I wrote this little essay back in 2003 or 2004. With the passing of Joe Kittinger, I wanted to share it again. Courage is such an ephemeral thing. For some folks, it’s what makes them get out of bed in the morning, for others…my favorite and most inspiring others…it’s about physics and aerodynamics and knowing that somehow, not even the sky is the limit. And yes, it takes guts and imagination.
Heroes: When the Ordinary do the Extraordinary!
When Alan Shepherd rocketed into history in 1961, I watched through a fuzzy black and white television brought into class by my sixth grade teacher. Too young to appreciate the adventures of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Jackie Cochran, I held my breath as flame spurted from the engine and the long tube eased off the launch pad. I cheered with the other kids as the helmeted, space-suited astronaut pierced the sky and then again as he arced back to earth in his tiny capsule. The combination of derring do and science captured my
imagination and I became the greatest fan in aviation fandom. My enthusiasm lasted through high school as I followed the Mercury program into Gemini and then Apollo. In college, my fascination with the space program led me back to the beginning of aviation where I learned about the achievements of the Wright Brothers, Igor Sikorsky and Fred Weick. The idea of coming up with a concept, designing a prototype, finding money to fund it and then putting your body on the line to prove the point -- that was the epitome of heroics to me.
So you can imagine my excitement when, through a friend, I received an invitation to attend the National Aviation Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in the summer of 2001. The enshrinee list on their Web site is awash with heroes -- from Eddie Rickenbacker to John Macready, Chuck Yeager to Joe Kittinger and Bob Hoover. Papa Piper is there along with the Lindberghs, Hap Arnold and Pete Conrad -- the honor role of those living and dead who pushed back the
envelope of knowledge and experience. I was going to have dinner in the same room with some of these giants. Whew -- I fanned myself with the invitation to fight back a sudden hot flash.
I gathered my books -- “The Right Stuff”, “We Seven”, “X-15” and “Moon Shot”, fantasizing about meeting these extraordinary adventurers. I would cozy up to them and ask for their autographs. I would have my picture taken with them, grinning into the camera between the likes of John Glenn and Wally Schirra. My husband, Johnny, is a runner-up in aviation fandom. Thrilled by this opportunity, he yielded his personal dogma of tuxedo avoidance and we drove from our home near Pittsburgh to Dayton, filled with exuberant speculations.
According to our invitation, shuttle pilot Joe Engle was one of the honorees, nominated by his mentor, Chuck Yeager. That meant the ace of all aces would be there -- Yeager himself -- the aviation pioneer with the vision of an eagle and nerves of steel. I’d stood under “Glamorous Glennis” at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC dreaming about that day in 1947 when he flew the tiny orange craft through the sound barrier. Johnny and I agreed that even a glimpse of this great hero would make it worth the long drive and overnight stay.
We arrived at the hotel just after noon. I went in to register while Johnny parked the car. I pushed through the swinging glass door and came face to face with General Yeager. Just like that. He nodded and smiled. He wasn’t a giant at all. In fact, he didn’t appear much taller than me and I’m 5-foot-2 inches tall. What’s more, he was dressed in blue jeans and sneakers. I opened my mouth to introduce myself, but his focus drifted away. Grinning broadly, he hurried past me to welcome General Engle and his family who had come in behind me. I
watched as they shook hands and began the good-natured banter of old friends. As much as I wanted to hang out and eavesdrop, I backed away overcome with shyness.
At the front desk, the clerk told me that our room wouldn’t be ready for another half hour. Johnny came in the swinging doors as I turned around.
“Did you see him?” I mouthed.
“He and Joe Engle went out as you were coming in.”
“MAN!” Johnny spun around, squinting through the hotel windows, but the
Engles and Yeager were long gone.
“What was he like?”
“Not as tall as I thought he would be.”
While waiting for our room to open up, we rode the elevator to the top-floor restaurant. It was mid-afternoon and most of the lunch crowd had dispersed. We sat down and accepted our menus from the waiter.
“It’s Scott Crossfield.” I hid behind my menu.
“Behind you. Ten o’clock high.”
“The fastest man alive,” we whispered in unison, our knees touching. I peeked
around my menu. There was no mistake.
“What’s he look like?” Johnny kept his voice even as if he was asking me to pass the cheese.
Johnny refused to turn around and stare even though I knew he wanted to.
“He’s leaving,” I whispered.
“He’s passing behind you.”
Johnny dared a quick glance over his shoulder.
“The one in the golf shirt.”
We giggled behind our fists.
After lunch, we rode the elevator downstairs to the lobby where we met our contact who introduced us to Joe Kittinger -- THE Joe Kittinger. I remembered seeing his picture in Life Magazine when I was a kid. Joe parachuted out of a balloon at an altitude of 102,800 feet and was the first person to exceed the speed of sound without an airplane.
Thrilled, Johnny and I shook his hand. I expected someone fierce and bold, not this courtly gentleman with a dramatic gray mustache that used to be red. He, too, seemed ordinary -- like the auto mechanic down the street or the guy who taught physics at the local community college. I wanted to ask Joe what he was thinking during the nearly five minutes of free
fall, but a rush to the check-in counter interrupted our conversation. The rooms were ready. I stood in line, surrounded by a plethora of octogenarians in Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals. I presumed that they must be aviation heroes that I didn’t recognize. As I accepted my key, someone tugged at my hair, perilously close to my derriere. I whirled, ready to mow down the masher with an eloquent one liner. My jaw dropped in surprise. Three tiny old pilots grinned at me like an array of lecherous dwarves. I didn’t have the heart to scold them.
After all, what if they had broken a speed or altitude record fifty years ago?
“I’m not used to so many short men,” I said to Johnny as we squeezed into the elevator with our luggage. “I imagined these guys would be tall and brawny. I know they are getting on in years, but they seem so little.”
“Cockpits are small,” Johnny said as he pressed the button. “Big men don’t fit.” I imagined Hulk Hogan packing himself into a Mercury space capsule and shrugged.
At 7 pm, three hours later, we found our way to the pre-ceremony cocktail party in the Aviation Hall of Fame Exhibit at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Weaving our way through groups of chatting pilots, we stopped at the bar to pick up our drinks. I had discarded all plans to pursue my heroes for autographs. These fellows weren’t Hollywood celebrities with stacks of 8-by-10 glossies. They were regular guys hanging out with their comrades talking about old times over a beer. Not wanting to intrude on their evening, Johnny and I decided to take in the exhibits
instead. I headed toward the display area located at the far end of the hall with Johnny trailing behind me. “Excuse me,” I said as I squeezed through the crowd, placing my hand on the back of a gentleman chatting with a group of admirers.
A handsome face with piercing blue eyes smiled at me. “No problem,” the man said before turning back to his conversation. I gaped. Neil Armstrong. I looked at Johnny and jerked my eyes toward Neil.
“What?” Johnny cocked his head like a curious hound dog.
“Neil Armstrong.” I moved my lips but made no sound. I didn’t want the
original moon walker to know I was gushing over him.
I pulled Johnny over to the side of the room.
“It’s Neil Armstrong,” I whispered.
“There.” My finger shook as I pointed to one dark suit out of hundreds.
“Are you sure?”
Dinner was in a huge room with dozens of round tables gathered around a small stage. We found our places and sat down. A beautiful woman was to my left. Her husband was the youngest pilot to fly the hump during World War II. He looked like our next door neighbor.
John Glenn sat across the room on the other side of the aisle. Joe Kittinger and his pretty young wife were at a table behind us. He wore his medal around his neck on a red, white and blue ribbon. I smiled and waved to them.
Joe Foss spoke from the stage, his Medal of Honor glistening on his chest. Inductee Robin Olds was two tables over, surrounded by old drinking buddies. Neil Armstrong participated in the program, thirty-two summers after stepping off the LEM and into history.
Poems and anthems supplemented the speeches. Then, suddenly, the two-hour ceremony was over. The hall was warm. Johnny was eager to get rid of the unaccustomed cummerbund. I stood up, wobbling in my high-heeled strap sandals. We bade farewell to our table mates and wound our way toward the exit. At the door, I turned for one last look.
My heroes filled the flag-festooned room with their family and friends. Uncomfortable in their fancy clothes, shy and proud in front of their loved ones, they seemed as frail and human as me. I stood there -- awestruck at the magnitude of their accomplishments. They WERE ordinary. Imagine that.