There’s a moment in Craig Ryan’s spectacular biography of John Paul Stapp — the maverick American Air Force doctor who, in the 1950s, became the fastest man on earth — where the reader falls inexorably in love with Ryan’s subject. It’s on page 17, when Stapp encounters what his Baptist missionary father had taught his sons to prepare for: ‘The epiphany that would illuminate the nature of their calling.’
Christmas is three days gone, and Stapp’s two-year-old cousin, momentarily alone in front of the fireplace, throws part of the Sunday newspaper over the grate. It ignites, catching the boy’s cotton pyjamas, setting them ablaze. Someone plunges the child into a tub of icy water outside, but the burns are horrific.