The First Across the Continent
A 100th anniversary remembrance of Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz.
- By Charles Wiggin, As Told To Howard Eisenberg
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
(Page 2 of 4)
Our little 90-horsepower, 90-mph Palmer-Singer racing car—to be used for local transportation and for speeding to Cal whenever and wherever he landed—dashed across the city toward the six-car train that awaited us in the Jersey City yards. The Vin Fiz Special, with its sleeping, dining, lounging, and hangar cars, would serve as airplane repair shop, Vin Fiz sales and promotion office, and temporary home for Cal, his wife Mabel, his mother Mrs. H.S. Sweitzer, we three mechanicians, a maid, chauffeur Jimmy Dunn, and a dozen assorted managers, press contact men, and Armour VIPs.
Now the Vin Fiz forged into view over the yards, and Cal waggled his wings, signaling that he had spotted us. The white muslin streamers bound to the roof of the Special—Mrs. Rodgers’ idea—would make it easy for him to see us and let us guide him out of large cities through the labyrinths of criss-crossing railroad tracks leading in so many directions.
The Wright EX had been rated at 62 mph, “in still air,” in her Ohio test run, and now Cal showed us his tail. When we shuddered onto a siding in Middletown, New York, he had been waiting for us for two hours. Impatiently—he was out of cigars.
One hundred and five miles in 104 minutes. The mood of the parlor car that night was unrestrainedly optimistic. “Two weeks oughtta do it!” “Just keep the tank full of gas and Cal’s pockets full of cigars!” “California, here we come!”
Our mood was just as cheery next morning, renewed by Cal’s exuberant 5:30 a.m. shout the length of the silent Pullman: “Up and at ’em, fellas—let’s get flying!”
But an hour later, when our Palmer-Singer careened up to a scene of havoc and confusion in a Middletown back yard, our mood was somber. The takeoff pasture had been short, the trees at the far end tall, the down drafts tricky. The crumpled Vin Fiz, wings pierced and twisted by hickory limbs, dangled limply—nose buried in a chicken coop.
Cal, his forehead bloody and his jacket torn, stood beside it, stunned and tight-lipped. He didn’t seem to hear the constable and the doctor urging him to come with them to the hospital to have that wound dressed. They led him away from the wreck finally, still dazed, still sick at heart. But not until he’d spoken for the first time the words we were to hear so often in the days ahead: “Fix her up, boys—I’ll be ready.”
We fixed her, in three nonstop days and nights of work—and Cal seemed to inch his way across New York. At a waddling takeoff on the 24th in Cattaraugus County, within a New York Indian reservation, we leaned forward and shouted, “Up, UP!” as though we could push or wish him over the rusty hooks of the barbed-wired fence just ahead. We couldn’t. We sprinted up to find the airplane impaled, a total wreck. We found Cal, still puffing his cigar—unhurt, but with another three-day repair job ahead and, on his eighth day, still a long way from California.
By October 8, with only two days left to claim the purse, Cal had made it to Chicago. Reach California though he might, after October 10, he could not claim the prize. But he masked his disappointment behind a screen of cigar smoke, and told reporters: “I’ll keep going. I’ll be the first man to cross the continent by air, no matter how long it takes me.”
Sitting out front with his toes toward California, Cal found the turtleneck sweater and leather wind-breaker under his jacket did little to keep him warm. He had stuffed layers of newspaper under the jacket, and they chafed and rubbed and rattled, but did little more. His cigars, which he chain-smoked because he couldn’t light a match up there, were his portable furnace and chief comfort. And when he was all smoked out—as, wind-blown at 60 mph, he quickly was—he “smoked” a pencil stub. Cal had lost 15 pounds—partly from tension, and partly from the monotony of the menu that alternated now between ham-and-beans and beans-and-ham. Though tanned, he was drawn and tired-eyed.
The long list of towns where Cal landed—or crash-landed—reads in my mind like an odd blend of gazetteer and machine-shop catalogue: Blue Springs, Missouri—blown magneto plug; McAlester, Oklahoma—cracked cylinder and oil leak (and on the 16th of October at that, the 30th day Cal had confidently expected to spend in California); Waco, Texas—cracked wing; west of Austin, Texas—transmission trouble, with Cal landing in what we were told was the only level patch of land for miles around; Spofford, Texas—a fence came up to meet him. The Vin Fiz was made of wood, but the man was made of iron.
Cal flew on, with the Vin Fiz Special churning in pursuit. We never knew where we’d find him, or when, but we were always relieved when we did. He hit another fence at Sanderson, Texas, one month after he’d left Brooklyn. One month was the length of time Charlie Taylor had signed on for—he had taken only a leave of absence from the Wrights—and in Sanderson he got news that his wife was ill. He wished us all good luck and goodbye.
Overheated by overwork, the bearings in the plane’s transmission chain cracked in mid-air near Willcox, Arizona, setting up such a terrific vibration that Cal had to cut his power and glide to earth. “We’re stuck for a week,” Cal said philosophically when we reached him. “I’ll wire the Wrights for another chain.”