James Salter, the Fighter Pilot’s Writer

An excerpt from the novelist’s memoir, Burning the Days.

During his last year Salter was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, the first since William Faulkner. (Dan Addison/U.Va. University Communications)
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That night I slept in the mayor’s house, in a feather bed. I say slept but in fact I hung endlessly in the tilted darkness, the landing light pouring down at the large frame house. The wing came off countless times. I turned over in bed and began again.

They came for me the next day and I watched them load the wreckage on a large flatbed truck. I rode back with the remains of the plane. In the barracks, which were empty when I arrived, my bed, unlike the rows of others, was littered with messages, all mock congratulations. I found myself, unexpectedly, a popular figure. It was as if I had somehow defied the authorities. On the blackboard in the briefing room was a drawing of a house with the tail of an airplane sticking from the roof and written beneath, Geisler’s student. I survived the obligatory check-rides and the proceedings of the accident board, which were unexpectedly brief. Gradually transformed into a comedy, the story was told by me many times, as I had felt, for a shameless instant, it would be that night when the boughs of the first tree hit the wings before I saw the second. There was a bent, enameled Pratt and Whitney emblem from the engine that I kept for a long time, until it was lost somewhere, and years later a single unsigned postcard reached me, addressed care of the Adjutant General. It was from Great Barrington. We are still praying for you here, it said.

Excerpt from BURNING THE DAYS: RECOLLECTION by James Salter, copyright © 1997 by James Salter. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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