The news of the death of Arthur C. Clarke earlier this week hit home on a couple of levels. Along with Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delaney and others too numerous to mention, Clarke helped shape my imagination. I read a fair amount of science fiction to this day, but as a boy and adolescent, I vacuumed Ace Doubles before lunch. Clarke had his flaws as a writer but his best was as good as anybody.
I never had the chance to meet the great man, but spoke with him a couple of times by phone, and, one memorable morning, got the chance to introduce him to Chuck Yeager.
I was at Edwards Air Force Base in 1981 to cover the landing of the first Space Shuttle. A wonderful producer named Rich Firestone had flown into Weed, California some months earlier to sign the man who broke the sound barrier as a commentator for NPR. As you may remember, the launch (and therefore the landing) of Columbia was delayed for several days, so while we waited, we all struggled to find stories. Somebody at Morning Edition thought it would be a great idea to introduce General Yeager to the great science fiction visionary, so very early one especially chilly morning, I sat next to Yeager in our trailer as Bob Edwards introduced first him, and then, joining us on the phone from Sri Lanka, Arthur Clarke, who gushed that he'd just read Tom Wolfe's great book about Chuck Yeager and the other early test pilots, "The Right Stuff" and was thrilled to speak with him. General Yeager thanked him for the compliment, and scribbled a quick note: "Who is Arthur Clarke?" I wrote "2001" and he nodded as I handed the paper back.
That's actually not even the best story from that trip, but it's a Yeager story. Another morning, we were at the trailer as Bob read an introduction about the US manned space flight program, which, he noted, began when Alan Shepard went on a sub-orbital flight in the old Mercury capsule. Yeager leaned over and whispered, "Yeah, after they swept the monkey s__t off the seat." I suppose it's just possible that he might have harbored some resentment over the honors and attention heaped upon the Mercury astronauts, whose capsule had indeed been flight tested with chimpanzees in the pilot's chair.