Whenever poor judgment gets me stuck in downtown Manhattan, I take respite from the t-shirt hawkers and 9/11 gawkers—whatta rhyme!—by staring at the ground. On Broadway's prepostrously named "Canyon of Heroes," plaques commemorate those historical badasses whose arrival in New York was greeted with a ticker tape parade. This morning, my brother sent me a link to Wikipedia's list of those names. Setting aside the peculiar fact that some Wikipedia drone felt a need to catalogue this, the list makes for good reading. Some observations:
The first such parade was in honor of the Statue of Liberty—New York's original diva. Wikipedia claims the parade was "spontaneous," a designation that makes me yearn for the days when a statue could get office boys so excited that they'd empty their trashcans out the window.
For the first few decades of this habit, the parades mostly honored war heroes and visiting heads of state. In the '20s, the city started giving paper showers to popular heroes—athletes and Lindberghs and the like—but after the UN was built, returned the focus to political dignitaries. Since the '60s, the practice has been pretty much restricted to victorious sports teams, which is why the Yankees have enjoyed the honor more than anybody else. Even Admiral Byrd only got three.
The busiest years were 1951, when the city threw Broadway parties for everyone from David Ben Gurion to General MacArthur to the Lord Mayor of London, and 1962, when two astronauts scored parades for going to space, and the New York Mets got one just for showing up in the national league. When the Mets actually won the World Series, seven years later, the parade they got took place all over the city.
(Can anyone tell me what that music is? It's from a musical, but I can't place it. In any case, it doesn't quite suit the footage, does it?)
But as much as I love seeing reminders of long-ago Metsy triumphs, my favorite plaque has always been the one dedicated to Douglas "Wrong-Way" Corrigan, a 1930's aviator famous for a great nickname and one spectacularly stupid mistake—flying from New York to Dublin when he meant to fly to California. That such a beautiful screw-up earned a parade has always made me happy, but a bit of Wikipedia trolling this morning taught me that the story is much better than I thought. In short, Wrong-Way was no screw-up. The man was pure moxie.
Although he never admitted it, Corrigan's famous blunder was almost certainly deliberate. His plane, the Sunshine, was a jerry-rigged junk heap which he bought for a few hundred dollars and souped up with extra fuel tanks and overpowered engines. For three years he had begged the Bureau of Air Commerce to let him attempt a trans-Atlantic flight, but they refused, fearing the Sunshine would give out en route. When he took off on July 17, 1938, flying east instead of west, what looked like a mistake was really a rather daring way to give the federal government the slip. No wonder the man got a parade.
That the Sunshine had started leaking fuel days earlier did not stop him. The leak got worse as he crossed the ocean, and ten hours into the flight, his cockpit floor flooded with gasoline. The fumes were bad enough, but more dangerous was that the liquid was sloshing dangerously close to the red hot exhaust pipe. To prevent an inconvenient explosion, he used a screwdriver to punch a hole in the cockpit floor.
After twenty-eight hours, he landed in Dublin, where airfield attendents were shocked by his ramshackle plane. Journalist Hubert Renfo Knickerbocker—names and pilots were both cooler in the '30s—described it thusly:
As I looked over it at the Dublin airdrome I really marveled that anyone should have been rash enough even to go in the air with it, much less try to fly the Atlantic. He built it, or rebuilt it, practically as a boy would build a scooter out of a soapbox and a pair of old roller skates. It looked it. The nose of the engine hood was a mass of patches soldered by Corrigan himself into a crazy-quilt design. The door behind which Corrigan crouched for twenty-eight hours was fastened together with a piece of baling wire. The reserve gasoline tanks put together by Corrigan, left him so little room that he had to sit hunched forward with his knees cramped, and not enough window space to see the ground when landing.
Although Corrigan was immortalized as the directionally-challenged Gobot Wrong Way, his story never got its own movie or play. A few months ago I caught most of The Spirit of St. Louis on TV—an incredibly tedious movie whose best bits were Jimmy Stewart talking to himself during his lonely flight. Though undeniably brave, Lindbergh was a racist, arrogant asshole. Wrong Way Corrigan was a sneaky lunatic with a sense of humor. Who would you rather see on stage?
These musings led me to my new favorite Wikipedia entry: List of Aviators by Nickname. Quality nicknames include Spig, Haybag, Uncle Wiggly Wings, Butcher, Buzz, Bunny, Bubi, The Blond Knight, The Black Devil and The Black Devil of the South. Those last four, incidentally, were all for the same guy. But my favorite on the list has to be Eugene Bullard, the Black Swallow of Death.
Born in Georgia, he hopped a ship to Scotland as a teenager, where he made a living as a boxer before moving to France. When World War I broke out, Bullard enlisted with the French Foreign Legion, becoming one of the war's only two black fighter pilots. He attempted to join up with the American air force when the United States got into the war, but was denied based on the color of his skin. Wounded at Verdun, he collected enough French army decorations to start a military museum.
His story gets cooler from there.
After the war, he opened a nightclub in Paris, where he palled around with Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong. He did a bit of spying on the Nazis when World War II started, and fled when the Germans took Paris, stopping on his way to Spain to pick up a spinal injury in the defense of Orleáns. When he and his family made it back to the States, well, you've probably guessed that he didn't get a ticker tape parade. Bullard was caught in the Peekskill Riots—which I knew nothing about—and spent his last years broke and anonymous. The Black Swallow of Death died an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center.
Impoverished anonymity was the fate of a lot of World War I badasses. There was a Russian anarchist named Nestor Makhno, for instance, who died as a Paris stagehand—but that's another story.
What do these two kickass stories have to do with theater? Well, not much, but it's my blog, dammit, and it's a Saturday. I will say, though, that if anyone has the Corrigan-esque moxie to put one of these two flying badasses on stage, I guarantee a glowing review.