I must have been in the 5th or 6th grade when I first read the book “Sabre Jet Ace” by Charles Combs, the fictionalized account of the real life fighter pilot Captain Joseph “Mac” McConnell, Jr. He was originally a navigator in a B-24 bomber flying over Europe during the Second World War, but later became a jet fighter pilot, and then the leading ace (with 16 “kills”) in Korea in 1953.
I can’t remember why I picked the book, except that I’ve always been adventurous, and devoured stories about explorers, military heroes, and danger. The book was terrific, and I could barely put it down.
But about 240 pages into the book, something happened that I’d never experienced as a young reader.
In the story, McConnell had been selected to test a new model Sabre jet, and was putting it through the paces high above Edwards Air Force base in California. But as he was flying, the jet unexpectedly began to shake. McConnell didn’t want to bail out because he wanted to know what had gone wrong. He fought the controls, but to no avail.
And that’s when my reading life changed forever.
Not to put too dramatic a point on it, but the book described what happened as he was losing altitude and the controller in the tower was screaming at him to “Bail out”:
“There was no answer. Out on the desert, on the far side of a low hill, there was a flash of flame. A cloud of black smoke burst into the air. A few seconds later the sounds of the crash reached the control tower.”
As an elementary school reader, I had never encountered a tragic ending. Sure I’d read stories about death and destruction, but in my mind, heroes didn’t die! I actually sat there in shock, re-reading that passage again and again – just to be sure I hadn’t read it wrong.
I still remember that moment to this very day. I had discovered the power of tragedy, and I’ve never forgotten how I felt. The irony is that although it was the story of a real person, I didn’t know that until years later. At the moment, it was fiction to me, and yet still made an incredible impact. In fact, it left such a deep impression that decades later I scoured used bookstores across the country and even though it had been long out of print, I finally found a copy and keep it in my library today. It’s an important reminder of just how much a compelling story can impact a life.
Looking back over your reading life, what were those moments in stories where you encountered something so powerful that it shook you to the core? Something unexpected, that opened to door to a new understanding about how we live or die?
Take the time to remember and reflect on those moments. It’s a window into some of the most important experiences that made you who you are today.