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Chuck Yeager Is Alive And Ornery

Thank God

Here's American politics in 2016: You're standing alone in a field. You're clean and dry and it's not raining. You're fine for now. The sun is above you. But you turn around and around and all you see are storm clouds rolling toward you from every direction. They're spitting hail and the lightning is cracking trees in half and the wind is screaming and the thunder is a marching army. There's no road to get you out of there, no storm shelter.

The easiest thing in the world is to worry about the thing that's coming that you can't stop, and the wreckage it's going to leave behind. I turn on the news every day and I struggle to believe in my country. I struggle to believe the structure is holding. And this is merely the cost of following the news. The news amplifies all that's bad in the American character, the American temperament — and that negative energy feeds off of itself. The political landscape of 2016 is pockmarked with conspiracy theorists and propagandists and con artists and miserable damn people who have figured out how to monetize anger and fear, whose livelihood requires us to feel bad and sick with worry, to dwell on the dark that's coming instead of the light we have.

The best thing you can do as a bystander, the best palliative treatment for this stress and uncertainty, is to dwell on the positive. It's common advice, so common it feels abstract. But you can't allow it to be an abstraction: You have to actually go and do it. It's active work. You have to fight to succeed at it, every day.

My personal strategy is one of very aggressive counter-programming. When the presidential race gets dark and spotlights everything that’s bad in America, I make an active point of trying to remember and recognize what's not bad — whatever that means — wherever I can find it. That sounds sentimental, and it is, but it's a small price to pay for self-preservation in a hell-bound year.

You know what's good in America? Fats Domino, one of the warmest performers in the history of American rock and roll, the king of American good time music, is still alive.

We live in a world with Fats Domino still in it. Irma Thomas, too: the Soul Queen of New Orleans, and one of the finest singers ever to walk the Earth.

And Chuck Berry, who got an atlas out in prison, plotted a road trip from Norfolk, Virginia, to Los Angeles, and turned the itinerary into “Promised Land,” the most exuberant and joyfully American song ever written.

And how about Chuck Yeager? Chuck Yeager is still kicking around. That's amazing, incredible, impossible. Chuck Yeager is a pilot who got shot down in France during World War II and fled to Spain with the French Resistance and didn't die. In 1944. Seventy-two years ago. Three years later he was in the Mojave Desert, got thrown from a horse, two ribs broken. He kept it quiet, got taped up by a doctor in Kern County, then two days later he hopped in a Bell X-1 rocket plane and proved that you can break the sound barrier without dying at all. By 1962 we had invented astronauts and he was training them to leave the whole Earth and come back alive, and seven years later we landed flesh and blood human beings on the moon in a little jalopy.

The icing on the cake is that he's on Twitter.

Let's just savor that for a second. Chuck Yeager, whose whole career was doing things that make you die, has not died, and here he is, just knocking around, the better part of a hundred years old, killing time on the internet.

And he's ornery. People ask Chuck Yeager questions and Chuck Yeager gives them one-word answers and always seems on the edge of telling them to shut up. He says things like “Try a search engine, son.” People ask him for his thoughts on the moon and he says “It's there.” People ask him if he'd want to go to Mars and he says “Hell, no.”

He has no bullshit tolerance at all. He might be the least sentimental man alive. When a psychotherapist asked him for advice about a client who was studying to be a pilot and struggling with a breakup, Chuck Yeager said “What am I — a goddam doctor? That's your job.”

There's one runaway winner of a post though, a variant on his favorite theme: telling people to go to hell without actually saying it. When somebody asked him how many UFOs he'd seen as a pilot, Chuck Yeager just said “None. I don't drink before I fly.”

Let's just take a deep breath, relax, and relish how funny that is. Chuck Yeager cannot stand people who believe in UFOs. And Chuck Yeager clearly enjoys being a curmudgeon more than most of us get to enjoy anything. And the best part is he's got the right. He's part of the American soul, our frontier spirit, our independence. Chuck Yeager made a living out of flying fast as hell, out of having no fear at all. He was the first man to break Mach 1, to poke his head in the door where the demon lives, and now he's out in California somewhere, alive and busting us all. That may not keep the storm clouds away for very long, but it sure is nice. It’ll do me for today.