The Roof, the Bike, the Umbrella–and Historical Memory

posted in: Eddie Rickenbacker | 0

Looking back across the bulk of the twentieth century, Eddie Rickenbacker said he got the idea for his umbrella bike after (or perhaps during) the barnstorming tour of Roy Knabenshue in his dirigible. “Everyone turned out to watch,” the seventy-five-year-old wrote, which says to me pretty clearly that Eddie wasn’t one of them. He was otherwise occupied, but more on that later.

Umbrella bike? According to Eddie, he was so determined to fly that he tied an over-size umbrella to a used bike and rode it off a barn roof hoping to fly. The umbrella inverted, and he landed in the sand pile he had wisely dumped below the eaves. (He wasn’t that foolish.) He walked away, just shaken and bruised. It would take eleven years for him to get airborne in a real flying machine.

In 1904, Ohioans were talking aviation, but it was just talk. The Wright brothers had made history with their first heavier-than-air, powered flight, but no one outside of a few Kitty Hawk residents had witnessed it. Dirigibles offered more drama at this early stage of aviation. They could be flown over cities. Also known as airships (and more familiarly as gasbags), dirigibles were not hot air balloons. They were navigable (at least to a certain extent), as implied by their name, from the French diriger, to steer.

Roy Knabenshue first took flight in another man’s dirigible at the St. Louis World’s Fair in November of that year. He knew nothing about flight, but he possessed an even more important virtue: fearlessness. Once in the air, Knabenshue caught the bug. He returned to Toledo, designed and built his own airships, and took them on tour.

He reached Columbus by Labor Day, 1905. The next day, beginning just after 7:00 am, he flew his Toledo II from the Ohio State Fairgrounds into downtown Columbus, over the Statehouse, and back. The Columbus Evening Dispatch reported “thousands of children” running to see. “From every building heads were projected, and eager eyes tried to pierce the fog and the smoke to gain the first glimpse of the ship.” It is unlikely that Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s future Ace of Aces and chief executive of Eastern Airlines was one of them. Alas.

At the time, the fifteen-year-old was working full-time to help support his family, his father having died unexpectedly the year before. Eddie might have been at one of several different work sites, but most likely either Gardman’s Shoes or Zinker’s Monument Works. Both were south and west of the capitol. Eddie would have had his eyes focused down on strips of shoe leather or slabs of granite, not toward the sky and dreams of flight. The closest Eddie came to Roy Knabenshue would have been to the buzz his visit created.

Eddie implied that the buzz got him dreaming of flight. In fact, in his autobiography he just put the two thoughts together and allowed the reader to assume the cause-and-effect. Oddly, Rickenbacker’s biographer denies the sequence as much as the causation. He says–in the very first sentence of his book!–that the umbrella bike  attempt happened “almost certainly before December 1903.” That is, before the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk. Certainly, such a foolhardy enterprise seems the work of a ten-year-old more than a fifteen-year-old, already hardened by full-time shop work among grown men. But that’s not the way Eddie remembered it. Or have us think of it.

There is, too, the curious case of Cromwell Dixon. Just a year after Knabenshue, in 1906, this fourteen-year-old Columbus boy designed and flew his own “Sky-cycle” in Olentangy Park. His pedal-powered dirigible so impressed park management it became a regular attraction at the park. This was the same park that had provided Eddie rare moments of childhood amusement just a few years earlier. Was the umbrella bike story Eddie’s attempt to put himself, at least partially, in the same light with Dixon and Knabenshue–and the fictional Tom Swift? We don’t know.

We do know that he worked as many as seven different jobs in the time between his father’s death in 1904 and the summer of 1906. He started at the Federal Glass Company, working the night shift, six to six. To save nickels, he forewent the street car and walked to and from work, three miles each way. Three and four jobs later, at Gardman’s Shoes and Zinker’s Monument Works, his commute grew closer to five miles. How could Eddie keep walking so far, sometimes in rain and snow? How could this ambitious young man afford such a large opportunity cost? Eddie gave a clue in the transcripts of his “Life Story” interviews when he said, simply: “Eventually, I did get a bicycle, which took that problem off my hands.”

If you wonder–Why would he sacrifice this valuable transportation, purchased dearly from many hours of hard labor, to make a fool’s attempt at flying an umbrella bike off a barn roof?–you wouldn’t be alone. Still, Eddie did name his accomplice, the boy who, he said, held the bike for him as he mounted it atop the roof. If only someone had thought to ask Sam Wareham for corroboration. Except: by 1967 good old Sam was likely already in his grave. Eddie’s story, if there was one, was already buried there with him.

[See comment below for correction.]






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