Monday, December 1, 2008

Early Bird, Part 10

Glamour and mystique enveloped Dutch Thompson, and his popularity grew around the country. His every action and word in public was recorded. When the local dignitaries of Huntington, Ind., greeted him in June 1914, they implored him to come have a drink with them. "No, I never drink when I am in the air," Thompson was quoted in the local paper. "Give me a chocolate ice cream soda."

The newspaper went on to describe the pilot's routine: "He climbed into the narrow, enclosed seat of the bi-plane and strapped himself in. He then strapped an aneroid barometer, an instrument for measuring altitude, to his thigh, where it is in plain view. He turned his cap backward and without placing goggles over his eyes announced that he was ready to commence his flight.
"Just before he gave his final word Thompson extracted a pouch of chewing tobacco and took a huge chew. He said he always chews when in the air."

After Beachey's death, Thompson began a two-year tour of fairgrounds with the great auto racer, Barney Oldfield in April 1915. Oldfield, 11 years older than Thompson, had started out racing bicycles in 1894. The cigar-chomping showman became the first man to travel a mile in less than a minute. He and Beachey had performed 35 shows together.

The Thompson-Oldfield spectacles drew tens of thousands to witness a race between the holders of speed records in the air and on the ground. Thompson would never be more famous – except for one night in 1916, when his antics would attract the attention and wonder of none other than the president of the United States.

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