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Dr. Rufus Elijah Fort was not a man given to self-doubt. The square-jawed, steely-eyed squire of Nashville's sprawling Fortland Farm saw no reason to doubt himself, his accomplishments, or his opinions. The son of one of the region's most storied families and a success at both medicine and business, he had become the perfect picture of everything the post-Reconstruction South had hoped it could be. His was a world with dignity and calm self-assurance as its bedrock.
After his graduation from Vanderbilt University Medical School in 1894, he rose swiftly to prominence, becoming chief surgeon and superintendent of Nashville City Hospital by the time he was twenty-five. He founded and ran his own fifty-bed hospital, the Fort Infirmary, where many of the city's young doctors and nurses did their intern work. He served on the boards of several others and was soon named president of the Tennessee Board of Health. He was chief surgeon for the Tennessee Central Railroad, providing care in his own converted railroad car, and his articles were widely published in medical journals.
But it was in the insurance business that Rufus Fort made his real mark. In 1902, when he was barely thirty, he was one of five founders and initial stockholders of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, which quickly grew into one of the nation's largest debit insurance firms. The firm sold its "penny policies" door-to-door in many cases, and Dr. Fort and his partners turned their $10,000 investment into a money machine of a company that was eventually worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In theprocess, they helped put Nashville on the financial map.
Dr. Fort inspired loyalty and respect in the hearts of many; people told and retold stories of the early days when he made house calls in his two-horse carriage, driven by a black man named Charles, sometimes performing operations on patients' kitchen tables. Tall and imposing, he could also inspire fear and awe in the hearts of others, from acquaintances at the ultra-exclusive Belle Meade Country Club to those who worked with and under him.
Dr. Fort had earned a reputation as something of an autocrat. He held a firm grip on life at Fortland, his 365-acre estate on the Cumberland River, four miles east of downtown Nashville. His black houseman, Epperson Bond, might relay his orders to the other servants or to the field hands, but there was never any doubt as to who was giving them. Epperson spoke for Dr. Fort, and Dr. Fort's word was law.
It was the same way with the Fort children, whose privileged existence was tempered by the steady diet of hard work their father demanded. In 1924, there were four of them: Rufus Jr., thirteen, tall, thin, and serious; Dudley, twelve, easygoing and athletic; Garth, ten, red-haired and affable; and Cornelia, five, already gangly and tomboyish. With her open smile and blue eyes peeking out from under an unruly mound of thick, curly, reddish-blond hair, Cornelia could soften her father, if only a little, in a way her brothers could not. Dr. Fort, who was then fifty-two, did not exactly dote on her—he didn't really dote on anyone then—but he did seem to be amused by her straightforward spirit.
From time to time Epperson, who doubled as chauffeur, would take Cornelia with him when he drove into Nashville to pick up Dr. Fort after work. Invariably, she would ask her father to stop at the drugstore to buy her a treat. When he declined, she could generally win him over by challenging his gruff reluctance with a sweet, "But that's what daddies are for, isn't it?"
From an early age, Cornelia saw Dr. Fort precisely as he wished to be seen—as provider and lawgiver. He made it a practice to listen to his children's opinions on any number of matters, but all decisions were his. It was that way with chores. It was that way with schooling. And, in the summer of 1924, it was that way with flying.
A quarter of the way into the new century, Dr. Fort had already passed solemn judgment on the airplane. He had built a life, a fortune, and a reputation on hard work and intelligent calculation. He was not one to trifle with a whimsical piece of machinery. He had not even learned to drive a car—Epperson did his driving for him—and he was not about to be tempted by this rickety airborne toy of the flyboy adventurers.
Aviation seemed the life-threatening pastime of dreamers and ne'er-do-wells; for proof, Dr. Fort could point to Jersey Ringel and his Flying Circus, whose appearance at the 1921 Tennessee State Fair had been widely publicized in and around Nashville.
Dr. Fort owned a thriving herd of Jersey cattle that regularly won blue ribbons at venues like the fair, which was a prime showcase for agricultural products of all kinds. And it was there, amid the preserves and quilts, the sideshows, barkers, and games, the band concerts, trapeze acts, jugglers, and clowns, the parades of Confederate and Spanish-American war veterans, the Tunnel of Love, the Ferris wheel and nickel merry-go-round, the cotton candy, hamburgers, and muscadine punch, that Ringel had left the grandstand gasping.
He took off from a nearby farm in the passenger seat of a Curtiss "Jenny." Officially the JN-4-D, the Jenny was a 90-horsepower World War I biplane that could be picked up cheaply after the war and was a mainstay of the profession—if, in the early twenties, you could call aviation a profession. More accurately, it was simply an excuse for a group of daredevils to thrill themselves and others until, as often as not, they were killed or crippled. They went from town to town performing loops and rolls and spins in planes constructed of wood, wire, and fabric and held together by sewing kits, hammers, and wishful thinking. These barnstormers alternately amazed and horrified the crowds that gathered to watch them. Astonishingly enough, though, the same crowds usually contained a few foolhardy souls willing to pay for the chance to be taken aloft. Dr. Fort knew that sort of fool existed, and he had no patience with fools.
Ringel teetered into sight standing on the tiny plane's top wing, which stretched maybe 30 feet from end to end. The Jenny, piloted by Billy Brock of Chattanooga, swept low past the grandstand, and then circled. Ringel, waving to the crowd and balancing himself—without a parachute—seemed to defy every God-given instinct he possessed. He walked to one end of the wing, hooked his knees around a wing-tip skid, and hung there, arms waving in the wind. In a moment, another Jenny flew into position just above the first, a rope ladder swinging from its landing gear. The crowd held its breath as Ringel, sure enough, grabbed the rope and pulled himself up onto the lower wing of the second plane, got his balance, and stood motionless, his arms grasping the wing above him, as the plane did a loop.
Finally, he climbed into the front seat as the plane gained altitude and then, after a moment's hesitation, fell slowly into a nosedive. The engine went silent and the plane plummeted toward the crowd, as thousands of people, not sure whether this was planned or not, wondered if they should scramble toward the exits. At the last possible moment the engine started and the plane roared to life, leveling off just over the heads of the crowd and soaring away. It was joined by the original Jenny, and the crowd, its collective heart stilled and restarted, cheered, watching as the planes headed back toward the field they'd come from, magical specks growing smaller and smaller in the afternoon sky.
This kind of thing did not amuse Dr. Fort. Like it or not, though, the Jersey Ringels of the world were aviation's ambassadors, the romantic drifters who were gradually making the airplane a part of the American spirit.
The barnstormers may not have been the only reason for Dr. Fort's aversion to airplanes. During World War I, he was chairman of the draft examining board, and it is likely he had seen Nashville boys coming back wounded or killed after crashes. As an insurance executive, he knew a foolish risk when he saw one. He decided that aviation would have no part in his sons' lives.
This had been the "war to end all wars," but there could always be another one, he reasoned. He already had planned for his sons to attend military school. If they were ever called to war, they would go as officers, not enlisted men. His boys would not be cannon fodder, and they certainly would not be daredevils dropping from the skies as their airplanes sputtered nose-down over battlefields. Forts did not do such things. Yet Dr. Fort suspected that aviation, still in its infancy, might turn into an even stronger temptation as it matured.
And so, one afternoon in the summer of 1924, Dr. Fort called his sons into his study at Fortland. As Rufus Jr., Dudley, and Garth lined up, Dr. Fort brought out the family Bible. "I want you boys to put your hands on this Bible," he said, "and promise me you will never fly." Solemnly, each of the boys did as instructed, putting his hand on the Bible and taking the oath.
Cornelia stood in the hallway just outside the door. Her father had seen no reason to involve her in this ceremony. Cornelia, after all, was only five, and it was ludicrous to think a southern girl of her station would ever think of riding in a plane, let alone piloting one.
Still, Cornelia was drawn to the doorway. She waited, wide-eyed, as her brothers, each in his turn, faced their father. She listened as they made their promises. And, standing silently, she took in every word.