Madison author has a new book and memories of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager

In Lenore McComas Coberly’s view, Yeager’s character — and her own — were formed by the West Virginia hills town where they grew up.
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In this 1948 file photo, test pilot Charles E. Yeager, 25, poses for a picture in a jet's cockpit. Yeager was first to fly faster than the speed of sound. Another Yeager feat, flying a jet under a Charleston, W.Va., bridge in 1948, was not reported by the local media. Yeager died Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, at age 97. (AP Photo/File)

In the recent New York Times obituary of Chuck Yeager, the war hero and test pilot who in 1947 broke the sound barrier, Yeager is quoted sounding ambivalent about possessing “the right stuff.”

Author Tom Wolfe used the phrase to describe the cool and daring and resourcefulness required of elite test pilots, among whom Yeager was the best of the best.

“If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting,” Yeager wrote in his autobiography, quoted by the Times, “then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”

Madison writer Lenore McComas Coberly has another theory, advanced in a poem:

“You have the right stuff, you can bet your life on
that, but where it comes from will never be figured
out by people who call you Chuck.”

Coberly titled the poem “The Right Stuff,” and it was included in her 2015 poetry collection, “For I am Mountainborn.”

In Coberly’s view, Yeager’s character — and her own — were formed by the small town in the West Virginia hills where they grew up.

“He was a year ahead of me,” Coberly said, when I called after learning of Yeager’s death on Dec. 7.

Yeager was 97 when he died. Coberly is 96. I’d been intending to get in touch since receiving a postcard earlier this fall announcing her new book, “From the West Virginia Hills,” a memoir which includes a chapter entitled “Character” about Yeager and their hometown of Hamlin. (For information on obtaining the book, email deena@inkwellprinters.com.)

She called him Charles when they were growing up, everybody did. He was known for exceptional eyesight, always shooting squirrels so precisely that they were easy to clean.

One year they sat next to each other in typing class. The teacher later told Coberly she placed them there because she thought they “might get together.” That didn’t happen, but because Yeager wasn’t gifted at typing, it gave Coberly a great punch line:

“I can say I once went faster than Charles Yeager.”

In the new book, Coberly recalls a later, 1990s meeting. Yeager was famous by then. Wolfe’s book had been made into a movie, also titled “The Right Stuff,” with Sam Shepard playing Yeager.

Coberly was in Madison with her husband, University of Wisconsin–Madison chemical engineering professor Camden Coberly. Cam came home one day and said they’d been invited to an engineering banquet in Milwaukee. Chuck Yeager was speaking. Did she want to go?

“I accepted at once,” Coberly writes.

At the banquet, Yeager spotted her across the room. “There’s a girl I went to school with in Hamlin.”

Yeager asked about her aunt Pearl, who was famous herself — renowned for the best garden in Hamlin. The young Yeager would steal strawberries and feel guilty until one day Pearl spotted him with a singularly large berry and called for him to stop.

“Take a handful!” she said.

Yeager used that story in his Milwaukee speech, noting the “generous spirit” of his little mountain hometown.

“It was second nature,” Coberly told me last week, “for almost everyone I grew up with to tell stories whenever they got together. Storytelling was part of what we did. It’s a mountain thing.”

In her new memoir, Coberly writes warmly of those mountain people, many of them her relations. One notable chapter concerns her Aunt Madge, who “kept a gun in a drawer by her bed. One night Uncle Bob came in drunk in the middle of the night and she thought it was an intruder and shot down the steps barely missing his head. She kept the bullet hole in the wall for a long time to remind him about coming home unannounced.”

Cam and Lenore were married in Aunt Madge’s living room.

Coberly believes the mountains never leave you, a point she makes in her “Right Stuff” poem about her friend Yeager:

“They say you go camping alone in California hills.
Maybe they don’t know that hill people who have
lost their hills need high ground and stillness
as others need the sea.”

I asked her to read the poem aloud the other day, which she graciously did. I love the ending:

“We called you Charles, not Chuck, and expected the
dignity of the mountain man which was your birthright,
to see you through.
It has.”

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