September 24, 2009

SHOOTING STAR: The Last Flight of Lt. David Steeves

The story of a 1950s Cold War scandal that ruined an Air Force pilot's career and rocked his marriage – all when the news media stirred up false suspicions about his heroic 54-day survival ordeal in the Sierra Nevada wilderness.

(Also see another post at this blog, "
Fifty Years Later: An Air Force Pilot's Bravery Outshines his Public Humiliation," a magazine article originally published at The American Thinker.

By David Paulin

   Sometimes a decade can be summed up with a single news story – one highlighting the period's noteworthy accomplishments and failures, and perhaps revealing its amusing absurdities and contradictions. The case of 1st Lt. David A. Steeves is one such story. A 23-year-old Air Force pilot, Steeves captivated the nation on July 1, 1957 when he wandered out of the rugged High Sierra mountains -- 54 days after disappearing in his T-33 jet trainer while making a routine cross-country flight. Weeks earlier, the Air Force had declared him dead. Now very much alive, the dashing Air Force pilot became an instant hero with his harrowing story of survival.
     The story of Lt. Steeves was one of 1957's top new stories – and one of the decade's most memorable. It revealed much about America in the 1950s. And when viewed today from the perspective of 50-plus years, it reveals much about America today.
     Steeves by any definition was a hero, and that's initially how the media portrayed him. Six weeks later, however, the media did an about face, putting Steeves under a cloud of suspicion and innuendo. Yet all of the media's assumptions were false. The Air Force, for its part, also contributed to Steeves' guilt by innuendo. But ultimately, it was America's increasingly powerful news media that put the pilot's head in a noose in the court of public opinion.
     Suffering a public humiliation he did not deserve, Steeves was a victim of media abuse decades before it would become a hotly debated subject. An examination of hundreds of newspaper articles from 1957 and 1958 makes this crystal clear. So do Air Force documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. They shed new light on one of the 1950's enduring aviation mysteries.
   Steeves' downfall was not necessarily the result of unethical and cynical journalists exploiting a great story. Sometimes, things spun out of control even when well-intentioned people staffed the newsroom -- a result of competitive pressures, public demand, and because of how the news-gathering and reporting process has always worked.
    None of these things can be neatly divorced from America's culture in the 1950s -- and nor from its culture today. “We need not be theologians to see that we have shifted responsibility for making the world interesting from God to the newspaperman,” social historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote in his 1961 book “The Image.” It offered much trenchant commentary on America's culture and its emerging mass media – its newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations.
   Earlier in the decade, members of America's high-minded Fourth Estate congratulated themselves for having saved the country from Wisconsin's irresponsible senator, Joe McCarthy. Yet during the 1957, just weeks after the senator's death, the media engaged in what amounted to McCarthy-style reporting on Lt. Steeves and his wife Rita. The strains of being in the media's distorting spotlight may have hastened the end of the young couple's already troubled marriage. As for Steeves, his Air Force career was ruined, his reputation permanently tarnished. He remained a hero nevertheless -- even if Americans were led to believe otherwise.
     What happened to the Air Force couple in 1957 is today largely forgotten. Yet their story is more relevant than ever in an era in which bloggers and others in the “new media” regularly highlight the mainstream media's biases and inaccuracies -- find the missing story beyond the headlines. The full story of Lt. Steeves -- his battle with the wilderness, the news media, and his own shortcomings – has never been told in full until now.

Chapter 1.

Praying for a Miracle

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” Luke 15:24 (King James version)

It was the answer to her prayers – a collect phone call. It was wondrous and shocking. A miracle, really.

Elsie Steeves, alone at home that day, thought of her son David -- and she prayed. Fifty-four days earlier on May 9, 1957, the 23-year-old Air Force pilot had disappeared over California's rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, while making a solo flight in his two-seat training jet, a T-33 Shooting Star. According to the Air Force, he was dead. Little was known about her son's final minutes: He was level at 33,500 feet and had made a routine radio call, just 25 minutes after taking off from Oakland, California's airport. After that, nothing was ever heard from him. It was supposed to have been a routine cross-country flight.

The disappearance attracted only minor attention in the next day's newspapers. The Oakland Tribune ran a short article on an inside page, its headline reading: “Wide Search for Vanished Jet Trainer.”

Over the next few days, Air Force search-and-rescue planes overflew the mountainous terrain where the jet was thought to have crashed. But no trace of Steeves or his jet could be found in some of America's roughest terrain. After three weeks, the Air Force issued a death certificate for 1st Lt. David Arthur Steeves. But Elsie Steeves and her husband Harold refused to believe it.
Someday, their phone would ring -- and their prayers would be answered, they believed.

The military at the time had traditionally waited a year and a day before issuing a death certificate. But given the realities of Steeves' last flight, Air Force officials suspended that policy: Even if he'd ejected and landed in one piece, they reasoned, he never could have survived in the ice and snow-covered mountains, which had gotten a heavy snow soon after his jet went down.

But Elsie and Harold Steeves found room for hope. Search planes, after all, found no body -- not a trace of wreckage. Their son could be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada -- alive, injured, struggling to find his way home. Hope came easily to the Steeves. Deeply religious, they believed that God really could answer one's prayers; that God and religion still were the most important influences in American life.

“We just felt sure he would come out some day,” Elise Steeves later told a newspaper reporter. “There's nothing impossible when the Lord is there.” And no matter what the Air Force said, Steeves' parents believed it was too early to give up hope. Harold Steeves, for his part, felt he knew his son better than the Air Force: He was in superb physical shape, a resourceful and deliberative young man who had never been afraid of anybody or anything. "I figured if he got down in any shape at all that he could take care of the situation,” he later said. “They told me it was a clear day when he crashed and that he was flying at 35,000 feet, and so I figured he had a 50-50 chance because he had a chance to use his parachute and it was daytime.”

It was the best and worst of times for Americans in July, 1957. The post-war baby boom was continuing unabated, and jobs were plentiful during President Dwight D. Eisenhower second term. Americans were on a spending spree: Cars and television sets were among the most coveted consumer items. That July, government economic figures revealed that personal incomes were at a record high.

Yet Americans faced dangers, too, just as they had for most of the decade. Soon after World War II ended in 1945, the Soviet Union demonstrated its character and intentions, oppressively ruling Eastern Europe and supporting communist-led insurgencies across the globe. Now, the Cold War was at its height. America's leaders sought to hold back an expansionist Soviet Union under the 10-year-old Truman Doctrine -- now a cornerstone of Washington's foreign policy. President Harry Truman, a Democrat, had put forth his famous doctrine in 1947, when winning bipartisan Congressional support for $400 million to aid Greece and Turkey's fragile governments defeat communist insurgencies. He declared: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

Now in 1957, America was engaged in an epic test of wills and ideologies with the Soviet Union, not to mention nuclear brinkmanship. This included above-ground tests of nuclear weapons, which the Air Force's new B-52 strategic bombers could deliver anywhere on the planet. In Nevada's desert that summer, a spate of nuclear explosions sent fiery black mushroom clouds boiling into the sky. Their shock waves rattled Las Vegas casinos – and they even shook the ground in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, giving Steeves a fright as he wandered about, lost, trying to find his way back to civilization. The Air Force by then had given him up for dead.

Exactly one week before Steeves ejected over the mountains, former Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy had died. Earlier in the decade, the Republican senator had disgraced himself with his unfounded and irresponsible accusations about communist spies in the government. Yet as the senator's conduct became an issue, a larger truth was lost: More than a few Americans deeply admired the Soviet Union's experiment in communism. Some were in fact employed by the government. Others lent aid and comfort to America's enemy, as was underscored by two of the decade's most controversial spy trials. One sent Algier Hiss to prison, and the other sent Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair. These Americans, like their counterparts today, were not convinced that America was one of the good guys.

It was easier to ignore such folks in 1957 than it is today, for no American servicemen were dying in battle anywhere in 1957. Yet the Cold War was in fact claiming a number of American lives in the 1940s and 50s – those of military pilots. In 1947, the Air Force reported more than 1,500 major accidents claiming the lives of more than 500 pilots. And as the carnage continued into 1948 and 1950s, it included some 31 American fliers who died during the nearly year-long Berlin Air Lift. In 2006, in contrast, the Air Force reported its safest year to date, recording a handful of crashes and mishaps – and just one fatality.

Military pilots in 1957 didn't need a statistician to tell them about the risks they faced -- and nor did their wives or girlfriends or their mothers. They only needed to read the newspapers. The Oakland Tribune, besides its brief story about Steeves' disappearance, carried three other reports about mishaps involving military airplanes in its afternoon edition of May 10, 1957.

The most dramatic was a front-page story about a Navy Tradewind bomber that had ditched in San Francisco Bay that very morning -- just 40 minutes after taking off from Alameda Naval Air Station. The pilot had been unable to maintain altitude after one of the seaplane's four turbo-prop engines developed a runaway propeller. The seaplane's 16-man crew was plucked from the water. It was supposed to have been a routine training flight.

On that same day, another story in the Oakland Tribune described how a Navy P2V Neptune patrol plane – also on a training flight -- had ditched 170 miles southwest of Honolulu after one of its two piston engines caught fire. The 10-man crew scrambled into a life raft, and a U.S. Navy submarine rescued them four hours later. Closer to the San Francisco Bay Area, the paper reported that a Navy Globemaster cargo plane had made a harrowing emergency landing at Travis Air Force Base after one of its four piston engines developed a runaway propeller.

It was called a cold war. But given the risk inherent in flying high-performance military aircraft, it might as well have been a hot war for military pilots. Sometimes they died lonely and horrible deaths, as Steeves apparently had, falling from 35,500 feet into the oblivion of snow and ice-covered mountains. Their family members and loved ones could only pray for their souls -- or for their safe return if they'd gone missing. And to have them go missing, that was the worst, everybody agreed: never knowing their fate, lacking a body to bury so that families and loved ones could move on with their lives.

When military pilots were killed or went missing, their hometown newspapers often ran stories about them on inside pages, beside photos of them in their military uniforms. It was the kind of news story that Connecticut's Bridgeport Post ran about 1st Lt. Steeves two days after he'd disappeared.

On rare occasions when a flier went missing, however, his family and loved ones had their prayers answered. The answer for Elsie Steeves arrived at 4 p.m. on July 1, 1957. When she picked up the phone in her Trumbull home, what happened next could have been out of a plot from the “The Twilight Zone.” But at the time, nobody would have made such a comparison. The hit television series would not debut for another two years, captivating Americans with its spooky and quirky plots that often highlighted the angst of the era. Watching the “Twilight Zone” after it aired, David Steeves could have easily imagined he'd lived out one of its strange plots during the second half of 1957.

“Hello?” Elsie Steeves said. It was the operator, and in a matter-of-fact voice, she said: “Collect call from Lt. David Steeves.”

Elsie Steeves gasped. Then she heard the voice, David's voice, and she knew it was true. Yes, thank God, her once-dead son was alive and speaking to her.

“I don't want this to be too much of a shock for you,” he told her, as gently as he could. “I just walked in from the woods of the High Sierras.”

“Oh David, thank God!” she cried.

Steeves had shambled into the ranger's office at California's Kings Canyon National Park minutes earlier, sporting a bushy beard and wearing his grimy flight suit that hung loosely over him, for in the wilderness he'd lost some 30 to 40 pounds. He drew stares and quizzical expressions. At first, nobody quite believed his incredible story about living 54 days in the wilderness after ejecting from his jet. Immediately, he asked to make a collect call, and they pointed him to a phone.

Steeves first asked the operator to ring his older brother Harold in Fairfield, Connecticut. Harold, he figured, could gently let his parents and wife know that he wasn't dead. But Harold wasn't home. So he phoned his mother.

They talked about 15 minutes after she got over her shock. She listened in stunned disbelief, occasionally gasping at something he told her. “It just exploded,” he said of his jet. 

“I was unconscious for a while. I came to and bailed out.”

He assured her he was OK, other than having lost weight and twisting his ankles during the hard parachute landing in the mountains. He quickly asked about his wife Rita and their infant daughter, Leisa, and his mother said they'd left Craig Air Force Base, where he'd been based near Selma, Alabama. Now they lived with Rita's mom and stepfather in nearby Fairfield. She told him about the death certificate. But she assured him that neither she nor his father had ever believed he was dead. 

“I knew there were plenty of prayers going out for me, and I felt every one,” he told her. “I know I have the Lord to thank for being alive.”

She was no doubt pleased to hear that: David had not taken religion nearly as seriously as they had hoped he would. Sometimes, he'd been something of a rebel, having tested his parents' patience and authority as a teenager.

Like any mother would, Elsie Steeves asked her son if he'd be going back to flying.

"I sure am,” he said.

"Oh, he loves it,” she told a newspaper reporter. “All the Air Force boys love it! He wanted to be a pilot since he was a child.”

“I put my faith and trust in God, and he certainly did a good job of it,” she added.
Steeves was disappointed Rita hadn't been there, for he had much to tell her. Alone and facing death, he'd seen his life more clearly -- realized how important his family was to him, and how important God was, too.

Within hours, reporters were telephoning Elsie and Herald Steeves, showing up at their door. They had no doubt that this was a terrific story – and maybe the biggest one they would ever cover.

To Elsie Steeves, the reporters must have seemed like nice enough people. They seemed genuinely concerned about David's well being, wanted to hear all about what had happened to him; wanted to know as well about how she and her husband had borne up the whole time -- and what they now were thinking and feeling.

Elsie Steeves could be sure about one thing: Her son was a hero. And that's how the newspapers in fact portrayed him. Little could she have guessed at the strange turn the media coverage would take later that summer – when the newspapers started implying all sorts of awful things about David and his survival in the Sierra Nevada.

It must have been a terrible experience for Elsie Steeves, a mother who believed in miracles. Five years earlier, she never could have guessed at the path that led her son to scandal and disgrace – those flying lessons he took as a teenager.

It all started in 1952, when he was 18, during the fall of his senior year in high school. Steeves walked into a flight school at the local airport: He wanted to take lessons, he said. It has always been a common path for many future military and commercial pilots -- taking flying lessons as teenagers. Sizing up Steeves, the school's manager no doubt saw an apt student: He was strapping and clean-cut, a varsity football player more than 6-feet tall.

Steeves, an average student in high school, looked around and liked what he saw. Small and medium-sized airports in the 1950s bustled with light-plane activity, and usually one or more small and unpretentious “ma and pa” flight schools were on the field. They gladly welcomed aviation-crazy kids like Steeves. Before scheduling a lesson, they'd usually gave them a tour of the hangers and planes, perhaps introduced them to any flight instructors and charter pilots who were around. The pilots were invariably friendly and down-to-earth folks -- and with rare exceptions they were men. Some of them, those in their 30s and 40s, may even have flown in World War II.

Steeves had a secret when he climbed for the first time into the small two-seat trainer with his instructor: His parents had not given their OK for the lessons – did not even know about them. He'd only headed to the airport after they'd gone off together on a fall vacation, leaving him home with his 23-year-old brother, Herald. He paid for the lessons with money saved up from an after-school job as a laborer at the Bridgeport Metal Goods Manufacturing Company.
The desire to learn how to fly appeals to people for different reasons. Like many teenagers, Steeves surely found a feeling of escape and independence, perhaps even a socially acceptable outlet for a certain rebellious spirit. He felt bottled up in his comfortable middle-class home, bristled at all the rules his parents imposed. 

Deeply religious, Harold and Elsie Steeves were members of a fundamentalist evangelical church. They forbid smoking and drinking in their home. Prayers were said before every meal. But as Steeves bowed his head and folded his hands, reciting the prayers he knew by heart, he must have wondered if it was all a bit old-fashioned. This was the 1950s, after all. An age of Rock 'N Roll and James Dean, the brooding young actor. His 1955 films “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden” appealed to youthful movie audiences -- to kids who identified with the rebellious teenagers whom Dean portrayed.

In the 1950s, many teenagers needed more than America's post-war prosperity to make them happy. Some of them rebelled, although it was not always clear what made them so alienated and edgy. That was underscored by a famous line in the 1953 movie “The Wild One” about a marauding California motorcycle gang. Asked what he's rebelling against, a leather-jacketed Johnny (Marlin Brando), replies: “Whaddya got?”

Steeves was no Johnny, but he was restless and longed to be independent. “I thought my parents were too strict, and in the summers I could hardly wait to get away,” he told a writer for Redbook, the woman's magazine, in a lengthy article published in January, 1958.

When he was 15, Steeves recalled spending the summer on a farm in upstate New York, working for a farmer who served as a “Youth for Christ” leader in the church his family attended. And the summer before his senior year, he hitchhiked to Alaska – a trip his parent's never would have allowed if they'd known what their son was up to.

As every hip kid knows, however, it's easy to buffalo square parents. And that's what Steeves did, telling them he was going to a farm in Alberta, Canada, to work with a friend for the summer. He'd get a car ride and then take a bus, he assured them. Square parents, of course, always want to think the best of their children: OK, David. We trust you.

But when their boy got out of their reach, he started hitchhiking on westbound roads – and he only stopped when he'd gotten to Alaska. For the footloose Steeves, the summer was like something out of Jack Kerouac's 1957 “On the Road” -- though for the clean-cut Steeves, it presumably was far more wholesome than anything in Kerouac's novel, which soon became a manifesto for the decade's pot-smoking and poetry-reciting “Beat Generation.” In Alaska, Steeves told of working odd jobs – gas station attendant, stevedore, salmon canner, road-tarring laborer, and as a crew member aboard a 100-foot boat hauling Salmon to Seattle.

Back home that fall, he discovered a different kind of freedom – flying.

With his instructor beside him, he flew the two-seat trainer on his first lesson, taking it up a few thousand feet over southwestern Connecticut's rolling countryside. His instructor, speaking loudly above the noisy engine, talked Steeves through the basic maneuvers. In no time, the teenager was shooting take-offs and landings, without any help from the instructor. One day, after several hours of instruction, the instructor got out of the plane after Steeves had landed: OK, he said, do some take-offs and landings by yourself. Steeves eagerly taxied out to the runway. He eased the throttle forward and the plane was quickly airborne.

His first solo: It ended too quickly. He taxied in, cut the engine, and the propeller rattled to a stop. It was what other teenagers taking flying lessons experienced, and Steeves no doubt went through the same routine.

All his buddies, Steeves knew, were out throwing around footballs; working after-school jobs; holding hands with their girlfriends on long walks. However, he'd flown a light plane by himself! Not even his instructor could second guess him – or help him out in an emergency.

He climbed out of the trainer, and his instructor walked up and smiled. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks,” Steeves grinned, his spirits soaring. It felt like getting a first kiss from a girl you're crazy about. And Steeves know something about that because he had a girl. Her name was Rita. They'd been going together since his junior year. Back in the flight school's office, his flight instructor filled out Steeves' logbook as usual, noting the maneuvers that were done -- and then he wrote in big letters: "First Solo."

If only his parents knew what he'd done; Steeves must of grinned at the thought. But when they returned from their vacation, he told them everything, no doubt because he wanted them to be proud of him. They saw the excitement in his eyes. Obviously, he loved flying; maybe he'd found his vocation. So reluctantly, they let their boy continue with the lessons, which included additional solo flights and lessons with his instructor beside him. There was some book learning, too. At the time, many instructors recommended a popular book published in 1944: “Stick & Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying.”

It was the perfect book for young men who sought in flying a challenge and adventure - a chance to prove their mettle. Author Wolfgang Langewiesche, a veteran test pilot, stressed up front that the “art of flying” was not for everybody: It took some “nerve” to master; and to prove his point, he mentioned the high accident rate suffered by light-plane pilots -- those who obviously didn't measure up. “There are situations in flying when he who 'ducks,' he who flinches, is lost,” he wrote. In some do-or-die situations, for example, he said it took courage to manipulate the controls in ways that defied deeply ingrained habits – even common sense. Pulling the control stick aft, after all, could make an airplane go down – not up! Stick & Rudder got right to the point in its opening paragraphs"

Get rid at the onset of the idea that the airplane is an air-going sort of automobile. It isn't. It may sound like one and smell like one, and it may have been interior-decorated to look like one; but the difference is -- it goes on wings. And a wing is an odd thing, strangely behaved, hard to understand, tricky to handle. In many respects, a wing's behavior is exactly contrary to common sense. On wings it is safe to be high, dangerous to be low; safe to go fast, dangerous to go slow.


After graduating from high school, Steeves entered Norwich Military University in Northfield, Vermont. But he still had the flying bug during the fall of 1953. So when he heard about the Air Force's Aviation Cadet Program, he was intrigued. No four-year degree was required. He'd go right into pilot and officer training – and that sure beat college. He wanted to be a pilot, after all. And who knew: Maybe he'd end up flying jets! Jets were where it was at; they were so cooool (as 1950s-era kids used to say, drawing out the word rather than spitting it out abruptly like kids do today.) Jets were the future, Steeves knew.

He'd read about those heart-stopping dogfights in the Korean War, those calm and dashing American pilots flying silver F-86 Saber jets, taking on North Korean, Chinese and Russian pilots in “MiG Alley.” A ceasefire had ended the Korean War in July.

Steeves applied for the cadet program after Christmas, went through physical exams and psychological testing and personal interviews. He passed. Soon he was at Lackland Field in San Antonio, Texas, undergoing 15 months of officer and pilot training. He was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve on June 15, 1955. Now 21, he wore the coveted silver wings of an Air Force pilot on his uniform. And five days later, he got married: It's what serious men his age did at the time. People who expected to be taken seriously were married. And of course, Steeves married his high school sweetheart: Rita Lundstrom. She was 19-years-old, blond and remarkably beautiful -- and smart. She was getting married at just the right time, too: Most women back then, those who wanted to avoid becoming old maids, got married when they were between 18 and 20.
The couple had gone to different high schools in the area and had met at a church-organized outing for young people; and even though they were both juniors, she was two years younger than him and others in her class. Recently, Rita had graduated from the University of Bridgeport as a dental hygienist. At the time, it was a traditional “woman's job” along with working as a secretary, librarian, teacher, or nurse.

The day after the couple's wedding, the Bridgeport Post ran a large photo of the bride on its wedding page. The photo's caption read: “Mrs. David Arthur Steeves.” Along with its obituary listings, a paper's wedding page was a popular must-read section for community-minded Americans -- though perhaps not quite as popular as another section many papers ran back then: It listed the names of men and women petitioning for divorce. Divorce carried a stigma of scandal and failure, so it was shocking and fun to see who'd made the list.

There were changes in the air, though. Two years earlier, Playboy magazine had hit the newsstands. Now, its gorgeous “girl-next-door” centerfolds graced military quarters, frat houses, and provided adolescent boys (those who got their hands on the magazine) with unending entertainment. However, it would be several years before Hugh Hefner's “Playboy Philosophy” became apart of America's values and mores. As for the “Pill,” it would be several more years before it become widely available.

Early in July, the newly married couple said their goodbyes and set out for the long drive to Big Springs, Texas, home to Webb Air Force Base, where David would start his Air Force career as a rookie pilot. They must have felt confident and happy as they pulled onto Connecticut's Merritt Parkway, sped along the modern tree-lined highway and crossed New York's state line 30 minutes later. Young and in love, they were from solid middle-class homes, possessed the values and self-discipline that would enable them to succeed in the nation's expanding economy.

Now, they were off on a wonderful adventure, were starting new lives. David was about to realize the dream he'd had since he was a kid. And Rita thought she had a good catch: She'd seen a number of good qualities in David, she later related: patience, determination, mechanical aptitude, the ability to achieve difficult goals. He was a handsome former athlete to boot, having made the varsity football team when he was a freshman.

Rita knew that flying could be dangerous, to be sure. But she loved David: Flying was what he wanted. In the prosperous part of southwestern Connecticut where she'd grown up, other pretty and marriage-minded girls played it smart. They married accountants, corporate lawyers, or advertising men. Guys like that tended to be stable breadwinners, and many had well-paying jobs in New York City. They took the train to work from any of the towns in Fairfield County dotting the rail line. And in the early evening, their wives could always count on seeing them again, tired and hungry after a long day, and usually a very routine one. It was nothing like the life of an Air Force wife -- especially one married to a pilot.

Within a few hours, the couple had skirted past New York City on busy traffic arteries, had put New Jersey and Maryland behind them. Then they arrived in Virginia, and were heading into the Deep South, a road trip of 1,400-plus miles to Big Springs, Texas. They would never forget that journey. Ahead lay a lifetime filled with promise and, they hoped, children. Rita had to wonder if she might already be pregnant.

Besides America's optimism, something else was in the air that that July – music. Radio stations were playing songs throbbing with energy and self-confidence, songs that were uniquely American and destined to be classics.

Steeves could steer casually with his left hand, keeping his right hand on the radio dial and tuning in one great song after another, including “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets. In mid-July it soared to No. 1 on the charts, becoming the first Rock N' Roll song to do so. Chuck Barry's hard-charging “Maybellene” also was out, its lyrics describing a heart-stopping drag race and an unfaithful woman. And there was Fats Domino's melodious number about lost love, “Ain't that a Shame,” another song future generations would cherish.

Now and then, one of those sharp Corvettes flashed past – a snazzy two-seat sports car that Chevrolet started producing two years earlier. Someday, David knew, he'd own a car like that. He wouldn't always be making the salary of an Air Force 2nd lieutenant. He'd be getting his piece of America's postwar prosperity, too. The couple drove mostly on two-lane roads, now known as secondary roads, because there were no interstate highways in 1955. Occasionally, the black-topped highway went through small towns or past a cluster of motels, restaurants and dinners. Huge billboards loomed over the highway on long empty stretches.

A year later in 1956, Congress gave birth to America's network of interstate highways, a massive public works project championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The president had more than commerce in mind when proposing the system, formally known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. During a national emergency, the highways could facilitate the movement of troops and military supplies. Steeves, as an Air Force pilot, could easily guess at another benefit – an escape route from America's cities in the event of an impending nuclear Armageddon.

The possibility of such a nightmare was hard to escape: One year earlier, civil defense officials carried out Operation Alert for the first time in scores of major cities. On the day of the drill, citizens facing a simulated nuclear attack were required to take cover in 15 minutes.

On their long drive, no franchise restaurants were to be found: McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, the earliest franchises, were just starting up. But David and Rita found plenty of roadside dinners and restaurants, and when they stopped at one, they could see their future: Lots of young families at the booths and tables. Moms and dads were on their summer vacations with their kids: “baby boomer” kids born in the postwar years.

The Steeves could giggle at the strange headgear many kids wore -- coonskin caps. Despite the Cold War, America was in the midst of a fad: Millions of kids wore coonskin caps that summer -- or they were begging their parents to buy them a coonskin cap, which originally were fashioned from a racoon's pelt and tail.

Months earlier, the craze took off when the popular Disneyland television program aired a three-part show based on the life of frontiersman Davy Crockett. Kids loved the Crockett character played by folksy actor Fess Parker, and they couldn't stop whistling and humming the catchy theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” By contemporary standards, the song was as corny as could be. In today's post-modern America, most intellectuals and academics would surely ridicule lyrics being told about an old Indian fighter who died at the Battle of the Alamo, a song that noted he had “Fought single-handed through many a war/ Till the enemy was whipped and peace was in store.”  But in the summer of 1955, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” was a hit, and on long drives kids in the back seat perked up when it played on the radio.

Nobody would have thought it then, but the song's confident lyrics and folksy melody suggested much about America -- suggested that Americans, for whatever their faults, possessed bedrock qualities that would see them through any challenge they faced, at home or abroad. The opening stanza went:
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee

The greenest state in the land of the free

Raised in the woods so's he knew ev'ry tree

Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three

Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier
Like other crazes in the 1950s, the coonskin cap fad ran its course; and while some claimed the craze could endanger the nation's raccoon population, their concerns never materialized. To ordinary Americans, such fads were good clean fun -- a diversion from Cold War tensions and the worries of everyday life.

To the Soviet Union's communist leaders, on the other hand, America's fads over coonskin caps and the hula hoop (a craze three years later) reinforced their conviction that America was a hopelessly decadent nation – one that would be easily defeated by the Soviet Union and its ideology. In one sense, the Soviet's critique on such fads were revealing; for it was not directed at America's government and its policies – but at American society and culture as a whole.

Soviet leaders, at the time time, also could be counted on to overlook America's substantiative accomplishments. The Steeves, for instance, would soon have a child that would never face the prospect of being crippled by polio, whose periodic outbreaks terrified Americas as it struck tens of thousands of children. In 1955, a vaccine against polio became available, thanks to the work of Dr. Jonas Salk -- the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants: people who preferred America's freedoms to to Soviet Union's drab and often cruel authoritarianism in which millions of political prisoner's died in prison camps or “gulags” under Joseph Stalin.

In their disdain for America's culture, Soviet leaders revealed that they knew little about their American advisories -- men like David Steeves and his fellow pilots, who proved their mettle every time they climbed into a jet. Nor did they know much about the wives of such men, women known in the 1950s as “Air Force wives.”

In Big Springs, the couple found a basement apartment; it was all they could afford. Soon, Rita knew she was pregnant. David was happy to hear it. He was sure it would be a boy; it could not be possibly anything else. “It could be a girl,” Rita responded. But David refused to even consider the possibility. She'd have a boy, period.

Besides planning for her baby, Rita now had to adjust to military life. Like other newly arrived Air Force wives, she could expect a visit from a member of the base's Wives Club -- a member know as “spotter.” Her job was to track down new Air Force families, welcome them, and then help them adjust to their new surroundings. Among other things, newly arrived Air Force wives were invited to get-acquainted meetings and functions organized by the Wives Club.

On Air Force bases, wives clubs were high-energy versions of America's public-spirited associations and groups -- its vibrant civil society: everything from the PTA, to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, to Little League baseball. The success of America's great experiment was in part due to its healthy civil society, according to pro-American Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in his seminal book “Democracy in America” published in 1835.

Attending a meeting of the wives club at Webb Air Force base, Rita Steeves could enjoy tea, snacks, and be made to feel welcome. The chairman of one wives club (“chairwoman” and “chairperson” were not being used then) had a unique way of introducing new Air Force wives. She handed out note cards that stated: "Will you please give you name, your original home, your last station and your present address? NOTE: How did you meet your husband? Romantic or unusual? Funny?"

Afterward, two judges decided who told the most amusing, romantic, or original accounts. Prizes were awarded to the winners.

Such functions and social graces were described in a popular book written for new Air Force wives like Rita Steeves – a book appropriately titled: “The Air Force Wife.” Published in 1951, the 362-page book was intended to explain the Air Force's customs and traditions, according to author Nancy Shea, a Kentucky native who'd been married 22 years to a career Air Force pilot.

Devoting considerable space to what the wives of pilots might expect, Shea observed that pilot's needed supportive and caring wives who could understand their typically problematic personalities. “Aviators are often temperamental so be prepared to adjust your social and home life to your husband's vocation,” she wrote. “Such adjustments are vital and necessary to his flying; early in your marriage you will find that they pay off in making for contentment and real happiness.”

Observing that “domestic troubles” may well have distracted many pilots and led to fatal accidents, Shea advised wives to take charge of all domestic responsibilities and create happy homes: "The pilot's actions at the controls must be instinctive, quick, subconscious; his judgment in an emergency must be perfect. His mind cannot be disturbed by worry over unpaid bills, the tensions of making it home for a party or 'bust,' or news phoned him by an unthinking wife that Johnny fell out of the tree-house and broke his arm. The arm will heal, but a mistake on the part of a pilot may claim the lives of many."

Touching on the positives and negatives of Air Force life, Shea assured fellow wives that they will have “truly lived” after ten years in the service. They will have attended more then a few funerals for pilots killed in an accidents. And they will have endured sleepless nights of “bleak terror” and “wretched anxiety” -- while fretting for their husbands when they were flying in bad weather or when on a “fruitless search” for a fellow pilot whose plane went down. For an Air Force wife, home might be a quonset hut on Okinawa, a trailer in Alaska, or a castle on the Rhine, Shea noted.

She assured readers it was only natural to worry about their husbands when they were flying. But she urged them to keep their worries to themselves, to have a stiff upper lip. “Dawn usually brings relief from these unjustified worries, and, of course, no true Air Force wife would ever think of admitting them even to herself, let alone her husband. It just isn't done.”

Among other things, she noted that Air Force wives needed to accommodate their husbands' odd and demanding schedules; their frequent reassignments to other bases; and the inevitable dangers they might face. It was simply part of military life because for a military man, “duty comes first -- before family, home ties or anything else,” she wrote.

Throughout her book, Shea presupposed that men and women had specific roles and responsibilities to fill in a marriage -- and this was especially the case for the wives of Air Force men.

Apart from the sacrifices and hardships of Air Force life, Shea assured future brides that marrying an Air Force man was something special, that there would indeed be many good times for them. In a letter she wrote to two young women about to marry Air Force men (which she published in her book) she elaborated on how just special it would be, and she offered some advice about married life, too. Her letter revealed much about the 1950s -- about concepts of marriage that existed at the time; and about the roles that responsible young men and women were expected to assume. Shea wrote:
My Dear Janet and Judy:

So each of you has met your twentieth-century Prince Charming and instead of the legendary approach on a white charger, he arrives in a jet! There is an indefinable thrill in waiting at the flying field for the man in your life to land. United States Air Force officers and airman today represent the cream of American manhood; they are the finest cross section of young men drawn from every state in the Union; and to you, the man for whom you are waiting represents everything desirable in life.

Be prepared, though, my darlings – fliers are a peculiar breed of man. Your love will always have to be shared with his love of flying. Neither of the Wright Brothers ever married, and when Orville was questioned on this point he replied that he could not afford both a plane and a wife.

In a past era it was sufficient and a man was flattered if the beautiful girl of his choice was a good listener. Today, a man wants not only an attentive listener but also an intelligent one. This is particularly true of career airmen and professional Air Force officers. Your fiancée will think you are something rather special if you can listen attentively and also punctuate the conversation occasionally and casually with a pertinent air-minded remark.

The best way to do this is to read and to build up an aviation background. Just to get you off to a good start, I shall list five books on military aviation at the end of this letter. Above all, never show off your aviation knowledge. Your study must be sincere, no pretense, or your sins will find you out and embarrass you.

As an Air Force wife you are in for an interesting, exciting life with plenty of thrills because life in the Air Force is thrilling. Men who fly love it, and every wife is pound of her flying husband, his wings and what they represent.

Good luck to you both and happy landings!

Nancy Brinton Shea

The woman reading Shea's book were mostly from the generation to which David and Rita Steeves belonged; they'd been kids during World War II. Conversely, Shea's generation had fought that war.

Whatever differences may have separated the two generations in 1955 or were starting to separate them, they were in total agreement on one thing. They took for granted that America was on the right side of history. Both presumed that America was a shining beacon for the world, even if it was not yet perfect, even if it remained a work in progress.
Both generations believed something else when looking upon the world. There was such a thing as evil. Not only were they unafraid to use that word, they felt they could recognize the manifestations of evil, knew the shape and hue of the cloudbursts of war or similar outrages. “Wars seldom begin all at once; they are a series of incidents or buildups, or annexations of smaller countries by cold-war tactics,” Shea observed. Like many in the early 1950s, Shea was hopeful that the newly created United Nations would establish an “international police system,” as she called it, one that would “do something about a big nation that starts murdering a small nation.” Lacking such a system, America and its allies would have to go it alone in a brutish world.

Chapter 2.
Something Exploded

“The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” --Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand, and Stars” (1939)

The sky was hazy and overcast at Oakland Municipal Airport that Thursday, May 9, 1957. First Lt. David A. Steeves, 23, taxied his silver T-33 Shooting Star onto the runway. He stopped the howling jet on the dashed white centerline. He looked out his bubble canopy, staring at the long runway in front of him.

A rated T-33 flight instructor, Steeves had logged 900-plus flying hours since receiving his pilot's wings two year earlier. With all that flying time, he must have felt confident as he completed his checklist. He flipped down his helmet's dark sun visor and tugged at his oxygen mask to make sure it was secure. On the metal knee-pad holding his navigational log, he jotted down his take-off time: 10:43 a.m.

There was nothing else to do now that he was cleared for take-off. Slowly, he eased the throttle forward and eyeballed the engine gages. The whining tubojet engine spooled up, and within a few heartbeats, was emitting an ear-splitting howl.

The T-33 quickly accelerated as Steeves released the brakes, raced down the runway and then shot effortlessly into the sky. Its ear-splitting roar reverberated across the airport. The jet quickly disappeared into the haze, trailing a black wispy cloud of exhaust.

In 1957, jets were flown almost exclusively by the military, and they were seldom seen at most civilian airports. So the T-33's boisterous take-off would have attracted some attention at Oakland's airport, where the sounds of piston engines and propellers were usually heard. Back then, the T-33 and other jets were powered by the earliest model jet engine, a turbojet. It was disconcertingly loud compared to the more efficient turbofan jets powering most modern jet planes.

Two days earlier, Steeves had flown to Oakland from his home base near Selma, Alabama -- Craig Air Force Base where he lived with his wife and their 14-month old daughter. He'd spent the night in San Francisco. Now he was returning home via a route he'd previously flown a number of times. As usual, he'd make a refueling stop near Phoenix at Luke Air Force, named after the World War I ace, 21-year-old Frank Luke, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Now, Steeves pointed the nose toward Fresno and darted through a few layers of broken clouds starting at 8,000 feet. Climbing at some 5,000-feet per minute, he soon lost sight of most landmarks because of the haze and layers of clouds beneath him. To navigate, he relied on radio navigation facilities, and he deduced his position based on his estimated ground speed; what pilots call “dead reckoning” -- short for deduced reckoning. His eyes drifted to the altimeter as he anticipated the moment he'd start to ease the nose down for level flight.

Nimble and fast, the T-33 was a pleasure to fly for pilots. It was the world's first jet trainer, a two-seat version of a single-seat fighter jet called the P-80 Shooting Star. First produced in 1948, the T-33 was designed by Lockheed's legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson and his “Skunk Works” team at the company's Burbank, Calif. plant. It proved itself a durable design. The U.S. Air Force used it until 1987, and some of the world's air forces continue to fly it.

It took Steeves about seven minutes to reach his cruising altitude of 33,500 feet. Leveling off, he adjusted his power, trimmed the jet, and tuned in radio beacons to navigate. Only military jets regularly flew at such altitudes in 1957. Thousands of feet below, the nation's airlines still operated piston-engine airplanes, DC-6s and Constellations. The golden age of passenger jets was a few years away.

Like other Air Force pilots, Steeves trained regularly to keep his skills razor-sharp. Pilots trained until their could fly their aircraft effortlessly, instinctively. That freed up more mental energies to utilize on outwitting and destroying the enemy.

America was at peace in the later part of the 1950s. But thanks to the Cold War's hair-trigger tensions, military pilots did, in fact, occasionally find themselves in combat or being shot at. That was all too obvious to Steeves and his fellow military pilots.

Months after Steeves started his flight training, U.S. Navy pilots found themselves in a dogfight over the South China Sea. On July 26, 1954, two U.S. Navy Skyraiders -- hardy propeller-driven attack planes -- circled over American vessels that were searching for survivors of a British Cathay Pacific DC-4. Four days earlier, Chinese communist pilots had shot it down, claiming they mistook it for a plane from nationalist Taiwan. Suddenly, the Skyraider pilots were jumped by Chinese pilots flying Soviet-designed World War II-era fighters, Lavochkin La-7 Fins. A dogfight ensued over international waters. Two other Navy planes joined the brawl, and the Chinese planes were shot down.

In America, the incident provoked outrage. Newspapers were not second-guessing Washington's version of what had happened, and nor were they using morally neutral language to describe the enemy, as is now the journalistic standard. “Commies Attack Americans On Search Mission,” read the headline of an Associated Press story that ran in a Virginia newspaper -- and a sub-head added: “Fighters From Carriers Suffer No Casualties -- Washington To Protest Communist Brutality.” China later apologized to Britain for the attack that claimed ten lives, including three Americans. Eight people survived.

Four months later, as Steeves and fellow pilots were in flight training in Texas, another aerial incident shocked the nation. On November 27, 1954, Soviet MiG-15 jet fighters shot down a U.S. B-29 making a reconnaissance flight off the cost of northern Japan near Hokkaido Island. The B-29's 11 crewmen bailed out; ten survived and one drowned after becoming entangled in his parachute lines.

Eight months later, as David and Rita Steeves were settling in at Webb Air Force Base, an Israeli El Al Constellation airliner strayed into communist Bulgaria's airspace on July 27, 1955-- and a trigger-happy anti-aircraft battery promptly shot down the four-engine airplane. Fifty-eight passengers and crew died, including 12 Americans. Western officials expressed outrage over the attack, and Bulgaria's government later expressed “regret” over the incident.

They were among hundreds of incidents in non-combat areas involving civilian and military aircraft from all sides during the Cold War. To military pilots, it underscored that they were in the front-lines of the ideological standoff -- and thus it was imperative for them to keep their flying skills sharp through constant training.

Of course, they also had to avoid an accident when training; that was obvious from the Air Force's appalling accident statistics in the 1940 and 1950s. The accident rate reflected the state of aviation technology and training of the era. And there was another problem – the culture that existed among combat pilots. The Air Force wanted to produce aggressive combat pilots, the kind who were exemplified by veteran test pilot and World War II ace Chuck Yeager, who in the mid-1950s was commanding Air Force squadrons in Germany and France. But the devil-may-care attitude this culture created led many military pilots to take unnecessary risks -- and this inevitably led to unnecessary accidents in peacetime. Even during routine flights, it could be hard to get fighter pilots to fly with the safety-conscious prudence of an airline pilot.

Steeves, alone at 33,500 feet, could relax a bit at cruising altitude, slicing through the thin air at 450 mph, the turbojet engine whining in his ears. In cruise flight there were fewer cockpit chores to do, and statistically it was the safest phase of flight. He was still busy, though -- scanning gages, tuning in navigation frequencies, anticipating his next checkpoint. But not so busy that he could take a moment to enjoy the view from 33,500 feet, perhaps contemplating the aesthetic qualities of an unusual cloud: its billowy shape, the way it caught the sunlight. Or he could consider his earthbound life, and there was one thing about that life knew that he knew all too well. It was far more complex than any jet he'd ever fly.

A lot had happened to him in the past two years. He'd gotten his pilot's wings, married his high school sweetheart, and in a little more than nine months they'd produced a baby girl. Since then, they'd moved out of their basement apartment. Now, they lived in a mobile home in an on-base trailer park area of Craig Air Force Base.

And something else also had happened during the past year: He'd met another woman. She lived in San Francisco, and thanks to his training flights to Oakland he'd been visiting her. No doubt, being with was a wonderful escape from the modest accommodations he shared with Rita, an escape from the trails of fatherhood and Air Force life.

Yet he loved Rita, too. And it Iwas hard to keep anything from her. Six months earlier, back in early November, he'd told her all about the affair. She'd cried. She threatened to leave him. Her reaction hurt him. Since then, he kept promising to break off the affair, but he had yet to do it. It had put a cloud over their marriage.

But weeks before this last flight, Steeves had promised to end things on this last training flight, for Rita was ready to leave him. He failed to keep that promise, though: He just couldn't leave his mistress in tears.

Now, flying home at 450 mph, Steeves knew he'd have to tell Rita something. Otherwise, there would be big trouble; Rita had been as understanding as any woman could possibly be. Steeves was mechanically inclined and full of courage. Yet for him personal relationships were far more complex and vexing than any jet he might ever fly.

If his personal life was confusing, Steeves could at least take some satisfaction in one thing. He'd become a pilot during an exciting time. Opportunities for military and civilian aviation were boundless. The airlines were expanding rapidly. Badly in need of pilots in 1957, some were soliciting applicants for co-pilot positions by running ads in Flying magazine, the popular aviation publication. Young men need only have private pilot's licenses, if that, to be considered for training programs leading to the cockpit.

Aviation records were being set. On July 16, 1957, a Marine Corp major named John Glenn, the future senator and astronaut, set a transcontinental speed record, flying an F8U Crusader fighter jet from California to New York in 3 hours, 23 minutes, and 8 seconds. The following January, three B-52s set a record making round-the-world flight, underscoring the reach of America's air power. Months later, Pan American World Airways made history by becoming the first American airline to use passenger jets, flying Boeing 707s between New York and Paris.
The glamorous jet age was about to start – a period when airline travel was for the affluent and members of the well-mannered and comfortable middle-class.

About 30 minutes after take-off, Steeves was streaking over the Sierra Nevada mountains, following an air route defined by radio beacons. Below him, a fluffy lawyer of clouds stretched to the horizon. It hid any trace of the earth or the mountains that he knew were there. Despite the lack of landmarks, Steeves knew his position based on radio fixes and his estimated ground speed. At this point on his route, he on a clear day would see the Pacific Ocean on his right, shimmering in the sunlight beyond his jet's tip tanks. To his left would be the Sierra Nevada mountains, dominated by Mount Whitney towering 14,495 feet above sea level. It was the roughest terrain in the continental United States.

A few minutes south of Fresno, Steeves made a routine radio call to report his position, but he failed to respond to a controller's query regarding his flight. He'd given an estimated time of arrival for his next checkpoint, Wheeler Ridge.

And after that – silence. Nobody heard from Steeves again. Not until 53 days later when he stumbled upon four campers in the wilderness -- weeks after the Air Force had declared him dead.

Toward the end of 1957, after resigning from the Air Force under a cloud of suspicion and innuendo, Steeves could ponder a series of fantastic events. They were among the best and worst in his life.

It had all started in a split second. One minute, he was scanning his instruments, jotting down the time over various checkpoints. Then, suddenly, something exploded: It was like a “faint boom,” he recalled. A moment later, he was tumbling in space after ejecting from the jet. He blacked out after the explosion, he said, but for how long couldn't say.

When he came to, smoke drifted in the cockpit. He felt himself being pulled against his seatbelt. He moved the control stick, but the jet felt unresponsive – uncontrollable, he recalled. He felt disoriented, alarmed. He knew what he must do.

Immediately, he sped through the life-saving steps he'd memorized and practiced– the procedure to eject. Sliding his feet off the rudder pedals, he positioned them into the stirrups by his seat, and then he jettisoned the canopy. It flew away, and wind roared into the cockpit. Holding his breath, he braced himself, closed his eyes. Then he fired the ejection trigger. Instantly, an explosive charge ignited beneath him, propelling his seat upward into the howling and freezing wind.

He tumbled and fell. And like many pilots in such situations, he must have wondered if he would die. Ejection seat technology was relatively new back then. So military pilots who “punched out” enjoyed none of the confidence of their counterparts today. They risked breaking arms and legs or suffering other injuries.

It had been only nine years since a man had safely ejected from an airplane for the first time. The human guinea pig, a man named Bernard Lynch, had volunteered to eject from a high-flying British-built Gloster Meteor fighter over England's countryside. Lynch worked as a machinist for the seat's designer, Martin-Baker Aircraft Co., which became a major manufacturer of ejection seats. Up until 1957, ejection seats had saved a few hundred lives. They've saved untold numbers of airmen since then, with Martin-Baker's seats alone having saved more than 7,000, according to the company.

Steeves, free of his seat, plummeted toward the mountains below. As pilots in such situations later reported, a few images of his life may have raced across his mind. But his thoughts were clear as he tightly grasped the D-shaped ring, the ripcord, and pulled it hard. A second later, he felt a jolt as his parachute opened with a loud crack.

He was alive. Hanging in space, floating, he looked at what lay below -- a layer of wispy clouds stretching to the horizon. It would have been a lovely sight from the safety of his cockpit. Now he thought only of what lay below, some of the country's toughest terrain -- the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range. He felt alert yet strangely calm, just like he always felt in potentially dangerous situations. Invariably, his senses became focused. The temperature was close to freezing, but with his adrenalin pumping he hardly noticed.

He'd never ejected or made a parachute jump but had gotten Air Force lectures on the subjects. Now they came back to him. He tilted his head to inspect his chute. And immediately, his eyes froze on two panels of the orange and white chute -- both were ripped. The explosion must have singed them or maybe they were damaged when he ejected.

Thank God the rips weren't spreading. A parachute is constructed out of a number of individual panels, so a tear in one won't rip across the entire canopy.

Despite the damage, the chute seemed to be working normally. Yet he knew the rips meant trouble. Two missing panels meant the canopy had less square area; therefore, he was surely descending at a faster-than-normal rate. And he was in thin mountain air, descending toward towering mountains peaks. A parachute landing could be a bone-jarring experience under the best of circumstances. Now he faced the worst conditions possible.

He dropped into the clouds. And seconds later he emerged to see the earth below -- the snow-capped mountains he'd seen on clear days from his high-flying jet. Curiously, he'd neither seen his jet nor heard an explosion. He thought it was odd. He would think about that later, though.

The peaks loomed larger by the second as he floated toward a steep slope. Hundreds of feet below it, he spotted a place where he would have preferred landing – a snow-covered basin. But he decided against maneuvering his chute by using the two steering toggles hanging above his shoulder. Doing so, he feared, might widen the rips in his canopy, sending him plummeting into the mountainous abyss. He drifted with the wind, watching as the rocks grow bigger. He was about 100 feet from the slope when to his relief he saw exactly where he'd land – a big rocky ledge jutting from the mountain slope.

The rocks rushed at him. He landed hard, his leather flying boots hitting with a thud. Spinning violently, he slammed against the side of the mountain. He fell flat against the rocky ledge. It was over.

Dazed and breathing rapidly, he realized he was safe, although his legs and feet felt numb. All in all, the landing was like playing varsity football -- getting tackled hard by three big guys all at once. He immediately sat up and unhooked his parachute harness. Thankfully, the parachute's canopy had collapsed when he landed, so there was no danger of it dragging him to his death. But a gust of wind could drag him to his death. Next, he flipped up his helmet's visor. He surveyed his surroundings from his rocky perch, and his sense of calm returned.

Breathing normally again, he looked up. The chute was tangled in in rocks and ice just above him. He tugged at the lines. The canopy wouldn't budge. unable to budge the canopy. He knew he must retrieve it; use it to keep warm until a rescue party arrived. And he presumed a rescue party would arrive quickly. Surely, somebody saw the jet go down or heard the explosion. It was too dreadful to think anything else. After all, he had no survival kit. It was lost when he ejected. And he wore only summer clothing: a summer flight jacket and flight suit, plus the T-shirt and undershorts he had on underneath. He also wore his tough leather flight boots, wool socks, and his thin leather flying gloves. In a pocket was a wool cap.

It was surreal. Some 40 minutes ago, he'd taken off on a routine flight from Oakland. Now he was sitting on an ice-covered mountain. Where was he? He he could only guess because he had no way of knowing how long he'd been unconscious. So it was impossible to know how much time elapsed between the explosion and his ejection. Lacking that variable, he could not calculate the distance the jet had traveled before he ejected, and so he could only guess at where he might be. The jet could have flown 13 to 20 miles during the two to three minutes he'd been uncon 13 to 20 miles.

All he knew for certain was that he'd dropped into the southern Sierra Nevada. Utterly wild and forbidding, it boasted the continent's deepest canyons and mountains, not to mention its biggest trees -- giant sequoias as wide as a small house.

Over the years, the park and national forest had acquired a dubious distinction, too: Its most remote and inaccessible areas contained untold numbers of aircraft wrecks. Some had yet to be located. They still contained the remains of their pilots and passengers -- or what was left of them after scavenging animals got to the bodies.

Steeves, collecting his thoughts, started to think things through, form a plan. Until a rescue party arrived, he had to face reality and do certain things. First, he took an inventory of his gear, digging through the pockets of his jacket and flight suit. He had no maps. His charts had blown away when he ejected, and so had his pocket-sized New Testament and pipe tobacco. He had his pipe, though.

Poking thorugh various pockets, he pulled out a comb and nail clippers, pens and pencils, and a case containing his sunglasses. He also pulled out a small disk-shaped device -- a “Radia Detecto” -- that was used to measure radioactivity in the event of a nuclear exchange. He also pulled out several packs of matches: a box of wooden ones he used to light his pipe, and two books of paper matches that were part of his makeshift emergency gear, which he carried to supplement his survival kit.

Opening his slim wallet, he thumped through its contents: driver's license, Social Security card, a dollar bill. In the wilderness, the Social Security card and dollar bill might actually have some value – serving as kindling for a fire. The most precious things, though, were four photos of Rita. Steeves lingered over them a moment. He stuffed the wallet into a deep pocket.

Steeves for the moment could only be certain of one thing, the fate awaiting Rita. In a few hours, she'd hear a knock on the door. She'd open it to find a a grim-faced Air Force officer, maybe even the base commander. The chaplain probably wouldn't be with him because he wasn't officially dead, just missing.

How would Rita react? Some pilot's wives collapsed into tears, got utterly hysterical. But at least Rita had some good friends to console her. Thinking about Rita, he recalled when a fellow pilot and next-door-neighbor, Lt. Glen Sutton, went missing the previous February. He and Capt. Paul Omann disappeared over the Sierra Nevada in a T-33. A search failed to turn up any trace of them.

Steeves glanced at one of his boots, the one where he carried a small butcher knife and a loaded six-shot .32 Allen and Hopkins revolver -- a gift from his grandfather years ago. They were tucked in sheath that a shoemaker had stitched into the tough leather. It was after Glen Sutton disappeared that he'd decided to add the revolver and knife to the Air Force's survival kit that he'd carried -- and that he lost when he ejected.

He needed to find shelter, someplace where the bone-chilling wind could not find him. Surveying the mountain slope below him, he spotted a promising spot a few hundred feet beneath him. It was in the snow-covered basin he'd seen during his descent.

Hunkered on his rocky perch, he stared fixedly at the basin's minute details and, specifically, at what might serve as a makeshift shelter – a rock and two withered trees, one of which one had split and fallen. They were next to a cove of sorts, as he later described it. There, he thought, he might find shelter, stay put until a search party found him. That's what he had to think for now -- a search party would indeed be arriving. Maybe not today. But maybe in two or three days.

Now, he turned his attention to retrieving his parachute tangled in the rocks above him. it would be the blanket that would keep him alive. It was in a precarious spot. He could tumble to his death if he is lost his balance when easing up the rocks to retrieve it. But without it, he knew he would die.

Slowly, deliberately, he studied where to put his hands and feet as he started to crawl up the rocks. He reached the chute after several minutes. Carefully, he untangled the mess of lines and then eased himself back to the safety of his perch. He'd never done any rock climbing until then. It had been a learning experience.

After catching his breath, he sat on his perch and surveyed the basin below him, pondering what to do next. He got up on both knees and gathered up the parachute after a few minutes. He bundled it into a tight ball -- the seat, harness, backpack, and canopy. Then he stood up and hurled it upwards and outwards over the rocky slope below him. Bouncing and skipped crazily, it accelerated faster and faster as it tumbled down the slope, stirring up tiny avalanches of rocks and dirt.

Watching its every bounce, Steeves no doubt imagined himself in the place of the bundle, for that's what would happen to him if he lost his footing and fell. He had to risk it, though. Otherwise he'd die of exposure on on the cold wind-blown perch.

The bundle stopped abruptly near where the mountain's slope flattened out. That's where Steeves would go next. And from there he'd go further down the mountain, down an even steeper slope, until he got to the basin and the make-shift shelter by the little cove.

After an hour, the sky was growing increasingly overcast, the sun hidden by the gray cloud deck that he'd dropped through during his parachute descent. He studied the safest way to ease himself down the slope abutting his rocky abode. He decided to go down face first, just like a mountain climber would, feeling his way along the rocky slope. He lay face down and eased himself over the edge of he perch. Carefully, he eased himself down the mountain slope.

With the tips of his boots, he stabbed and dug at the rocks and earth, creating footholds that he used to anchor himself. Then clawed out holes for his hands. And so he inched his way down the steep mountain slope.

Steeves paused often as he made his way down. As he rested, he again studied the safest path to take. Soon, the thin leather of his flying gloves had worn through at the fingertips, and he felt his fingers go numb. It was cold, probably close to freezing. But he kept digging and working his way down the slope. The combination of physical exertion and adrenalin in his veins made the cold tolerable.

Tedious and nerve-wracking, the descent took hours. When he finally reached the parachute bundle he stopped and rested, sitting on the snow-covered earth and rocks.

He stook up after catching his breath. Bending over, he reached for his parachute bundle, but his hands never touched it. Suddenly, without warning, an intense jolt of pain shot through his ankles. He fell to the ground. He sat there, dazed. To his horror, he was unable to stand because of the pain. For the first time, he realized he'd been badly hurt during the hard parachute landing.

Had he sprained his ankles? Or was something broken? Clasping his leather boots in his hands, he felt and prodded around his ankles. He couldn't tell if any bones were broken, however.

To his growing horror, Steeves now realized he might die in this lonely snow-covered spot. Overhead, the clouds were lowering. Soon, no search plane would be able to fly below the clouds hugging the ground.

He told himself to be calm. But whatever he did, he knew he'd have to do it soon, before the temperature dropped with the sunset. Somehow, he had to get himself and his bundled parachute down the steep slope to the basin -- and then over to the makeshift shelter by the little cove.

Deep in thought, he stared intently at the slope in front of him. He had an idea: He'd use his parachute's seat cushion as a sled. He unbundled it, then pulled out the seat cushion and wrapped up the parachute canopy. Sitting atop the seat cushion, he took the leg straps in both hands, drawing them up between his legs.

Then he began to slide down the slope, his feet spread in front of him; and despite his pain, he was able to carefully dig his heels into the earth to control his descent. Occasionally, the parachute's canopy unfurled behind him as he slide along. And so he had to stop, crawled back up the slope, and gather up the parachute. Then he started down the slope again.

The sunlight was fading by the time he arrived at the snow-covered basin. He tried to stand up, but again the pain forced him to sit on the parachute seat. His left ankle hurt the most. Obviously, he'd have to crawl to the little cove. Trying to keep the pressure off his left ankle, he crawled by using his two hands, his left knee, and right foot. He dragging his parachute along as he crawled slowly to the little cove.

Reaching it, he kneeled in the snow. He saw that a big snow drift had built up around two small pine trees standing about 10 to 12 feet tall. One had snapped in two, wedging itself against the other. He decided he'd build a snow cave around the stump of the fallen pine.

Digging with both hands, he made a space big enough for himself. His hands felt numb and cold when he was done. He pushed the parachute's seat cushion and back pad inside – and then he crawled into his new home. Over the cave's opening, he spread the parachute's canopy.

Lying in the dim light on the back pack and seat cushion, he took off his crash helmet and pulled his cap from a pocket. He put the cap on, pulling its flaps over his ears; and then he put his helmet back on. Next, he pulled down the helmet's visor and snapped the dangling oxygen mask across his face just like he'd done hundreds of times before take-off.

It was getting dark and cold. He knew he'd have to start a fire to survive the night. He took out his butcher knife. He hacked a few pieces of wood from the rotting stump next to him that supported the fallen tree leaning over his head. Then he stuffed the wood into a hole in the stump.

Using his flight clearance papers as kindling, he lite a tiny, smoldering fire with the papers and damp rotting wood. He could only hope the fire generated enough heat to keep him from freezing. It was all he could do as he lay with his feet against the smoldering stump.

Despite all his work, he knew he might die that night. People facing death or extreme danger often see their lives more clearly, find it easier to realize what is really important to them. And in his little snow cave that night, the same thing happened to Steeves. In spite of his religious upbringing, he had not until then regarded himself as being extremely religious; and nor was he a man who engaged in much self-reflection. But that night, he prayed with all his heart; and for the first time, he reflected seriously on his shortcomings -- and particularly on how he'd failed Rita and their daughter.

Rita had loved and trusted him with all his heart, thought he'd always protect her since they'd met when they were juniors in high school; and he'd returned that love with conduct that was selfish and self-centered, he realized as never before.

It was a revelatory night, his night in the snow cave, as he prayed and reexamined his life; and after the scandal that eventually enveloped him, he related some of his 54-day survival experience to newspapers. But the the most soul-searching account was detailed in his interview with Redbook magazine, an article that portrayed him as both a hero and flawed man. It was fair and accurate, Steeves later said; but by that time, nobody believed him -- and that included Rita.

That night, shivering and praying in the snow cave, Steeves had no idea that Rita had, in fact, already made up her mind to leave him. Both of them needed a separation, she'd decided, at least until David made some changes. She'd planned to move out out by the time he returned from his three-day training flight.
Minutes after air traffic controllers lost radio communication with Steeves, they suspected something was amiss. Two hours later, it was obvious the jet had gone down. It had failed, after all, to arrive for its scheduled refueling stop at Luke Air Force Base. Nor had a T-33 with tail number “52-9232A” landed anywhere else.

Within a few hours, two Air Force search-and-rescue planes overflew the short route of the missing T-33 -- just 67 miles from Oakland to the point where controllers last spoke with Steeves. However, no trace of the T-33 or its pilot were found. By then it was too late in the afternoon to start a full-scale search. The next morning, however, pilots from a search-and-rescue squadron were poised to scour the Sierra Nevada in search of the missing Air Force jet.

At Craig Air Force Base, base commander Col. Leo F. Dusard Jr. would hardly have been surprised to hear that one of his T-33 pilots was missing. A decorated World War II P-38 pilot, Dusard was well acquainted with the risk inherent in military aviation, both in wartime and the 1950s. Indeed, at some Air Force bases in the 1950s, it was not uncommon to see ugly black clouds rising into the sky -- marking the spot where a jet had just crashed. During the earlier part of the decade, this was especially so at places such as Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada, where training and flight testing was done.

As sirens wailed and fire crews scurried about, something else happened as the black clouds rose above the base. In the neat rows of on-base homes, the wives of pilots suddenly peered anxiously out their windows – their eyes filled with fear and dread. Soon, they knew, the base's commander and a chaplain might come along: the commander in his blue Air Force suit, the chaplain in his dark suit and white collar; both of them walking solemnly past the rows of houses -- their final destination unknown.

The tension for some was unbearable. Upon seeing the stern-faced base commander and chaplain appear in their neighborhood, some women were said to have suddenly run from their windows and front porches, hiding themselves in some dark corner of their home to postpone the inevitable.

Something else often happened after a pilot's wife learned she was a widow. Seconds after the chaplain left, her best friends poured into her home -- consoling her as she sobbed and kept repeating that he husband could not be dead; that he'd left the house not long ago. Some friends stayed with her on a 24-hour basis, helping with the domestic chores and the children. “There is is no limit to their true understanding and genuine sympathy, because every Air Force wife knows that on any day she may suffer a similar loss,” Shea related in “The Air Force Wife.”

That afternoon, Col. Dusard told Rita Steeves her husband was missing. She wept at the news. Like other Air Force wives, she had put the thought of David dying in a crash out of her head. But she knew it could happen. After all, it had happened months earlier to their neighbor, Glen Sutton.

Now, Rita felt herself coming apart emotionally. Yes, there had been problems in their marriage; but there had been good times, too. Immediately, she phoned David's parent in Connecticut. They left for Selma the next day, convinced that David was still alive. Arriving the next evening, they found their daughter-in-law staying with her next-door-neighbors, Capt. John and Phyllis Mapa, who lived next to the Steeves in their own trailer.

Was David alive or dead? Rita could only guess.

Chapter 3. -- Returned to Life
“Time makes heroes but dissolves celebrities.” -- Daniel J. Boorstin, “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America” (1961)

     Her husband was dead. Rita Steeves certainly had no doubt about that. No trace of him or his jet had been found --  and she had the death certificate the Air Force had sent her. It had arrived in the mail some three weeks after David disappeared; by that time she'd left Craig Air Force Base and was living with her mother and stepfather in Fairfield, a town near where David's parents lived in Trumbull. “I was officially a widow. I had to start a new life,” she later related to a reporter.
     Determined to be strong and positive, she enrolled at the University of Bridgeport with the goal of becoming a teacher. Her father died when she was a little girl, so she knew something about death. “I knew I must now be the head of my family — families, I know, can fall apart when there's a death. I resolved this would not happen to us,” she related.
     Yet her husband was alive and fighting for his life.
     Steeves stayed three day in the snow cave. But when no rescue parties arrived, he decided he to move on; he'd have to find his own way back to civilization. What happened to him during his 54 days in the wilderness would later become a subject of debate and speculation -- much of it stirred up by the same news outlets that had initially greeted him as a hero. Even his wife, already upset over his infidelity, had to wonder about what those newspapers were suggesting about his wilderness ordeal; what she at one point cynically called his “adventure in the mountains.”
     It was hardly what Steeves anticipated when he shambled into the ranger's station on May 9, 1957. Nor could he have anticipated the media frenzy that erupted over him – and how soon it would happen.
     Moments after he phoned home, Steeves called the nearest Air Force base, Castle Air Force Base in Merced -- home to the 93rd Heavy Bombardment Group that flew B-52s. A staff car was on its way, he was told by shocked Air Force personnel: It would arrive that evening.
     Steeves had no chance to relax, though. Soon, reporters were showing up. Word about the bearded Air Force pilot who'd wandered in from the wilderness, in a tattered and filthy flight suit, had spread quickly. To Steeves, they must have seemed like a friendly bunch -- the mostly young reporters from newspapers, wire services, and radio stations. Quickly introducing themselves, they expressed a word or two of admiration. Then the questions started.
    It's not hard to imagine how the afternoon unfolded for Steeves, who at first wanted to be helpful and friendly:  He at first thought he was having a casual conversation. But as one question led to another, he quickly realized he was giving formal interviews. At first he talked to reporters individually -- and later in small groups as the ranger's station filled up with reporters. For much of the afternoon, he was giving one interview after another.
     Months later, Steeves told Redbook of feeling so emotionally drained by all the questions that he excused himself to go to the bathroom – and then stayed there for an extraordinary long time. His fatigue was evident in a photo published in Redbook. Appearing tired and withdrawn, he sits on a couch with his hands folded, gazing downward. At least four reporters surround him, seated on the couch and kneeling on the floor.
     Finally, the staff car arrived. Settling back in the rear seat, Steeves could relax – chat with the airman at the wheel or be alone with his thoughts – almost like he'd been 24 hours earlier while still lost in the wilderness. The car speed off on the dark and empty road leading out of Kings Canyon National Park. On the radio, spot news reports were alrady being about broadcast about him. People unfamiliar with the news business are often amazed at how fast a reporter can get a story into a newspaper or on a radio or TV broadcast.
     Apart from the radio news, Steeves could listen to some good music, including a tune that came out just before he ejected, Elvis Presley's “All Shook Up.” And a new song had been released when he was in the wilderness, something from the Everly Brothers called “Bye Bye Love.” He could have related to that song, thanks to his complicated personal life, his problems with Rita. Soon he might even be singing the lyrics:

Bye bye love
Bye bye happiness
Hello loneliness
I think I'm-a gonna cry
Bye bye love
Byebye sweet caress
Hello emptiness
I feel like I could die
Bye bye my love goodbye

Steeves thought of Rita in the lonely darkness of the staff car – and he knew he had a lot of explaining to do. In the ranger's cabin, the phone had rung moments after he'd talked with his mom: It was Rita. She'd pulled into the driveway right after his mom hung up. Now, she was shocked and nearly speechless as she spoke to her husband, whom she'd truly believed was dead. “Rita,” he asked. “Do you still love me?” He still felt the sting of her response: “I don't know David....I don't think I can come back.”
     Rita was onto her husband. Days after he'd gone missing, she was distraught and crying over him. He might be dead, she realized; so she tried to cherish her marriage's good memories – and forget all those bad ones. Then the mail arrived.
     Looking at one letter in particular, Rita gasped at the feminine handwriting -- and return address. It was from the San Francisco woman, the one with whom David was having an affair, the affair he'd ended just before his return flight from Oakland. Or had he ended it?
     Rita stared at the handwriting, puzzled at why the girl was writing to her. Six months earlier, David had told her all about the girl -- his affair with her that was facilitated by those “training flights” to Oakland. And he'd told her everything: She knew the girl's name and what she looked like. She knew some things she wished David hadn't told her. David had trouble talking seriously to people, she thought: She was the only person to whom he could truly lay bare his feelings. And so sometimes, he told her things that husbands don't ordinarily tell their wives. She knew him better than he knew himself.  The letter brought back bad memories.
     Six months earlier, she'd sobbed uncontrollably as David revealed the affair, told her all the details. It was like getting slapped in the face. But when he saw her tears, he promised to end it; and she'd believed him because, well, she wanted to save her marriage. Things had not been perfect, to be sure; there had been some problems. But she had thought everything had been smoothed out. She still loved him, she'd thought.
     Rita figured she could help her husband get over the affair, phase she presumed she was going through. Really, David could be such a fool when it came to relationship -- and to understanding himself as well. He could take apart an engine and fly a jet, but when it came to understanding people, he could be so immature and stupid.
     In their trailer abode, the San Francisco girl's name became a common subject. Rita wanted to figure out what the attraction was. If she understood the situation, she thought, she could help David get over his infatuation. A silly infatuation, yes, that's what it was. But as she tried to be her husband's therapist, and asked him to talk about the girl and his emotions, she sometimes became absolutely livid.
     David kept promising that he'd write the girl a letter or meet her personally to formally end things. But he never did. There was always an excuse. To end things with a letter would be cruel; would hurt the girl to much, he told her. He needed to tell her personally, let her down gently. He begged her to be understanding – and for months she had been. But in early April, she threated to leave him if he didn't get the girl out of his system. So he promised he'd end things on his next training flight to Oakland -- the one he'd make in early May. Rita had heard that before. She thought she'd had enough.
     Then David went missing -- his jet vanishing over the mountains as he flew home from that last flight. Suddenly, Rita's anger receded as she fretted and cried over her husband's fate. And then that letter arrived.
     Staring at the handwriting from her husband's mistress, she felt the anger and humiliation over her husband's infidelity welling up inside her again. She certainly didn't need this letter -- not now.
Hadn't she suffered enough? So she asked her best friend Phyllis to read it -- and to gently tell her what the girl had to say. Phyllis known all about what was going on; and after reading the letter she revealed the bad news, as tactfully as possible: David hadn't broken up with the girl before that last flight of his.
     Suddenly, Rita's grieving was over. She was done crying too. Later, after the scandal had ebbed, she told Redbook: “I felt robbed even of a widow's natural grief.”
     After that letter, Rita also felt certain about something else: David was dead. She felt it in her heart, even if David's parents felt otherwise and were upset at how she felt. Even her friend Phyllis felt David was dead, and she'd said an odd thing: Perhaps it was all for the best. David, after all, had obviously not been happy. Phyllis knew all about the times David went drinking with the bachelor Air Force pilots; his irresponsible behavior toward his family; and some problems with his Air Force superiors.
     Rita had been ready to forgive a lot. But not the infidelity she'd tolerated for too long – and certainly not on top of everything else David had done. There was that sports car he'd bought, for example.
     They were living in a trailer home; yet David went out and bought an expensive Jaguar sports car -- instead of spending the money on his family. He'd gotten the cash from a car-polishing business he'd started up after Leisa was born in March, 1956.
    The business had infuriated her. David was spending all his time there, intent on making money to supplement his Air Fore salary, to buy a nice car. And when he wasn't at the business, he was out drinking with pilot buddies. She was alone with the baby.
     On top of that, he'd started the car-polishing business in her name -- all to get around the rules. He was supposed to get the commanding officer's permission to start a business but didn't want to do it. Eventually, his superiors learned what was going on. They weren't happy about it, either. David was not regarded as a team player, Rita knew. He made up the rules as he went along.
     What hurt more than anything, though, was that horrible scene in the hospital the night Leisa was born. It was the lowest point in her marriage, perhaps her whole life. David had his heart set on a boy, felt there was no possibility she would even have a girl. But it's what she had -- a beautiful baby girl. She knew David would be disappointed when she told him, as he stood by her hospital bed. But she was shocked at what he did: He cried! He actually cried! It should have been a joyous occasion. But he stood there with tears in his eyes. All because she'd had a girl! Stupidly, she at first blamed herself. She even resented her baby for a while.
     She sobbed uncontrollably when he left. What had happened to them? She started to wonder about the love between them, whether it was enough to sustain their marriage. Before delivering her baby, she'd started to knit David some argyle socks in her hospital bed. But six weeks after that horrible scene, she'd all but given up on the socks. At the time, she'd wondered if she'd ever enjoy doing nice little things for him again. whether she'd ever love him as she did. What was wrong with her husband?
     Afterwards, to be sure, David's behavior improved. She'd been so pleased. He dotted on Leisa. He obviously loved her. And then before Christmas, they all returned to Connecticut for a visit. They'd had a wonderful time too. One reason for their happiness was because David had assured her he'd ended the affair. But she later realized it was a lie. David could be so selfish, so immature.
     Phyllis, trying to put things in the best light, had told Rita she was young and attractive and, with her bad marriage behind her, she could start a new life. And Rita resolved to do just that. Returning to Connecticut, she moved in with her parents in Fairfield, then enrolled for classes at the University of Bridgeport. She was determined to become a teacher. The major she selected: psychology.
     Then David returned from the dead.
     What should she do? Before her husband's last flight, Rita had been willing to give their marriage a chance, but only if David made some changes. There remained a spark of love between them, she'd thought. But the letter from David's mistress forced her to see her marriage in a new perspective. She had nothing left to cherish.
     Now, David had returned from the dead. She knew his voice, never doubted it was him. He told her he loved her. He was only alive thanks to her and Leisa, he assured her. The two of them had been his inspiration, along with his renewed faith in God. Now he realized what was truly important in life.   All this from a man she had once loved, but then had erased from her memory when she thought he'd died. Could there still be hope for their marriage, a way to renew their love? She'd have to think about it.
     It was past midnight when Steeves arrived at Castle Air Force Base. He underwent a quick debriefing, took a hot shower, and then he had a medical check-up. The doctors found him fit -- other than his swollen ankles and his weight loss of at least 30 pounds. He was told to be ready for a news conference that morning at 9 a.m.
     When he was finally alone in his guest room, it was around 4 a.m. He'd only have three hours sleep. But despite the grueling day he was not really exhausted. He'd been going for hours on a giddy sense of exhilaration. He was getting hero treatment, which felt good. He'd also accomplished something: He'd survived. So he lay there in bed a few moments, thinking about all that had happened to him the past 48 hours, and wondering about how it would change his life. He was surely the talk of Craig, where he'd made friends and had some problems with a few superior officers.
     He started out as a flight instructor at Craig, training students in T-33s. But then he'd had a run-in one of his students -- a captain who'd questioned his flying judgment. Well, he’d some hot dog flying, that’s all. Everybody did it. But it was his word against a captain. So naturally he lost that argument. As a result, he'd gotten reassigned to the maintenance squadron.
     Well, that was the Air Force for you. Just how screwed up things could be at Craig was evident to him a year earlier, when he first arrived there. He'd been all set to instruct in T-33s, but the jets hadn't even arrived! So instead, he had to instruct on T-6s, lousy prop jobs with those big rumbling radial engines. He'd let everybody know his low opinion of the Air Force's efficiency; and later, he wondered if he'd been imprudent with all that loose talk.
      But as he lay in bed skipping over scraps of his life and marriage, he thought mostly about the past 48 hours. It had been just as weird and surreal as that last ill-fated flight on May 9th – going in 30 to 40 minutes from Oakland's airport to 33,500 feet, and then parachuting to the rocky perch of an ice-covered mountain.
      Two days ago, early in the morning, he'd been alone in the wilderness, making yet another attempt to hike to civilization. He'd been thwarted during earlier attempts by towering canyons and a raging stream in which he'd nearly drowned. That day, however, he'd hiked father than he ever had before. He was in good spirits thanks to the progress he'd made. His badly sprained ankles no longer hurt him much. Yet he also knew something: He could still die in the wilderness -- suffer an accident or slowly starve to death. He could already see his ribs. Facing the possibility of his own death, he'd written Rita a farewell letter. He carried it in a pocket. Hopefully, she'd get it if somebody found his body.
      It was around noon when Steeves decided to rest after several hours of hiking. Walking to the crest of a gentle hill, he sat atop a rock. He started to munch on some strawberries he'd collected, and he wondered about what might happen that day. Suddenly, a voice startled him -- a woman's voice.
    “Hello, there!”
     His heart jumped. His looked up, wide-eyed with shock at what was heading toward him – a woman on horseback. She was ten feet away. He stared and stammered for a few seconds, too amazed to speak, he later told Redbook. Behind her were three other riders, two men and a woman.
    “Am I glad to see you!” he finally blurted out. The camping party crested the hill, and he stared in disbelief, his eyes filled with wild expectation. But the woman rider led her horse right by him, looking down curiously at him, and perhaps with some concern.
     “I've been up here almost 60 days! Steeves went on excitedly. Another rider, a man, went past him as well. He nodded a greeting at Steeves.
     “Have you got any food?” Steeves implored. Suddenly, he sensed the group was being cautious.
     After all, he realized, he looked like some wild man with his scraggly beard and dirty loose-fitting jump suit. A flash of horror seized him: The group was about to ride off, leaving him there.
But, no, the party drew their horses up. Steeves watched expectedly. One of the men dismounted, then walked over to Steeves and introduced himself. He was Albert Ade, a guide from Squaw Valley, he said. The two shared tentative handshakes.
     Then the others dismounted and walked over, looking curiously at Steeves, trying to be friendly, though no doubt being a bit cautions, as Steeves had suspected they were being. Awkward introductions were exchanged. The other man, Dr. Charles Howard, said he was a dentist from Fresno. The camping party, the two men and their wives, enjoyed being the first campers each year to open the trail in the remote section of Kings Canyon National Park.
     Steeves began to excitedly describe everything that had happened to him since he'd ejected; how he'd made his way down the mountain, had hiked to this point on the trail. Listening silently, they stared in disbelief at the wild-looking stranger. He was articulate and had obviously visited the places he described. As they looked him over, they would have quickly noticed he was not wearing some off-the-shelf jump suit like a mechanic might buy. It was an Air Force flight suit. A name tag sewn above the left pocket read: “1st Lt. Steeves.” Amazed, even awed, they quickly realized the man was who he claimed to be.
     Steeves at one point sensed he was speaking too quickly. His thoughts were racing faster than he could speak. So he made an effort to talk more slowly as he went through
his story. Again, he asked about food. They told him that, yes, there was plenty of food, and he was welcome to join them. Ade, the guide, said they'd be setting up camp a mile up the trail. Tomorrow, he added, he and Steeves would take two of the horses and ride to a ranger's station.
Going back to the camp, Mrs. Howard insisted that Steeves ride on her horse, and she walked cheerfully beside him. Steeves continued to talk, fascinating the campers with every detail of his story. Once at the campsite, Mrs. Howard started to retrieve goods from their supplies, and Steeves gulped down everything she gave him: cupcakes, a chocolate bar, a box of raisins, an orange. Next, he wolfed down a half a loaf of rye bread smothered with peanut butter and jelly.
For dinner that evening, Steeves ate a big steak and fried potatoes. Then he ate the portion Dr. Howard had passed up, after complaining he felt woozy because of the high altitude. At one point, the campers cautioned Steeves not to eat too much. He kept eating anyway. His stomach became engorge, as firm as a drum.
     At bedtime, Steeves laid down on a bed of saddle blankets. Snuggling under warm blankets, he drifted into a deep sleep – one that abruptly ended early the next morning.
Something was shaking him. He bolted up, startled. It was the ground, he realized. It was shaking -- an earthquake or something, just like the strange ominous shaking that had frightened him a week earlier.
     It was no temblor. Later, Steeves learned the shaking was caused by shock waves rippling across the region -- the result of a powerful atomic explosion set off at the Nuclear Test Site in neighboring Nevada. It was the heyday of nuclear testing. Between April and October, 24 atomic devices were detonated in a testing program called Operation PLUMBBOB.
     After stuffing himself at breakfast, Steeves and Ade mounted horses for the four-hour ride to the ranger's station, arriving there around noon. That was some 16 hours ago.
     Now, lying in bed at Castle Air Force Base, Steeves thought about the past 48 hours -- the kindness of the campers, the endless reporters' questions, and of course the phone call with Rita. Tomorrow, he'd call Rita, find out what she'd decided about their marriage. He knew he wanted a life with her. However, he couldn't think of Rita without also thinking of the girl in San Francisco. He'd have to tell her something, too.
     As to the morning news conferences, Steeves knew it would be a very big deal -- far bigger than the ranger's cabin interviews, which already had produced front-page headlines in Connecticut.
When preparing mentally for some flights, Steeves went through a mental rehearsal of what he'd be doing -- imagining every detail of the flight. Now, he did the same thing in respect to the news conference, imagining himself calmly answering questions, telling his story. It was important to be cool under pressure, whether in the cockpit of anyplace else. The new conference and Rita were the last things Steeves thought of before he closed his eyes. He quickly went to sleep.
     It was just after 9 a.m. when Steeves strode into the news conference with the base's public affairs officer. He'd never seen a news conference, except on TV. Now he was the star of one. The place was packed. Several rows of chairs were occupied by people from newspapers, radio stations, and TV. Some of the base's top brass were there, and of course they wore their Air Force blues. Steeves, however, wore his grimy flight jacket and sported his beard, although he'd trimmed it a bit after giving it a good shampoo.
     Many news conferences are fairly predictable, and how this one played out is easy to imagine:
First, the public affairs officer made some introductory remarks, and Steeves stood calmly nearby -- keeping his hands at his side or folded in front of him. Several officers sat in a row of chairs beside the lectern. Looking at the gathering, Steeves saw mostly men. Some had scribbled a sentence or two in their notepads when he'd come in -- probably something about his appearance, some detail they found interesting.
     Finished with his introduction, the friendly public affairs officer turned to Steeves. He smiled and nodded encouragingly at the bearded Air Force pilot, signaling for him to step forward. And as Steeves did, flash bulbs popped. The harsh lights of TV camera's snapped on. Steeves, resting his hands on the sides of the lectern, felt the heat from the lights.
     The public affair officer adjusted the microphone, and then he stepped away. Now he was on his own. He introduced himself and, just like the public affairs officer had told him to do, he started to tell his story; told it from the beginning, in chronological order, and he told it as calmly as he would make a radio call when flying his jet. Later, during the question and answer session, he elaborated on some things, and he described in more detail some of the emotions he'd felt during his 54-day wilderness ordeal. It was a story he'd repeat again and again in the coming days and weeks.
     It was all like being on stage. Long after the scandal came and went, when Steeves sometimes thought about becoming an actor, he must have thought of all those news conferences he gave. He gave every indication that he was enjoying himself when he told his story.
     Despite his lack of sleep that morning, Steeves felt alert as he talked, thanks to a certain excitement in the room, a certain electricity he felt that energized him. And strangely, he felt a certain sense of calm once once things got going. Potentially stressful situations helped to focus his mind, made him feel alive, so long as he knew what to do. It's one thing he'd always liked about flying.
     When it was over, the public affairs officer shook his hand and patted him on the back: Well done, he said. He also got handshakes from all the top brass, including the base commander.
     Later that morning, he looked at some of the morning newspaper's in the public affairs office; they'd already been flown in by the airlines or Air Force transport flights.
     He was amazed at what he saw. Already, he was front-page news in many newspapers – all based on those interviews at the ranger's station. With even more details having come out during the morning news conference, he'd be front-page news for a few more days. The story was not just about him, though. It was about Rita, too. Photographs of her, along with her comments, were already in some newspapers.
     Looking over papers like the Reno Evening Gazette, Steeves was fascinated at the write-ups he was getting. “Wife Refused to Let Hope Dwindle,” declared the Reno Evening Gazette's front-page story the next day, July 3, 1957, the day after his Castle news conference. Along with that story was a photo of him at the ranger's station, wearing his flight suit and sporting his bushy beard. Beside it was a photo of Rita taken in Connecticut, looking glamorous as usual, and holding their little Leisa in her arms. “I don't think a wife, deep down, ever really gives up hope,” Rita was quoted as saying in the Associated Press story.
     That not what Rita truly thought, of course; Steeves certainly knew that. But her remark was what might be expected of a devoted Air Force wife -- and that's the role Rita decided to play in the hours after she spoke with her once-dead-husband.
     As a national media spotlight fell upon her and David, Rita sought the advice of an older man -- somebody whose advise she'd always respected. If she walked away from her marriage now, he told her, her reputation would be ruined. She knew he was right.
     So she decided to “play a role,” as she later told Redbook. Against her better judgment, she would give her marriage another chance. Given the conservative values of the 1950s, she probably made the right decision. If she refused to go back to David, she'd be the one people blamed.
     Rita had to make some changes in the few days before David came home. She'd already enrolled in the University of Bridgeport and had paid her tuition. Maybe she could get a refund now that her husband had come back from the dead.
     Perhaps it was all for the best. She and David would recapture their love and save their marriage. He told her he was a different man; that the wilderness had changed. The words echoed in her ears. She had yet to see any proof of that, of course. But she nevertheless gave reporters what they wanted to hear: “I don't think a wife, deep down, ever really gives up hope.”
     Steeves, after reading about himself and Rita in papers like the Reno Evening Gazette, may have then skimmed over or completely ignored the other front-page news. It was pretty ordinary stuff; what the papers were always running. Across the top of the Evening Gazette's front page, for instance, a banner headline shouted: “U.S. May Share H-Bomb Data.” In the upper right-hand column was a quieter headline: “Advisers Suggest Providing Reds Fallout Prevention.” According to the AP's story: “President Eisenhower said today some advisers have told him Russia should be given the secret of how to make 'clean' hydrogen bombs — if the United States itself finally figures out how to do it.”
And in an obscure part of the page was a story from “Nevada's Atomic Test Site.” It was sandwiched under a more important story about a local rodeo -- and above a less important one about a wind storm in the Midwest. Its small headline stated: “July 4 Atomic Test Postponed.”
     Initially, Americans couldn't get enough of Lt. Steeves and his story of heroism, his 54-days in the wilderness – and only he could describe 53 of those days, of course, because he'd been utterly alone during that time -- until stumbling upon the camping party.

     Steeves’ heroic story of survival was just what many American wanted to hear during the summer of 1957; for along with America's postwar prosperity and cold-war tensions, there was a certain angst in the air -- at least according to many of the 1950's
most esteemed writers and intellectuals, including novelist Sloan Wilson. He'd written a hugely popular bestselling novel, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”
     In 1956, Wilson's novel also was turned into a hit movie starring Gregory Peck, who played the Tom Rath character, a World War II combat veteran who'd seen lots of action in Europe. Now in 1950's America, Rath was a dull family man in Connecticut, commuting to a public relations job in New York City.
     Wilson didn't need to go far for inspiration. He'd been a U.S. Coast Guard officer in World War II and had served in dangerous combat area. After the war, he'd had a public relations job in New York – and he despised it. The job offered him none of the responsibility, excitement, and sense of purpose he'd felt during World War II, he felt.
     Some Americans may have thought Sloan's vision was a bit overstated. But to millions of others it struck a chord; and for them Steeves' heroic story of wilderness survival was surely inspiring, providing an antidote to their unsatisfying lives. Not only that, David and Rita Steeves were the perfect couple to grace newspaper headlines and magazine covers.
     Steeves had dark and wavy hair, a strong jaw, and rugged good looks. Had he ever become an actor, he could have played a leading man. Rita, the daughter of Swedish immigrant parents, was a perfect counterpart. Attractive and photogenic, she was blessed with the feminine beauty that was popular in the 1950s, when actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, and Debbie Reynolds were in their prime.
     Rita was often described in newspaper stories as an “attractive blond” or “Steeves' blond wife”; it was the journalistic fashion of the day. One reporter even wrote of the “blond and beautiful” Rita Steeves when describing her and the lively scene at New York's La Guardia Field, as her husband disembarked a commercial flight and walked into her arms. “Kiss him!” shouted reporters and photographers, according to the reporter's account. “Don't know where!” she shouted, referring to the bushy beard.
     She kissed him anyway.
     For Steeves, all the publicity and attention was heady stuff. But he quickly realized he could sell his story, too; and sure enough, he soon signed a deal with the Saturday Evening Post to publish his story for $10,000 (equal to more than $80,000 today). Besides a big magazine piece, there was talk of a book deal.
     Amid the media hoopla and magazine deal, Steeves had every reason to believe that he'd soon have his piece of the American dream, just like the guys with big houses and nice cars in Fairfield County. Perhaps he could even convince Rita to stay.
Author's Note: This is based on newspaper and magazine articles published in 1957 as well as on a U.S. Air Force accident report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request. Photos are from Redbook's January, 1958 article: "The Survival of Lt. Steeves." Some content was first published in a magazine article I wrote for the American Thinker and later published at this blog.

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