Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinions at CNN.
Cool is eternal. Hot is what’s fashionable and fleeting. And there was perhaps no American icon more quintessentially cool than Chuck Yeager: cool under fire, cool when breaking the sound barrier, cool when crashing his experimental X-1A jet and walking away from the wreckage.
Most Americans know Chuck Yeager’s American story because of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book “The Right Stuff” and the 1983 movie that chronicled the rise of NASA’s Mercury 7 astronauts. Even in this homage, Yeager stood apart. He was never an astronaut. He was a war hero and a test pilot, the guy whose casual swagger set the standard for his peers. He didn’t need to be famous; he was already a legend. Yeagar, who died Monday at 97, was “the fastest man alive.”
The kid born in Lincoln County, West Virginia, two decades after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, grew up in the Great Depression and became a World War II fighter pilot. “The first time I ever saw a jet, I shot it down,” he said, and once knocked five Nazi fighters out of the sky on the same day. He was 21 when the war ended and celebrated by flying under the South Side Bridge in his hometown at 500 miles an hour.
At Edwards Air Force Base, Yeager quickly became the king of the test pilots, a hard-working and hard-drinking crew of cowboys in the sky. In 1947 he became the first person to break the sound barrier, going 700 miles an hour, which he did with a busted rib after a fall from a horse. His reward was his regular military pay of $283 a month and a free steak dinner at Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club.
That’s the cinematic scene that kicks off “The Right Stuff,” with Sam Shepard playing Yeager in what’s still my favorite role of all time. The Pulitzer-Prize winning, Bohemian playwright channeled the wild western spirit of the older man and made him a modern icon—again.
Yeager was a direct connection to an American ethos that we’ve lost sight of—one before the narcissistic need for attention, the shallow materialism full of phony tough bluster and the fetishization of victimhood took hold and began to define our country, from the Oval Office on down.
But Chuck Yeager’s brand of American cool – hell, his brand of American heroism – was based on taking your job seriously but never yourself: “Everybody that I’ve ever seen that enjoyed their job was very good at it,” Yeager common-sensically noted. Unafraid and uncomplaining, Yeager was all about the mission; pushing the barrier past what other people think is possible.
He was competitive and individualistic without losing sight of the common good. An unpretentious belief in duty, honor and country may sound quaint, but it ain’t. This is the real tough stuff, not the posturing you see from so many pretenders.
Yeager took control of his own story with a 1986 autobiography. And in the end, he lived longer than the younger actor who played him, Sam Shepard, who passed away in 2017.
Well before he died Monday night, Yeager had entered that ethereal space in the civic stratosphere where the legend lives outside the constraints of contemporary culture. He was so outside of time that some folks must have assumed that the real man was already dead and gone, along with so many of his greatest generation.
But Yeager made his own rules and refused to completely surrender the stage. He broke the sound barrier again at age 74 and a few years later when a fan asked him what it was like, Yeager replied on Twitter, “It will never replace sex.”
That’s not exactly the answer you expect from a man in his 90s. But it’s exactly the answer you expect from this American fighter pilot, a quintessentially cool cowboy of a new frontier who will forever be punching a hole in the sky.