People have often asked me if I’ve ever met famous folks during my years in the news business.
There’s been a few that stand out. Many of them have been in the sports arena, including Jim Otto, the great Oakland Raider center; Henry Bibby from the famous 76ers team of the 1970s, and Orlando Cepeda of the Giants and Cardinals and the 1967 National League MVP.
I also met Tug McGraw, the former relief pitcher who got the last out of the 1980 World Series for the Phillies. Tug was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
Back in his day, a lot of stadiums had Astroturf, which was essentially a plastic fake field.
Tug was once asked if he preferred Astroturf to real grass and he answered:
“I don’t know. I’ve never smoked Astroturf.”
At the start of my career, I got to know former Senator Jack Danforth pretty well through numerous interviews about the proposed Meramec Dam, which eventually fell through. Danforth was the squarest major politician I ever met. If he didn’t know the answer to a question, he would actually say, “I don’t know,” and then get back to you with an answer.
There’s been others, but the one famous person I got to know best was Gen. Chuck Yeager.
For the uninitiated, Gen. Yeager was the first man to break the sound barrier in his rocket plane in 1947. Yeager didn’t get much publicity then because the flight was kept secret for months. It was America’s first manned venture into space.
Yeager’s international fame erupted in 1979 with the writing of “The Right Stuff,” by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe set out to write a book about the original astronauts and he did.
But during his research, Wolfe kept running into people who talked in awe and reverence about Yeager. He felt compelled to make Yeager and his counterpart test pilots a major part of the book.
Yeager was a country boy who grew up in West Virginia and never went to college, but he was a mechanical and aeronautics genius. He flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and tested planes in between.
In one interview I asked him about the Bell X-1 rocket plane he broke the sound barrier with. He gave me a long discourse in his inimitable drawl on how the plane worked and frankly, it went right over my head as fast as one of his jets.
Yeager’s sound barrier plane had “Glamourous Glennis” painted on the side, in honor of his then-wife.
Glennis was from Grass Valley, Calif., and they moved there when he retired. That’s where I met him, as a member of the staff at the local paper, The Union.
Glennis later died and he married a younger woman, Victoria Yeager, who takes care of his affairs to this day. “Torie” liked me and allowed me access to Yeager that few others got.
Yeager was a crotchety old guy, who used to rip into me for about two minutes every time I saw him. I learned to just take it, realizing it was a defense mechanism he used to ward off the many who wanted a piece of him for one reason or another.
Whenever he answered the phone, he wouldn’t say hello. He would simply yell “Yeager!” into the receiver.
To say Yeager’s speech was salty is a severe understatement. About every fifth word was something you would never say to your grandma. After the bluster faded, we would commence the interviews.
I was interviewing him once at the local airport with several other reporters when the talk turned to World War II.
Someone mentioned that he had shot down a German plane on his first mission.
“Well, they got me not long after that,” he said.
“What happened?” somebody asked.
“Well,” he said, “There were three (expletive deleted) Me-109s comin’ straight at me and they opened up with those 20-millimeter cannons they had.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “They shot me up pretty good and I never did have to bail out.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because the (expletive deleted) plane just broke up around me and I was just floatin’ in space,” he said.
He ended the story by saying he was glad he had a parachute.
The last time I interviewed the general was at his 85th birthday celebration at Beale Air Force Base.
It was a hot day and Yeager was in a nearby trailer staying out of the sun until his speech. His wife came up to me and said, “I want you to meet somebody.”
We walked into the trailer and Yeager introduced me to his old friend, Roy Clark, who was there to play his banjo and perform at the party.
Later that day after his speech, Yeager walked over and said, “Dave, you’re my favorite reporter.”
“I only wish my Dad were alive to hear you say that general,” I said. “If he had known that I knew Chuck Yeager, he would have been proud. You were one of his heroes.”
Yeager just looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and grinned.