They say old folks do strange things. At least, I think that is what young people say about us when they talk about us at all —which isn’t all that often. I think this is because we old folks are a bother. I think this must explain why younger people want to place us in nursing homes.
In any case, this story unfolded every Friday evening, almost without fail, when the sun resembled a giant orange and was starting to dip into the wide blue ocean.
Old Ed would come strolling along the beach to his favorite pier. Clutched in his bony hand was a bucket of shrimp. Ed walked out to the end of the pier, where it seemed he almost had the world to himself. The glow of the sun was a golden bronze; except for a few joggers on the beach, everyone had gone. Standing at the end of the pier, Ed stood alone with his thoughts —and his bucket of shrimp.
It was not long before Ed was no longer alone. Up in the sky a thousand white dots came screeching and squawking, winging their way toward that lanky frame standing there on the end of the pier. Dozens of seagulls enveloped him, their wings fluttering and flapping wildly. Ed stood calmly tossing shrimp to the hungry birds. As he fed the birds, if you listened closely, you could hear him say, “Thank you. Thank you.”
The bucket was empty in a few short minutes, but Ed did not immediately leave; he stood there lost in thought, as if transported to another time and place.
When Ed finally turned around for his walk back to the beach, a few of the birds would hop along behind him. Old Ed then quietly made his way down to the end of the beach and onward home.
If you were sitting there on the pier with your fishing line in the water, Ed might seem like ‘a funny old duck, or to onlookers, just another old codger lost in his own weird world. Imagine, feeding the seagulls with a bucket full of shrimp.
To casual observers, rituals such as this can look very strange. They can seem altogether unimportant —perhaps even nonsensical. Most people would probably write Old Ed off, down there in Florida —and that would be too bad. They would have done well to know him better.
His full name was Edward Vernon Rickenbacker. In World War I, he won the Medal of Honor, eight distinguished service crosses, the French Legion of Honour, and three awards of the Croix de Guerre. He was America’s first fighter ace, with 26 victories. After the war, he started an automobile company. He purchased and operated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In the 1930s, he clashed with Franklin D. Roosevelt —he thought Roosevelt was a socialist, and bad for America. It turns out he was right about that. Oh, and he also founded Eastern Airlines.
During World War II, Rickenbacker supported the war effort as a civilian. In 1942, he toured training bases and offered suggestions about training, air operations, and equipment. In October 1942, President Roosevelt sent him on a mission across the Pacific. After leaving Honolulu in a B-17D Flying Fortress, the aircraft drifted off course and had to ditch into the sea. Miraculously, although suffering injuries, all of the men survived the initial crash. They crawled out of the plane, and climbed into a life raft.
Rickenbacker and the crew floated for days on the rough waters of the Pacific. They fought the sun. They fought sharks. Most of all, they fought hunger and thirst. After three days, they ran out of food and water. They were hundreds of miles from land, and no one knew where they went down, or even if they were still alive. The men needed a miracle.
On the eighth day at sea, the men held a simple devotional service and prayed for that miracle. They tried to nap in order to conserve energy. Eddie leaned back and pulled his military cap over his nose to snooze. All he could hear was the slap of the waves against the raft.
Suddenly, Eddie felt something land on the top of his cap. It was a seagull!
Old Ed would later describe how he sat perfectly still, planning his next move. With a flash of his hand and a squawk from the gull, he managed to grab it and wring its neck. He tore the feathers off, and he and his starving crew made a meal of it —actually, a small meal for eight men. Then they used the bird’s intestines for bait. With it, they caught fish, which gave them food and more bait . . . and the cycle continued. With that simple survival technique, they were able to endure the severities of the sea until found and rescued off the island of Tuvalu after 24 days at sea.
Eddie Rickenbacker lived many years beyond that ordeal, but he never forgot the sacrifice of that first life-saving seagull. He never stopped saying, “Thank you” for that miracle. That is why almost every Friday night he would walk to the end of the pier with a bucket full of shrimp and a heart full of gratitude.
Odd old duck? I don’t think so …