I mailed off the revised Solo Faces two days ago. Endless fretting and worrying about things that are at their best imperfect anyway. I added a chapter, changed the ending, and did innumerable small things throughout. It’s a bit better. It’s astonishing how the crossing out of a line, sometimes a phrase, or the substitution of something right for something false can suddenly let light in on an entire chapter. My typist accidentally left out seven lines at the end of Chapter 16 and I said, wonderful, it’s much better without them. I’m already ashamed of the first version.
James Salter, writing to his friend Robert Phelps about finishing his edits on one of my favorite novels
Your confidence vanishes between pages, practically… You know you can write, you know you can write a book, but you don’t know if you can write this book, that you’re beginning or in the middle of. So confidence, I don’t know. You have enough commitment, I would say, to go ahead. Confidence is really not that important. The question is, Will you do it?
I’m tired of my life, my clothes, the things I say. I’m hacking away at the surface, as at some kind of gray ice, trying to break through to what is underneath or I am dead. I can feel the surface trembling—it seems ready to give but it never does. I am uninterested in current events. How can I justify this? How can I explain it? I don’t want to have the same vocabulary I’ve always had. I want something richer, broader, more penetrating and powerful.
James Salter, Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps
Ed White taking the first American spacewalk. June 3, 1965.
From Burning the Days by James Salter, who flew F-86s in the Korean War alongside White:
I flew back to Bitburg with Ed White, one of the two men in the squadron to become famous – Aldrin was the other – on a winter day. It was late in the afternoon, everything blue as metal, the sky, the towns and forests, even the snow. The other ship, silent, constant on your wing. With the happiness of being with someone you like, through it we went together, at thirty-five thousand, the thin froth of contrails fading behind.
White had been the first person I met when I came to the squadron and I knew him well. In the housing area he and his wife lived on our stairway. He had a fair, almost milky, complexion and reddish hair. An athlete, a hurdler; you see his face on many campuses, idealistic, aglow. He was an excellent pilot, acknowledged as such by those implacable judges, the ground crew. They did not revere him as they did the ruffians who might drink with them, discuss the merits of the squadron commander or sexual exploits, but they respected him and his proper, almost studious, ways. God and country – these were the things he had been bred for.
In Paris, a lifetime later, in a hotel room I watched as on screens everywhere he walked dreamily in space, the first American to do so. I was nervous and depressed. My chest ached. My hair had patches of gray. White was turning slowly, upside down, tethered to the spacecraft by a lazy cord. I was sick with envy – he was destroying hope. Whatever I might do, it would not be as overwhelming as this. I felt a kind of loneliness and terror. I wanted to be home, to see my children again before the end, and I was certain it was near the end; I felt suicidal, ready to burst into tears. He did this to me unknowingly, as a beautiful woman crossing the street crushes hearts beneath her heel.
White burned to ashes in the terrible accident on the launching pad at Cape Canaveral in 1967. He died with Virgil Grisson, with whom I had also flown. His funeral was solemn. I attended, feeling out of place. To be killed flying had always been a possibility, but the two of them had somehow moved beyond that. They were already visible in that great photograph of our time, the one called celebrity. Still youthful and, so far as I knew, unspoiled, they were like jockeys moving to the post for an event that would mark the century, the race to the moon. The absolutely unforeseen destroyed them. Aldrin went instead.
White is buried in the same cemetery as my father, not far away. I visit both graves when I am there. White’s, though amid others, seems visible from some distance off, just as he himself was if you looked intently at the ranks.
«Guardi i miei denti?» chiese lei.
«I denti? No.»
«Sono troppo grossi? Il dentista dice che ho una dentatura fantastica.»
«Hai dei bellissimi denti. Com'eri da piccola?»
«Be’, ero una brava bambina. Prendevo buoni voti. Avevo questa fissa per l'Egitto. Raccontavo a tutti di essere egiziana e mia madre era furibonda. Sulla porta della mia camera avevo messo un cartello con la scritta: State entrando in Egitto. Vuoi sapere qualche parola egiziana?»
«Alabastro» disse lei. «Oasi.»
«Cairo» disse lui.