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Eddie Rickenbacker: Boy Pilot and Racer

Eddie Rickenbacker: Boy Pilot and Racer

by Kathryn Cleven Sisson

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America’s World War I flying ace, winner of the Medal of Honor, and racecar driver Eddie Rickenbacker’s first attempt at flight was riding his bicycle off the roof while holding an umbrella. Young Eddie, whose parents were Swiss immigrants, grew up in the Midwest in the early 20th century, worked hard to help support his family, but found time to build a


America’s World War I flying ace, winner of the Medal of Honor, and racecar driver Eddie Rickenbacker’s first attempt at flight was riding his bicycle off the roof while holding an umbrella. Young Eddie, whose parents were Swiss immigrants, grew up in the Midwest in the early 20th century, worked hard to help support his family, but found time to build a “pushmobile,” experience a thrilling ride in a “horseless carriage,” and come face-to-face with a moving train. Young readers will gasp as he rides a runaway mining cart that jumps the tracks and cheer at Eddie’s first auto racing victory. Included are fun facts about Eddie Rickenbacker's life and the America he grew up in.

Product Details

Patria Press, Inc
Publication date:
Young Patriots Series , #6
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Sales rank:
File size:
3 MB
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Eddie Rickenbacker

Boy Pilot and Racer

By Kathryn Cleven Sisson, Harold Underdown, Cathy Morrison

Patria Press, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Kathryn Cleven Sisson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-882859-83-2


Look Out Eddie!

One afternoon in March 1897, six-year-old Eddie Rickenbacker went to visit his friend Big John in the blacksmith shop. He pumped the long handle of the bellows and watched sparks shoot up from the brick forge. "Slow down there, Eddie," said Big John.

"I'm not really working," said Eddie. "I just want to help you, if I can."

Big John just smiled. Skillfully he picked up a horseshoe with a pair of long tongs and held it in the fire. As soon as it was red hot, he pulled it out and put it on the point of his big iron anvil. "Stand back and watch out for the sparks," he warned.

He struck the hot horseshoe a heavy blow with his hammer. Sparks flew out in all directions, hitting his long leather apron. He pounded the horseshoe again and again, then held it up to look at it.

Big John was preparing this shoe for Duke, the milkman's horse. The milkman had asked the blacksmith to put new shoes on both front hoofs. Now Duke was hitched a short distance away in the shop. Every few minutes he stamped his foot impatiently on the floor. "Duke doesn't like to wait for his new shoes," said Eddie.

"Well, he'll just have to wait, because it takes time to shape a pair of horseshoes," said Big John.

When he finished shaping the first shoe, he inspected it again, and then plunged it into a tub of cold water. Puffs of steam rose from the tub and clouded the room. "Why do you always put a new shoe in cold water?" asked Eddie.

"One reason is to make it cool so I can handle it with my bare hands," replied Big John. "The other reasons are more difficult to explain."

Eddie now pumped the long handle of the bellows to heat the other horseshoe. Big John hammered it on his anvil and finally plunged it into the tub of water. "They're ready," he said. "Now I'll nail them on Duke's hooves."

He carried both new shoes over to the horse with Eddie following closely. He bent one of Duke's front legs backward so that he could hold the horse's hoof between his knees. Then he began to nail on the shoe.

Eddie stood off at one side and watched. "Could I make a horseshoe on your forge some day?" he asked, "Sure, but not until you are a few years older," replied Big John.

Just then Eddie's ten-year-old brother Bill appeared, looking impatient. "Come on home, you little scamp!" he cried. "Mama has sent me to get you."

Eddie wanted to stay longer, but if his mother wanted him to come home, he knew he had to go. Solemnly he said good-bye to Big John and followed Bill from the shop.

Bill led the way home across a field covered with a fine layer of snow. As Eddie trudged along, he felt the wet snow soaking through a hole in the sole of one of his shoes. He hurried to get home so he could dry out his foot.

When Bill and Eddie reached their yard, they called to Nanny, a goat tied to a stake in the yard. The Rickenbackers kept Nanny and some other goats for milk. They used goat's milk for drinking and cooking, and sold some in their neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio.

Eddie rushed up the three steps of the back porch of the small Rickenbacker home. He burst into the large kitchen, the only room on the first floor except a bedroom. Upstairs there were two bedrooms where all the older children slept.

By now it was time for supper. Inside the kitchen, Mama was cooking food on the stove and setting the table. She looked at Eddie and cried, "Ach, there you are. Where have you been? It's time to take care of the goats."

Eddie's parents, William and Elizabeth Rickenbacker, had come from Switzerland. They spoke German in their home and so did their children. Two of the other children were older and two younger than Eddie. The two older children were Mary, who helped with many household duties, and William, whom everybody called Bill. Emma was five years old, and Louis was a baby.

"I've been with Big John at the blacksmith shop," he said. "Some day, when I get a little older, he's going to let me use his forge."

"I worry about your going over there," said Mama. "You could get hurt or burned."

"Oh no, Mama," answered Eddie. "I'm always very careful. Big John watches me, and I've learned a lot about his work."

"Huh!" teased Bill, who had just come in from the yard. "Some day, when you grow up, you'll be a genius."

Mary and Mama laughed, and Eddie felt hurt. Quickly he pulled a cap over his reddish hair and ran out to the barn to look after the goats. "Bring Mama an egg for the baby," Mary called after him. "All right," Eddie yelled back. (Image 1.1)

He carried armfuls of hay for several goats in a pen near the barn and an armful for Nanny, still tied in the yard. She playfully nudged him and bleated out her thanks for the hay.

Next Eddie went to their cellar in the back yard to get the egg for the baby. This cellar was actually a huge hogshead — a kind of barrel — which his father had buried in the ground. It was filled with fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meat, all neatly packed on shelves. The eggs were stored in a jar with a white liquid, called water glass, around them to keep them from spoiling.

Eddie removed the lid from the top of the cellar and climbed down a ladder inside. He trembled with fear because it was dark down in the cellar. Cautiously he reached into the crock, pulled out an egg, and put it into his pocket. Then he wiped the water glass off on his overalls and climbed back up the ladder to the outside.

When he bent over to pull the heavy lid back over the cellar, he suddenly heard the sound of hoof beats. Wham! he went sprawling on the ground. He looked up, and saw Nanny calmly walking away.

At once he thought of the egg in his sweater pocket. Cautiously he reached in his hand and pulled it out, all messy from the broken egg. Angrily he turned to Nanny and shouted, "You mean old goat! I'll get even with you."

By now Papa was home from work and all the members of the family ate supper together. After they finished, Mama sent Bill to get the big family Bible, which was printed in German. Every night after supper she sat at the table and read a few chapters by the light of a kerosene lamp. Then she explained the meaning of what she had read and asked the children to try to lead good lives.

By now the fire in the kitchen stove, which furnished heat for the entire house, was burning low. Mama turned to her husband and said, "William, I need more coal for the cook stove. Our supply is almost gone."

Papa rubbed his black mustache nervously and sighed heavily. "Oh my," he said, "I won't have time tomorrow to get any more coal because I've taken a new job. In the morning I'll have to leave early to start pouring concrete."

"Don't worry, Mama," interrupted Bill. "Tomorrow is Saturday and I won't have to go to school. Eddie and I will go to the railroad tracks and pick up some chunks of coal along the tracks."

"Sure," added Eddie eagerly. He hoped that he would get a chance to see Big John again.

The next morning Bill and Eddie pushed a squeaky wheelbarrow to the railroad tracks. They walked along the tracks and picked up chunks of coal which had rolled off the open coal cars. They played a game to see who could find the most coal. Suddenly Bill noticed a switch engine and coal tender coming towards them. "Look out, Eddie," he called. (Image 1.2)

Eddie stepped back but noticed that the engine and tender were barely moving. Suddenly he was tempted to jump on and take a ride. Happily he ran out and climbed on the back of the tender. Never had he been so thrilled in his life.

Moments later the engine stopped, and Eddie fell off, right on the tracks between the two rails. At first he was too stunned to move, not realizing what had happened. Then as he started to climb to his feet, he discovered, much to his horror, that the engine was starting to back up.

Fortunately Bill was watching. He came and dragged Eddie to one side just as the tender was about to run over him. Then both boys threw themselves on the ground. "You could have been killed," said Bill. "Never do anything like that again."

Eddie knew Bill was right. But he still didn't want his parents to know what had happened. If they did, he'd be kept close to home. It took him the entire walk home for him to get Bill to agree to keep quiet.


Using His Head

Eddie had many close friends in his neighborhood. They had formed a club, which they called the Horsehead Gang. Nearly every day they worked and played together.

One morning, when Eddie and a few other Horsehead boys were playing, they heard the junkman ringing a cowbell and calling, "Any old iron, old rags, old bones today?"

"That's Sam, the junkman," cried Eddie. "Let's go out to the street to see him."

They saw Sam driving a sway-backed horse hitched to an old wagon. Every few minutes he rang his big rusty cowbell and chanted, "Any old iron, old rags, old bones today?"

A housewife called to Sam and came running out with an old metal coffee pot. Sam weighed the pot on a scale and handed her a few coins. When he reached the spot where the boys were waiting, Eddie suddenly had an idea. "I know where there's lots of old junk around here," he called. "If I bring some of this junk, will you buy it from me?"

"Sure, if you collect the right kinds of junk," replied Sam. Eddie had seen a big iron hinge and a partly buried bone behind a neighbor's barn and ran to get them. "Hey, where are you going?" called the other boys.

"Just wait and you'll soon find out," he replied.

He got the iron hinge and bone and ran back to the street. "Stop, Sam!" he called excitedly. "I have some things for you."

Sam heard him calling and stopped his horse. He climbed down, weighed the hinge and the bone, and tossed them into his wagon. Then he counted out three pennies from a bag. "One, two, three," he said as he placed the pennies in Eddie's outstretched hand.

"Thank you," said Eddie gratefully.

As he looked at the three pennies he felt very rich. These were the first coins of his own that he had ever had. He felt so rich that he wanted to treat the other Horseheads. "Let's go get some candy," he said.

More than buying candy for his friends, Eddie wanted to earn money to help his parents. For days he carefully searched back yards, alleys and fields, often with the help of some of the Horseheads. He sold what he found to Sam. Finally he proudly gave his mother a handful of pennies. "Thank you, Eddie," she said. "You're a good boy." Then with a twinkle in her eyes she added, "Sometimes."

Soon Eddie began to wonder whether he could trust Sam to weigh things honestly. He noticed that from time to time Sam paid him different numbers of pennies for the same scrap materials. One day he took a basket of scrap metal to a grocery store to have it weighed. It weighed much less on Sam's scale. "I just can't trust Sam," he thought. "He's cheating me in weighing things."

He soon thought of a way to take care of this problem. He ran to talk with his mother, who was hoeing the garden. "Mama," he asked anxiously, "will you lend me twenty-five cents?"

Mama looked up in surprise and pushed her sunbonnet back from her hot forehead. "You want to borrow twenty-five cents? I don't understand. What do you want to buy?"

"I want to buy a second-hand scale," replied Eddie. "I know where I can get one for twenty-five cents."

"I still don't understand," said Mama. "Why do you want to buy a scale?" (Image 2.1)

"Because I think Sam cheats me when he weighs pieces of junk," answered Eddie. "I want to weigh things in advance so he can't cheat me any longer. If you'll lend me the twenty-five cents, I'll make enough more to pay you back."

Mama hesitated, but soon agreed. "Yes, I'll lend you the money," she said, "but first you'll have to help me finish hoeing the garden."

Eddie ran fast to the shed and picked out a hoe. Carefully he went along the rows of vegetables, chopping out weeds, glad that he had such an understanding mother.

After he finished hoeing, he hurried off to buy the scale. Back home he weighed some brass and bones which he planned to sell to Sam. "According to my scale, I have twenty pounds here," he said. "Now I wonder how much Sam's scale will say I have."

The next morning he carried his brass and bones out to the street and waited for Sam to come by. Soon he heard Sam ringing his cowbell and calling out, "Any old iron, old rags, old bones today?"

As usual, Sam greeted him in a friendly manner. He climbed down from his wagon and weighed Eddie's collection. "Fifteen pounds," he announced, and he started to throw the stuff into his wagon.

"Just a minute," cried Eddie. He ran back to the house, snatched up his scale, and brought it back out to the street. Sam looked at the scale in surprise.

Eddie started to weigh his collection. "My scale says that I have twenty pounds. That's five pounds more than your scale says."

Sam scarcely knew what to say or do. He nervously scratched his short gray beard. "There must be something wrong with your scale," he said.

"Oh, no," replied Eddie. "I'm sure it's right because I checked it with the scale at the grocery store. You owe me for twenty pounds."

"Well, I won't argue with you," said Sam, handing him the right number of coins.

From then on, Eddie never had any problems with Sam about how much his scrap weighed. They became very close friends.


Secondhand Clothes for School

Later that year, Eddie started going to school at the East Main Street Public School in Columbus. At first he had a hard time, because he had always spoken German with his family. In school, he was supposed to speak, read, and write in English. One day he explained his problem to his mother and said, "Mama, why can't we speak English here at home? Then maybe I won't have so much trouble at school."

"I'll speak to Papa about it when he comes home," said Mama. "He probably will be willing, if it will help you in school."

That evening she explained the matter to Papa and they decided to speak English part of the time at home. This change helped Eddie, but English was still difficult for him.

Late one afternoon shortly after school had started, the firebell rang furiously in the hall. "Get in line for a fire drill!" ordered the teacher, rushing to the door.

Quickly and quietly under her directions the children formed a line and marched outside. At once they became excited because they could see smoke coming out of the basement windows. Within a few minutes they heard the clang, clang of the fire engine coming down the street. Soon a red fire engine arrived, pulled by galloping horses. The firemen jumped off and pulled a fire hose toward the basement.

Eddie watched closely and danced about with excitement. Then suddenly he remembered his coat and cap, still inside his classroom. At once, without saying a word, he dashed through the front door of the building.

Inside the hall, he found his way blocked by a sheet of flames shooting upward. He hesitated for a moment, and then leaped through them. The heat almost strangled him and scorched his hair, but he kept on going. He rushed into the classroom and grabbed his coat and cap. Holding them tightly, he dashed through the flames again to the door.

Once he got outside, he realized the great risk he had taken by going back into the burning building. He trembled with fear and took off for home, running all the way. When he reached the back steps, he slumped down, completely exhausted. (Image 3.1)

After he recovered his breath, he went inside and told his mother what he had done. "Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "You might have been burned to death. Why did you do it?"

"Well," said Eddie, "I need my coat and cap. They are the only ones I have good enough to wear to school. I just couldn't take a chance on losing them."

The following summer the Rickenbackers had very little money. Papa earned just a small amount doing cement work about the city. When fall came, he and Mama had to buy second-hand clothes for the children to wear to school.

Eddie's second-hand shoes didn't match. His left shoe was brown with a square toe, and his right shoe was yellow with a pointed toe. "Hey, Papa," he cried. "They don't match. Do I have to wear them to school?"

"I'm afraid so," replied his father. "They were the only shoes left in your size."

Eddie was worried that the other students would make fun of him for wearing these shoes. They already called him "Dutchy" because he spoke with a German accent. "Now they'll start teasing me all over again," he said.

"I'm sorry, son," said Papa, patting him on the shoulder. "When things get better, I'll buy you a pair of shoes that match."

The next day at school, as Eddie had expected, the children made fun of his shoes. "Look at Dutchy's funny shoes," they called, "with a brown square-toed shoe on one foot and a yellow pointed-toe shoe on the other."


Excerpted from Eddie Rickenbacker by Kathryn Cleven Sisson, Harold Underdown, Cathy Morrison. Copyright © 2003 Kathryn Cleven Sisson. Excerpted by permission of Patria Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kathryn Cleven Sisson is the author of Black Hawk, Young Sauk Warrior, John Hancock, New England Boy, and Famous American Patriots for Young People, winner of the Dolley Madison Award from the Sons of the American Revolution. Cathy Morrison is the illustrator of Ignacio's Chair and the Young Patriots series. She is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and Picturebookartists.org. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

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