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The sensational true story of Eddie Rickenbacker, America's greatest flying ace
At the turn of the twentieth century two new technologies―the car and airplane―took the nation's imagination by storm as they burst, like comets, into American life. The brave souls that leaped into these dangerous contraptions and pushed them to unexplored extremes became new American heroes: the race car driver and the flying ace.
No individual did more to create and intensify these raw new roles than the tall, gangly Eddie Rickenbacker, who defied death over and over with such courage and pluck that a generation of Americans came to know his face better than the president's. The son of poor, German-speaking Swiss immigrants in Columbus, Ohio, Rickenbacker overcame the specter of his father's violent death, a debilitating handicap, and, later, accusations of being a German spy, to become the American military ace of aces in World War I and a Medal of Honor recipient. He and his high-spirited, all-too-short-lived pilot comrades, created a new kind of aviation warfare, as they pushed their machines to the edge of destruction―and often over it―without parachutes, radios, or radar.
Enduring Courage is the electrifying story of the beginning of America's love affair with speed―and how one man above all the rest showed a nation the way forward. No simple daredevil, he was an innovator on the racetrack, a skilled aerial dualist and squadron commander, and founder of Eastern Air Lines. Decades after his heroics against the Red Baron's Flying Circus, he again showed a war-weary nation what it took to survive against nearly insurmountable odds when he and seven others endured a harrowing three-week ordeal adrift without food or water in the Pacific during World War II.
For the first time, Enduring Courage peels back the layers of hero to reveal the man himself. With impeccable research and a gripping narrative, John F. Ross tells the unforgettable story of a man who pushed the limits of speed, endurance and courage and emerged as an American legend.
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JOHN F. ROSS is the author of War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America's First Frontier. Winner of the Fort Ticonderoga Prize for Contributions to American History, he has served as the Executive Editor of American Heritage and on the Board of Editors at Smithsonian magazine.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
One warm day in 1905, a scrawny, towheaded fourteen-year-old raced down the sidewalk toward a crowd gathering at High and Broad streets in Columbus, Ohio, easily overtaking several horse-drawn wagons plodding along the brick-lined pavement, bells jingling on their reins. He dodged around customers exiting wide-awninged stores as a trolley hummed down the middle of High beneath a series of iron arches hung with still-novel electric lights.
Eddie Rickenbacher wriggled through the crowd to reach a glittering object that he would soon learn was a brand-new 10-horsepower Ford Model C, first of its kind in this midwestern city. He had never seen anything so beautiful. Its brass steering column hovered over an elegant black leather, horsehair-stuffed bench seat; its chassis rested upon large grayish wheels with yellow spokes, accented with mudguards resembling startled eyebrows. Often enough the boy had watched the earth-shaking steam behemoths of the Second Industrial Revolution rumbling through Columbus’s vast yards, but locomotives were dirty, rail-bound monsters. Here was a creation clean, sleek, and streamlined, not constrained to rails and, most important, designed to human scale and individuality.
Only after a minute or two did the boy register the salesman’s voice extolling his chariot’s miraculous new features. The pitchman’s vaudeville-inspired flourishes left the crowd dubious. The claim that everyone would soon own one seemed the wildest snake-oil hyperbole. To sit atop a box barely able to contain a series of violent, noisy explosions was surely dangerous, if not downright suicidal. Trusting something that exuded not natural horsey sweat but oil and smoke—and made an unholy clamor as well—must be folly indeed. “It is a far step from the innate intelligence of the horse and the companionship of the dog to the blind power and mere possession of the machine,” wrote one journalist ominously in 1900. Furthermore, its inner workings were inscrutably hidden, the stuff of sorcery. The crowd had heard about these “crazy firewagons” ripping at dangerous, unpredictable speeds through the measured, long-established, and reassuring rhythms of horse-drawn traffic, past the commerce of steam and canal. These juggernauts were visibly quixotic, unreliable, and uncontrollable. All of this was true enough. Yet this vehicle of the future nonetheless declared itself with mesmerizing boldness.
Searching the faces of the crowd, the salesman locked onto Eddie’s dark brown eyes. Little distinguished this immigrants’ son from the thousands of other urchins roaming the streets of every American city. On his thin frame hung clean but threadbare clothes. Between two winglike ears sat a nose bent where a punch had broken it. One scar grooved his chin, another his cheek. Yet perhaps the salesman saw early what others would soon recognize: a deep, burning fire in the eyes, made the more vivid by contrast with their soot-dark brows, which bespoke not desperation and brute endurance but a deep and abiding curiosity.
Maybe the salesman could sway his tough audience by giving this boy a ride. After all, what could be so dangerous if a kid could take a spin? The hawker needed to score a deal soon; Mr. Ford drove his salesmen hard.
“Want to go for a ride?” he asked. “Yes,” gasped Eddie. The man reached to the steering column and elevated a lever just beneath the wheel to retard the spark plug. (By doing so he prevented the engine from firing prematurely while he cranked the car to start, inflicting a kickback powerful enough to break a hand or wrist.)
Reaching under the floor, he flicked a dowellike pin under the kickboard beneath the seat to turn on the ignition. He grabbed the foot-long crank handle and fitted its clawlike end into a brass-rimmed hole just above the running board on the driver’s side, jerking the handle’s wooden grip from its downward orientation into the twelve o’clock position. The two-cylinder engine shuddered and rat-tat-tatted into noisy animation. The crowd tittered in anticipation. A wisp of smoke escaped from the exhaust. The spoked wheels rattled with promise. To Eddie and the others assembled, the loud clicking hum was entirely foreign, what John Dos Passos would call “the new noise of the automobile.”
Having depressed the steering-column handle, the salesman walked around to pull himself aboard with a fluid tug on the wheel. Eddie hopped onto the running board and slid in beside him. His host drew on a rope to swing free the wooden chock locking his rear right tire and shoved back the brass lever by his right elbow. The machine slid forward. Shouting that he’d be back for others, the salesman shifted the lever again, the car slowly picking up momentum as he pulled out onto the street. In moments, they had reached an impressive 13 miles per hour. The boy had hit higher speeds on a bicycle, but this ride’s sheer exhilarating freedom was different. Instead of being pushed forward like a bicycle or pulled on a horse cart, he felt lifted up and along—and carried away. Aproned shop owners, tired teamsters atop their wagons, and annoyed gentlemen on horseback gazed at this portent with little short of wonder. Sitting in that marvel, Eddie was no longer the poor immigrant’s son but something altogether more glorious and potent: the personification of speed, modernity, and movement at will.
Perched higher than in a modern-day SUV, yet without the protection of a windshield or even a dash, the driver and his passenger experienced the dizzying, electrifying raw rush of motion that jangled the senses and watered the eyes while the scenery blurred and the wind plucked at their clothes. The seat swayed pleasantly, like a ship at sea. The salesman leaned forward, his hands clenching the wheel. The Model C’s steering was not geared, and so even the slightest jerk from a pothole or bump could careen this king of the road into a nearby carriage or ditch. Nor, furthermore, had Henry Ford and his engineers yet come up with an effective means of stopping. Braking was a carefully choreographed dance of shifting to low gear and madly pumping the footbrake. The driver devoted his attention to anticipating possible hazards and steering well clear of large obstacles.
To Eddie and the salesman, such difficulties weren’t limitations; the car was all possibility, a taste of sensations never before so satisfactorily encountered, which delivered an exhilarating sense of rumbling headlong into the future. In those electric moments, as the car described a circuit around Ohio’s white-marbled, Greek Revival Statehouse, a dream took shape for that wide-eyed boy: a point where instinct, joy, and rational thought fused together. He would build and drive these new creations—a determination that he would ride into becoming one of the most famous Americans of his generation. In a few short years, everyone in Columbus would know his name; a decade later, every American would recognize the wide, confident grin that broke the craggy angles of his face. As for the salesman, his crazy claims would prove right far more quickly than most anyone had dreamed. By the next decade a significant part of a car-crazy nation would own cars.
* * *
At the turn of the twentieth century, the everyday world of America, still framed around technologies from the age of Andrew Jackson, was being upended by a prodigious sequence of breakthroughs. Americans were putting industrial machinery to unprecedented large-scale use, inventing petroleum fuel, the telephone, pasteurized milk, and the cinema. At the World’s Columbian Exposition just a few years earlier, visitors had gawked at typewriters, refrigerators, and flexible artificial limbs. Flush toilets and Edison’s bright incandescent bulbs created a particular stir, one breathless writer announcing in Scientific American that this effervescence of discovery was like “a gigantic tidal wave of human ingenuity and resource, so profound in its thought, so fruitful in its wealth, so beneficial in its results, that the mind is strained and embarrassed in its effort to expand to a full appreciation of it.” In scope and magnitude, the Yankee ingenuity of America’s independent inventors—Thomas Alva Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell—rivaled if not surpassed the inventive power of Periclean dramatists, Renaissance artists, late-nineteenth-century Berlin physicists, and Weimar architects in the 1920s.
The year that Eddie climbed onto that glistening Ford, an obscure German-born scientist named Albert Einstein had advanced his special theory of relativity, which would burst out its profound practical consequences before midcentury. The ripples of this and other discoveries tore the fabric of society—and knocked down many traditional modes of living and working. Wassily Kandinsky executed his first abstract painting, Picture with a Circle, in 1911, and that same year Cubism emerged. Virginia Woolf claimed that “human character changed” in 1910, as modernity itself was born and novels shook off their Victorian crinolines and experimented wildly in form. Syncopated jazz and ragtime rhythms introduced new tempos. Early Hollywood films, shot at sixteen frames a second but shown in theaters at twenty-four frames a second, showed their actors racing along in hyperfast apparent motion, frantic to get to wherever they were going at superhuman speeds. Pocket watches, once owned only by train conductors and the rich, became suddenly cheap and generally available. For the first time, people began systematically to mark time in increments of five and ten minutes.
Yet there is a powerful case to be made that no invention would propel the twentieth century forward with greater force than the newly configured internal combustion engine, which would power its first practical car in 1895 and make sustained, heavier-than-air flight possible only eight years later. These new technologies captivated the nation’s imagination as they burst cometlike into American life. Within a few short years of Ford’s introduction of the Model T in 1908, the chance to control, exercise, and enjoy speed passed into the eager hands of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans. Seated behind his wheel, a driver effortlessly multiplied choice as well as speed. For the first time in history, multitudes without specialized skills could operate a machine regularly capable of outdistancing the fastest stallion. Nor did the driver have to interact with a creature with its own mind, which might decide to pull up midstride or even pitch its rider. Speed was now tamable to a whole host of new purposes.
Drivers related breathlessly how the countryside dissolved into an Impressionist blur as they rattled down even terrible roads; this would prove just the first taste of the new perspectives that individual high-speed mobility would bring America. It wasn’t only the thrill of high velocity but the feeling of being lifted by the rush of acceleration itself, as well as the mild g-forces that pressed the body at turns, even the mystery of swift deceleration. While the experience of flying itself would remain out of most people’s reach for decades, the increasingly more common sight of men soaring among and above the birds dissolved whole categories of the impossible.
“The world loves speed,” wrote a journalist in 1902. “All mankind would in some form indulge in it, if it but could. He who cannot, finds zest in watching him who can and does indulge … The love of speed is inherent and increasing in intensity. The automobile is spreading and will continue to spread the desire for swift and exhilarating flight through space.” Tasting the excitement of speed regularly—being able to divert it, revel in it, and put it to astonishing use—Americans would break open new horizons. The frontier lay not beyond the forest or across the river but at the end of a clutch. Nothing had ever quite so intoxicated the nation.
When Eddie climbed into that nearly prototypical Ford, there was no Indy 500 or NASCAR; there were no hot-rodding clubs or drag-racing cliques. Not one single person had water-skied, let alone gone out on a Jet Ski. The notion of doing everything much faster began to pervade all aspects of American life. It was happening in surgery and radio, and very soon on the edge of war. Zipping into the American lexicon would be new words that would communicate previously unimagined realities: zoom, rpm, mph, revving, and redline. Beyond that stretched new reaches of car-possibilities: car camping, drive-in movies, road trips, cruising the strip, Route 66 and the interstates, rest stops, suburban commuting, tailgating, and soccer moms.
* * *
One late night in 1881, an attractive young woman with a shock of tied-back red hair and dark circles under her blue eyes stepped off a train at Columbus’s Union Station. The shadowy figures of workmen in the yard made her nervous, so she hurried into the grand brick and stone terminal, which sprouted two tall mansard-roofed towers along with arched portals and windows with elaborately carved stone lintels. Still unsteady from her recent Atlantic crossing, she walked into the immense waiting room. Certainly she had visualized this moment, her imagination providing far more sustenance across the Atlantic than the small wheel of cheese she had hidden in the folds of her long dress. The only powerful relic of her former life was a black leather-bound family Bible.
That she was alone and spoke no English did not slow her determined stride across the platform to find the stationmaster. He did not understand the words that tumbled out of her mouth, which only grew more insistent under his blank stare. Her eyes welled up. She pulled out a letter and held it out to him. Recognizing that it was written in German, he sent an employee running off into the dark. Her brother’s letter made it plain that she must leave the stubborn, infertile mountain slopes of the Swiss canton of Basel-Landschaft. He offered brief words of encouragement, but the enclosed money for her passage—earned so quickly in America!—spoke more than anything else to this new land’s possibilities.
A German-speaking man, who she learned was the sheriff, came to the station and took her to the farm where her brother worked. When they finally met, she cried so hard that they thought she wanted to go home. No, she explained, no. So she set to farm chores, eventually finding her way to a factory job.
The United States was indeed a world apart from the farmhouse into which two Swiss families had been crammed. The sixth of ten children born to a poor ribbon maker, Lizzie had inherited a fiery disposition that often brought her trouble. As one of the youngest girls, she had to wind thread onto the little bobbins that her older sisters used on the loom. Bored to distraction, she tied knots in the thread. Her angry father shut her for hours in a cramped storage closet.
When her best friend—a similarly redheaded sprite named Louisa—died at age thirteen, Louisa’s father came to ask Elizabeth’s whether she might come to live with them; it was not uncommon to farm a daughter out. Eavesdropping from behind a door, she heard her father say, “She is no good around here, she may go.”
Lizzie could not—or pretended not to—understand her mother’s tears nor her father’s stern looks when he delivered the news. “I only saw adventure ahead,” she later remembered, with the positive spin on past events that decades later would shape her son’s own recollections. She had spent four years in her new home when her brother’s letter arrived.
Lizzie joined hundreds of thousands of...
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