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Flying solo

Clyde Edgerton tells his own story


Clyde Edgerton was mesmerized early on by the notion of flying, and flying solo. It was a love nurtured by his mother, who used to drive her son out to the local airport and take pictures of him standing in front of a cluster of airplanes, and intensified by a late-night rendezvous in front of the TV to watch an F-104 fighter jet pull a majestic rollover. As he writes in the introduction to his newest book, and first memoir, Solo: My Adventures in the Air: "Occasionally a dream and its realization match, and then we feel lucky. For me, flying airplanes has trumped any dream of it."

After more than 20 years writing fiction, Clyde Edgerton is now ready to tell one of the true stories of his life--his love affair with flying.

Though he writes throughout this honest and articulate memoir of the bliss that comes with flying alone, his memories of those days are tempered by the other realization he came to: Flying in combat as an Air Force pilot forced him to confront the bitter and brutal constants of war, the horrific killing and the loss of those near and dear to him. He explains at the end of the introduction the basis of the conflict borne out of his exploration of his flying past: "The philosopher in me warns that the thrill of flying airplanes in war should not be separated from the destruction that warplanes and their pilots bring to other human beings. But the writer in me--and the pilot in me--had to try."As daunting as this task might be, Edgerton has handled it with the graceful facility and subtle humor we've come to appreciate in his fiction.

He takes us from his earliest imaginings of flight--looking up in the sky at a passing plane while helping his mother with the laundry in the backyard--to that first time in an airplane while in college, and then on to his extensive training in the Air Force. From this initial flight training we follow him to F-4 training and deployment to Japan and Korea, where he received his preparation for flying combat missions and a chance to finally test his skills, confidence and nerve over Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the OV-10 (a forward observation aircraft). It was in this aircraft that Edgerton flew all of his combat missions during the Vietnam War and in which his attitudes about that war, and war in general, were fundamentally altered.

By the time he received his wings in 1967, Edgerton was thoroughly convinced of the righteousness of the American cause in Vietnam. In a letter he wrote that year to his father, he articulated his defense of that cause: "I do believe we should be there because I have studied the reason we are there and I know that basic cause of the trouble and very simply stated it is this: Those leaders who are behind the communists are determined to do everything possible to take over Vietnam, then Thailand, then other countries in Asia, Africa, South America, Latin America, and the final goal is the U.S." Spouting the rhetoric of the domino theory and riding high on the dreams of flying combat missions in the war, Edgerton headed overseas toward an uncertain future but filled with the youthful vigor that only the most inexperienced and naive can muster.

But as was the case with a great many of the young men who fought in Vietnam, a quantum shift was going to happen over the next four years. By 1970-71 and his year-long tour flying missions out of Thailand, Edgerton was a changed man; however, it took losing a young pilot he'd trained, and who he liked a great deal, to crystallize those feelings: "I did not have a sense that he had made a sacrifice for something more important than his own life. This was not the way things were supposed to be turning out. Before getting to [Southeast Asia], I had believed that going to this war was right. After participating--listening, seeing, learning--I didn't." This journey to realization is at the heart of this fascinating and revealing book.

I asked Edgerton why he chose to write a memoir on flying and his emotional connections to it after years dedicated to writing novels:

Clyde Edgerton: I wanted a break from fiction. I meant for it to be more about the technical aspects of flying and I didn't mean to get into my emotional response to the war that was sprinkled throughout. Shannon [Ravenel, Edgerton's editor and publisher at Algonquin Books] wisely suggested I include those emotional parts to the book ... as I got into it, I realized it all worked together and that I couldn't separate it out very well. And then I realized that was really what the book was about.

Independent: What's the personal significance of the title?

I think most people have confidence in certain areas and lack confidence in certain areas of flying ... I had something to prove in one way or another, and that may be kind of an unexplored link for me in flying airplanes and trying to prove I had the discipline for it. Once I started doing it, it was very important to feel confident as a way to stave off fear. The more confidence you felt in what you were doing, the less fearful you felt. It turned out that that feeling of confidence I think I experienced most when I was flying by myself.

One particular section that grabbed me was when Rob Steadman [not his real name] died and you had to write the letter to his fiance Linda informing her of his death. What I kept waiting for was for you to process that moment, and you sort of stopped and didn't go any further. Why did you do that? Can your not processing this experience any further be explained, in part, by your previous statements on the nature of the mourning soldiers do?

Yes. There was pressure from the outside not to mourn, there was pressure from the inside not to mourn. Because when you mourned a friend's death you were saying something that you wouldn't say if you could avoid mourning, and probably what that'd be is that it could be you.

How has your experience in Vietnam colored your views on the war in Iraq? How do you feel about the daily reports of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians dying?

Nations tend to dismiss civilian deaths in wartime. It's a kind of messy thing for commanders to worry about. We say, "Oh, accidents happen, etc." Yet those deaths are unjust, and until we acknowledge that, we, as a nation, deserve shame. In America we have traditionally claimed to recognize the worth of the individual, yet we don't seem to care much about accidental deaths of individual citizens of another country who happened to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our apparent lack of concern is sad. Some Americans seem to think that a grieving child will be comforted knowing his mother was blown apart by the army of a democratic nation rather than by the "bad people."

My military training, and the view I unquestioningly accepted, painted the war in Vietnam as a war of good against bad, right against wrong, democracy against communism. But while there I noticed and learned something about the forces and complexities of nationalistic and tribalistic friction, complexities which, not recognized, led to our failure there. Similar complexities in Iraq seem to have been ignored by the prophets of quick victory, those who still see that war as a war of good against bad, right against wrong, democracy against terrorism. You'd think we might grow up a little, that we might have learned something about riding our white horse into a war against those more sinful than us. That we might have learned some wisdom beyond "Bring 'em on."

The final chapter ["Courage"] explores how our culture defines this complicated term. Was there an experience in your life that served as the catalyst for changing your definition/image of courage from one valorizing the solo, heroic fighter pilot to the "woman with two kids, who doesn't have the means to take care of them, but who does so, day after day and night after night after night for years"?

One day when my daughter was about 2 and had the flu, and I had the flu, I took care of her all day long, and that night I was so exhausted I cried. It crossed my mind that many mothers worldwide care for their children by themselves without help, and as a culture we tend not to think of what they exhibit as "courage." I realized that so much courage is not noticed, systematically. But we do recognize, traditionally, courage in combat.

In this memoir, Edgerton hasn't really traveled all that far from his roots as a writer of fiction. In it one will find that impeccable sense of timing and inflection that marks his dialogue and that subtle humor he often slides our way. The central themes that drive Edgerton remind us of the place and experiences that have marked him: the importance of speaking your mind, the support and sustenance he receives from his family, the struggle to find the "right" path in life, and the ability to explore the simplicities and complexities of that life in order to come to some understanding of it. The dreams he had as a child growing up in Bethesda, N.C., still roil around inside his "mind's back rooms and closets"; but now, he's "pulled them out onto the porch" for all to see.

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