This summer, I was obsessed with reading. I read at least 6 books and I’m not a fast reader. To be perfectly honest, three were Mary Balogh romances, but to my credit, they were each almost 400 pages. but the two most interesting books I read The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel and The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe.
I’ve never been interested in science or space, but I love history. These books painted vivid pictures of the history of test flight and space exploration. This year I saw the movie “The Right Stuff” on Netflix and loved it. I liked learning about the pilots, astronauts, their families, and the time periods. As I was shopping on Amazon looking for something to read, I came across The Astronaut Wives Club. The cover of the book had a picture of the wives of the Mercury 7 astronauts. They looked like fashion plates from the 1960’s. Their hair, their smiles, their red lipstick….I was sold! I know in elementary school we were taught to not judge a book by its cover, but that is exactly what I did. I wasn’t disappointed wither, I could hardly put the book down! Each astronaut had a wife and family behind him, keeping the home fires burning. They stretched their husbands’ meager salary (before they were famous, anyway), raised their children mostly by themselves, and dealt with the constant fear of their husbands dying in an accident. They went to the funerals of their husbands’ friends and coworkers, always wondering when they would be the woman wearing black. They dealt with the wondering and worrying about the “cape cookies,” as the pilots called them – the women who hung around the Cape and “entertained” the pilots. The astronauts worked and trained at the Cape and it was an understood rule among the pilots that no wives were allowed there. Even before the launch of Mercury 7, the astronauts started receiving amazing perks, including $500,000 to split between the seven. This was from Life Magazine, in return for exclusive access to the families and their stories, etc. The astronauts received sportscars for only $1 a year…..custom Corvettes, etc. which they drove around the Cape. Unfortunately, many marriages ended due to the separation, strain, and extramarital affairs. swas made into a television series and just came out on DVD. I can’t wait to see it.
I had to read The Right Stuff next, of course. Though I’d seen the movie, the book was better. The danger of flight test, as the pilots called it, was unbelievable. The pilots, many former decorated war heroes, flew because they loved flying and the adrenal rush of “pushing the envelope.” They certainly didn’t fly because of the pay.
My favorite pilot highlighted in the book was Chuck Yeager. Yeager was an unassuming, gifted pilot from West Virginia. In World War II, he was shot down over German-occupied French territory, picked up by the French underground , which smuggled him into Spain disguised as a peasant. While in Spain, he was jailed briefly, then released. He somehow made it back to England and returned to combat during the Allied invasion of France. Whew! All that by the ripe old age of 21! On October 14 1947, Chuck Yeager flew the X-1 and reached the speed of Mach 1.05, breaking the sound barrier. Amazingly, he accomplished this feat with two broken ribs. Two days before the historic flight, Yeager and his wife chased each other on horseback through the desert at night. He fell off the horse, went to a doctor off base, and kept this little tidbit from the Air Force. he only told his flight engineer Jack Ridley, who fashioned a handle out of a saw-off broom handle. With the broom handle, he could shut the door of the X-1 (kind of necessary, right?).
Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, making his regular Army captain’s pay of $283 a month! No extra, no bonuses, just doing the job that he loved. Since the flight was top secret, he received no fame or notoriety until a year later. So many test pilots died or risked their lives to fly experimental and new planes. We never knew their names, their deaths never made the news. But they were American heroes. Without their bravery, we wouldn’t have aeronautical advancements. That book really made me think about how so many Americans look up to professional athletes and celebrities. Pro athletes and celebrities make enormous wages and are practically worshipped. But what did they sacrifice? They certainly haven’t risked their lives while making meager incomes like the test pilots. Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox! Now that I’ve told you all about the books, you may not have to read them anymore….but you’ll want to!
What’s one of your favorite books? I’d love to know!