General Chuck Yeager’s 88th Birthday

February 21st, 2011

General Chuck Yeager "opens" for the Oak Ridge Boys

What does one do for an 88th birthday?

Well. First, we spent the first part of the weekend fundraising for down-syndrome folks as Gen Yeager has done for 22 years.

Then on Sunday, we flew to Laughlin, NV – a fast flight from Abilene, TX in a small jet.

At the hotel, we found 4 of our friends – had smoked salmon in their room as we looked out at the river. A bit confusing – the airport across the river was an hour ahead in AZ. We, in NV, were an hour behind.

We watched the ferry going back and forth between the banks. Someone remarked at how the ferry went really fast and skidded into the docks. Clearly the skipper had done this a few times. Or too many times & that’s how he got his kicks.

Gen Yeager looked at it, made his quick assessment: His clock must be going wild.

Understanding zipped thru his audience (having to change the clock back and forth every 5 minutes)…

We went to our room – beautiful corner room with nice hardwood floors – and looked out at the view down river and the setting sun.

All the guests checked in before the trip – what’s the dress? What should we wear? My response was: Gen Yeager and I will be in jeans, turtleneck and sweater or sweatshirt. You’all can wear what you want. I asked Gen Yeager just in case and he replied: I don’t care what they wear. I’ll be wearing what I have on (which was jeans, polo shirt, and vest with zipper.  (Got it in one).

We all met for dinner at 6pm: Joe Bonsall & Richard Sterban were there first. Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, Darrick Kinslow, John & Martha, Dan & Kathy, Dan & Shawna, Denise & Graham, Sam, and us.

What a perfect group. Everyone is interesting and somehow where I seated people worked out beautifully.

Gen Yeager asked me to introduce everyone. Instead, I asked each person to stand and tell a little about themselves. And of course, I kibbitzed. Duane stood up and said Kathy and he and Joe? were starting a trio. Richard stood up and said: Make that a Quartet.

Denise is a new friend. She was the highest bidder the Dallas Safari Club Ladies Luncheon auction to have lunch with General Yeager and me. I met her just after she had won. She seemed quite nice.

She didn’t know me of course – and emailed periodically to see where, what, when. I told her the dates but said the details would come soon – it was an impromptu event. She was going to bring her father, ex-Navy in World War II, his wife, and her husband, a Marine. She also brought her baby. I rarely see a couple with a new-ish baby not make the baby the focal point of the party. VERY gracious and smart.

So a day before the dinner, she emailed me and asked what time was lunch. I thought wow – we’ve planned dinner, concert, fun sightseeing during the day….and she still wants lunch – she’s a stickler.

So I emailed back: Dinner is at 6pm. Well. I didn’t realize that she thought she’d just be having lunch with us. Boy was she in for a whirlwind.

So when we were saying goodbye, I asked, So we’re good, right – we don’t have to do lunch just the four or six of us?

Her eyes grew big as saucers – no, no we’re good. We both laughed. Denise & Graham, pretty nifty people. New friends.

Anyway, back to the birthday dinner: What fun! Dan & Shawna put together birthday giftie bags. I added jars of jalapeno relish, bread & butter jalapeno pickles, & a few others made by the down-syndrome folks we support. VERY spicy.

The giftie bag had some great old time candy, water pistol which provided loads of fun, a wooden glider, blower, & other fun stuff.

The food was excellent – Duane shared his crab cakes when he found my fork resting on his plate to be filled and returned – deeelicious. I had carrot ginger soup.

Then we were served sorbet to cleanse our palate. I noticed the girls got light green and the boys got pink. It may have been a function of what we ordered for our main courses but I didn’t take note of that.

And then Shawna & I shared a tournedos with pate. Just right.

General Yeager was in heaven – he had escargots. A very happy camper.

And of course: CAAAAKE! Nothing like 15 people singing happy birthday with the Oak Ridge Boys joining in in harmony!

The Oaks gave General Yeager a beautiful thoughtful present, and some lovely memories.

The stories were great – and very personal so I won’t repeat them here. But great new friendships were forged and old ones deepened that evening.

I will tell some tales though: Joe tried to start a water pistol fight. I was at the other side of the table at the time so was unaware until the next day. Lucky for him. And his target, Kathy, who reminds Joe of his sister, thought her husband had done it so didn’t respond.  Dang.

My first year at university, I was on the meal plan. My mother thought I’d starve if I were left to my own devices – or worse – go on an ice cream diet. Protein, calcium, Vitamin D. And if you have cherry vanilla – fruit, too. What’s wrong with that?

It was such a bummer all year long though because I ALWAYS missed the food fights. I would always come in after they were all mopping up. I thought it would be fun. Once. I guess I could have started one – but it wasn’t my style  – really don’t like wearing my food. Except those candy necklaces. Remember those? Stretch necklaces you ate. They were more fun than good.

I guess a water pistol fight in the elegant restaurant wouldn’t have been our best foot forward. :-) But the pistols were so small it would take you hours to soak anyone assuming they would stand still. Just fun and funny to envision.

General Yeager sure enjoyed spending some quality time with each of the Oak Ridge Boys.

The next day, the group sans the Oaks headed out to the “ghost town” of Oatman. Hardly a ghost town. There was shop after shop of touristy stuff for sale at very high prices. A used, very used Yeager autobiography that seemed like it had spent years under water, was selling for $17 bucks. When I turned it down, she came down a dollar. Hilarious.

The facades, what we could see under all the kitschy stuff for sale, did remind us all of a wild west town – or our imagination of one. The hotel there is where Clark Gable & Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon night. Some guessed it must have been better in its heyday. Others decided even though a bit too rustic must have been a wonderful break from Hollywood.

We ate in the hotel restaurant – confused as to what time it was – we were now in Arizona again so an hour ahead.  For seating, we had to split into two groups. The waitress asked us who the older guy at the other table belonged to.

I said Me.

She said, No the one-.

Me: With the orange hat? (Actually a cap with DRI Celebrity Quail Hunt on it – from the down-syndrome folks fundraiser).

Waitress: Yeah

Me: Me!

Waitress: Eyebrows raised.

Waitress: Well! He asked me who does my hair – so I asked him about his – took off his hat and kissed his head. He said, The Lord made only so many perfect heads, the rest he covered with hair.

Me: My husband. He just turned 88 yesterday.

When we clued her in as to who he was, she got excited and raced back to say hello again. Gen Yeager wasn’t safe. She was a delightful, tough (had to be in the old wild west town), thin, highly energized woman.

As I said, there was so much for sale, one could hardly see the buildings. Oatman was incorporated in 1906. They got about 1.8 million ounces of gold by the mid 1930’s. By 1942 the gold was no longer so everyone packed up and left. Short run.

After lunch, they did a gunfight in the street. The town is known for wild burros – and they warn you that they may bite and kick. We grabbed a seat on the boardwalk. One burro kept walking past us – when it approached someone else, it decided to leave her opinion and peed.

Found out later, they sell carrots to feed the burros so the burros have come to expect this and get a little dismayed if you have none to feed them. And display their opinion of this. The burros with the dots are babies and are not to be fed – they choke on carrots.

We headed back to Laughlin. Really pretty desert views. John & Martha told us about their helicopter trip from Southern California. What fun to helicopter around, stop for lunch, really getting good views.

I love helicoptering. Gen Yeager not so much. Just read his story about his sitting in the jump seat of one, and the helicopter ended up inverted in a cold lake in the Sierras. Nine miles hike and 118 stitches in his head later…..well, one can understand his aversion to helicopters. And many helicopter pilots hang out in the dead man’s curve.

One time Gen Yeager and I were on a helicopter tour in Hawaii. The pilot started showing off – taking off, tilted the helicopter so the blades were whipping by very close to the tarmac. Gen Yeager and I were squeezed into the front – up close and personal. At our first stop, Gen Yeager took the pilot aside and had a discussion. Our next take-off was more demure and safe. Phew.

We headed back to our room to rest up for our big night – and plus one of the prettiest views was from our bedroom. Others went to the classic car collection in the hotel. I had wanted to go for a boat ride on the river but there wasn’t enough time.

We headed to the elegant restaurant for dinner a little earlier this evening –during daylight. Beautiful.

Dan pointed out: The sun sets an hour later in AZ.

Just struck us all as funny – as we were looking at AZ across the river watching the shadows of the sun setting behind us.

With not much time, we just had appetizers. And dessert of course. I had cherries jubilee. Shawna had bananas foster. The guys said they’d take a bite of ours….we weren’t fooled for a minute –  we made sure the waiter put in 2 orders of each. Sure enough – all four plates were demolished.

The cherries jubilee – the flambé – reminded me of a trip to Bermuda as a kid. We were on the fine dining plan. I think we had four courses at least every night for dinner. With the attendant sorbet to clean the palate imbetween courses. I seem to remember 2 per meal. About the 4th night, one of my brothers asked to be excused during the entrée. My father of course excused him. We thought he might have a date.

I found him later in the hotel disco and asked if he was all right. He replied: Yeah. I just couldn’t look at any more food.

I could understand. But missing dessert?!?!?! He must have been really sick….of food.

Bermuda at that time did not have much or any poverty. So there wasn’t anyone to whom to give the food there.

One night, since there were six of us, we ordered 2 flambés. Each one, you had to have a minimum of 2 orders. We did. The Maître’ D or waiter wasn’t pleased. He asked thru clenched teeth: TWO flambés?

My other brother did a fine imitation.

So back to Laughlin – after dinner, we headed to backstage with the Oaks.

We walked across the stage – or some of us danced across to “backstage”. Darrick, the Tour Manager, had told Gen Yeager he could take about 30 minutes :-). Gen Yeager said I can’t tell my name in 30 minutes. William Lee laughed.

We visited a little with the rest of the band – they all love working with the Oak Ridge Boys. Donny Carr stopped into the green room to introduce his girlfriend and say hello. He’s got gorgeous long hair – and it doesn’t match his personality (or my pre-conceived notion of long haired guys :-). Chris Nole stopped by – he’s from near Philadelphia so we speak the same language too.

He did his best Jersey persona for the group.

I took our guests to their seats while Gen Yeager remained on stage (curtain closed) ready to “open” for the Oaks.

Darrick introduced the General as the curtain rose. The crowd started cheering as understanding rippled thru the audience.

Gen Yeager said: My story is a pretty long one – should take about 30 minutes to tell.

The audience laughed. I thought for a moment – uh oh did he think Darrick was serious? In fact, 30 minutes isn’t enough to listen to his stories but…

So he told a few great stories and then how he had met the Oak Ridge Boys to many cheers and finished in perhaps 5 minutes – a very FULL five minutes. I led him off the darkened stage, down the stairs.

We made it to our seats just before Richard started the song “The Boys are Back” – with a great light show – the opening. Next in – William Lee.

We all enjoyed singing along, or clapping, chair dancing…We waved at the each of the Oaks – they waved back.

Since it was Valentine’s Day, all sorts of fans were giving flowers, candy, cookies to the Oaks. Duane wasn’t sharing his cookies :-) Gen Yeager tried.

Halfway through the show, Duane and the Oaks sang our favorite: “It Takes A little Rain” with Jimmy Fulbright on keyboard. We love the simplicity of that. Duane, Joe, William Lee, and Richard sang their hearts out. Spectacular!

Duane sang lead on the next song too. Wow. Beautiful. Afterward, he said: Okay someone else sing one now.

Acapella, the Oaks sound….perfect. You could hear a pin drop. Powerful.

They also sang the tribute to veterans and ended up with Gen Yeager’s photo in uniform on the screen. Wow. Big Wow.

The Oaks left the stage with the audience wanting MORE. Unfortunately we had to head home the next day. But others were staying the whole week – where the Oaks were doing 3-4 matinees as well as 6 more evening shows.

I had been singing along. I must admit it took me a few choruses to sing the right words – I always sing American Made – “Sexy long legs”, when I should be singing “silky long hair”. Finally got the order right.

And “Elvira”.

Richard was on top of his form – one of our guests remarked that in prior concerts they hadn’t heard him as much as this night.

I apologized to Martha who was sitting on the other side of me – I was trying to sing along softly but well…Martha said it was fun. So I guess I wasn’t off key.

We chatted with the Oaks after the concert, said goodbye and headed to the karaoke. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much of Chris Goldin – he had a bit of a cold so steered clear of giving it to us. Very kind.

We heard Don Laughlin was in town and had checked to see if our dinner had gone well the night before. Darn, we would have loved to say hello. We had been told he’d be out of town.

At the karaoke, I was pretty close to signing up. The talent went the gamut – from shy, off key to okay without stage presence to outstandingly beautiful voice it didn’t matter what presence she had…

Jimmy Fulbright showed up. He hesitated so I escorted him to the sign up area. We looked for songs. You think ya know a song – try karaoke – there’s all sorts of areas I don’t remember in a song.

Jimmy signed up for Wanted Dead or Alive. We thought the line was so long it might be 3 days before his turn came up.

Rex, Darrell, Sam, Kathy, Dan, Shawna and I hung out waiting.

Rex told me a beautiful story about Duane Allen. Don’t often hear such nice stories in the competitive music world.

Finally! They called “Jimmy F”.

I have to say that Wanted Dead or Alive is not my cup of tea. But that night? Jimmy did such a wonderful job singing it – we all thoroughly enjoyed it.

And while Kathy, Shawna, and I kept trying to think of a song we could do, we gave up, and all went to bed. Singing the whole way. Justifying not singing karaoke. Have to prepare, practice, check out the key….:-)

Apparently the next day we were each singing into the mirror pretending we were back on the karaoke stage. Boy are we ready now!

The next morning we all met for breakfast along with Darrick, the Oaks tour manager and a good friend. He did an amazing job planning these two days for us.

Dan had gone running . Darrell was going after he dropped us at the airport. I wish I could be that disciplined. I got a text from the Kings. They had left earlier due to the weather forecast.

We headed out to the airport. And Dan flew us home.

Another wonderful, quick adventure!

c. GCYI

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