Read an Excerpt
Being very, very blond, he was saddled by other kids with the nickname "Towhead." the second son of Swiss immigrants, and speaking English with a thick accent, he was also called "Dutchy" and "Kraut." His given name was Edward, but family and close friends called him Rick or Eddie. Given no middle name, he would eventually adopt one: Vernon. Rickenbacher would also be changed to alter the German-appearing name by substituting "k" for the "h." The taunting names of the schoolyard usually provoked a number of fistfights. But no matter how much fun anyone made of his looks and the way he talked, there was no getting past the fact that when it came to displaying sheer guts, eight-year-old Eddie left them all in the dust.
One of the payoffs of his courage was being the unchallenged leader of "the Horsehead Gang," a name inspired by a horse's head painted on a sign above the entrance to a racetrack on an outskirt of Columbus, Ohio. Another attractive feature of the local landscape for boys was a rock quarry with a hundred-foot-deep pit. To bring stones up a steep incline, the workers used a small steel-sided cart that was hooked to a cable and ran on rails. They performed this labor from early Monday morning till noon Saturday, when they left the cart at the bottom. Gazing down at it on a sultry summer afternoon in 1898, the leader of the Horsehead Gang saw it as a beckoning thrill.
Pushing and straining, seven boys inched the cart up from the pit and held it in place with wooden chocks. With his followers inside, Eddie knocked away the chocks and yelled, "Here goes nothing!" As he jumped in, the cart began rolling. Rocketing downward, it careened and jerked. Uncontrolled, unstoppable, and top-heavy, it flipped. Six of the seven riders flew out and away. Eddie landed under its wheels. As it sped forward, one of the steel wheels passed over his leg and cut it open to the bone. Many years later, he took pride in noting that the scar "was one of my first."
Another memory was of a day when he was four or five years old and helping his mother plant potatoes. "She, standing, would make a little hole with the hoe," he recalled, "and I, on my hands and knees, would put the cone-shaped pieces of potato in, then push the dirt over them. I must have moved too quickly toward the new hole she was digging, for instead of the hoe hitting the ground, it hit me, right in the head. One of the prongs actually pierced my skull. Mama picked me up and ran to the house. There she washed my scalp and treated it with healing oil, then rocked me in her arms. What could have been a serious injury is now only a pleasant memory of being nestled in Mother's arms."
When Elizabeth Baker married William Rickenbacher in 1885, she was twenty-one and had been in Columbus, Ohio, for three years. Fair-skinned, red-haired, and of French descent, she had been working as a housemaid. Seven years older, William had emigrated from Switzerland in 1879. Of German stock, tall, strong, black-haired, and with a lush mustache, he had been an apprentice in construction work in Switzerland, but found work in Columbus as laborer for a railroad. Their first child was named Mary. Next came William, Edward, and Emma. The next four children were born in a house that was built by their father on a lot in east Columbus. The fifth child, Louisa, died in infancy. Three boys followed: Louis, Dewey, and Albert.
"From the Old World my parents had brought a sense of duty and a tireless willingness to work," Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker would write about his boyhood years. "The New World provided what was to them a lavish amount of fertile soil, opportunity and promise. I was a fortunate boy indeed in that I was able to pass my formative years in that favorable atmosphere of industry, production, gratitude and appreciation."
The capital of Ohio, Columbus in 1893 was a thriving city with a population of about 88,000, on the east bank of the Scioto River. Its landmarks were the State Capitol building, Ohio State University (seven hundred students), the State Penitentiary, the Central Ohio Lunatic Asylum, a U.S. Army barracks, and Goodale Park. The main thoroughfare, Broad Street, was paved with asphalt and tree-shaded. Offering railroads running to Cleveland, Toledo, and Indianapolis, Columbus was a vital commercial, agricultural, and manufacturing center for iron and steel goods, farming equipment, and carriages that were renowned in the cities of the East for their elegance and comfort.
When Edward Rickenbacher was born on October 8, 1890, the president of the United States was Ohio-born Benjamin Harrison. But as the family moved into the house that William had built on East Livingstone Avenue, the man in the White House was Grover Cleveland. He had come back from a defeat by Harrison in 1892 to claim the distinction of being the only man to be elected to two nonconsecutive terms and find himself listed as the twenty-second and twenty-fourth president. By 1893 the flag had forty-four stars. Unfortunately, it flew over a country suffering from the effects of a stock market crash, bank failures, wage cuts, labor strife, and economic depression that most Americans blamed on Cleveland. As these conditions dragged on into 1894, an Ohio farmer named Jacob Coxey led the "Army of the Commonwealth of Christ" on a march to Washington, D.C., with a petition to Congress for the government to issue $500 million in bonds to build highways and put men back to work. For his efforts, he and the ragtag group that was now known as "Coxey's Army" were arrested for trespassing on the Capitol lawn, fined five dollars, and run out of town.
For the Rickenbacher family, settling into the new house had been "the beginning of a reality." On the day they moved in, Papa Rickenbacher had quit his job and gone into business subcontracting small jobs, mostly putting down pavements and building foundations. "It was a brave move to make," Eddie recalled, "but he was a man of great self-confidence."
The land surrounding the house provided food. The family raised vegetables, including cabbage for sauerkraut, kept chickens and pigs, and got enough milk from a small herd of goats. Eddie delivered the excess to paying customers in the neighborhood. "America the bountiful" to him was symbolized by what seven cents could do. It was the price of both a dozen eggs and a pound of sugar, so that when the chickens were laying well and produced an extra dozen eggs, they could be traded for a pound of sugar. With a little flour and apples from an orchard, Mama could bake apple pie. Where else but America, asked Papa, could a man begin with nothing and feed his children apple pie for dessert?
"Above all," Eddie would write of his boyhood, "our parents taught us to love America."
Lessons having nothing to do with patriotism were taught with a fatherly use of a switch. It was applied when he and older brother Bill were caught in the barn puffing away on cigarettes made from a five-cent bag of Bull Durham tobacco. Another whipping followed a police report about an attack by the Horsehead Gang on the globes of gas streetlights. But the sting of the switching was forgotten with Eddie's discovery of his mother crying in disappointment over her son's behavior and acknowledging that her son "deserved every lick."
One morning in 1894, as he accompanied her across a street to a peddler's cart, he dashed ahead of her. Unaware of an approaching horse-drawn streetcar, he slammed into its side and barely escaped being run over. Bounding up from the street, he ran home, rushed up the stairs, crawled under a bed, and stayed there until his mother assured him he was safe. The collision left him with a lump on his head, two black eyes, and relief that he had escaped the clutches of "the grim reaper." Another brush with death resulted from curiosity about a hole that had been dug by some workmen for a cistern. Deciding to inspect the progress of the project, he leaned over too far and fell in. Stunned from landing on his head, he "lay there, limp as a broken toy" until a passerby pulled him out and carried him home. He was unconscious for two hours.
Like all boys of his era, and almost all boys of the previous half century, Eddie was fascinated by trains. Behind huge, smoke-belching steam locomotives, they rattled westward from the coalfields of Pennsylvania to bring fuel for the furnaces of Columbus steel mills and factories of cities beyond in a country bristling with the exuberance of an industrial boom and motivated by its "manifest destiny" to master a continent that Theodore Roosevelt envisioned holding "in our hands the hope of the world, the fate of coming years." But the railroads passing through Columbus came carrying not only the promise of America's future, but heaping mounds of coal from which fell bituminous lumps that were free for the taking by enterprising boys who had the nerve to grab them for the purpose of replenishing kitchen coal bins at home. With trains of the New York Central line passing just seven blocks from the Rickenbacher house, Eddie and Bill set out one summer day in 1896 to collect as many lumps as they could carry to fire the kitchen stove. As an engine lumbered past, Eddie jumped onto the trailing tender with the intention of helping himself to chunks of coal. But the moment he bounded aboard, the locomotive jolted to a stop, hurling Eddie to the roadbed. As the locomotive began backing up, Bill barely managed to drag Eddie from the tracks. In another hairbreadth escape while scavenging coal, his foot caught in a switch in a railroad yard as an engine barreled toward him. Again Bill rushed to the rescue, yanking him free but leaving Eddie's shoe to be crushed. In a crisis that did not involve trains, Eddie ran back into a burning schoolhouse to retrieve a hand-me-down coat and hat, emerging with them and singed hair and able to proudly tell his horrified mother, "I saved my cap and coat."
These brushes with death left Eddie with an unusual recognition for a ten-year-old that "one day I would die and that the world would go on without me." It happened, he wrote, "out of the blue." What he felt, he recalled, "was not merely fear of death or dying; it was more sensitively metaphysical. It was a cry of despair for the entire universe, centralized in the susceptible mind of a nine-year-old child. I could see time stretching on endlessly. As it continued, more and more wondrous marvels would be developed and become realities. But at some point along this interminable path, my life would stop, and time would flow on without me. In my despair, I would go off alone to the barn and sob for hours at a time."
On one of these morbid occasions, his father discovered him "sprawled on my face and crying my heart out." Asked what was wrong, Eddie answered as best he could, choking out the explanation between sobs. "Papa's reaction was typical, fitting and effective," Eddie recalled. "He grabbed a switch. 'You're too young to think things like that,' he said. (Whack!) 'Life and death are my worry, not yours. Don't ever let me catch you crying about such foolish things again.' (Whack!)"
The whipping did not dispel a sense of loss over what Eddie would never see, but it did impress him with "the futility of despair over the inevitable." Resolving to "enjoy life as long as the good Lord" would let him, he vowed to never cry again over "unseeable occurrences." It was, he said, "the first turning point in my life." His "days of rebellion, of destruction and meaningless mischief, were gone and gone forever."
Under Papa's influence and encouragement, Eddie began to accept more and more responsibility for the work that had to be done around the home. "Though all those tasks were hard work and Papa was a stern taskmaster," he remembered, "I still loved to work alongside him. He would constantly advise me on why something was done this way and not the other. Through his own personal example, he inspired me to do the right job to begin with. He taught us to respect and take care of our tools. He had a phobia against leaving things lying around, and I caught it from him. My father taught me never to procrastinate, to do it now."
While Papa Rickenbacher often resorted to the switch to teach the lessons of life, Mama was a believer in redemption through prayer. She saw to it that each little Rickenbacher knelt by the bedside each night and said the Lord's Prayer. "Mama taught us," Eddie recalled, "that the Lord above was a friendly God, a great Presence who was interested in our problems and was sympathetic to them." Sundays, the family put on their best clothes to go to St. John's Lutheran Church in the south end of Columbus.
A friend found Eddie to be a bundle of contradictions: tender and sensitive within, but tough when a situation required. In those times he could be a "holy terror" in whom neighbors saw a bleak future and probable imprisonment. What else should one expect of the leader of a bunch of ruffians like the Horsehead Gang, a boy who was ready to start a fight at the drop of a hat and regularly sneaked off to smoke Bull Durham? Yet, he was a hard worker at home who collected money owed the family for goat's milk and eggs, got out of bed at two in the morning to deliver the Columbus Dispatch newspaper, and from time to time worked on farms and at construction jobs carrying water for the men, with all of his earnings turned over to his mother.
To put a few cents in his own pocket to buy a pouch of Bull Durham tobacco, Eddie saw opportunity in a grizzled junk collector named Sam. The discovery that Sam would give him money for rags, bones that could be ground up for fertilizer, and old pieces of metal was, he said years later, the beginning of his business career. Before long he had put the Horsehead Gang to work on his behalf, collecting junk, pulling nails out of old boards, and scavenging in vacant lots for items to sell to Sam the Junkman, with a healthy percentage of the proceeds going into his pocket and later into his mouth and lungs in the form of Bull Durham smoke. Another source of revenue was the Columbus Derby. When the horse races were on, Eddie and the gang sneaked through the fence at the track to earn a little money by wandering through the crowd selling soda pop for a soft-drink vendor.
From the Hardcover edition.