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Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard

Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard

by Neal Thompson


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The definitive biography of Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, with a new Foreword by Chris Kraft
“One of the finest books ever written about the space program.”—Homer Hickan, author of Rocket Boys
“A wonderful and gripping biography . . . meticulously reported in the best tradition of David Halberstam.”—Buzz Bissinger, New York Times bestselling author of Friday Night Lights
Alan Shepard was the brashest, cockiest, and most flamboyant of America’s original Mercury Seven, but he was also regarded as the best. Intense, colorful, and dramatic, he was among the most private of America’s public figures and, until his death in 1998, he guarded the story of his life zealously. 
Light This Candle, based on Neal Thompson’s exclusive access to private papers and interviews with Shepard’s family and closest friends—including John Glenn, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper—offers a riveting, action-packed account of Shepard’s life.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400081226
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/22/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 1,025,897
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Neal Thompson is a veteran journalist who has worked for the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, and St. Petersburg Times. He has also written for numerous national magazines, including Outside, Men’s Health, Backpacker, and the Washington Post Magazine. Thompson lives with his wife and their two sons in Asheville, North Carolina, where he teaches at the University of North Carolina and is writing a book about moonshine, NASCAR, and the South. Visit his website at

Read an Excerpt

"Alan was really kind of a loner"

Alan Shepard confounded people. He angered, intimidated, and embarrassed them; insulted, taunted, or—worst of all—ignored them. Yet for all his maddening iciness, people were drawn to him, because just beneath his cold shell was an intelligent, curious man who could be charming, hilarious, warm, inviting, generous, and even sexy.

There was no way to anticipate which of Alan Shepard's personalities would emerge on a given day: aloof and remote one day, buying you drinks the next. Possibly the only consistent aspect of his character was its unpredictable duality. That and the obsessive drive to be, as one astronaut put it, "better than anyone else."

At every stage of his life, Shepard's effect on family, friends, and colleagues was that of a competitor in a hurry, constantly lurching forward, with no stomach for delays or incompetence. He was attracted to people with something to offer, those with skills, information, or money who could help him achieve his goals. But if you had nothing to offer, "you'd better get out of town," said one longtime friend.

"He was hard to get to know. But once he put his arm around you, you knew he was there," said astronaut Deke Slayton's wife, Bobbie. "If you were a friend of Al's and you needed something, you could call him and he'd break his neck trying to get it for you. If you were in, you were in. It was just tough to get in."

Shepard's frenetic, unreadable personality churned behind a pair of wide, wild eyes, his most prominent facial feature. Googly, buggy things. Heavy-lidded, they distended out from deep sockets. When he wasn't smiling—he could ignite a huge smile, too, with long, askew teeth framed by meaty lips—it was the eyes people noticed first. Icy blue and intense sometimes, other times warm and watery, but always open wide.

Throughout his life, friends and family spoke of the "infamous stare" Shepard could inflict. Confidence, smarts, ego, anger, hunger all poured through his bulgy eyes. But, like mirrors, they worked only one way, giving nothing back.

Behind the mirrors burbled a mysterious stew of contradictions. He was swaggeringly cocky, often referring to himself in the third person or as "the world's greatest test pilot." And yet he could be humble and self deprecating. Despite a notorious impatience, Shepard also displayed an attention to detail that earned him key assignments as a Navy pilot. "He didn't do anything until he had studied it, tested it, and made damn sure he could do it," said James Stockdale, a onetime test pilot colleague of Shepard's.

In the cockpit of an airplane, Shepard flew with confidence, without fear, always in control, and with an uncanny spatial awareness that can't be taught. "He could fly anything," one colleague said. Another called him "the best aviator I've ever known." But Shepard also had a persistent habit of infuriating superiors by flouting Navy rules, flying dangerously low over beaches, beneath bridges, and upside down. He was "flamboyant" and "indulgent," growled one former supervisor.

Though his flamboyant indulgences once took him to the brink of a Navy court-martial, those same flinty qualities earned him a spot as one of the nation's first seven astronauts. "He was an egotist" and "a typical New Englander . . . hard, cold," said one NASA official, Chris Kraft. "But he was all business when it came to flying."

When he joined the other Mercury Seven astronauts, the same question constantly simmered: Who was Alan Shepard? One astronaut considered him "bitterly competitive, to the point of being cutthroat." Another once accused Shepard of "swindling" him in a business deal. And one astronaut's wife said Shepard "really didn't want to have anything to do with the rest of us, the common folk."

Indeed, he worked hard at setting himself apart. He'd attend casual backyard barbecues in a suit and tie, and he drove a flashy Corvette for the better part of thirty years. He befriended race car drivers, comedians, pro golfers, and millionaires, collected celebrity friends like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, and Clint Eastwood. Then again, while he often acted the part of a self-sufficient loner with little need for others' company, he was just as often a party boy who loved good pranks and nights of drinking with buddies. Shepard cherished good times and pursued them vigorously. Some guessed that his need for a good time was a necessary counterweight to his constant, annoying competitiveness. Al Neuharth, who founded USA Today, said Shepard "wanted to win, whether it was pool or cards or whatever. He wanted to win, to be number one."

The privacy fence Shepard erected around the perimeter of his personal life shielded another of the contradictions of his persona: that of a ferocious womanizer and, at the same time, a devoted family man and an unashamed admirer of his wife, Louise.

Like many Navy men of his day, Shepard successfully navigated among exotic women in the barrooms of international ports of call. He perfected those skills as an celebrity-astronaut; one NASA colleague called him "the biggest flirt in the country—but it went beyond flirting." A fellow test pilot said, "He had a beautiful wife and family. I just never quite understood it. But this was his compulsion."

And yet, while he rarely spoke of them to his peers, Shepard loved and doted on his wife and two daughters. Few colleagues knew that Shepard also informally adopted a niece (the daughter of his wife's dead sister) and treated her like one of his own. But his strong if imperfect fifty-three-year marriage quietly survived while so many other astronauts' marriages crumbled around him.

One family friend said Louise grounded her husband: "She was the rock." Astronaut Wally Schirra agreed: "She'd bring Al down to earth a lot."

In the end, she was probably the only one who really knew him.

One of the Mercury Seven astronauts once told Life magazine, "You might think you'd get to know someone well after working so closely with him for two years. Well, it's not that way with Shepard. He's always holding something back."

For all his vexing complexity, however, Shepard was exactly the kind of man NASA wanted. At the height of the cold war, the space agency sought nothing less than "real men . . . perfect physical and emotional and aesthetic specimens."

In Alan Shepard, NASA got all that and more. A guy who'd fought an evil empire in World War II, landed planes on aircraft carriers during storms and at night, bailed out of test jets ten miles above the Earth, downed cocktails or swatted golf balls with celebrities, water-skied barefoot, raced Corvettes, slept with beautiful women, and became a millionaire—all the things boys and teens want to do when they become men.

Shepard was a man's man, and others strived to be like him, even if they didn't necessarily like him or considered him an "asshole" or a "son of a bitch," as many did. If Shepard's character was a study in paradox, that's possibly because, as a boy, he was pulled in two directions by parents with opposing but oddly complementary temperaments.

Both parents came from old-guard New Hampshire stock, with impressive lineages to the seminal Colonial days. But when Alan was born, on November 18, 1923, in an upstairs room at 64 East Derry Road—with its ornate molding, glass doorknobs, and gas lamps in each room—he was immediately positioned between two loving but dissimilar parents, one of them grim and duty-bound, the other boisterous and spirited.

East Derry, forty miles northwest of Boston in the southeastern tip of New Hampshire, was a town where everybody knew everyone. Family roots ran deep in such towns, but the Shepard family's roots were among the deepest.

One side of the family sailed from England in the 1690s, their carpentry and blacksmithing tools in tow, then trekked inland from the coast to the folds and foothills along the Merrimac River. Later they helped draft the Declaration of Independence and fought in the Revolutionary War. Ancestors on the other side of Shepard's family transited with the 102 passengers of the Mayflower, then helped govern the Plymouth Colony.

Along with Scotch-Irish settlers seeking religious freedom, Shepard's English ancestors carved rural hillsides into potato and dairy farms, which later birthed linen, hat, and shoe factories in a triad of manufacturing towns—Derry, East Derry, and Londonderry.

The landscape of Shepard's youth was a succulent Americana playground of barnyards and swimming holes, apple orchards and blueberry fields, stone walls framing fields of wildflowers and shadowy forests of white pine carpeted by fern and moss. The unpredictable New Hampshire weather could be both fierce and lovely in a day. Winter brought biting winds and mounds of snow that arrived early and stayed late. Summers were brief, hot, and humid, followed by crisp and spectacularly colorful falls.

That landscape was sensually depicted in the poems of Robert Frost, who in 1900 bought a farm not far from the Shepards. "To a large extent, the terrain of my poetry is the Derry landscape," Frost once said. "There was something about the experience at Derry which stayed in my mind, and was tapped for poetry in the years that came after."

The people also made a profound impression: seriously religious, ultraconservative and snobbishly wary of newcomers. Frost once cashed a check at the Derry National Bank—owned by Shepard's grandfather—and forgot to sign his middle name on the check. The teller sniffed, "Since it doesn't cost you anything, we would like your full name."

Frost often felt like an interloper among haughty, superior people. After being rebuffed by the Derry school board for a teaching job, he found work at the prestigious Pinkerton Academy, where Shepard's grandfather was a trustee. Among his students was Shepard's father, Bart, a man steeped in that hard-edged New England culture.

Throughout his life Alan would rankle friends with the imperious and crusty attitude he inherited from the tight-knit, fiercely loyal, and wealthy Shepard clan.

In town, the Shepards wore the nicer clothes, drove the newer cars; they kept a vacation house on a nearby lake. A hue of wealth tainted the other kids' perceptions of Alan, and many peers assumed he lived a coddled life of privilege. He did, in fact, absorb a sense of entitlement and the self-assuredness that privilege engendered. But Alan—and his sister, Polly, who was two years younger—were far from pampered rich kids. Their father valued work and made sure each child performed their share of domestic chores.

Each morning, for example, Alan grabbed a flag from the front hall closet, poked the rod into the front lawn, waited for his father to come out, and then stood back to salute. After cleaning his room, he might lug one of the last, half-melted, sawdust-coated blocks of ice from the icehouse in the woods and put it in the ice chest. Then he'd deliver newspapers to half the homes in town. On Saturday nights he'd sit in the foyer buffing and polishing every last shoe in the house, lining them up to gleam on the stairs.

Bart Shepard was a stern and serious disciplinarian, and Alan inherited a stoicism and toughness of character from him—traits that Bart had inherited from his own prosperous and industrious father.

Alan's grandfather Frederick "Fritz" Shepard was one of the most powerful local businessmen of his day. He owned Derry National Bank and Derry Electric Light Company, ran a stagecoach service and an electric rail line, and built the town library. Fritz Shepard was also a prominent Republican, East Derry's town treasurer, and a colonel in the National Guard. He served as aide-de-camp at the historic month-long Russo-Japanese Peace Conference, organized by President Theodore Roosevelt in Portsmouth in 1905 (which ended the war between Russia and Japan and earned Roosevelt the Nobel peace prize). Until the crash of 1929, Fritz Shepard was a very wealthy man.

He and his wife, Nanzie, fairly lorded above the town in their enormous house on a high knoll off East Derry Road, a Victorian mansion with a tennis-court-sized ballroom where the Shepards entertained such dignitaries as President Howard Taft.

Though Fritz's Derry empire was battered by the Depression, causing him to lose the bank and the rail line, he subsequently threw his energies into making his own line of sodas, tonics, and ginger ale, which allowed him and Nanzie to keep in their employ the African-American couple who served for decades as their maid and butler.

While Fritz tended to his business enterprises, his wife governed the family as its rock-steady matriarch. Nanzie Shepard's lineage was also seriously old guard, and she became an important influence on her grandchildren—especially Alan.

Short, redheaded Nanzie was an equally important social and political figure in East Derry. She led the New Hampshire Daughters of the Revolution, became the first female president of the Republican Club of New Hampshire, and as one of New Hampshire's presidential electors cast her vote for the Republican Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

She and Fritz had high expectations for their sons, imbuing in them an ethic of success and the expectation that they would get a good education and make their mark in the world. Two of their sons, Henry and Frederick junior, went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, enroute to careers as successful businessmen in Massachusetts.

But Alan's father, Bart, chose a different course. He joined the National Guard in 1915 and then shipped off to France with an infantry division of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. When he returned home in 1918, he joined the Army Reserves and began working as an assistant cashier at his father's bank, Derry National. Bart took his military service quite seriously and eventually rose to the rank of colonel, which was how Alan and his sister, Polly, addressed him—that or "sir." Bart was enormously proud of his military rank and leaped at any chance to wear his uniform.

When he wasn't in uniform, Bart wore a suit and tie—even on weekends. He kept his thin mustache neatly trimmed and never smoked or drank. Most workdays he ate a thirty-cent cheese sandwich at a downtown Greek lunch counter, and once in a while he splurged on pie. His lone hobby was music—across six decades, he played the organ at nearly every 10 a.m. Sunday service at the First Parish Church, the oldest church in town.

Bart lost his bank job when Derry National followed five thousand others into oblivion after the 1929 crash. When his father then started a family insurance company, Bart took a job and worked there the rest of his life. Bart had the same large eyes as his son, but they appeared more sad than eager on his long face, above a pinched, downturned mouth.

One day Alan would appreciate how his own character was shaped by his father's work ethic, the consistency and simplicity of his demeanor. But those realizations were many years off. As an energetic child, Alan often looked at his father and asked: Why? It just wasn't Alan's idea of a life. Bart had none of the qualities Alan admired as a child: bravery, a sense of adventure, a determination to be the best. Instead, his father seemed happy doing his plodding darnedest in a town Alan considered "a small pond."

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