Air-Minded: Literary Influences (Wait, What?)

A friend sent me a link to astronaut Scott Kelly’s New York Times op-ed, “How Tom Wolfe Changed My Life.” It’s a wonderful tribute to a great writer, but if, like me, you aren’t a subscriber and are limited in how many NYT clicks you get each month, here’s the part that grabbed me, where Kelly describes the influence Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff” had on his own life and career:

In 1982, I was on my way to flunking out of school, with no particular ambition but to party with my friends. I was in line at the campus store one day when a book cover caught my eye — I picked up the book while I waited in line, and by the time I reached the cash register I was so engrossed I bought the book and took it back to my dorm. By the next day, I had finished it and had found my life’s ambition: I was going to fly military jets off an aircraft carrier, become a test pilot, and maybe even become an astronaut.

I had known these pursuits existed before, of course, but Tom Wolfe’s prose brought them to life in a way that spoke to me as nothing else had before. As a terrible student with severe attention problems, I was a poor candidate to achieve any of these goals. But I had achieved them, and I wanted to thank Tom Wolfe, who died on Monday at the age of 88, for the part he had played in my life by sending him a photograph of myself holding the book in the space station.

In 1979, the year “The Right Stuff” was published, I’d been flying jets for the USAF five years, first as a student pilot, then as an Air Training Command T-37 instructor pilot, then as a fighter pilot, flying the F-15 Eagle. Tom Wolfe, though I’d devoured everything he’d written up to then (from “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” (1965) to “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine” (1977), played no part in my becoming a military pilot.

Unlike Scott Kelly, I had not merely known the pursuit of flying military jets existed before, I’d grown up dreaming about it. But like Kelly, I too had literary influences. Mine were Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Heller.

I first read Lindberg’s autobiographical account of his 1927 transAtlantic solo flight, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” when I was 12 years old. It was the 1950s, and Lindbergh was still a hero … at least to schoolchildren, who were never taught about his embrace of Naziism in the years leading up to WWII, nor his racism and anti-Semitism, nor his bigamy (the details of which, to be fair, didn’t come out until long after his death in 1974). Lindbergh may have been a dethroned has-been to my parents’ generation, but to mine he was still an unsullied hero, and I was far from the only young boy who began to dream of flying after reading “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

Dreaming of flying is one thing; beginning to believe it’s a possibility is quite another, and it was not until the late 1960s, part-way through college, that I read Joseph Heller’s great novel “Catch-22.” It was a revelation: Yossarian and his fellow airmen were men in their early 20s, as I was then, very like me and my friends. From that point on, the possibility of flying military aircraft was no longer an out-of-reach fantasy but an actual option. Yes, I knew “Catch-22” was anti-war satire, but the flying portions of the novel were well-researched, realistic, and accurate (Heller himself had lived it, after all, which made the satire even more biting). The dream had become a possibility, and just a couple of years later I signed up with the Air Force.

When “The Right Stuff” came out, I read it immediately (and have read it at least two more times since). What impressed me then, and now, is how right on Wolfe was about the life and culture of military aviation. So many get it wrong, but in virtually every detail Wolfe nailed it: the training, the feel of flying high-performance jets, the egos, the wives, the fraternity of hot-shot military aviators. Based on my experience in the Air Force, I’ll stick my neck out and say he nailed the space stuff too.

On that, I’ll quote Scott Kelly again:

I didn’t entirely understand, when I was a kid reading “The Right Stuff” for the first time, that in a sense Tom had invented the idea of the astronaut by writing about the Mercury 7. He taught us how to read their identical crew cuts and enormous wristwatches, their rakish smiles and indomitable swagger, their “Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving,” their endless pool parties at Cape Canaveral, racing their Corvettes along the highway testing their luck and believing themselves (incorrectly) to be “equally gifted in the control of all forms of locomotion.” By the time I became an astronaut myself, the culture had changed — the astronaut corps was more diverse and less debauched, but some of the swagger remained.

Godspeed, Tom Wolfe, and thank you, Scott Kelly.

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