Amidst the book geek’s ravings, this post also includes 3 quizzes. Here’s the first…
Quiz 1: Name these Mercury 7 astronauts.
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.
It was 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.
OK, time for 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 2nd photo below.
So let’s try one more…
Quiz 3: Name this astronaut.
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 10 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 answer— John Glenn, after being picked up by the USS Noa after splashdown in Friendship 7
If you named ’em all, you have earned serious bragging rights. Truly. Also: Welcome to my club; you’re a certified space geek.