Savannah Morning News column
Sun., July 20, 2014
All Eddie Culver wanted that sweltering day in July, the hottest of the year, was to find someone who could do a quality repair job on a few pieces of beloved and damaged chairs. But when he met Brian Rickenbacker, a master craftsman, Eddie, the affable fellow from Savannah’s venerable Culver Rugs on Bonaventure Road and Mall Boulevard, the man on a mission for his run-down chairs, couldn’t resist making a joke.
“Hey,” he said, “with my first name and your last we could be Eddie Rickenbacker.”
That’s when Eddie learned the news. He was talking to Eddie Rickenbacker’s grandson.
Not everyone remembers Rickenbacker. He died in 1973. Rickenbacker was an ace fighter pilot from World War I with a record 26 “aerial victories” to his name. He was a crack racecar driver, the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the long-time CEO of Eastern Airlines. He survived two serious plane mishaps; in one, he was left for dead; in another he had enough gravitas to be carrying a secret message from President Franklin Roosevelt to General Douglas McArthur before his plane ran out of gas and landed in the Pacific Ocean. This was the time the New York Times ran a cartoon with a floating wreath saying, “So long Eddie. We will miss you.”
He was the subject of at least one movie (Fred McMurry played Rickenbacker) and 17 books. Many of the books line a bookshelf that his grandson Brian fashioned out of white oak.
But if people under, say, 40, never heard of Eddie Rickerbacker or his grandson, Swiss Radio and Television (SRF) knew about both. One day after Culver’s visit with his damaged chairs, correspondent Arthur Honegger sat in Brian Rickenbacker’s Ardsley Park home, adjusting his camera and getting levels for his audio to film an interview with the grandson of a man whose great-great grandfather emigrated from Switzerland to Columbus, Ohio, sometime late in the nineteenth-century.
Rickenbacker’s story is a tale of old-school America. After his father died, Eddie quit school to help support his younger siblings. He worked in a glass factory, a bowling alley and a garage. He took a correspondence course to learn how to be a mechanic. This led to a job with a racecar driver.
“By this time, with the war looming, he wanted to fly,” Brian, 63, said, “ but at 27 he was too old. Plus, most pilots were college educated and he was not. He was rough. But he badgered them until they relented.”
He was a take-charge guy. Brian elaborates on the 24 days his grandfather and six others floated on their three rafts waiting for help from their disabled plane. His grandfather, then 49, was a civilian, albeit a decorated one; his companions were active military and in their twenties. When they took off from Hawaii, Brian said, their provisions were minimal. One man just happened to have three oranges. Straight away, Rickenbacker insisted they ration the oranges. The men bulked. They resented his attitude. Then, after days of searing daytime temperatures and freezing nights, a seagull landed on the felt fedora hat Rickenbacker always wore.
“Everyone was still,” Brian said, recalling a story he must have heard a lot though he is quick to say his grandfather didn’t want to talk about his past. Look it up, he would say.
“Somehow my grandfather had the presence of mind to stay calm, reach up slowly and grab the bird,” Brian continued. “After that the men ate the bird and used the entrails as bait to catch fish. That eased the situation.”
When he was a child, Brian moved with his family to a ranch his grandfather owned in Texas, one his father would manage. He would see him, but briefly. He was busy. When he was five Brian’s family moved to Montclair, N.J. His grandparents lived in New York City.
Brian and his wife Betsy moved to Savannah from Lexington, Ky., in 2011 after visiting their son who occasionally played with the Savannah Symphony.
“My grandfather was a serious, no-nonsense kind of guy,” Brian said. “He did whatever it took to accomplish the job. He was about getting it done. If he gave any advice at all it was to not go into debt.
“To me he was a true hero. He never took much of a salary. He thought being successful brought its own rewards.”
On one of the books on the shelf, Eddie wrote, “With love and best wishes to my able and worthy grandson. May you have as interesting a life as mine but you must work for it. Read this book often as the years roll by and remember the lessons it teaches. Granddaddy Rickenbaker.”