Sunday, November 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 201: Eddie Rickenbacker, Notes on War Experiences (#201)

Eddie Rickenbacker, "Notes on War Experiences" (1918/2011) from Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight:

Here's something I learned from Into the Blue: if you have any fears or anxieties about flying, do NOT read the experience of early fliers. Don't even think about it. Pretend that planes were perfected by the Greeks and we've been flying safely since before the European colonization of America. Because if you read stories like this that are less than 100 years old--stories about planes crashing under ideal conditions, of aviators getting airsick and of not realizing their surroundings--your flying anxieties are going to become acute.

Luckily, I'm not particularly anxious about flying--no more than I am about everything else in the world. So when I read this story of future ace and airline executive Eddie Rickenbacker's first experience flying over enemy territory, my overwhelming feeling is amazement. Amazing: out of 16 pilots who flew from France to the base, six arrived safely, with six forced to make landings before, and four crashing on arrival. Amazing (though very reasonable and still continued to this day): before flying on the recon/training mission, ground crews need to know what to do with your stuff in case you don't come back. Amazing: Rickenbacker's plane was so far below the quality of Major Lufbery's plane that he fell behind, though Lufbery always performed a "virage" to keep the planes together--within shouting distance(!). Amazing: Rickenbacker was so focused on staying close to Lufbery that he forgot about the ground. Amazing (but really understandable): Rickenbacker was so focused on flying that he didn't even notice the enemy and allied planes around him.

The whole piece is full of these little first-person details--and no attempt to pretend that he wasn't frightened and out of his depth--that I'm very glad that he thought to type this up. Which is an interesting idea in its own way: here's Rickenbacker, blue-collar mechanic-turned-flying ace, uncertain about his writing abilities, but who thinks that his experience on the cutting edge of war flying should be preserved. And yes, the writing is rough in parts; but this just makes me wish more people wrote down their experiences, unembellished and truthful.

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