Chuck Yeager Interview (page: 5 / 8)
First Man to Break the Sound Barrier
We'd like to hear about your early years. What about your birthplace in West Virginia? What was that town like?
I attended grade school and I did very well in the first grade, skipped second grade and went to the third grade. By the time I got to the fifth grade, I spent two years there. It got kind of tough. Grade school was just nine months out of the year. I enjoyed running the hills or fishing, and things like that.
In high school, things got a little more serious as far as my education was concerned. And also there were sports -- football and basketball, which I played both. And I also played a trombone in the high school band and chased gals, so I was a pretty busy kid. The subjects that I liked very much in school were mathematics, algebra and typing. I could type 60 words a minute easy. Anything that took hand-eye coordination I had a good time at it. History, my teachers had trouble passing me.
[ Key to Success ] Preparation
Do you recall any books you read that had a big influence on you?
Chuck Yeager: That's a long time ago. I was interested in books about wildlife, like some of Jack London's books, as I recall. And then also another one, by an unknown author, called Crooked Bill, about a little bird that had a crooked bill. The reason I remember it is I had to give a book report on it. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life.
Really? Speaking in front of the class?
Chuck Yeager: Well, I was only in the fourth or fifth grade, and it was tough.
Were there any people that you were really influenced by as a kid, or impressed by?
Chuck Yeager: I, probably more so than the other kids, took up with elderly people, because they were interesting people. And there was one in particular who had been a state senator and he was a lawyer, old Jake D. Smith, and I hung around him a lot after I got to be a teenager because he was interesting to get a lot of tales from. He was a pretty nice guy. My dad was gone all week. Normally he would leave on Sunday afternoon, and he'd come home Friday night. He wasn't around at that time, so I took up with older people, just for company.
What about this fellow impressed you?
Chuck Yeager: He was just an interesting guy. He was a very mature guy, so it was interesting to talk to him. Usually, the only other mature people you talked to were school teachers, and your relationship with them was entirely different.
Were there any teachers that you were particularly motivated by?
Chuck Yeager: No. I remember Mrs. Miller taught me typing, and I enjoyed her. And some of the math and algebra teachers I enjoyed. If you liked them, they taught you well. And if you didn't like them, they were the people that couldn't communicate with you, or teach you anything.
You mentioned that your dad was a gas driller. Maybe you could describe what that is.
Chuck Yeager: He had a string of cable tools. He'd drill holes in the ground for natural gas. He would go down some 3,000 feet into the ground. It was an interesting piece of machinery. I was exposed to machinery at a very young age. I liked it. I got to overhaul engines, and run big gasoline pumps and water pumps, and watch him dress bits, meaning heating them until they were red-hot and then re-sharpening the bits that cut the whole in the ground. It was interesting to me as a kid. I wasn't as big as my big brother, who turned out to be about six-four and weighed about 240. He could handle a 16-pound sledge hammer and carry pipes. I couldn't do that. I was just an average-sized kid.
Throughout your career you have shown an incredible drive to keep besting yourself and besting the world's records. I wonder if that sense of ambition was there when you were a kid. Were you aware of it?
It was taught mainly through family discipline. My father taught me to finish anything I started. And I think that carries throughout your adult life. Most people's personalities and moralities are formed when they are rather young, and that characteristic will carry out throughout their lifetime. We were disciplined as kids, quite severely, if you didn't finish your jobs, and I think that's what brought about a desire to finish what I start and do the best job you could. And that's probably the reason that characteristic has carried throughout my life.
It's one thing to finish a job, and have a sense of a job well done, but it's another thing to do it better than anyone else. Was that part of your thinking?
Chuck Yeager: There is no kind of ultimate goal to do something twice as good as anyone else can. It's just to do the job as best you can. If it turns out good, fine. If it doesn't, that's the way it goes.
But there is no such thing as a sort of half-assed attempt?
Chuck Yeager: No. Never has been.
We've heard your father was a stubborn fellow, a Republican among Democrats.
Chuck Yeager: He was a very honest guy. And his word was law. He was a Republican, and he believed in it, and he didn't particularly care for Democrats although the Democrats in West Virginia were in the majority. But he was that way. He was sort of a Dutch-German guy, and he worked very hard, and he was serious about everything he did. He didn't have to sign a piece of paper, his word was his bond.
I gather that many years later, he even refused to shake the hand of the President.
Chuck Yeager: That was many years later, around 1948. After I had broken the sound barrier, I went up to the White House to get the Collier Trophy from President Truman, and I remember my dad wouldn't shake hands with him.
Do you suppose Truman was insulted?
Chuck Yeager: I don't know. He probably didn't pay any attention to it.
Were you a close-knit family growing up?
Chuck Yeager: Probably so. I have a big brother and a younger sister about three of four years younger than I am, and then a little brother ten years younger. We are a pretty close-knit family; we went to Sunday school and church and also played together and ran around together.
What sports interested you as a kid? I gather you were quite athletic.
Chuck Yeager: I played football and basketball in high school.
Did you intend to follow your dad into his profession?
Chuck Yeager: That's speculation. The war broke out in Europe in '39 and '40. My senior year in high school was 1941, and we were mobilizing our forces here in America. It just seemed a natural thing for most all the kids in high school -- especially the boys -- to enter the service. I think we all did.
Did you have a vision of what you wanted to accomplish back then?
Chuck Yeager: No. Actually, when people tell you that, "I had my mind made up when I was two years old to do this," I think you should take that with a grain of salt. Because it's very difficult for a kid who is going through an educational process and being exposed to the world, to decide what he wants to do. Because he really hadn't been exposed to that kind of a life yet. And I had no idea what I wanted to do, except exist and that was about it. I had no interest in airplanes; we didn't even know what an airplane was. We didn't even see them except flying in the air. So obviously, there was no interest in them at all.
Do you remember your first encounter with an airplane? How old were you?
Chuck Yeager: Fifteen or 16. As I recall, somebody said there was a Cub or something that had made an emergency landing in a cornfield, about a mile from the house. So I rode my bicycle up there to look at it. I wasn't impressed, because I didn't know what it was. So you just look at it, turn around and leave.
It wasn't love at first sight.
Chuck Yeager: No. In fact, not knowing anything about airplanes, I didn't have any intentions to be associated with them.
You got married right after the war, didn't you?
Chuck Yeager: Well, I came home in February and got married February 26. I got home about the first of February, then went down to Texas to be a basic instructor and that's when I got out of there into Wright Field in July of 1945 and got into maintenance.
I know that your wife was a very important support system for you, your whole life. And one of the things that amazes me in reading about your life is how brave she was to let you keep going up there.
Chuck Yeager: Well, I was flying when I met her. But the point is, being an Air Force wife is not an easy life. It was tough because you travel around a lot, and there is a high risk factor, obviously, especially in research flying. And she bowed her back and did it. And it worked out pretty good.
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This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:50 EDT
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