That time when I met Chuck Yeager (but had no idea it was him)

(John from the Chris Brake Show commented that I should be allowed to respond to the day 6 prompt – writing about the most interesting person you met the last year – with my over 10 years old Chuck Yeager story. And I do things strangers tell me to do. Wait, no, that sounds wrong. Oh, never mind. Here’s that story. I’ll continue my trek through other prompts tomorrow.)

When I was in twelfth grade, I got to meet Chuck Yeager. I spent an entire afternoon with him, talking to him, even. And I had no idea it was him. Because, while I really am a detail person, I can be pretty unobservant.

It was at the 2003 FIRST Robotics Championship (though, then, I think we all still called it Nationals as it had just switched formats) in Houston, Texas. I chose to volunteer at the even rather than spend the time hanigng out with my team and watching our matches because the food was better and I got to hang out more with my friends from other teams (like Matt, who was still just a friend at the time). That year, my job was assisting with field reset. So, I sat the edge of one of the four fields and, well, reset the game pieces between matches. That year, it involved stacking up a bunch of plastic storage bins at the top of a ramp (and trying not to fall on my face stepping over the low railing).

Occasionally, we’d have some VIP come through who needed to be told what FIRST was, how the game was played, and get a calmer play-by-play. Though I didn’t know the volunteer coordinator that year, she brought several folks by for these talks. One of them was an older man, with bright eyes I was simply introduced to as “Chuck.” His assistant or handler or whatever she was dropped him off and told me she’d be back an an hour or two. Like I did with the other VIPs – mostly Vice Presidents of Outreach for defense firms or car companies – I did my little FIRST 101 speech. He asked a few questions and commented on the apparent skill of the teenage robot creators and drivers. Then the woman came and fetched him, thanking me for taking the time to talk to him. I smiled and turned back to the match that was going on.

“So – did you enjoy talking with Mr. Yeager?”

I think my brain took a full ten seconds to put it together. Older man. Bright eyes. Named Chuck. Seemed to know about engineering. Yeager.

Oh, my. I’d spent a good two hours talking to Chuck Yeager. CHUCK YEAGER. Yes, the man who broke the sound barrier. And I just rambled on about robots and made small talk about the competing teams. We even sat in silence for stretches of time.

Maybe it was a good thing. He’s probably tired of talking about speed records and being a pilot and having it pointed out that he was a pioneer. I talked to him like a normal person who wants to know about something I am passionate about. Or maybe he thought I was an idiot for having no clue who he was and not fawning over him, at least a little. But I’ll pretend it was the first thing.

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