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Column: Lift your airplane into clouds on high from railroad handcar

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen. The following column first appeared Aug. 9, 2003.

WORTHINGTON — Readers of this column will appreciate I have been caught up this summer in a heady world of early-day and latter-day automobiles, trains, motorcycles and airplanes.

There was Jimmy Ward soaring in a Curtiss biplane 6,000 feet above the grandstand of the Nobles County fairgrounds for the Chautauqua of 1912. There was Worthington’s Lee Humiston in December 1912, the first human to ride a motorcycle at 100 miles per hour, and Lee Humiston driving a race car in front of the fairgrounds grandstand 70 mph on a dirt track. This was in the era when Amelia Earhart spent her summers at Worthington.

All week, motorcycles were rolling along I-90 to Sturgis, a roaring fleet of perhaps 50,000 bikes.

Then there was the beautiful silver and blue B-17 at Worthington Regional Airport, the first B-17 at Worthington (I believe) since the October day in 1944 when one of the great bombers crashed in a cornfield west of Lake Okabena. Vi Bartholomaus gave me a photo of that.

Merle Freyborg remembered the B-17 that made an emergency landing on the short, sod runway of the original Worthington Airport. That great bird was able to lift off only after it was emptied of nearly everything aboard, including guns.

The thing I like best is researching and telling stories from this amazing region in which we make our homes. Along the way, I often find other extraordinary accounts. I want to pass along two of these from this summer’s reading.

I would like to tell about Ralph DePalma.

Born in Italy in 1883, Ralph DePalma has his name inscribed in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. He has legendary distinctions: winning 2,000 car races, winning the Vanderbilt Cup, winning the 1915 Indianapolis 500.

The thing I admire about Ralph DePalma is that he was a truly great sport among all the sportsmen any of us ever heard of.

In the early Indy 500s, drivers had a mechanic as a passenger to help with repairs on the long drives to the finish line. DePalma’s mechanic was Rupert Jeffkins.

Indianapolis, Memorial Day, 1912:

DePalma, with Jeffkins at his side, was rolling in a Mercedes, his famous Grey Ghost. Around and around — 200 laps, 300 laps, 400 laps. Ralph DePalma was in the lead all the way.

Four-hundred-fifty laps. Four-hundred-sixty laps.

With just five laps still to go, a connecting rod failed in the Mercedes engine. Oil spewed and Grey Ghost rolled to a stop. There was no way, of course, that DePalma could win.

But — here is the gesture of a truly great sportsman — DePalma jumped out, asked Jeffkins to join him, and he pushed his race car, stride by stride, on around the track and across the finish line. He had entered to make the race, win or lose, and this is what he did. The crowd cheered DePalma longer and louder than it cheered the winner. I would have joined that cheering.

Another story I like — from February 1911 — is the story of Bob Fowler, who resolved to be the first human to fly from America’s west coast to the east coast. Fowler was a student of the Wright brothers, and he flew a Wright Model B biplane.