Eddie Rickenbacker resurfaces

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.”


When the people lead the leaders will follow

Savannah Mornings News column

Sun., July 13, 2014

People who can sit through meetings, read zoning ordinances and entertain opposing views are curious creatures. They have to be patient, composed and tolerant. They have to hold strong views of their own, views they can articulate and back up.

It’s best if they are hopeful and optimistic, not cynical or contemptuous.

The world – Savannah, at least – needs these people.

Meet Dennis Hutton, advocate for good food, local farmers and a more lenient animal control ordinance.

Two years after retiring from the Metropolitan Planning Commission – his last title was director of comprehensive planning – and leaving behind zillions of meetings, documents, compromises and concessions, Hutton, 68, is still at it, still sitting on committees, still waiting for governmental approvals, still making his views known.

None of this is very different from the mid-1960s when the Vietnam War loomed front and center. After graduating from Benedictine Military School, Hutton went to the University of Notre Dame, spent a year in Germany in an intensive college-related program, came home and transferred to the University of California, Berkeley.

When he dropped out of Berkeley he knew the draft would get him and it did. So he enlisted. He started his training in advanced infantry. And he quit. He went AWOL. But one week later he turned himself in and spent two years in jail at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas as a draft dodger. None of this was unplanned or regretted.

“I wanted people to know not everyone wanted to kill men, women, children and water buffalo,” Hutton said from his five-acre home in Pembroke. “Eventually world opinion caught up.”

Which is exactly what Hutton is expecting the policy makers will do vis-à-vis food and health, farmers and the marketplace, gardens and people. Change is not going to come from the top until the people at the bottom make their positions known.

“But it’s happening,” Hutton said. “The boulder is moving.”

After Fort Leavenworth Hutton went to work in construction and eventually Thomas and Hutton Engineering in Savannah. By then, married with four children, he had gone back to college and received a degree in English from Augusta State University.

“I bet my kids I’d graduate college before them and I did, by one year,” he said.

Then he got another wild hair. In his mid-50’s Hutton returned to school. He moved to New York and got a master’s degree in English (literary criticism) from Fordham University. He’s a staunch defender of a liberal arts education.

“Employers are looking for people with critical thinking sills,” he said. “That’s what you learn in liberal arts – where to learn how to find out something. You learn how to learn.”

He discovered the efficacy of this inadvertently while working for a paving contractor in Augusta when he watched his bosses pay someone to help them get certified by the Department of Transportation. “They said they didn’t understand the terms,” Hutton said. “I said, ‘I can do that.’”

For a while he considered going for a doctorate but then decided there were too many hoops to jump through. So he worked in Due West, S.C., as a field hand for Morris Communications’ Billy Morris’ Creek Plantation, while teaching as an adjunct at six or seven colleges.

But when then-MPC executive director Milton Newton called and said he was looking for someone who could write and read a set of plans, bingo, Hutton’s education and construction background moved him into another area.

This percolated along until two more factors intervened and put Hutton on his current path.

“First there was Catherine Ross from Georgia Tech who said public health was an essential part of planning,” he said. “Then Mayor (Otis) Johnson had his heart attack and started the Healthy Savannah Initiative, which he brought to the MPC when I was still working there. Getting people from the county and the city to the same table has been incredibly helpful. I do believe this is what Mayor Johnson will be remembered for.”

Hutton calls Healthy Savannah “a social movement. We don’t have programs but we have spawned the Bicycle Campaign, the community garden movement, the urban farming program, the food policy committee and the beginnings of a food hub.

“We muddle along,” he said. “It’s not always fun or clear but we are moving in the right direction, but we’ve taken a big gulp of the elephant. Now we need to make it as easy to be a farmer as it is to be a stockbroker. I don’t have a lot of faith in the larger realm, but if people like me helped to stop the Vietnam War we can do this. Saying it can’t happen is not acceptable. If we can’t do it here in Savannah, Georgia, it’s not going to get done anywhere.”