You have to get up pretty early in the morning to meet Chuck Yeager.
5:47 a.m. to be exact.
That's when the 62-year-old former test pilot and retired Air Force general landed at National Airport yesterday from Los Angeles in a sleek Cheyenne 400LS business propjet, setting a world speed record of 5 hours and 47 minutes.
"Piece a cake," Yeager says, striding across the tarmac in pointy-toed cowboy boots as the pink sun peeks through the early-morning haze. "We had a head wind on the damn flight from Denver to Ohio Valley. Then we picked up a humdinger, picking up about 90 knots on the tail in the last hour."
En route to the Paris Air Show, the man who broke the sound barrier in 1947, the colorful, hell-raising, hillbilly hero of Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," was stopping in Washington long enough to receive the Medal of Freedom from President Reagan today at the White House.
Then he's flying down to see his 87-year-old mother in West Virginia. The two flats of fresh-picked California strawberries and nectarines sitting in the plane's cabin are for her. To make jam.
"Go ahead and taste one. I thought about sending some over to the White House, but it's too much of a hassle getting anything into that damn place."
This is the only time to see Chuck Yeager, because the craggy-faced flyboy with the steel-blue eyes doesn't do lunch. He doesn't pick over a Nicoise salad and whine over a glass of Chablis about not being taken seriously.
Yeager is taken very seriously. In fact, he has become, in the past decade, an authentic folk hero, a Monument to Macho, a man who makes John Wayne look phobic.
Now he's written his autobiography, "Yeager," to be published next month by Bantam Books. Destined for the best-seller list, the raucous memoir -- detailing Yeager's exploits as a double ace in World War II with 13 kills, his daring escape from occupied France, his record-breaking flights and his penchant for women and whiskey -- was cowritten by former Time correspondent Leo Janos, based on extensive tapes provided by Yeager.
The public wanted heroes, and to me, I was just a lucky kid who caught the right ride. But then I was as naive as could be, living a cloistered life out at Muroc, where the flying was fun and the living was easy.
"We didn't know what the word 'macho' meant," he laughs now. "We were jes' a bunch of hell-raisers."
If he hadn't decided to fly jets right after high school, you could probably meet up with Chuck Yeager outside any West Virginia feed store, chewing on a wad of Skoal and bragging about how many rabbits he jes' bagged.
It wasn't a case of the right stuff, he says. Just dumb luck.
"When they refer to a pilot 'having the right stuff,' that doesn't mean a rat's ass to me or any other pilot. It's more meaningful to be in the right place at the right time."
The essence of laid back, he saunters into the Butler Aviation terminal and sits down, sipping a cup of coffee and tilting back his Cheyenne cap. He wears faded jeans and a blue nylon windbreaker, a Rolex the size of a nose wheel on his wrist. His hands are large and freckled, his fingers gnarled tree stumps. His face has more cracks than a dry lakebed.
Is there any plane he hasn't flown?
"A C5," he says in that familiar drawl, thicker than sorghum, used to hawk AC Delco batt'ries and spark plugs on tee-vee. " 'Fraid it might fall on me."
Indeed, Yeager has been living on borrowed time for the past 40 years, tweaking the gods with each loop the loop. He should have bought the farm decades ago. The secret to his success, he writes, "was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day."
I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane . . . and kept me respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit. Death is the great enemy and robber in my profession . . .
"But you didn't let it affect you," he says now. "You don't give any thought to the outcome. 'Cause if you do, you end up a nervous wreck. You become a fatalist. If you get your ass busted, that's the way it goes."
He was cocky.
He thought he would live forever.
"I never looked at it any different. But I look back and think how lucky I was. But I never gave any thought then about whether I'd live to be 62 or not."
He didn't care.
"Damned right I cared. I wanted to live to be 100."
Back in 1947, when Yeager -- suffering from two cracked ribs after falling off a horse -- climbed into that Bell X-1 and shot out like a Dixie Jubilee rocket, nobody knew what would happen if and when he broke through the wall of sound.
Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to .965 Mach then tipped right off the scale. I thought I was seeing things! We were flying supersonic! And it was as smooth as a baby's bottom; Grandma could be sitting there sipping lemonade . . . I sat up there feeling kind of numb, but elated . . . There should have been a bump on the road, something to let you know you had just punched a nice clean hole through that sonic barrier. The Ughknown was a poke through Jello.
"After it was finished, I was disappointed I wasn't killed, obviously," he laughs. "Piece a cake."
It was, he says now, the "most worthwhile thing I ever done." Combat flying was "the most exciting."
Yeager didn't care about fame or fortune. Sure, he made a few speeches. Gave some interviews. Won some awards. Time magazine put him on the cover. But he never sold out. He was the pilot known for his remarkable 20/10 vision who said he wouldn't be an astronaut because he didn't want to "fly anything where you have to sweep the monkey crap off the seat before you sit down."
Of course, NASA never asked Yeager to participate in the space program, mainly, he says now, because he didn't have a college degree.
"Had they called me up on the phone and said, 'Hey, you wanna be an astronaut?' I'd have said, 'Yeah.' Probably not the capsule work. If I'd have been offered, I don't know what I would have done."
How about the shuttle?
"That would be fun to fly that thing. I wouldn't particularly care about laying in the back amongst mission specialists barfin' in their beers."
Yeager, who had been awarded the Silver Star, Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Bronze Star, Air Medal with six Clusters and Purple Heart, stayed in the military for 34 years, retiring in 1975.
"What I was I owed to the Air Force," he says simply.
The Republican Party wanted him to run against Sen. Robert Byrd in West Virginia. The polls said he would win easily, but Yeager wasn't interested in politics.
"Being a U.S. senator wouldn't enhance me ego-wise, financially or any other way. I wouldn't be able to fly. I wouldn't be able to hunt, fish with anybody like I normally do. You gotta be careful."
Military life was not easy for Yeager's wife Glennis and his four children, who were constantly scrambling for housing and money. "Hell, we had no insurance."
All his planes, including the historic X-1, were named "Glamourous Glennis."
"She's a real tough gal. One of the few that are still with me." Several years ago, his wife was diagnosed as having cancer. After several operations ("she's been opened up three times"), chemotherapy and 150 biopsies, she's back on her feet.
He admires his wife's courage. He also admires Ronald Reagan, whom he calls "one tough guy."
"I really admire him, what he did at Bitburg. It's time we straightened up and forget about war. That's one thing guys who fight wars learn real quick. There's no such thing as morality in war. It doesn't exist."
Yeager's take-charge persona is clearly back in vogue, perhaps as a backlash against the New Sensitive Male, derisively known as the wimp.
Last Sunday, in the comic strip "Bloom County," a timid, anxiety-ridden young man said, "I'll always choose the safe path . . . the dull path . . . no risks . . . no gambles . . . I'll be a 'Larry "Bud" Melman,' not a 'Chuck Yeager' . . . Yessir, just call me Mister Cautious!"
Has Yeager's name become synonymous with all things brave and brawny? He laughs at the image.
"I don't pay any attention to it."
That image was also enhanced by actor Sam Shepard, who portrayed Yeager in "The Right Stuff."
"He's a real nice guy," says Yeager. "Besides that, he's living with Jessica Lange."
Still a ladies' man, his blue eyes twinkle. "My wife says if I ever stop looking at gals she's gonna deevorce me."
He quit drinking 15 years ago. "Damn right. I got old. It took me too long to heal up. That's about the way it is. A young body's very forgiving."
He doesn't train young pilots anymore, but does gives lectures at Edwards Air Force Base.
"See, a lot of young pilots today, if I'm a squadron commander today, you go to the officers' club, one of your young pilots gets two or three drinks in his belt and he throws a glass into the fireplace. I say, 'Hey, man, you gotta earn the right to do something like that.' "
As for Chuck Yeager, he did it the old-fashioned way.
"You're damn right, you gotta earn it."