Review by Amber Peckham
In his new biography Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed (St. Martin’s Press; May 2014), Smithsonian Board of Editors member and Fort Ticonderoga prize winner John F. Ross has made another valuable contribution to the annals of American history. His chronicle of the life of speed demon and ace fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker is nothing short of meticulous.
From the book’s introduction, the reader senses they are in the hands of an expert storyteller and historian. Those first pages put you in the cockpit with Rickenbacher, May 1918. Eddie soars 17,000 feet over France, locked in mortal combat with German Albatros aircraft, a superior machine to the one Rickenbaker piloted. Ross describes the sub-class Nieuport 18 Eddie flew as a “controllable box kite,” and evokes with clean language the relentless nausea, diarrhea, vertigo, and oxygen deprivation that “stalked” Rickenbaker as he fought for his life miles above a foreign land.
Make no mistake: Rickenbaker wanted it that way. Eddie Rickenbaker was a man who spent his whole life pushing himself beyond the thresholds of safety and common sense. To say he was a thrill seeker would be accurate, but also a shallow estimation of the true nature of his personality. Rickenbaker trained himself to defy emotion, to overcome fear (which he certainly felt) and do that thing which must be done for the betterment of all.
By the time he fought for his country in World War I, Rickenbaker was in his late twenties and already a celebrity racecar driver in the United States, known for his unorthodox methods and rakish, devil-may-care attitude. After his father died in a bar fight when he was 13, Eddie spent his early years as an automobile engineer and glorified guinea pig, driving some of the world’s earliest cars as fast as he possibly could. He watched other drivers lose tires and steering capabilities at speeds of more than 80 mph, which was record-setting at the time. Drivers frequently killed each other, themselves, and even spectators in those early days of high-speed land velocity. Eddie managed through a combination of talent, instinct, and luck to avoid debilitating injury himself. He raced in four of the first Indianapolis 500s, at the same motor speedway he would later buy and nurse through the Great Depression.
During his enlistment as a soldier and officer in the US Army Air Service, Rickenbaker reportedly flew more hours than any other pilot in World War I, and was recorded as responsible for downing 26 planes single-handedly. The Americans would only claim victory over a total of 110 enemy fliers during their time in the war, a figure which serves to illustrate Rickenbaker’s instrumental role in the Allied victory.
After his discharge as a Major, Rickenbaker’s life didn’t get easier. He ended up as the head of both his own motor vehicle company and Eastern Airlines, married, had children, and survived two plane crashes as well as 24 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean.
The biggest strength of Ross’s narrative lies in his careful framing of Eddie’s life within the larger history of human events.
As Ross writes in the book’s introduction, “Ultimately, Rickenbaker’s story boils down to courage. Not the kind of raw courage that comes in a blinding rush…but one that is trained to purpose and gets stronger, wiser, and more effective with experience….No other single trait has so forcefully shaped the American nation.” In our uncertain modern times where truly reliable heroes seem impossible to find, reconnecting with the inspirations of our past can provide a crucial and motivating lens through which to see our future. The biggest strength of Ross’s narrative lies in his careful framing of Eddie’s life within the larger history of human events. He doesn’t just describe Rickenbaker’s life, he helps us see it–and helps us see why it still matters. History buffs from all nations will appreciate this narrative, as will anyone who shares Rickenbaker’s obsessions with engines, risk, and reward.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars[boxer set=”peckham”]