clarinet-playing school days have given me a ridiculously strong diaphragm muscle, which would keep me from passing out. Yes, I know I’m deluded. But really, “nearly-supersonic librarian” is a great concept, ain’t it?)
Anyway, so we got to see #7, LT Dave Tickle, the Narrator. And we got to see #8, LCDR Todd Royles, the Events Coordinator (and also a pilot). (That’s them there: LT Tickle on the left, LCDR Royles on the right.)
And the cool thing we saw is the way these two guys work together. I guess, since I’d never seen the Narrator during a show, I never thought about the fact that the guy has his back to the action, so of course he’d need someone to serve as his eyes. That’s #8’s job—he cues #7 when the jets approach, so he knows when to resume the narration (which he has full-on memorized, which is darn bookish; kind of makes me think of the Odyssey and the oral tradition).
Also—and I love this—#8 hands #7 a bottle of water (you can see the water bottles in the picture!) periodically throughout the show. And they do this in a way that you barely even notice—#8 placing the bottle in #7’s left hand, which is positioned behind #7’s back, and then removing it from#7’s hand after he’s taken a drink. (Which, I’m telling you, was necessary. It was about 90 degrees and Iowa-humid out there.)
So we got to see the teamwork, not only in the sky, but also on the ground, even though we missed seeing the ground show.
And it’s the teamwork that I love just as much as the actual glamour of the flight demonstration. The fact that the pilots don’t pre-flight their aircraft, because they trust their crew chief. (Even as a mere private pilot in my younger years, I know this is a huge leap of faith.) The way the ground crew is synchronized in their movements. The way the pilots lower the canopies on their aircraft at the same exact moment.

Tone/Mood: Since they’re complete professionals, the Blue Angels (the ones we could see on the ground, and the ones up there in the sky) don’t allow a person a sense of whether they’re having a wonderful or a terrible day. You gotta love ’em for that. My guess is that they were relieved to be back on the circuit, but perhaps still adjusting after the recent shake-up. But frankly, I ain’t got a clue.
For myself, I get weirdly calm and freakishly positive (“I know it won’t rain”—and guys, it didn’t) on Blue Angels days, so I recovered from the no-ground-show disappointment almost immediately. It helps to have 6 blue jets roaring above in all their splendor.

Language: The Narrator is pretty amazing. The guy’s got 3 different shows memorized, plus different intros, depending on whether there’s a ground show or whether the 6 jets appear out of the clear blue sky (or the cloudy gray sky, in this case). His cadence is distinctive, but it’s also the same cadence from year to year, even though the Narrator changes annually—as last year’s #7 (Narrator) becomes #6 (Opposing Solo) this year, and then becomes #5 (Lead Solo) the following year.
In Summary: If this were a book, I could read it again and again and again. Two days in a row just wasn’t enough.
So, if you, too, just need more, here’s what to do next:
1. Visit the Blue Angels website and click “Inside the Demo.” It’s freakin’ amazing what you can see and hear there.
2. Visit YouTube and look up “Blue Angels.” Clear your schedule, because you’ll be at it for several weeks.
3. Watch the fabulous DVD Blue Angels: A Year in the Life.

4. Read Blue Angels: 50 Years of Precision Flight by Nicholas A. Veronica and Marga B. Fritze (reviewed last year by yours truly).
5. Visit the Blue Angels website and click “Show Information” and get yourself to an airshow. (This is the only item on this list that will give you the thrill of having the insides of your ears vibrate.)

I need my space

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
Evidence of a benevolent universe: I picked this book for the Read-a-Thon. First book of the day, and it just plain blissed me out.
Yes, I’m a confirmed space geek.
But I’m here to tell you, you don’t gotta be that wild about space to really like this book. It’s got those intangibles that make a nonfiction book loveable even for people who don’t care about the subject matter. I’ll name one of those intangibles: intelligent good humor. There are authors out there, people, who lack this variety of Right Stuff. But Roach has it in spades.
Speaking of the Right Stuff, Roach describes the way that Stuff has changed over the years. She writes that, “America’s first astronauts were selected by balls and charisma” (p. 28), but these days they gotta be sensitive team players who ooze empathy.
These two sentences had me busting a gut: “Today’s space agency doesn’t want guts and swagger. They want Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe.” (p. 32)
This probably explains why I get all swept away by the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts, but feel pretty darn iggis about the astronauts of today. I like some swagger in my astronauts. I just do.
There’s also entertaining stuff here about what the astronauts eat, and also about what happens once they’re done digesting it.
And Roach got to ride on the Vomit Comet!
Which brings us to other gross biological stuff, like nausea in space and BO. But… it almost sounds like boredom, isolation, and confined spaces are more insidious enemies to today’s astronauts. It ain’t very glamorous up there.
But it sure as hell is entertaining to read about.

It’s not about the plane crash

Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad
How did this book miss my radar for 2 years? It’s a remarkable story, gorgeously and simply told, and as an audiobook it’s simply stunning. And I’m rather appalled that I missed knowing about it till now.
We know I can’t keep away from plane crash stories. This is such a story.
But it’s really a father-son story, told by the grown son, who’s looking back at his childhood and the influence of his charismatic father. Ollestad’s dad really pushed his son to excel athletically—dragging him out of bed for hockey practice, taking him surfing in waves he found frightening, and skiing with him down icy mountains. And all that adventure travel and extreme sport stuff prepared him for February 1979, when the worst happened.
Eleven-year-old Norman, his dad, his dad’s girlfriend, and a pilot were flying in the mountains, and they crashed.
The plane crash story is interwoven with the story of Norman’s life in the year or so leading up the crash. Obviously we know Norman survived, but it’s still surprisingly suspenseful to read the passages about the crash and its aftermath. It’s pretty amazing that an 11-year-old could have the strength and the presence of mind to take the steps necessary for his survival, but he was kind of an extraordinary kid.
He’s grown up to be an extraordinary writer.

Other notes: The author reads the audiobook himself, and I can’t imagine anyone else reading it. His intonation adds so much to the story that I actually can’t even imagine reading it on the page. It’s rare that an audiobook is powerful enough for me to say that. (Audiobook: 7.5 hours)
BTW, Amazon has an essay the author wrote about enticing his young son into reading. I love it.

In my world, it’s always air show season

Blue Angels: 50 Years of Precision Flight by Nicholas A. Veronica and Marga B. Fritze
(Photo credit: Blue Angels)
What I really, really want is a behind-the-scenes book about the Blue Angels.

This fine book, which has more history than insider stuff, is the closest thing I could find in book form (especially the glorious chapter 9: “Behind the Scenes with the Blue Angels,” which is like candy to a baby).
The thing is: There is no shortage of videos about the Blue Angels, and that makes perfect sense. The drama is really in the visual. And I’ll be the first to confess that I saw every last one of those DVDs that I could get my hands on, before ever thinking to seek out a book.
In fact, let’s pause—shall we?—for a brief video interruption:

OK. More words now.
The thing is, I really love learning how organizations actually operate (and, yes, the unusual things only insiders usually know), and while the DVDs (particularly Blue Angels: A Year in the Life, which I had to buy as a random midsummer gift to myself) provide some of that stuff, I really crave a book that tells the whole story, including all the weird little unexpected things.
Stuff like this (which I picked up from a video made for children!): Each Blue Angels pilot has his own hand signal that he does to the other members of the crew while taxiing out. (I love this!)
For a look at this sort of action, check out minutes 1:00 – 2:44 in this video of the 2009 team:
(And here’s another example, from the 2007 team. And another here, at 0:16-0:18. And here, at 0:22-0:24.
Not that I spend hours trolling for this stuff on YouTube or anything. Not when I really should be weeding the garden or varnishing the door. Not that at all.)
So here’s the stuff I want to know: When do the pilots eat? What do they eat? What are the actual weight-lifting exercises they do to compensate for not wearing a g suit? When they fly back to Pensacola after a show, does Boss take off first? Do they fly miles—or feet—apart when they’re traveling to and from an air show? How do the two solo pilots communicate during a show? I want details!!
All of that aside… This book beautifully does exactly what it says it will do: it covers the first 50 years of the Blue Angels, including the aircraft they’ve flown over the years, and the changes in the air show due to changes in the capabilities of the aircraft. It also includes recollections, in their own words, by previous Blue Angels pilots.
This book also provides some fabulous details from the pilots about flying in tight formation, including this, from Cdr. Ed Holley (Boss, 1957-1958), about flying the F11F Tiger in the #1 position: “When the fourth plane comes into the slot, he pushes your nose over requiring you to trim back to hold him in position. Then the wingmen are moving in and holding tight formation. It is a locked formation.” (p. 57)
OK. So now don’t you just want to hum?
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the credo for the Blue Angels as stated by their legendary first Flight Leader, Lcdr. Butch Voris, can be seen in their demonstrations even today: “Get it up, get it on, get it down.” (Meaning: do a fast, tight show, without any maneuvers repeated; and leave them wanting more)
I want more.

Those daring young men and their flying machine

The Flyers: In Search of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Noah Adams

In this book’s favor:
1. Written by Noah Adams (of NPR), who has a pleasant speaking voice (not that that has anything to do with one’s writing ability, but I get a calming feeling when I see the name Noah Adams)
2. It is about the fathers of powered flight!!
On the other end of the stick: This book sure sounds like it’s one of them travelogues.
And, as stated before, I’m not keen on the travelogues, particularly when they are predicated on a gimmick (a la, I’ve always wanted to do this thing, and so now I’ll do this thing and write about it!!)
So this book was a mixed bag for me.
I’ll admit it was Noah Adams’ name that made me pick it up; when I saw the Adams and Wright names together, I thought, “Here’s my book.”
And I liked that he started the book with a visit to the Wrights’ graves. I think a cemetery visit is always good.
In spite of plenty of aviation reading over the years (from the 1980s on), I confess I’ve neglected the Wright brothers Until Now. Poor fellas. Not only ignored by the likes of me, but then Wilbur went and died all young, and Orville was a spinster his whole life and was meaner than mean to his sister when she deserted him to get married at age 50-something. It was a bit troubled, all that business.
But really, for me, it’s all about the humans and their aeroplanes.
Check out this picture, peoples:

(Photo credit: Library of Congress)

How can you not get all verklempt?
That’s Orville flying the machine and Wilbur standing to the right.
Can anyone name the date and place? Aviation geeks, step forward!*
So here’s the best part of this book: It provides good details about the Wrights’ lives and their flights—to such an extent that I am feeling all sentimental about the wonders of flight. Adams makes the Wrights human and he shows them to be remarkable.
The part I didn’t love was the travelogue part—the interviewing people who work at, or live near, the various Wright sites. I like the biographer to step out of the picture and just give us the guys. But that’s just me. I imagine there are people who would be liking the I-went-here-and-talked-with-this-local-expert approach. Not so much my style, but still this book worked for me overall.
*December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

This book is not about astronauts.

Apollo: Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox
This book = Triumph of the Geeks
There are hardly any astronauts in this book, which may seem weird. But.
There are tons and tons of engineers and such-like people. And they’re not nearly as exciting as astronauts, yet still this was a good book. So: happy days!
This is the book in which I first learned truly to appreciate Christ(opher Columbus) Kraft and Glynn Lunney. In most of the Apollo documentaries I’ve seen, Gene Kranz is the talking head representing the flight directors (the dudes referred to simply as “Flight” during a mission), and Glynn Lunney gets short shrift, poor fella. And Chris Kraft was the grand poobah, and here we get to know about him. And, speak of the devil, here he is:

(Oh, please note: Big news: John Glenn Himself introduces this segment, and he is cute as a button.)

(Ooo ooo oooo!! One more thing: The guys pictured in the frame right this very second are the Apollo 11 crew: Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin. Armstrong is just to the right of the bearded fellow.)

In the first few pages of this book, I knew I would like it, because the writing is lovely: it doesn’t get in your way, and it just purrs along nicely. When this happens, I know the author knows what he/she is doing; I actually stop and notice—and I appreciate it.
So, even though the astronauts are sort of afterthoughts in this book (and I love those astronauts), this book really makes the guys (and the one or two women) on the ground seem heroic, too.

The Good Kind of Plane Crash

Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson by William Langewiesche
You really gotta love this: a plane crashed, and everyone survived. And we even got to watch it on TV and the Internet, repeated over and over and over. And Sullenberger finessed that water landing every doggone time!

OK. So let’s be serious. Geese and an airplane collided, and that is nothing but bad.
Langewiesche, who doesn’t waste a single word (thank you, universe, for such writers), tells the story of the four minutes between collision and landing. When I got to the part where the man seated next to a mom with a baby offered to brace the baby during the impact, oh, I liked that part. Told with as few words as possible, and without drama-ing it all up. I detest “heartwarming,” and this was the only moment that veered close—but he pulled back just in time, and the book was saved.
But most of the focus here in on the pilots and the aircraft—what the pilots did right, and what the aircraft designers did right.
I love books where things turn out well because people have done good work. Life ain’t always like that, and damn, it’s refreshing to read something non-treacly that still comes out right in the end.
This book is not very long. And if you decided to skip all of the mini-stories it contains, about other pilots who totally screwed things up, then it’s even shorter. If you wanted to read a novella-length nonfiction account of an event that was almost tragic, here’s a darn good bet.
Pair it with Down around Midnight, and you can have yourself an survival-of-a-plane-crash reading spree. Tempting, eh?

Hey, guess what? Astronauts!

First on the Moon: A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. by Gene Farmer and Dora Jane Hamblin

I found this book while browsing the shelves at the library. (Man, I don’t do enough of that!)
And here’s what the book jacket flap* says: “Life senior editor Gene Farmer and Life staff writer Dora Jane Hamblin have spent many months with—indeed, living with—the astronauts and their families.” I had an ecstatic little moment in which I savored this word: voyeurism.Photo credit: NASA
Oh, yes. I’m not ashamed to confess it. (Admit it—when you’re a passenger in a car after dark, you oh-so-casually glance in people’s windows, too. Right? Right?!)
Then, about 10% of the way through the book, I was liking it so darn much, I wondered: Am I just a lazybutt, to be liking journalists’ writing so much? (You hear those scary things about newspapers being written at a 4th grade level. You know?)
Then I decided, To heck with it. I don’t give a crap. I just like this book, and I’m going to keep liking it, and so there.
(Plus, it vindicated itself; I had to look up the meaning of the word “tocsin.”)
So here’s the thing:
If you read only one book about the space program, probably it should be The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. But—if you read only one book about the Apollo program, this one here is the one I recommend.
Here’s why:
First, it gives a terrific behind-the-scenes perspective, including interviews with the astronauts and their wives. It feels very up-close and personal. (As up-close as you could get to those close-lipped fellows, anyway.)
Another good thing about this book is that it’s informal in tone, yet it provides a great overview of Apollo 11. It’s one of those books that you enjoy so much, you don’t realize you’re learning stuff. Photo credit: NASA

* Yes, I read the flap, in spite of protesting yesterday that I Do Not Do That. But this was one of my bizarro browsing instances, when all rules fly out the window. Truly.