Book excerpt

Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed

John F. Ross

St. Martin's Press

1.
 
 
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 Germanic immigrants who had come to the United States in the wake of several mid-nineteenth-century revolutions. Railroad lines and canals provided cheap transport for those seeking a new start in the American heartland. Most of the newest and poorest German-speaking immigrants to Columbus settled in the German Village, which arose south of a deep, spring-fed ravine that cut the neighborhood off from the more established parts of town. Cheap land and access to water had already attracted the noxious tanneries, which supplied leather products to the booming buggy-making industry. The most successful immigrants raised one-and-a-half-story brick houses, like those in Europe, on solid limestone foundations with gables facing the street, their faces decorated with stone lintels and tall windows. The poorer arrivals crowded into tenements that sprouted like weeds between hulking factories that crowded the Scioto’s filthy banks. By 1890, Columbus boasted, in iron processing alone, thirteen foundries, two ironworks, a steel-rail mill, a rolling mill, and twelve galvanized-iron works.
Lizzie fell in love with another recent Swiss immigrant, William Rickenbacher, a man with capable hands and a strong back, whose dark, bushy eyebrows seemed to emphasize his fiery spirit. He was stern, in keeping with the Teutonic traditions of men from the cantons of the old country. She thought that he would make a good father for her children. He worked in one of the numerous breweries west of the German Village, which had emerged to slake the thirsts of a hard-toiling immigrant population by fermenting large quantities of cheap, dark ale. The couple married and moved into a cramped space at the back of one such brewery, the reek of hops soon penetrating their few possessions.
The same forces that had opened up Columbus to economic boom brought correspondingly hard times when a chain of recessions struck in the late nineteenth century. Still, the city’s population grew by 70 percent from 1890 to 1900, and another 70 percent between 1900 and 1910. The pioneering Congregationalist preacher Washington Gladden decried the social decay he saw all around him: drunken public officials, prostitutes so thick on High Street in the evening that “decent women” needed an escort. In 1886, four years before the Rickenbachers’ third child and second son, Edward, was born, Samuel Gompers had founded the American Federation of Labor in downtown Columbus to narrow the deep divides between the “masters and men” of the Gilded Age.
Just as his family grew, William was laid off from his brewery job, got another but was laid off again, and had to settle into day labor on the city’s growing infrastructure of bridges and sidewalks. The couple had bought two cheap lots in southern Columbus, several blocks west of the last electric trolley stop, but William’s sporadic employment threatened their dream of someday building a house. They sold one lot to survive.
Without consulting her husband, Lizzie took advantage of her father’s visit to America to borrow his return fare, which she promptly turned into a down payment on another lot and the funds to build a small house with a bedroom and sitting room on the first floor. The children would crowd into an unheated loft to sleep. When she told William that the house was almost complete, he balked, his pride deeply wounded. She told him she was moving there with or without him. Lizzie managed to repay her father by taking on endless loads of laundry. In 1893, when Eddie was three, the young family took up their new residence, which had no gas, let alone electricity, running water, or heat beyond a fireplace, and light only from a single kerosene lamp. Eddie grew up watching his fiercely self-reliant mother doing whatever it took to survive.
His passion for risk taking declared itself early. Human beings exhibit wide ranges of tolerances for danger, from those who recoil from its slightest manifestation through the great majority who live with it uncomfortably and the very few who vigorously seek it. This last response first showed in Eddie as an accident-prone child, starting at four when a streetcar hit him. Over the next several years, he fell into a well and knocked himself out, slipped from a walnut tree, scarring his chin, and had to be rescued by his older brother after getting his foot caught in a railroad track with a train bearing down.
As he grew older, he more actively courted risk. Among his fellow urchins he formed the Horsehead Gang, which took its moniker from the wooden sign of the Columbus Driving Park, a horse-racing track only three blocks away. One Saturday afternoon, the gang commandeered a small square rail truck inside a gravel pit, dragging it up the steep hundred-foot incline to the mine’s stony lip. The boys placed wooden chocks under the wheels, then piled aboard for a number of runs. On the last, Eddie was trying to kick the chock out with one foot when he fell in front of the cart and a wheel cut his shin to the bone.
Growing wilder, the gang spent an evening breaking the gaslamp globes on every block from Livingston to Main and Miller streets. So brazen was Eddie that he stole the catcher’s mitt of an African American player in the midst of a Sunday game against a white team. Racing away from the field, he stuffed his prize under a bridge and went home, only to meet members of both teams and an angry father, who forced him to confess and then beat him badly.
Years later, Eddie would recall one fight after another, not always brought on by his pugnacity but often by his poverty and heavy Swiss-German accent. Among his classmates at East Main Street Public School, he stood out as one of the poorest—no small feat in that town jammed with struggling recent immigrants. In the depths of winter, Eddie and his siblings couldn’t go to school for lack of winter clothing. During one particularly bad time, his father sent him there wearing mismatched shoes, one brown, the other light tan, the right pointed, the left blunt-nosed. His fellow students cruelly ribbed “Dutchy” about that and practically everything else, which often ended in another fistfight. One punch broke his nose, but anything was better than passively enduring the sharp sting of shame. The thin, gangly youth didn’t sit back but seemed regularly to push things just a little bit too far. His rebelliousness never seemed fueled by malice or mean-spiritedness—rather by a fierce will to survive, and to do so by standing out and never letting others define who he was.
At school Eddie drank in the new, strong, and rising nationalism sweeping the United States. Earlier immigrant generations had brought great waves of patriotism, but this was different: America was repitching its identity in the classroom as a nation defined by its technological prowess, innovation, and limitless possibility. The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, “America the Beautiful” in 1895, and Memorial Day celebrations had become common. Soon-to-be-president Teddy Roosevelt rode to a victor’s glory over the Spaniards in Cuba in 1898 when Eddie was seven. Although the U.S. annexation of the Philippines from defeated Spain would set off a bloody insurrection that might have put Americans on notice of the dangers of imperialism, the country stood confidently braced for its manifest destiny. Emerging, too, were marching orders for America’s young sons, new codes of conduct articulated in such books as the humorous “Peck’s Bad Boy” series about a lovable troublemaker by journalist-politician George Wilbur Peck. In the preface to one volume, he wrote an ode to the typical American boy, who “does not cry when he gets hurt, and goes into all the dangerous games there are going, and goes in to win … who takes the hard knocks of work and play until he becomes hardened to anything that may come to him in after life.”
While Peck could imagine how the school of hard knocks would build character in middle-class children, he knew little of the extreme poverty of immigrant families in the new American cities. When Eddie and his older brother prowled the Toledo & Ohio Central (T&OC) railroad tracks with a wheelbarrow and sack, they understood that failure to return home with pieces of coal that had fallen from passing locomotives would mean a cold kitchen; even these slim pickings would leave the scrawny young brothers clutching each other at night for warmth, made the more difficult by empty bellies. Eddie worked not long after he could stand up, delivering newspapers at five years old. He kept goats to sell the thick milk to neighbors, sold rags, cadged cigarettes for himself, and hustled anything he could.
William’s inability to adapt to the New World didn’t help matters. The mounting series of reverses to his father’s pride heaped ever higher, and he took it out on his children, Eddie in particular. The big, heavy laborer hit his boy hard; Eddie later recalled him as always trying to “lick the old nick out of me with switches.” At one point, a mutt named Trixie that Eddie had adopted went furiously for William’s ankle, so aroused was she by William’s brutality toward her master. A moment that could have turned ugly suddenly broke up in laughter. Perhaps it was Lizzie who set off the giggling. She often provided the only safe port after her husband’s frequent storms ripped the household. Lizzie could remember all too well the anger of her own father against her own small defiant acts. Eddie, it seems, had inherited her proud, scrappy toughness: Like many mothers’ favorite sons, he would become the “conquistador” that Freud describes. The battered but enduring boy learned how to take his father’s bone-rattling punches without crying, to stand up to a formidable presence.
These increasingly difficult encounters with his father ended in a minute one July day in 1904. That summer noon, William and five or six other laborers were resting under a tree after a hot morning laying a cement sidewalk at Linwood and Mound streets. An African American drifter named W. A. Gaines, who had been putting in sod at a nearby yard, walked over to ask, “None of you fellows want to share your dinners with a fellow, do you?” Something about this innocuous request deeply angered William, who responded that “if I had any dinner to share with any person I would share it with my children.” Profanity then flowed. What lit Rickenbacher into a blue rage that day remains unclear, perhaps that he felt keenly the ever more vise-tight grip of poverty and his inability to succeed in this land of plenty. Gaines hustled away, but Rickenbacher went after him. Gaines, who later claimed that Rickenbacher had brandished a knife, swung a steel spirit level, a tool used to even the sidewalk, breaking William’s left forearm below the elbow. William kept coming. A second blow struck the back of William’s head, knocking him out. A sheriff later found the frightened Gaines, blackjacked him, and then charged him with assault to kill.
William slipped into a coma at nearby St. Francis Hospital but tenaciously clung to life. The community threw benefit picnics for the distraught Lizzie and her children, one a “lawn fete and dance” at the Driving Park, to which the Columbus Light Company provided free transportation. Only after five weeks, and after a brief awakening in which he recognized his wife and children, did William slip away. Lizzie went into debt to buy her sons dark suits for his funeral. As the family started out for church, she gathered the children together. “I want you all to promise me that, no matter what happens, you will always help one another,” Eddie remembered her saying. “Don’t you worry,” he replied. “I’ll take care of everything—don’t worry.” Yet he absorbed the important lesson that not even he could survive without the help of all his family pulling together. The failure of any of them could bring failure on all.
Three weeks after Eddie’s fourteenth birthday that October, a jury took more than an hour to convict Gaines of manslaughter. He drew ten years in jail, slight punishment indeed at a time when a black man often faced death itself for killing a white man, regardless of guilt or intention. The judge’s leniency articulated what most in the courtroom already knew: The hotheaded, often profane, elder Rickenbacher had brought this upon himself. The shame that front-page newspaper gossip brought on the family was intense, especially for a boy just reaching adolescence, who harbored extremely mixed feelings about his father’s readiness to deliver punishment. He would never forget what could happen to those who lost their tempers.
Eddie could never bring himself to tell the truth publicly about how his father died, claiming in his bestselling autobiography that his father had been no plain laborer but rather a manager on an important bridge-building project. He related how a swinging timber had struck his father fatally in the head one evening as he was operating a pile driver. His mother’s credo of doing what it took to survive had taken deep, firm hold; he buried humiliation and guilt by brushing the facts away. He would survive with dignity, even if that meant falsifying the record. He would also correspondingly downplay the grinding poverty, shame, cold, and fear of his early days, inventing a hard but somehow ennobling childhood.
Unable to sleep the evening of the funeral, Eddie walked downstairs and found his mother head in hands at the kitchen table. Standing beside her, the undersized thirteen-year-old solemnly promised never to make her cry again. Lizzie reached out and patted his head. A profound change had come over the boy. He drew up the chair to take his father’s place at the head of the table; from then on, he would assume the man’s role in her house, despite the presence of older siblings.
The following morning Eddie left with the other children, but instead of going to school he walked over to the Federal Glass Factory, where his brother Bill had once worked. After inflating his age to fourteen and lying that he had finished eighth grade—a requirement of Ohio’s otherwise rudimentary child-labor laws—he was hired to start that evening, a twelve-hour night shift carrying freshly blown tumblers to the ovens on heavy steel platters. He walked two miles home and quickly overcame his mother’s objections. Weeks later, when a truant officer visited the house, Lizzie walked the man upstairs, where they peered in on the boy collapsed fast asleep on his bed, still wearing his grimy work clothes. Aware of the family’s difficulties, the officer finessed his report. Years later, an interviewer asked Eddie whether his elder brother had felt any resistance toward his taking the lead as the family’s breadwinner. Bill was industrious, conceded Eddie dispassionately, but he just didn’t have the same “push.”
Years before mandatory high school institutionalized adolescence, it was far from unusual for children to enter the workplace. Neither the Wright brothers nor Thomas Edison graduated from high school. The word “adolescence” itself had only recently entered the lexicon, and the cult of the teenager, hastened by the mobility conferred first by the bicycle, then by the automobile, would not blossom for some time. Even so, there was something eerily foretelling about a boy who could will himself from childhood to adulthood overnight, from rambunctious troublemaking to full-blown responsibility. Never again did he feel the pull of his friends in the Horsehead Gang, which quickly dissolved without his leadership. It was as if he just skipped adolescence entirely—and missed that often difficult period when young people become so painfully aware of what others think of them. He grew a thick skin. He learned to survive by taking command, focusing on the task at hand. In this new role, Eddie had no time for the anger that had become his father’s Achilles’ heel, nor for emotion of any sort. Much later a close friend would characterize him as “completely undemonstrative,” while Eddie’s wife recalled his “emotional shyness.” He never said nice things to her—“the words would choke in his throat”—although he did say flattering things about her to others when she wasn’t around. It’s not that he didn’t have feelings, but he buried them, because they were vulnerabilities that could compromise the imperative to survive. He would become a man whom people automatically called by his first name the minute they met him but whom few, if any, really got to know.
The sudden death of a parent rarely energizes a child; it is taboo for him or her to express even the most justified feelings of liberation in the wake of so profound a tragedy. Eddie, however, seemed only to relish his new freedom. Over the next two years, he would prove far more adept in the workplace than his father ever had—at the glass factory, then as a molder for the Buckeye Steel Castings Company, a bottle capper in a brewery, and a cobbler. At Goodman’s Shoe Company on West Broad Street, he stamped out heel-shaped pieces of leather, then laboriously nailed one piece to another, and another, to build a heel. Tired of this sleepwalking routine, Eddie fashioned a wooden heel template to save time by stacking three or four pieces, then nailing them together. The supervisor noticed and congratulated him.
He came to feel a strong confidence in his abilities, which, tempered by a precocious ability not to take offense or indulge in self-pity, ripened into an earnest industriousness that employers came rapidly to value. Carving marble at a monument works yielded praise from his boss and the skills to craft his father’s tombstone. His mother still ruled the house, though, and pulled him off the job after he developed an itchy throat and slight cough from the dust. It was an index of his growing manual talents and overall competence that the shop’s owner offered to double his salary on the spot, but his mother refused to let him compromise his health. Still, money was somehow coming in; with the help of his siblings, the family not only paid off the mortgage but fixed up the little house and yard.
On Sundays his mother would give him a quarter, and he would take the electric trolley north to Olentangy Park on the outskirts of town, where he gobbled down Cracker Jacks and rode a wooden roller coaster. He particularly enjoyed fourteen-year-old Cromwell Dixon’s crazy contraption, the Sky-Cycle, which often floated high above the park, its creator precariously astride a horizontal pole hung beneath a 32-foot-long football-shaped hydrogen balloon. Squinting into the bright summer sky, Eddie watched him pedaling furiously to turn a propeller, imagining himself at the controls, free for long minutes from the earth.
When a light breeze blew the Sky-Cycle beyond Olentangy’s confines, Eddie would chase it through the neighborhoods. The whole world—not just the fitful zephyrs brushing over Olentangy Park—was crackling with change and possibility. Newspaper reports had recently appeared about a couple of bicycle mechanics from Dayton, only 70 miles away, who had roused their engine-powered machines above the dunes off North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound. Across America, independent inventors were heroes, the imaginations of most every boy fired by stories of Edison’s electric light, Marconi’s radio, Eastman’s camera, and Bell’s telephone. In 1910, dime-novel entrepreneur Edward Stratemeyer packaged this spirit of youthful inventiveness into one of fiction’s most enduring characters: Tom Swift, the peppy, hyperoptimistic boy supergadgeteer, whose backyard tinkering swept him into a wonderland of dirigibles, submarines, and electric cars. In spirit, Tom—“Swift by name and swift by nature”—stood for Eddie or any one of millions of their American brethren. Invention and tinkering had simply hijacked the country’s imagination. As Peck squarely put it at the turn of the century, the typical American boy “will investigate everything in the way of machinery, even if he gets his fingers pinched, and learns how to make the machine that pinched him.”
Such motivations sent Eddie into his own backyard to construct a perpetual motion machine. Under the light of a coal lamp at night he wound springs and fooled with bits of machinery. “My idea was a series of springs—as one unwound, the other would wind up and so forth, carrying the power with it and the balance.” He would have to engage the problem with his hands before he finally understood why it could never work. That didn’t stop him from trying to fly off a roof on a bike under a large, tightly gripped carriage umbrella. Fortunately the mound of sand that he and a friend had carefully heaped up beforehand broke his precipitous drop when the umbrella immediately turned inside out.
Ordinary Americans did not just thrill to Jules Verne’s fantastic world, in which Captain Nemo cruised the world’s oceans in a palatial submarine, but believed that they themselves were drawing upon a multitude of world-changing inventions—in essence, becoming their own Nemos. Eddie carried around with him a pocket tool set—an adjustable wrench, a screwdriver, and pliers—all wrapped in a piece of leather; sufficient, if you commanded his natural skills, to most any task. At no time, perhaps, since the generation that fought the American Revolution had U.S. citizens felt so empowered to create a world to their own designs.
After his marble-carving gig, Eddie took a job cleaning cars with the Pennsylvania Railroad, which morphed into a spot in the machine shop, where he learned how to turn ungainly pieces of rough steel into beautifully symmetric forms. The men liked to tease the youngster, sending him around the shop in search of half-round squares or left-handed monkey wrenches. In return for the laughs and raspberries, this resilient, good-natured kid, who took their ribbing with a wide grin, received valuable lessons at the lathe, and help with making canes and baseball bats during lunch break. His appreciation of the beauty of fine-precision parts and well-designed machines grew into a lifetime love. He might well have stayed there but for a misadventure he did nothing to precipitate when a wheel popped off a cart stacked high with lumber as it passed his workstation. The whole load toppled onto him and pinned him to his lathe. They urgently pulled off the boards to find the youngster’s shin badly lacerated but Eddie otherwise okay.
The accident sent Eddie to the Livingston loft bed for some days. His mother nursed him, her energetic care fueled by guilt over her son’s early entrance into a man’s workplace. Had the lumber slid into him at a slightly different angle, it could easily have snapped his leg bones, crippling him for life. In that hard world where little care was taken for worker safety, accidents were a man’s problem, not the company’s.
Eddie dwelt little on much beyond the most recent past. His ride in the Model C almost possessed him. In his waking dreams, the thrill of speed, freedom, and powerful motion claimed his imagination as nothing had before—and sent him down the road over and over again.
His short career had made him passably handy at lathing, stonecutting, cobbling, and glassmaking, all practical skills employed toward tangible, traditional uses, which nevertheless offered little chance for imaginative reinterpretation. In this boy’s prescient eyes, the Model C was a mere charcoal sketch of what was to come. On first impression, few people recognize an object’s transcendent possibilities—to most, for instance, the automobile was simply a horseless carriage. Eddie looked beyond its shiny exterior and saw the promise of a new frontier, one that could be continually recast and made ever more formidably useful. Reflecting in old age on a life of unceasing initiative and enterprise, Eddie would muse justly that “I was a dynamic part of progress and life.”
By the turn of the century, the American geographical frontier was no more. Intrepid explorers would soon reach both poles; others had long since rounded both capes by sail and pushed overland into the jungles of Africa and the deserts of Australia and across the ranges of South America. Deep in its genetic makeup, the restless nature of Americans yearned for new challenges, new horizons, which they would find in the obsession with going ever faster and higher. If speed was America’s new religion, then the car was its mobile temple. Eddie would soon become one of its most powerful prophets.

 
Copyright © 2014 by John F. Ross

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.