Sunday, March 14, 2010


It happened every Friday evening, almost without fail, when the sun resembled a giant orange and was starting to dip into the blue ocean.

Old Ed came strolling along the beach to his favorite pier. Clutched in his bony hand was a bucket of shrimp. Ed walks out to the end of the pier, where it seems he almost has the world to himself. The glow of the sun is a golden bronze now.

Everybody's gone, except for a few joggers on the beach. Standing out on the end of the pier, Ed is alone with his thoughts . . . and his bucket of shrimp.

Before long, however, he is no longer alone. Up in the sky a thousand white dots come screeching and squawking, winging their way toward that lanky frame standing there on the end of the pier.

Before long, dozens of seagulls have enveloped him, their wings fluttering and flapping wildly. Ed stands there tossing shrimp to the hungry birds. As he does, if you listen closely, you can hear him say with a smile, 'Thank you. Thank you.'

In a few short minutes the bucket is empty. But Ed doesn't leave.

He stands there lost in thought, as though transported to another time and place. Invariably, one of the gulls lands on his sea-bleached, weather-beaten hat - an old military hat he's been wearing for years.

When he finally turns around and begins to walk back toward the beach, a few of the birds hop along the pier with him until he gets to the stairs, and then they, too, fly away. And old Ed quietly makes his way down to the end of the beach and on home.

If you were sitting there on the pier with your fishing line in the water, Ed might seem like 'a funny old duck,' as my dad used to say. Or, 'a guy that's a sandwich shy of a picnic,' as my kids might say. To onlookers, he's just another old codger, lost in his own weird world, feeding the seagulls with a bucket full of shrimp.

To the onlooker, rituals can look either very strange or very empty. They can seem altogether unimportant . . . maybe even a lot of nonsense.

Old folks often do strange things, at least in the eyes of Boomers and Busters.

Most of them would probably write Old Ed off, down there in Florida. That's too bad. They'd do well to know him better.

His full name: Eddie Rickenbacker. He was a famous hero back in World War II, and before that even, in World War I - the one they called 'The Great War'. On one of his flying missions across the Pacific, he and his seven-member crew went down. Miraculously, all of the men survived, crawled out of their plane, and climbed into a life raft.

Captain Rickenbacker and his crew floated for days on the rough waters of the Pacific. They fought the sun. They fought sharks. Most of all, they fought hunger. By the eighth day their rations ran out. No food. No water. They were hundreds of miles from land and no one knew where they were.

They needed a miracle. That afternoon they had a simple devotional service and prayed for a miracle. They tried to nap. Eddie leaned back and pulled his military cap over his nose. Time dragged. 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 - a very slight meal for eight men - of it. Then they used the 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 rigors of the sea until they were found and rescued (after 24 days at sea).

Eddie Rickenbacker lived many years beyond that ordeal, but he never forgot the sacrifice of that first lifesaving seagull . . . And he never stopped saying, 'Thank you.' That's 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.

Edward Vernon Rickenbacker (October 8, 1890 – July 27, 1973) was an American fighter ace in World War I and Medal of Honor recipient. He was also a race car driver and automotive designer, a government consultant in military matters and a pioneer in air transportation, particularly as the longtime head of Eastern Air Lines.


  1. Thanks for sharing that story! I'd heard about the story of Eddie's survival and that of his crew, but I'd never heard of the bucket full of shrimp. That's another story I'll remember and re-tell at the appropriate times.

  2. I was born in 1959. I am constantly amazed at the number of HEROS that have gone to their rewards during my lifetime. Merlin Olsen is the last one....who will be next? I remember when Eddie went..........Rest in Peace American Warriors.
    Anon in Georgia

  3. Wonderful story of a true hero. I read his autobiography in high school and it was great. Normally not a fan of the seagull but they have their uses.

  4. Merlin Olsen??
    How can you throw his name into a conversation about Heroes?

    Wikipedia says he was a grown man who played a GAME using a little ball.

  5. Sean, thanks for the story. We need to remember heroes.
    He was also a Mason, which somehow does not surprise me.


  6. There's an old SAC tanker base, now commercial airport, just south of Columbus, OH, named for him.

  7. "He was also a Mason, which somehow does not surprise me."

    So mote it be!

  8. Well said, Leonidas . . . "on the level and by the square . . ."

  9. There were eight men on board the B-24 when it crashed. Six crew, Eddie Rickenbacker, and a Air Corps service member that had been in the hospital, and was returning to his unit. They bailed out. The hospitalized service member didn't survive until the rescue. That was why the book was entitled "Seven Came Through".

    Eddie Rickenbacker also survived the crash of an Eastern Airlines passenger plane in Georgia.

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  11. Rickenbacker is an ANG (air national Guard) base in Lockbourne,Ohio it was once called Lockbourne Air force base.