LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
,p class="text">One warm day in 1905, a scrawny, towheaded fourteen-year-old raced down the sidewalk toward a crowd gathering at High and Broad streets in Columbus, Ohio, easily overtaking several horse-drawn wagons plodding along the brick-lined pavement, bells jingling on their reins. He dodged around customers exiting wide-awninged stores as a trolley hummed down the middle of High beneath a series of iron arches hung with still-novel electric lights.
Eddie Rickenbacher wriggled through the crowd to reach a glittering object that he would soon learn was a brand-new 10-horsepower Ford Model C, first of its kind in this midwestern city. He had never seen anything so beautiful. Its brass steering column hovered over an elegant black leather, horsehair-stuffed bench seat; its chassis rested upon large grayish wheels with yellow spokes, accented with mudguards resembling startled eyebrows. Often enough the boy had watched the earth-shaking steam behemoths of the Second Industrial Revolution rumbling through Columbus’s vast yards, but locomotives were dirty, rail-bound monsters. Here was a creation clean, sleek, and streamlined, not constrained to rails and, most important, designed to human scale and individuality.
Only after a minute or two did the boy register the salesman’s voice extolling his chariot’s miraculous new features. The pitchman’s vaudeville-inspired flourishes left the crowd dubious. The claim that everyone would soon own one seemed the wildest snake-oil hyperbole. To sit atop a box barely able to contain a series of violent, noisy explosions was surely dangerous, if not downright suicidal. Trusting something that exuded not natural horsey sweat but oil and smoke—and made an unholy clamor as well—must be folly indeed. “It is a far step from the innate intelligence of the horse and the companionship of the dog to the blind power and mere possession of the machine,” wrote one journalist ominously in 1900. Furthermore, its inner workings were inscrutably hidden, the stuff of sorcery. The crowd had heard about these “crazy firewagons” ripping at dangerous, unpredictable speeds through the measured, long-established, and reassuring rhythms of horse-drawn traffic, past the commerce of steam and canal. These juggernauts were visibly quixotic, unreliable, and uncontrollable. All of this was true enough. Yet this vehicle of the future nonetheless declared itself with mesmerizing boldness.
Searching the faces of the crowd, the salesman locked onto Eddie’s dark brown eyes. Little distinguished this immigrants’ son from the thousands of other urchins roaming the streets of every American city. On his thin frame hung clean but threadbare clothes. Between two winglike ears sat a nose bent where a punch had broken it. One scar grooved his chin, another his cheek. Yet perhaps the salesman saw early what others would soon recognize: a deep, burning fire in the eyes, made the more vivid by contrast with their soot-dark brows, which bespoke not desperation and brute endurance but a deep and abiding curiosity.
Maybe the salesman could sway his tough audience by giving this boy a ride. After all, what could be so dangerous if a kid could take a spin? The hawker needed to score a deal soon; Mr. Ford drove his salesmen hard.
“Want to go for a ride?” he asked. “Yes,” gasped Eddie. The man reached to the steering column and elevated a lever just beneath the wheel to retard the spark plug. (By doing so he prevented the engine from firing prematurely while he cranked the car to start, inflicting a kickback powerful enough to break a hand or wrist.)
Reaching under the floor, he flicked a dowellike pin under the kickboard beneath the seat to turn on the ignition. He grabbed the foot-long crank handle and fitted its clawlike end into a brass-rimmed hole just above the running board on the driver’s side, jerking the handle’s wooden grip from its downward orientation into the twelve o’clock position. The two-cylinder engine shuddered and rat-tat-tatted into noisy animation. The crowd tittered in anticipation. A wisp of smoke escaped from the exhaust. The spoked wheels rattled with promise. To Eddie and the others assembled, the loud clicking hum was entirely foreign, what John Dos Passos would call “the new noise of the automobile.”
Excerpted from Enduring Courage
by John F Ross. Copyright © 2014 by John F Ross.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.