Interview: May 15, 2014
John F. Ross is the award-winning author of WAR ON THE RUN: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America's First Frontier, and has served as the Executive Editor of American Heritage and on the Board of Editors at Smithsonian magazine. His latest book, ENDURING COURAGE: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed, is the electrifying true story of the beginning of America’s love affair with speed, and how one man --- Eddie Rickenbacker --- showed a nation the way forward.
In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Greg Fitzgerald, Ross discusses what exactly drove “Fast Eddie” to pioneer a previously unexplored area of air transportation, and how crucial timing --- as well as the country’s overall “can-do” attitude --- was to his advancements. He also talks about the issue of “hero worship” when it comes to writing the biographies of national heroes, and why he feels so drawn to the theme of “courage at pivotal moments in American history.”
Bookreporter.com: What inspired you to write about Eddie Rickenbacker?
John F. Ross: As a boy, I read Rickenbacker’s gritty memoir, FIGHTING THE FLYING CIRCUS, about flying against the Germans in World War I. I was thrilled by his derring-do in the skies of northeastern France. Like all good ideas/topics, something about him stuck with me for decades. I later realized that Rickenbacker offered an ideal opportunity to explore so many fascinating themes: What is the role that courage plays in our lives, for instance? And how did our national fixation with speed begin? I’ve also wanted to write about the American entrance into World War I, when we truly jumped onto the international stage.
Also, quite frankly, I thought it important to remind Americans about the caliber and toughness of the men and women who built this nation. We’re so often paralyzed today with decisions, so afraid of risk. Rickenbacker and others embraced dangerous new technology and made it better, showed others the way forward. I wanted to remind us all of this nation’s greatness.
BRC: Rickenbacker was a pioneer in two arenas of speed: automotive and aerial. At the turn of the 20th century, it was possible for people of his background to get to the pinnacle of these arenas. What was there about Rickenbacker that drove him to plunge on --- and succeed --- the way he did?
JFR: Opportunities in general were few for a dirt-poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Columbus, Ohio. But the new, dangerous world of auto racing and flying gave those with guts and raw talent the opportunity to stand out and make it, if they could stay alive. Several things kept him in the game. Eddie had a knack for working with engines. He claimed they spoke to him --- and he used that gift to save his life and to tinker and improve things.
He also had a practical view on risk. Many of the early daredevils did it for thrills or glory. Not Eddie. He did it to build a career --- and he pioneered new ways of risk management. Ultimately, I argue, he did it to survive. It might seem contradictory because what he did was so dangerous. But he did these things to escape the anonymity of poverty.
BRC: Between the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and Rickenbacker and his squadron in World War I in 1917 --- just 14 years --- there were exponential advances in aviation. We went from man being stuck on the ground to fighting in the air. Was the timing right for a maverick like him?
JFR: It’s hard to imagine how much changed in aviation technology in only 14 years. One historian calculates that advantage in the air shifted 18 times between sides, a change coming when a new, more efficient airplane was introduced or, for instance, with the innovation that led to pilots being able to shoot machine guns through their propellers. But also changes came with the development of new tactics and formation flying. These young pilots were innovating on the fly, flying by the seat of their pants, constantly adapting. This kind of environment favored the skills of someone like Rickenbacker, who had always relied upon himself and not on others.
BRC: Rickenbacker’s formal education ended in seventh grade, which makes what he achieved all the more remarkable. For that to happen today would be pretty difficult. What was different about his generation and life then that allowed for this kind of success?
JFR: That generation had a particularly can-do sense of world. Across America, independent inventors were heroes, the imaginations of most every boy fired by stories of Edison’s electric light, Marconi’s radio, Eastman’s camera and Bell’s telephone. In 1910, dime-novel entrepreneur Edward Stratemeyer packaged this spirit of youthful inventiveness into one of fiction’s most enduring characters: Tom Swift, the peppy, hyperoptimistic boy supergadgeteer, whose backyard tinkering swept him into a wonderland of dirigibles, submarines and electric cars. In spirit, Tom --- “swift by name and swift by nature” --- stood for Eddie or any one of millions of their American brethren. Invention and tinkering had simply hijacked the country’s imagination.
BRC: Do you feel there’s the same ability for anyone of any background to become a pioneer today?
JFR: When a technology is brand new, there will always be opportunities for those who think out of the box to make major innovations, whether they have what’s considered proper training or not. Just think about young Bill Gates at the dawn of the computer age, or Mark Zuckerberg and social media.
BRC: Rickenbacker turned his back on automotive racing when it was still in its formative, dangerous years. What do you believe he would think of today’s car racing world, with the advances in both safety and automotive design?
JFR: Eddie bought the Indianapolis Speedway in 1927 and kept it viable through the Great Depression and into World War II. He would have applauded the advances in safety and design --- and contributed to them when he could. He and his mechanic were the first to adopt hard helmets in car racing. He wasn’t a guy who took risks just for the heck of it.
BRC: Rickenbacker ended up taking the type of position that many of his Ivy-educated World War I colleagues were “destined” for --- leading Eastern Air Lines in an executive role. Do you think his non-traditional path there helped his leadership skills?
JFR: Time and again, Eddie’s unorthodox solutions to problems gave him a competitive advantage, even against those with far more training and resources. That unorthodox approach also bled into his leadership skills. He was able to look at problems with a fresh set of eyes, not working with a preconceived set of ideas on how things were supposed to be done.
BRC: Rickenbacker is a timeless American folk hero. Did this present any challenges with your research and sources?
JFR: Yes. It’s easy to become blinded by his dazzling exploits. Most past biographers have become hero worshippers of one sort or another. And Eddie himself was quite adept at deflecting personal questions --- and quite effective at creating a solid veneer of the hero in his ghostwritten autobiographies. Cutting through all that to find the real man was one of the great challenges and great satisfactions of this book project.
BRC: As you were researching Rickenbacker, what, if anything, surprised you?
JFR: All sorts of things. I remember vividly being quite surprised by how he related his father’s death in his autobiography as a construction accident. In fact, his father provoked a fight with an African American laborer. The man killed him in self-defense. There was a trial and big funeral, but Eddie relates none of this. He willfully changed the events to give his childhood a rosier hue.
BRC: When you were writing, did you always see the story unfolding as we see it now, or did it take some twists and turns along the way as you started working?
JFR: Writing a book for me is a voyage of discovery --- there are storms that blow you off course, unexpected sightings of new lands, days when you’re becalmed, others when you’re clipping along with exhilaration in a fresh breeze. The best writing, I think, reflects that sense of discovery to the reader. The writer, like the reader, is sharing in a new story, turning the page to see what’s next.
BRC: Your previous book, WAR ON THE RUN: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America's First Frontier, also dealt with an unconventional pioneer. What parallels would you draw between Rogers and Rickenbacker?
JFR: Both were self-taught men in times of incredible change. They both were courageous, innovative and self-reliant. They often rubbed people the wrong way, but they were strong leaders. They both rose far beyond their station.
BRC: May we ask what you are working on now?
JFR: I’m not done with exploring this theme of courage at pivotal moments in American history. So I’m looking for another example of that to focus on for my next project.