A few years ago my husband and I stumbled across the writer James Salter. I had read his novel Light Years in college, but it wasn't until my husband came across Salter's earliest novel, The Hunters, that my husband and I realized we had discovered a writer who would draw us closer in wonderful ways.
James Salter was born in 1925 and was a fighter pilot in the Air Force during the Korean War. He left the service to pursue a career in writing, and his 1957 novel The Hunters, based closely on his own military experience, became a great success, eventually being made into a movie. This novel details the experiences of a young pilot in his early years both in flying and in combat, and my husband was so moved by the accuracy of the character's experiences that he declared the book his all-time favorite. What made this novel so moving, we both agreed, was how Salter did not glamorize the experience as much as emphasize the difficulties and daily, flickering joys of life in the Air Force and in combat.
When my husband was deployed last year, I located a first edition of The Hunters on Ebay and was able to contact James Salter through his literary agent. He very kindly agreed to sign the book, and I gave this to my husband the day he returned from seven months in the Persian Gulf. I would encourage any military pilot or pilot's spouse to read The Hunters, but even more so, I would encourage any military spouse to read Salter's 1997 memoir, Burning the Days. Salter has a way of recollecting his military experience, almost fifty years after its end, that is so powerful and eloquent that each word must be savored: “When I returned to domestic life I kept something to myself, a deep attachment—deeper than anything I had known—to all that had happened. I had come very close to achieving the self that is based on the risking of everything, going where others would not go, giving what they would not give. Later I felt I had not done enough, had been too reliant, too unskilled. I had not done what I set out to do and might have done. I felt contempt for myself, not at first but as time passed, and I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them. But it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.”
When I read this book, I felt like I understood my husband's experience better than I ever did before; it became something vivid and something real. And I think he, in turn, felt like this book was able to express feelings that he himself might not have been able to understand before. The Hunters drew us closer while he was away, but Burning the Days is a book that will always keep us close, and I think, a book that can become a beautiful shared experience for any husband and wife in the military.