James Salter, the great impressionist writer who died last week, aged ninety, in his home state of New York, had a small history in Arkansas. He spent several months here in the early ’40s. It was during his first life, years before he began writing, his military life. He lived for a spring and summer in Pine Bluff, for flight training. “The field was east of town,” he remembered in his memoir, "Burning the Days" (1997). “The flying school there was run by civilians.” He sketched his instructor: “an ancient, perhaps in his early forties, crop duster from a town in the southwest part of the state, Hope, which he described as the watermelon capital of the world. His name was Basil York. We were probably among scores of young men he had taught to fly . . .”
Last summer, I wrote to Mr. Salter. Fan mail, sent indiscriminately, and dubiously, to the main offices of his publisher, Random House, in New York. I did not expect it to reach him. To have written was enough. His books had meant something to me. I was floored when four months later I had a letter back, postmarked from Charlottesville, where he’d spent the fall teaching in residence at the University of Virginia. His response, typewritten and neatly folded, is brief and thrillingly personalized. As a wayward Arkansas transplant myself, I’d asked about his time here. “I took flying training in Pine Bluff,” he confirmed. “The field was Grider Field. I only discovered this year that it was named for a World War I flyer who was killed in action in France. I had assumed it was named for a mayor or judge.” It was there, here, in the skies above Arkansas, where he discovered, as he wrote in the memoir, of his first solo flight, “the thrill of the inachievable.”
Salter published several books, many of them now considered masterworks, almost all unconcerned with his former life. But his first, "The Hunters" (1956), a novel based on his experiences piloting fighter planes against the Russians during the Korean War, sealed his fate — from it he drew the confidence, and initial purse, to leave the military for a much more uncertain life in pursuit of the literary art form. Flying made him a writer.
Arkansas was where he learned to fly.
Maxwell George is the associate editor of the Oxford American.