Guideposts Classics: Eddie Rickenbacker on Helping Others

In this story from March 1945, the very first issue of Guideposts, the fighter pilot and war hero shares lessons he learned from life's struggles.

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- Posted on Dec 18, 2014

Eddie Rickenbacker

Eddie RickenbackerThere are a lot of things concerning the human mind and soul that we don’t know much about. We get glimpses of them when in times of danger or suffering we cross a little way over the line of ordinary thought.

As I roared down the last stretch in an automobile race years ago, I felt that I could control that machine with my mind, that I could hold it together with my mind, and that, if it finally collapsed, I could run it with my mind.

If I had said such a thing then, the boys would have called me crazy. Even now I can’t explain it. But I believe that if you think disaster you will get it. Brood about death, and you hasten your demise. Think with confidence and faith, and life becomes more secure, more fraught with action, richer in achievement.

Perhaps such things as the control of mind over matter and the transmission of thought waves are tied up together, part of something so big we haven’t grasped it yet. It’s part of us and part of the Something that is looking after us.

It’s one of the things that makes me believe in personal protection and in life after death. I have difficulty putting it into words.

A strange thing happened to me some years ago. I was flying to Chicago. It was a Sunday afternoon in the middle of December, and the weather was miserable. There was a lot of ice. We suddenly lost the radio beam.

For a long time we cruised back and forth trying to pick it up. Fog was all around us. We were lost, off the beam, and flying blind. Our two-way radio went out, and we had lost all communication with the world. For seven hours we flew—where, we didn’t know.

Darkness was coming on. Then, suddenly, we saw a break in the murk. The pilot brought the ship down to within one hundred feet, and we saw lights go flashing by on a four-lane highway. We followed it for some distance.

Then we saw a red glow away off to the right, headed for it, and saw a river gleaming. We flew up that river, and out of the six-thirty dusk of winter I saw the Toledo-Edison sign flashing. Skimming the roofs, we circled and landed at the airport. We had just enough gas left for 11 minutes of flight.

We had flown blind, without a beam, but we were on a beam, just the same. I like to think it was the “Big Radio” that kept us going—the Thing that keeps all of us flying safely through the fog and night, toward some mysterious and important goal.

The “Big Radio” is a two-way job. You’ve got to keep tuned with It, and you have to talk back. I believe in prayer. I learned to pray as a kid at my mother’s knee.

One day in France, during World War I, with only one magneto on my Newport biplane functioning, I was attacked by three German Albatross planes. I came out of a dive so fast that the terrific pressure collapsed my right-hand upper wing. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t come out of that whirl of death.

I often wish I could think as fast under normal conditions as I did during that drop. While I fought the controls and tried to get the engine going, I prayed: “Oh, God,” I said, “help me get out of this.”

As a last desperate act, I threw my weight to the left-hand side over the cockpit and jammed the controls, then jammed the engine wide open. The thing suddenly sputtered and vibrated violently, and the plane sailed away, on her one good wing, for France. I held it like that all the way home.

This escape and others I have had were not the result of any super-ability or super-knowledge on my part. I wouldn’t be alive if I had to depend on that. I realized then, as I headed for France on one wing, that there had to be Something else.

I had seen others die—brighter and more able than I. I knew there was a Power. I believe in calling upon It for help.

I am not such an egotist as to believe that God has spared me because I am I. I believe there is work for me to do and I am spared to do it, just as you are. If I die tomorrow, I do not fear the prospect at all.

On a rainy night in February, 1941, I had the worst accident of my life. As I look back on the agonizing days in the hospital that followed I realize there was a reason behind it all. It was a test and a preparation for what was to follow.

In the four months I lay in that hospital I did more thinking about life and death than I had ever done before. Twenty-one months later I was adrift in an open lifeboat with seven other starving men, most of them so young they needed the strength and understanding of a man who had been down in the valley of the shadow, who had suffered and made sense out of his suffering.

To those men I was able to bring the distilled essence of the religious philosophy I had developed while in the hospital.

Once while there I almost died from a throat hemorrhage.

“Here,” I said, “is death.”

Then it dawned upon me in a flash that the easiest thing in the world is to die; the hardest is to live. Dying was a sensuous pleasure; living was a grim task. In that moment I chose to live. I knew from experience that abandonment to death was a sin. I wasn’t quitting. I had work to do, others to serve.

Many things came to me. I realized I wasn’t afraid to die, because I had lived so much, in good ways and bad, that I no longer felt the youthful pang of not having lived at all. I knew only the sorrow of being unable any more to help other people.

And when I finally came around, I saw life and death and the meaning of the Golden Rule more clearly than I had ever known.

I had taken that clarity with me to the rubber raft in the South Pacific after our plane crashed. Throughout those 21 days of blistering sun and nights of ghastly chill, I never lost faith, and I felt that we were adrift for a purpose. I saw life had no meaning except in terms of helping others.

I think man instinctively does not interest himself in others. He does it only by an act of will, when he sees that “I am my brother’s keeper” and “Do unto others” are the essence of all truth.

My experiences and the suffering through which I passed have taught me that faith in God is the answer to life.

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