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Breaking the Sound Barrier: Leaving More than a Momentary Boom

Larry Wines: Those who change the world seldom realize that's what they are doing. Most of them are just engaged in doing what they do, doing it well.
Breaking the Sound Barrier

Today is the anniversary of the day John Lennon died, killed by a disturbed fan on the night of December 8th, 1980. I didn't know John Lennon. I don't know any of the former Beatles. But who among us has not been touched by the music those four lads from Liverpool made collectively and individually and as participants in other bands, combos, and ensembles?

We are influenced every day by people we do not know. Sometimes their lives preceded ours by considerable margins. Stephen Foster. Lord Byron. William Shakespeare. Johann Sebastian Bach. Beethoven. So many more.

Less often, we pause to think of the many ways we influence those around us. Yet some specific stimulus was at the root of Romeo and Juliet. Of the Canterbury Tales. Of Beethoven's Fifth. Of "Here Comes the Sun," and "Yesterday," and every memorable song you've ever heard. 

This could quite obviously conclude with the simple set of questions, "Are you ready to bring somebody's spirits up, to spark something that inspires them? Are you ready to realize that something that can inspire many -- even generations yet unborn -- can be the product at any moment of someone's inspired creativity? Are you ready, through even a kind, simple act, to give someone a focused moment, to be a bringer of light that creates the space for creativity and inspiration to happen?"

All valid questions when you consider the difference between a middle finger and a kind word from any of us, at any time, might be all it takes.

Those who change the world seldom realize that's what they are doing. Most of them are just engaged in doing what they do, doing it well

Those who change the world seldom realize that's what they are doing. Most of them are just engaged in doing what they do, doing it well, and consciously and intentionally enjoying the opportunity to be there and engage in it.

Songwriting. Playwriting. Poetry. Prose. Drawing a cartoon that's worth a thousand words. Learning to play a part or a composition that opens hearts and stirs emotions, or lyrics that bring an opening for an unexpected perspective. Imparting exactly the right inflection when singing a verse or a chorus.

Those examples are probably easy for everyone who reads this. So let's go farther. What about so someone who goes where no one has gone before?

Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Marina Tereshkova, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Sally Ride.

And what about those who blazed the path, and established the science and engineering that enabled, say, space flight? 

Late last night, word came of a pioneer that we lost. Here's the lead from the New York Times:

BREAKING NEWS

Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, has died at 97. He became a national celebrity thanks to “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe.

Monday, December 7, 2020 11:18 PM EST

His signal achievement came on Oct. 14, 1947, when he climbed out of a B-29 bomber as it ascended over California’s Mojave Desert from what was then known as Muroc Air Force Base, and entered the cockpit of an orange, bullet-shaped, rocket-powered experimental plane attached to the bomb bay.An Air Force captain at the time, he zoomed off in the plane, a Bell Aircraft X-1, at an altitude of 23,000 feet, and when he reached about 43,000 feet above the desert, history’s first sonic boom reverberated across the floor of the dry lake beds. He had reached a speed of 700 miles an hour, breaking the sound barrier and dispelling the long-held fear that any plane flying at or beyond the speed of sound would be torn apart by shock waves.

Of course the New York Times printed more. So did other highfallutin obits for Chuck Yeager.

But we were talking about how anyone can be involved at any time, and each of us can be a factor -- even the key factor -- in influence, inspiration, and yes, being responsible for, things that go well beyond us.
So I've got a personal tale about Chuck Yeager's friends and contemporaries that I have known.

If you saw the movie, "The Right Stuff" -- or better yet, read Tom Wolfe's book, both referenced above by the Times -- then you will remember "Pancho's place." It was a little ranch in the middle of nowhere, less than an hour's flyimg time from L.A., with a rudimentary hotel, bar, restaurant, and air field. Officially it was called both "Pancho's Fly-In" and "The Happy Bottom Riding Club." 

It's where young Chuck Yeager and his wife went galloping through the desert the night before he flew the Bell X-1 and officially broke the sound barrier for the first time in October of 1947.

That pre-flight horseback ride was when Yeager had an altercation with a joshua tree, fell off his horse, and broke a couple of ribs. Which he had to keep quiet so he could fly the next day. That occasioned his conspiratorial request for a piece of sawed-off broom handle so he could close the X-1's canopy latch using his opposite arm. The pilot had to do that himself, after descending into the cockpit, in flight. That involved climbing-down through the B-29 bomber's bomb-bay doors with the wind whistling between the two craft.

Thing is, it's what test pilots did in those days. Every day. As long as you kept your broken ribs quiet.

Fueling what Wolfe described as their cycle of "flying and drinking and drinking and driving," all the hotshot test pilots hung out at Pancho's. She was Pancho Barnes, after all, the first of the women pilots to do technically impressive crazy things in the air. Like buzzing the Pasadena church where her first husband was the preacher, and doing it so thunderously that all inside exited at a run, in terror. That was after her famously foul mouth had colorfully conjugated cuss words for the congregation when her husband had forced her to attend a church function. (She was also more accomplished in the air than her contemporary, Amelia Earhart, including breaking Earhart's air speed record in 1930.)

Breaking the Sound Barrier

Women in that era were seldom celebrated. Amelia Earhart was an exception. But she was hardly the only one who inspired the men whose names history does celebrate.

Yeager was devoted to his girl who would become his wife, and the P-51 Mustang he flew when he shot-down Luftwaffe fighters over Germany bore her name. So did the X-1 the day he became the first to fly it faster than sound. And in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., suspended from the ceiling, that bright orange pioneering airplane -- based on the shape of a .45 caliber bullet -- with its archaic multiplicity of blended cockpit window panes, is forever emblazoned "Glamourous Glennis" and inseparable from Yeager's legend.

Parts of the story are forgotten now. In the Cold War world of 1947, Yeager's accomplishment was initially kept secret. So he and Glennis enjoyed the free steaks Pancho had promised to "whichever one of you sonsabitches breaks the sound barrier first," with a party at her place attended only by those in the know.

Chuck Yeager and Pancho were great friends to one another, despite his well-known remark that "The only question about Pancho is whether she is the ugliest, or one of the ugliest women I ever saw."

It was Chuck Yeager who gave-away the bride when Pancho married her fourth husband. The wedding was performed by Muroc commanding officer Gen. Al Boyd, and the entire ceremony lasted 58 seconds, so as not to detract from the revelry at the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Thousands attended, owing to her contextual fame.

The groom was Gene "Mac" McKendry, 18 years her junior. He had been her chief ranch hand.

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I visited and interviewed Mac once. He was quite a character, and I learned a lot. 

When Mac married Pancho, he was the same age as her son from her first marriage -- the marriage to the Pasadena preacher who suffered her frequent comedic indignities until he finally consented to divorce. Pancho always kept his last name, Barnes, "to spite the miserable bastard for not divorcing me for so long," she said when asked. 

Their son, Bill Barnes, very much took after his mother. For many years, he operated Barnes Aviation at Fox Field north of Lancaster, CA, which she had founded. He died in the crash of a WW II P-51 Mustang in 1980. Ironically, it was identical to Yeager's fighter plane.

A few years after the 1947 scene where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, the Air Force (having officially been separated from the Army in 1949) changed commanders at Muroc -- which we know as Edwards Air Force Base. Despite Pancho alternating between being beloved and being tolerated by the old regime, the new management aggressively began trying to evict her establishment from land it wanted to annex into the base. 
These days, it would be easy to portray the branch of the service that had just been responsible for more death and maiming than any other military force in human history -- through its aerial fire bombing of German and Japanese cities, culminating in two atomic bombs. It seems a gimme, since they were contending that Pancho Barnes was an intolerably immoral menace. The Air Force alleged she was a coarse woman operating a house of prostitution at her fly-in ranch, luring young and innocent members of their military into corruption.

For Pancho, it was a replay of her first husband, the Pasadena preacher. For the cadre of test pilots, it was ridiculous to the point of howling laughter. When all other efforts failed, Pancho's place burned down. 

The civilian test pilots could say what they thought. Yeager, being an Air Force officer, couldn't say much.

Pancho always claimed the Air Force napalmed her place when she and Mac were in Lancaster, buying supplies for the Happy Bottom Riding Club's weekend festivities. The military always denied the aerial arson, though several years after her death, a court finally awarded Mac a settlement for their willful act of destruction.

In the modern era, the Air Force reinstituted an annual barbecue on the site of Pancho's ranch. Chuck Yeager was a regular. Eventually, that, too, became a victim of a change in base command.

Mac outlasted Pancho. They, too, had divorced. 

Pancho lived her final years in a cottage built of local reddish-brown volcanic rocks on a barren lot in the little mining town of Boron. That's just outside the north boundary of Edwards Air Force Base, close to the former site of her ranch. The local museum owns the stone house and has flirted with making it a subsudiary museum to her, but its construction makes it too problematic to relocate to the museum's grounds. Meanwhile, locals can be coaxed to tell tales of Pancho's profane tirades against a neighbor's dog that often pooped in her yard, and of her coming outside topless to hang her laundry on the clothes line. Of the latter, they'll add that she had had her breasts removed some years earlier, anyway, because of problematic g-forces encountered in aerial maneuvers.

Mac lived about 30 miles away, northwest of Edwards behind the Jawbone Canyon watering hole, in the area known as Cantil. After her death, he inherited her posessions, and planned to open a Pancho Barnes museum. Mac told me that Chuck Yeager and others from the old days had contributed mementos to it. Incongruously, to house the collection of pioneer aviation artifacts, Mac acquired an ex-Santa Fe stainless-steel railroad passenger coach when Amtrak put it up for sale. It was trucked to Cantil and deposited onto an orphan piece of railroad track in Mac's front yard of sand and creosote bush.

He took me through the railroad car, piled with decaying cardboard boxes of who-knew-what. It was about 130 degrees in there and Sat droppings were everywhere. From one box, he gave me a glass ashtray from a stack that had been elsewhere and hadn't burned in the Happy Bottom inferno. We went in his house, which was a much cooler 90° or so, and his cats immediately introduced themselves to see if I had brought handouts. Cats vying for lap space and jockeying to purr in your face when it's 90 degrees and your reporter's notepad needs your knee is something you remember.

We spent a couple of hours talking about Pancho and Chuck Yeager and everyone's flying and his infamous horseback ride and the crazy secrecy following it, and all the assorted characters and test pilots he had known at Muroc / Edwards. Of the latter, he kept punctuating his stories with, "He was killed in a crash, you know." That included Glen Edwards, for whom the base was posthumously named after he cratered a Northrop flying wing bomber that had identical overall dimensions to the B-2 of 40 years later.
Mac was fun company. His incorrigible cats less so. But I will always remember the "something to drink" he offered after we exited the broiling railroad car. He poured what looked like strong ice tea from a clear glass pitcher in his old art deco rounded refrigerator. When he didn't offer sugar, I raised the glass to taste it to see if he was a devotee of Southern-style "sweet tea." I also subtly sniffed to test the possibility it could be something alcoholic.

As I was about to sip the glass, Mac declared, "You just can't beat water from your own well in the desert!" 

I recall faking several sips as I watched the sediment begin to settle.
After a few minutes talking, he said, "I should show you something," and he got up and began navigating through stacks of boxes. I took advantage of his absence and poured the glass in the nearby kitchen sink.
He returned with a photo of himself, Pancho, and Chuck Yeager, with the latter wearing his Air Force Brigadier General's star. As he began to describe the scene, he noted, "Your glass is empty! You must be thirsty!"
Assuring him I wasn't did no good. I received a refill. That glass went down the sink in increments, a little each time he went to get something else to show me.

Breaking the Sound Barrier

Mac has been gone for years. The ex-Santa Fe railroad car, a luxury coach that once worked the trains to California from Chicago, was sold and trucked away to places unknown. There never was a Pancho Barnes museum, though the Twenty Mule Museum may still own her lava boulder house in Boron.Chuck Yeager retired as an Air Force general way back in 1975. He had carte blanche to hop into a jet fighter at Edwards any time he wanted, to provide a sonic boom for those on the ground. In fact that was a featured event for many years at what used to be the annual Edwards Open House and Air Show. They justified it for recruitment. He did it for fun. I did get to speak to him a few times on those occasions, but never got a real interview. I did own a copy of "The Right Stuff" that he autographed. He was still flying faster than sound at Edwards as recently as 2012.

But that's not the end of the story. There's one more scene, because nature abhors a vacuum. 

After Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club burned down, the test pilot and pioneering aerospace cadre needed a replacement place to go. Coincidentally but perfectly timed, North Dakotans Alice Brakke and her husband arrived in Lancaster and opened a bar and restaurant on the sleepy little town's extreme north edge. Edwards is north of Lancaster.

There was ten miles of open highway from the then blink-and-you-miss-it burg of Rosamond, just outside the base, and there were no reasons to slow down until the driveway into Brakke's. Soon, the old crowd from Pancho's, accompanied by those who arrived too late to experience those days, were racing (some of them, literally) to get from Edwards to Brakke's Inn. For a time, last one to get there bought the first round. In the '60s, Friday nights saw the parking lot full of corvettes driven by hot shot pilots, some of whom would go to the Moon as NASA astronauts.

When Alice's husband died young, leaving her with their little kids and bar-restaurant-music-venue roadhouse, "her boys" were there, the ones with The Right Stuff saying exactly the right things to let her know she would carry on, and not sell the place and run home to North Dakota.

Long after all that, I had the pleasure of getting to know Alice Brakke. She still operated her very colorful landmark of a place past her 90th birthday, which a collective "we" of diverse derivations celebrated there with her. Photos coated the walls, testimonials to heydays when you arrived early or you stood up all evening until you stole a seat when someone was dancing to one of many bands always booked there. A few who had known Pancho's place would say that Alice Brakke was the only real successor to it, even though the gentle, motherly Alice was the antithesis to the legendarily loud, comedically coarse Pancho.

Even as Alice's old crowd aged beyond portability, she remained host to "The people from the Base," and various other populations through the years, including journalists and musicians. And if you asked her about "her boys," you'd learn which test pilot occupied which bar stool. "That one was Neil Armstrong's. Buzz Aldrin always sat over here. Whenever Chuck Yeager comes back, he always comes in and sits right here. Oh, sure, Chuck is one of my boys!"

Thing is, a lot of retired test pilots and flight test support people would verify it. Those who flew the SR-71 Blackbirds. The X-15. The B-70. The X-29, with its swept wings "on backwards." The Space Shuttle. They were regulars. 

When musician friends' concert tours brought them to the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, I'd always take them to Brakke's Inn, to sit on Neil Armstrong's and Chuck Yeager's bar stools, and of course to meet Alice and be regaled with charming tales that humanized the names in the history books. Her piano player of many years, who had herself toured the world performing, was always ready to jam with other music pros past the bar's closing time, or play elegantly for crooning regulars whose voices could not soar like their airplanes and spacecraft. Years after being there, the touring musicians I had introduced would still ask me about Alice.

Brakke's Inn and Pancho's place are both gone. And like the aviators' pubs of the Battle of Britain, those who weren't there will never fathom what made them special. Alice passed away in 2015. Neil Armstrong died in 2012. And now Chuck Yeager is gone. Buzz Aldrin and some of his comrades from Apollo are still with us, as are most of those who flew the now retired Space Shuttles. And while they are, I hope we get a chance to hear and preserve the back stories of where they went for fun, who they spent their time with when they had it, who gave them the little encouragements and inspirations and reasons to laugh, and places to cry and miss lost comrades, and to adjust attitudes and carry on.

Surely most who have lived longest among us would have remembered December 7th without the 2020 comparison of a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11 every day in American deaths from the pandemic. Which should serve to remind us that our own perspectives are not enough to understand the world, or each other. While it's too late to tell this president, the rest of us can know that reading, listening, being open to others, and being kind are the paths to opportunity and to learning enough to have a basis to understand things.

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This time, we have the opportunity to realize who we have lost in Chuck Yeager. And perhaps we can realize that every time we lose a hero, we risk never knowing the names and parts played by those who comprised their world, including all the someones who got them to and through what we remember them for.

Larry Wines