Biographies of Eddie Rickenbacker bear titles and subtitles such as “Enduring Courage,” “An American Hero of the Twentieth Century,” “Rickenbacker’s Luck.” Would these books and these epithets have been written had things happened, not so much differently as, at different times?
If his father had died earlier, when Eddie was just a child, would he have felt such a need to take over the mantle of provider for the family? If he had been older, already entered in the work force, would his drive to succeed have been as intense?
What is beyond question is that he was born at just the right time to become a path-setter in both the automotive and aviation fields. In 1906, at the age of fifteen, Eddie worked elbow-to-elbow with experienced machinists building motor cars from the ground up. He learned craft every part that went into their machines (except for the rubber tires). Problem solving and engineering ingenuity came with the job description.
Automotive engineering led to racing, and by 1916 Eddie was a national figure, finishing third in the AAA standings. An opportunity to drive a British-made Sunbeam (and possibly win the next year’s championship) brought Eddie to the UK at a critical time. Brookland’s Speedway had been commandeered by the Royal Flying Corps for its pilot training center. Rick (as he was becoming known) was intrigued, especially when he saw planes fly down the Thames, like motor cars down a race track. While working with Sunbeam, unrestricted U-boat operations resumed in January; the Zimmerman Telegram was revealed and American diplomatic relations with Germany revoked in February. Rick hustled home by steamer before war could be declared. When it was, in April, Rick made flying for his country his primary goal.
Rick distinguished himself in the air just as he had done on the track. Through hard work and single-minded focus, by balancing fearlessness with prudence, ambition with humility, Eddie went on to become a squadron commander and America’s Ace of Aces. Bad luck kept him from acing as soon as he would have liked, but good luck kept him alive after making numerous early mistakes. Was it bad luck when he was grounded by ear pain in July and again in August? Eddie’s biographer believes that Rick’s recuperation in hospital allowed him time to evaluate his performance and make mental adjustments to his tactics. Missing nearly eight weeks during the hotly-contested Chateau-Thierry campaign greatly reduced the odds of a fatal or incapacitating wound ending his war career.
Returning home a hero after the war, Captain Eddie (as he became popularly known) experienced a prime case of bad timing: Commercial aviation did yet not exist to employ his talents. Captain Eddie went back to automotive engineering, this time as the designer of a passenger car for the mid-market buyer. One of his innovations, four-wheel brakes, was apparently ahead of its time. The marketing disaster that ensued led to his company’s bankruptcy. (In truth, this was less a case of bad timing than of the venality of his competitors.)
An American airline industry did eventually take off, as it were, and Captain Eddie did maneuver his way to the top of its corporate ladder. By creating his own opportunities and taking advantage of events as they occurred, Rickenbacker made himself the owner and chief executive of one of the nation’s Big Four airlines. Yet here, too the timing of his birth in history was as important (almost) as Eddie’s perspicacity and single-minded ambition. That is, he lived at a time when a self-educated grade school dropout could still rise to the top of a corporation. Though he brought two of the twentieth century’s most defining technologies into prominence, Rickenbacker is more often seen as a product of the late nineteenth century, an embodiment of Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches–or at least of street-urchin-to-national-hero-and-corporate executive. Rickenbacker was a passionate believer in the American Dream because he had lived it. Unfortunately, the American Dream was losing its luster for many Americans in the last third of the Ace’s life.
Indeed, by 1950 Rickenbacker seemed to outlive his time. As the country adapted to a new economy and adopted a new meaning of “liberal” in the aftermath of the Depression, Rickenbacker began to feel out of step with his world. More and more, he spoke out about the values that had always motivated him: self-reliance, hard work, and freedom. But fewer and fewer people listened; more and more called him a crank. He was eventually pushed out of “his” company, and for the first time in almost sixty years, Rickenbacker found himself with time on his hands. It was not a condition he was at all comfortable with. He quickly created a project to occupy himself: the organizing of his papers and the (ghost-) writing of his autobiography. For a full year and more he dictated his story to his ghostwriter, reliving in his mind the glory years of his past.
But all good things must pass, and Rickenbacker had seven more years left to live. Good timing would have shaved off at least five of them.
Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Rickenbacker, Eddie V. Fighting the Flying Circus. New York: Doubleday, 1965 (1919).
Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.
Ross, John F. Enduring Courage: ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the dawn of the age of speed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014.
Serling, Robert J. From the Captain to the Colonel: An Informal History of Eastern Airlines. New York: Dial Press, 1980.