In fact it can not. What you are seeing, at a time when most Americans had not yet seen an airplane, is the “Cole Flyer”, piloted by Bob Fowler, using a hand car as a catapult to become airborne, an aviation first. So the engineer can be excused for not recognizing what he saw, as it had never been seen before, ever, in the four billion year history of the earth. It was a desperate measure, tried after Fowler had been trapped in the sand for four days, 16 miles west of El Paso, Texas. The Mexican border was only three miles to the south. And staring head on at the steam engine bearing down on him, Bob Fowler said later he wondered if he was going to become the first pilot in history to crash into a locomotive. Bob lifted off the hand car at the last possible second and became airborne, missing the front of the oncoming locomotive he said, by “…no more than ten feet.” I doubt if the engineer comprehended what he had seen, particularly after it flew off over his head, followed by the shattering crash of the handcar against the breast of the huge iron beast. This makes Bob Fowler the world’s first UFO, if it really happened.
I had my doubts. But according to the New York Times, on July 24, 1904, three New Jersey teenager couples borrowed a similar handcar for a Saturday night “joy ride”. After some drinking and dancing, at about 11 p.m., they found themselves pumping their way across a bridge over the Delaware River with a Lakawana passenger Express bearing down on them. It sounds like a turn of the century version of “Saturday Night Fever”. All the couples jumped to safety, with only one male, Albert Jones, suffering injury, a broken shoulder. According to the Times, the express “barely escaped being wrecked”, but it did escape. So I guess it could have happened the way Fowler tells it. Bob would use a handcar catapult to launch himself three more times on his journey to the Atlantic Ocean. But he would never again come so close to being killed by a locomotive.
Meanwhile, back in Los Angels, Cal Rogers was slowly recovering from his injuries. Propped up in a wheel chair, with both legs in casts, his wife hovering on his right, his mother perched judgmentally to his left and his brother standing back out of the line of fire between them, Cal assured the doubtful reporters, “I’m going to finish this flight, and I’m going to finish it with the same machine.” It must have been a contentious press conference, since everyone in the photo looks as if one of them has just stepped in something very unpleasant. I wonder who that could have been?
Cal had, by my rough count, crashed 70 times in crossing the country, (23 times in Texas alone!) or about once every 43 miles. His sponsors must have been fed up with the repair bills. And with all the engine problems of late, Cal must have been a bit uneasy about trusting his life to the skills of the 17 year old Charlie “Wiggie” Wiggen, his new chief mechanic (with Cal, below), since Charlie Taylor had opted out of the little opera being staged aboard the “Vin Fiz Special” back in Texas.
Poor old Cal; one great-grandfather, Oliver Perry, had been the hero of the 1813 battle of Lake Erie. His other great-grandfather, John Rogers, had been captain of the USS Constitution. His great-grand-uncle, Matthew Perry, had sailed four warships into Tokyo Bay and opened Japan to trade in 1853. But Cal’s own father had turned away from the sea and became a cavalry officer, with a rather less distinguished record. He had fought bravely against the Cheyenne in the freezing rain at Slim Buttes in 1876, and even against the Nez Pierce in 1877. But his career had come to a shockingly less than glorious conclusion on August 23, 1878, when he was struck by lightening.
You might say his father's demise left the young Cal with a bit of a negative buzz about him. And then there was the deafness thing, and his mother’s remarriage. So his family history may explain why Cal was so determined to make it to Long Beach, no matter what the obstacles. He explained, in an interview he gave just after reaching Pasadena, “I am not in this business because I like it, but because of what I can make out of it.”
On December 10, 1911 Cal hobbled out to the Vin Fiz one last time. He lashed his crutches to the wing strut, checked his lucky soda bottle and waited while Weggie primed his propellers. Then he rolled (Weggie having replaced the skids with wheels) across the Compton field and rose into the air. Twelve miles later he settled down in front of 50,000 people in Long Beach.
After landing, Cal had his plane pushed forward until the wheels were in the surf. Cal Rogers had said he would reach the Pacific Ocean, and now he had. But whether it was in the same airplane was debatable. The only parts that remained of the “Vin Fiz Flyer” that had taken off from Sheepheads Bay, New York on September 17th. were one vertical tail rudder and the oil pan. Nobody was even willing to claim it was the same Vin Fiz bottle hanging off the strut.
On New Years Day, 1912, Cal made a few hundred dollars flying over the Rose Parade and dropping rose petals. He needed the money. Cal and Mable Rogers were now flat broke. Congratulations, Winner!
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NEXT TIME: EPITATH.