This beetle is named after the muscular Arnold Schwarzenegger because of its enlarged middle femora. World War I fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, known as the "ace of aces," sits in a biplane. The dawn of the 20th century saw the advent of two world-changing technologies: automobiles and airplanes.
He became famous in the nascent sport of auto racing, driving in sanctioned events across the country, including the earliest Indianapolis 500s.
Many books have been written about Rickenbacker, including two autobiographies that were ghostwritten and dramatized for effect. I was hooked at age 10 or 12 when I read his first autobiography, Fighting the Flying Circus. I believe it's important for us to revisit figures of the past like Eddie who did so much to build this country.
Halfway through the research for the book, I realized that the core of this booka€”and the key to understanding Eddiea€”was the character trait of courage.
How would you characterize Rickenbacker's courage in relation to the new dangers posed by cars and airplanes? Somewhere in between was a fine line that Eddie found by asking himself questions like, How fast can I take this car? How did you discern between what Rickenbacker and his ghostwriters dramatized or exaggerated, and what Rickenbacker actually did and said? I knew I needed to push back into the primary source material upon which the [early] books were based. Most of us as we age come up with the narrative of our lifea€”this was especially important for Eddie, who was a big national hero.
What results is a wonderful document of contradictions and humor, acerbic side comments, anger, and wishful thinking. I picked out that incident to show how his brain workeda€”what moved him to be creative in a dire situation.


Any "aha" moments when you uncovered something that had not been revealed before about Rickenbacker? One of the aha moments, though written about in an academic biography earlier, was that he willfully glossed over his father's death. I note in my book that he buried humiliation and guilt by brushing the facts away [in his best-selling autobiography]. I began to understand that taking control of the narrative of his life and changing inconvenient details was all about the survival of a man only inches away from being a nobodya€”a poor immigrant's son desperate to make it in the New World.
Rickenbacker catapulted to fame a hundred years ago, but would you say his brand of courage is timeless? At a very critical tima€”when America was in the midst of World War IIa€”Eddie, through a personal demonstration of courage, lost in the Pacific Ocean for 23 days, showed how Americans could get through anything. I think that every generation should take a new look at people like this, the same way we've looked at George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and other pivotal people in our history, and bring fresh ideas to why they did what they did and what it means to us today. For those who are not interested in World War I aviation or early car racing, why should they read Enduring Courage? The book is ostensibly about World War I aviation and car racing, but those are the vehiclesa€”excuse the puna€”that I use to talk about deeper things in American culture. This all happened at the dawn of the age of speeda€”when human culture first experienced mechanical speed, and it became available to everybody. That's how the Darth Vader beetle, or Agathidium vaderi, came to grace a scientific publication in 2005. With these came new breeds of risk takers and heroesa€”the racecar driver and the fighter pilot.
He became even more famous in World War I as America's ace of aces, downing more enemy airplanes than any other U.S. I was just stunned by the incredible stories of aerial dogfights in rickety biplanes over France in World War I, and how Eddie Rickenbacker was the hero at the center of it. It's beneficial to see how they handled the challenges and opportunities at the beginning of major technological innovations and changes.


Not the white-hot courage that makes people do heroic things in a moment of desperation, but the kind of day-to-day courage that enables a seventh-grade dropout to become the ace of aces and the head of Eastern Air Lines. But it was hard to keep that narrative straight when he and Herndon kept coming back to the same incidents from different perspectives over the course of many interviews. Only a few seconds remained for him, and no emergency procedures had yet been devised for such a situation. He was an unorthodox thinker who did not just take what people gave him on face value, but went beyond. He claimed that his father was a construction foreman who was killed by an errant crane-load of wood.
He had been sent at the president's request to the South Pacific, but the aircraft he was riding in crashed at sea. I hear a lot of dithering and whining in this country, and I think it behooves us to go back and look at another time and see the stuff we Americans are made of. It came through an understanding of risk and an understanding of himself, along with a deep grittiness, the will to survive, and bringing his talents to bear. Of course, all this stuff got sanitized, because Eddie wanted to keep his hero status intact.
In desperation, while in a spin and plummeting toward Earth, he was forced to think and act quickly. In reality, he was a common laborer who attacked an African-American laborer without provocation.
Ross grapples with this and other questions in his new book, Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed. Eddie Rickenbacker's extraordinary life gave me an opportunity to explore some fascinating themes in American history and reflect on who we are as Americans.



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