FAIRBANKS -- Wrap him in a flight suit and drop him into a jet and he's the fastest man on Earth. Drop him into a pair of field boots, hand him a shotgun and put a dog in front of him and he's a hunter like any other -- well, sort of.
Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Charles E. ''Chuck'' Yeager's uniform on a recent Sunday was one of blaze orange. The night before, he was the celebrated speaker for the annual banquet of the Fairbanks Chapter of Safari Club International.
But on that Sunday afternoon, he seemed very much like any one of the shooters at Wild Rooster Farm near Fairbanks -- save the cameras focused on him and the occasional request for an autographed copy of his book, ''Yeager.''
He stood at the edge of a soggy field of tall brown grasses, recently thawed by the same bright sun that now bounced off Yeager's orange coat and hat and soaked into the face that has been emblazoned into U.S. history since Oct. 14, 1947.
That's the day he piloted an Air Force Bell X-1 jet beyond a barrier that before then was thought to be impassable. He outpaced the speed of sound. The first man to feel Mach 1.
Beyond that accomplishment, he lived to tell the tale of being shot down over Nazi-occupied France during World War II -- and managed to save another man's life while escaping, on foot, from France to Spain.
He later became the flying ace who knocked a Messerschmitt jet out of the sky over Nazi Europe with his prop-driven P-51 Mustang. He also piloted planes in Vietnam and Korea, and flew experimental aircraft for nearly all of his 55-year association with the military. That he is without question an American hero could be a little intimidating.
But Yeager is quick to shake a hand and put his company at ease.
''I just thought he was a nice and personable sort of a guy,'' said Wild Rooster Farm owner Dave Schmitz. ''He's done fascinating things through his life and it's pretty impressive to see how he's doing and it's kind of fun talking to him.
''He to me is one of the American heroes, sort of like (former astronaut) John Glenn. ... I would pay a lot more attention to John Glenn or Chuck Yeager than I would if Bill Clinton showed up.''
For his part, Yeager was clearly happy to enjoy a sunny day afield watching the hunting dogs work the fields for pheasants and chukar partridge planted in the grass by Schmitz.
He stood flanked by Les Olson, a Fairbanks resident who had won the chance to accompany him this day, and by the editor of the local newspaper, as he watched a first pair of hunters cover the field behind a flat-coated retriever named Trucker and a German shorthair pointer named TJ.
Birds are released and hunted with dogs at the farm under a provision of state law that allows the activity as long as the birds are released and hunted the same day as part of a dog training exercise.
As he stood on the edge of the field, Yeager joked that the first hunters would wear the dogs down so they would take it a little easier with the general at their heels at the next field -- not that his 77-year-old frame shows any hint of slowing down any time soon.
But, hunting pheasant in so unlikely a spot as Fairbanks, Alaska, and in late April no less? Surely a spring grizzly hunt in the Alaska Range would have been more suited to a man of his stature?
Indeed, a bear hunt had been offered, but Yeager's schedule didn't allow it. He had to fly a P-51 at a Texas air show later that week.
''Ah, well, the people who brought me up here, they're so generous, and they wanted to do something for me. But what would I have done with a grizzly bear? I'm a meat hunter,'' he said. ''This is fine.''
Maybe it's a little bit of the fighter pilot coming out in him (or perhaps the hunter is seen in the fighter pilot) but his favored hunting is for upland game. It's active hunting and good exercise, he said.
The Safari Club holds an annual drawing for new lifetime members -- a $500 investment -- for the chance to hunt elk with Yeager. It is an outfitted hunt that Yeager said he enjoys immensely, but he doesn't look for the trophies, just a legal elk. ''I shoot the first thing I see with antlers,'' he said.
About the only kind of hunting he's not crazy about is duck hunting. ''That's about (as exciting) as golf!'' he said with disdain. ''You walk out in the muck and mud and you sit there and wait and maybe shoot something and then you walk back out through the muck and mud again and that's about it.''
''I can walk all day and hunt pheasants or quail,'' he said. ''Even that is better than big game hunting, where you shoot once and the hunting is over and the working begins.''
The preference extends to fishing, as well. Yeager is no stranger to Alaska, making trips each year to the state's Southwest to fish for silver salmon, rainbow trout and his favored king salmon. He borrows airplanes from friends to fly out into the Bush. He doesn't own one of his own -- never has. ''I like stream fishing,'' he said. ''And if you hook into a 40- or 45-pound king you have got a lot of fun on your hands.''
Best of all, though, is the golden trout of the High Sierras in his home state of California -- both in terms of eating and atmosphere. ''I get up there at 12,000- to 14,000 feet and go for days without seeing another soul and I live on goldens,'' he said. ''They have a red meat, kind of like a salmon, and it has a nutty flavor. ... I catch a lot of them that are three, four pounds.''
The hunting and fishing for food philosophy goes back to his upbringing in Lincoln County, West Virginia.
''We hunted to supplement the food on the table,'' he said. ''I first went when I was six or seven, with my .22, hunting rabbits and squirrels.''
Yeager said he devotes time and support to Safari Club International because the group supports hunters and hunting, and performs admirable public service.
Bev and Bill Fronterhouse invited Yeager to Fairbanks. Bev is president of the local Safari Club chapter and Bill is membership director.
It was Bill with whom he was to have gone grizzly hunting. Instead, the general pursued farmed pheasants with Bev's 20-gauge over and under shotgun.
''He's a good man and he's just full of stories,'' Bill Fronterhouse said. ''He travels a lot with Bo Derek; they're good friends. But then he turns around and you're talking about bird dogs, or chukar hunting or grouse hunting, and then in the next breath he might be talking about campaigning with George Bush or how the Shah of Iran was a good man -- then a minute later he's talking about roto-tilling his daughter's garden.''
Yeager had told the couple his preference of upland gun was an over and under 20 gauge, and indeed, the borrowed firearm proved no handicap as the general handily dropped a couple chukars and shared credit for a pheasant kill with hunting partner Les Olson.
They walked the fields behind Trucker, the flat-coated retriever, which is handled by Wendy Garwood of Fairbanks.
The flat-coated retriever, Garwood explained to those afield who were sure the black dog was some sort of long-haired Labrador, was the foundation breed for the now popular golden retriever. It is thought to be a breed created by the mixing of burly black Newfoundlands and wiry long-haired Irish setters. The dogs are sometimes black and sometimes liver (brown) coated.
Trucker swept the grasses and hedgerows, nose down, at a leisurely pace and was reminded to come back into gun range by occasional calls from his handler.
Flat-coated retrievers are ''flushing dogs,'' which means hunters have to stay alert because the dog can flush a bird at any moment. The only advance warning is the dog acting ''birdy,'' as handlers say.
Garwood was pleased with her pup's performance. ''He outperformed my expectations,'' she said.
Worries about the way the dog would act for an American hero had concerned her for days prior to the outing, but the general put her at ease.
''I thought he was just a great guy -- and a good shot,'' she said. ''He was really respectful of the dog, and that pleased the handler. He was relaxing to be around.''
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