One hundred years ago plus change, two Army pilots from Eberts Field in Lonoke did something that looked and actually was absolutely nuts over and in the Arkansas River, about where the Main Street Bridge stands today.
On June 24, 1919, Lts. C.E. Johnson and V.U. Ayres arrived unheralded in their biplane over the river and spent about an hour flying under bridges and skimming along so close to the water that waves hit their wheels.
Spectators rushed to the riverbanks to watch this exhibition — which was unannounced, the pilots said later, because they knew it might end with them stretched out at the undertaker's.
About 4 p.m., Johnson stood up on his seat and peeled off uniform and shoes, revealing a blue bathing suit.
Still wearing his aviator's cap and goggles, he clambered out to perch in front of Ayres.
The biplane swooshed beneath the Free Bridge and then climbed fast to about 50 feet. Ayres stalled the engine as much as he dared, slowing it. He signaled to Johnson, made the plane's nose dip, and Johnson slid down the side of the plane to the landing gear, so the tail skids and stabilizer wouldn't hit him — when he dropped off.
Ayres gave him a shove, and Johnson fell, tucking his arms as hard as he could. He fell in a 90-foot arc behind the plane. Air tore away his goggles.
When he hit the water he rolled over and over in three or four complete turns, his knees drawn up to his chin. ... As he was rolling over the last time, he involuntarily extended his right leg, which came down with such force on the water that the sound could be heard some distance away.
The impact wrenched his knee. He had planned to swim to the rowing club's Boathouse on the Little Rock bank just north of the Free Bridge, but the current was too strong. He emerged downriver. But he didn't die.
"Johnnie didn't look like any Venus in his blue bathing suit and aviator's cap and goggles as he dived into the river this afternoon; still I think he made a pretty good figure," Ayres told the Gazette. (The Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum has a photo of Lt. C. Eugene Johnson.)
The pilots said they intended to perform their stunt again July 4, and take turns diving and driving the plane. But instead, their commandant, Maj. Arnold Krogstadt, sent Johnson off to Fort Smith to conduct a recruiting drive.
But July 12, the Gazette reported the birdmen were coming back that day, and everyone should turn out to watch the show.
BECAUSE WE NEED ART
Sometimes it appears that Old News is a column about old advertisements. Most weeks, 100-year-old ads from the Gazette or Arkansas Democrat illustrate Yours Truly's fancy prose. But only rarely did the stories Old News writes about appear in print with drawings or photographs.
Modern people want to see some pictures. You can hardly plug a page with wire filler without some editor wanting to know, "Where's the art?"
There's no art in the archives showing C.E. Johnson's spiral into the surface of the Arkansas River. And so — behold! — an ad for the men's department of M.M. Cohn Co. from that July 12, 1919, Gazette.
Cohn's had lightweight suits to sell for $15 to $40 — including mohair, which I was surprised to learn is a summer-weight fabric.
The pitch — "You'll feel cool as a cucumber" — uses a familiar simile that suggests someone is imperturbable. It predates 1731, when English poet John Gay applied it in a poem, "New Song of New Similes." This hard-drinking lover's lament staggers through many excellent similes, including drunk as David's sow, lean as a rake, plump as a partridge, melancholy as a cat, merry as a grig (a cricket), dead as a doornail, flat as a flounder, rotten as a pear, mute as any fish.
Cucumbers are mostly water and thus cool to the touch, so that's an appropriate image to suggest comfort in summer. But why is Sigmund Freud stabbing the cucumber in its horrified mouth?
That's what I see. Perhaps you see a doctor taking a cucumber's temperature; but why would a doctor do that? No, my idea makes more sense.
Today's second illustration comes from that same Gazette.
The ad for the historic bookshop Allsopp & Chapple is exciting because 1) this is fan mail from the famous Hattie Caraway's lesser half, Thaddeus, who at the time was far more famous than his wife and still a U.S. representative. He died as a senator in 1921 and was replaced by her, which is when her fame rose up to squash his fame flat as a flounder.
And 2), the book Rep. Caraway crows about reading — without buying — is Bernie Babcock's The Soul of Ann Rutledge. Published in 1919 and a resounding success, it describes a romance between the rake-lean Abraham Lincoln and a thoughtful woman who died of typhoid at age 22, leaving the future president more melancholy than any cat.
The Soul of Ann Rutledge is so well remembered that we tend to forget that Babcock published 40 or so other books. She edited the Arkansas Democrat's social news and wrote the Democrat's editorials for a while, too, and her nationally distributed tracts promoted Prohibition when it still required promoting. She founded the former Museum of Natural History and is credited with persuading Gen. Douglas MacArthur to acquiesce in the renaming of the Arsenal city park as MacArthur Park.
She did all that and more as the widowed mother of five children. The Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas has an essay about her.
Allsopp & Chapple was founded about 1897 by longtime Gazette business manager Fred Allsopp with his brother-in-law. Allsopp's brother J.H. Allsopp managed the shop, which was the state's largest bookstore. After he died in October 1918, Fred put it on the market. It sold in August 1919 to the Wirtz family — George O., William A. and William W. Wirtz of Fairview, Iowa.
Next week, Old News will have more about the July 12, 1919, newspaper and those Eberts Field daredevils and — unfortunately — there are pictures.
Style on 07/08/2019
Print Headline: Aerial stunts over river enthrall area residents