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Marc Haefele's tribute to "writer's writer" James Salter

James Salter, fighter pilot.
James Salter, fighter pilot.
James Salter

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Marc Haefele, Off-Ramp's lit commentator, says James Salter isn't in the public's pantheon of great writers, but if authors themselves took a vote, Salter would be right up there. He was rcently honored by PEN West with its Life Achievement award.

CLICK THROUGH for an excerpt from Salter's memoir, "Burning the Days."

"Once at a dinner party I was asked by a woman what on earth I had ever seen in military life. I couldn't answer her, of course. I couldn't summon it all, the distant places, the comradeship, the idealism, the youth. I couldn't tell about flying over the islands long ago, seeing them rise in the blue distance wreathed in legend, the ring of white sur around them. Or the cities, Shanghai and Tokyo, Amsterdam and Venice, gunnery camps in North Africa and forgotten colonies of Rome along the shore.

"I couldn't describe that, or what it was like waiting to take off on missions in Korea, armed, nervous, singing songs to yourself, or the electric jolt that went through you when the MIGs came up. I couldn't tell about Mahurin being shot down and not a soul seeing him go, or George Davis, or deArmont, who used to jump up on a table in the club and recite "Gunga Din"--the drunken pilots thought he was making it up.

"I couldn't tell her about brilliant group commanders or flying with men who later became famous, the days and days of boredom and moments of pure ecstasy, of walking out to the parked planes in the early morning or coming in at dusk when the wind had died to make the last landing of the day and the mobile control officer giving two quick clicks of the mike to confirm: grease job. To fly with the thirty-year-old veterans and finally earn the right to lead yourself, flights, squadrons, a few times the entire group. The great days of youth when you are mispronouncing foreign words and trading dreams."

- from Burning the Days: Recollection