In the tradition of great American follies-- Fulton's steamboat, Seward's Alaska, Griffith's film extravaganzas-- comes this modest, but no less telling, entrant in the achievement sweepstakes: a flight over the Atlantic via a helium balloon.
The flight of the Double Eagle in 1978 and now the book combine several seminal American themes-- rugged individualism, inherent competitiveness, manifest destiny-- into one intriguing package. The upshot is stirring entertainment, perhaps a little worn around the edges (and more than a little full of hot air), but well done within the confines of its genre.
Charles McCarry, who collaborated with the balloonists in writing this account, refers at one point to the "odor of machismo" about the adventure. This is surely an understatement. The story fairly reeks of the butch, right from the decision on the first flight not to carry parachutes; to midpoint when it is discovered one of the balloonists has brought his .44 magnum to use in case of attack by polar bears should the balloon land on an icepack; to the end of the second flight, when the three men, anticipating triumph, urinate, joyously and boyishly, off the side of the ship. The two fortyish, self-made millionaires and the enthusiastic, up-and-coming young man believe so firmly and poignantly in the "masculine" principles of pride and heroism-- cliches that seem downright hoary now-- that they reactivate them for us.
What drove these men to attempt a transatlantic crossing, knowing full well that it had been tried 16 times before, resulting in five deaths? Was it merely, as one of them says, as "a way of entering history"? Perhaps more important: what made them put their money, more than $250,000 in the end, where their mouths were? As the expedition begins to take hold of their imaginations, childhood pipe dreams of the three men begin to come alive, producing fantasy speculation and projections. That is, until one of them takes himself and his macho magic a bit too seriously and the mood is broken.
"You learn a lot of things, being educated in a military system," says Max Anderson about the time when his best friend, Ben Abruzzo, is literally freezing to death on the ill-fated first flight. "But one thing you do not learn is compassion. It's a bad thing to be guided by in dangerous situations." Other remarks, falling mostly on sexist lines, are similarly cloying, such as when Abruzzo compares the flying of a balloon to the handling of a very fine lady (which is probably why the first attempt failed; that was one misunderstood lady).
Despite a tendency to slip into a peculiar sort of camp when spirited form gives way to windy content, the book remains a captivating one. McCarry's writing is deft and edifying all the way, pushing the narrative squarely ahead while simultaneously providing solid explanations on the mechanics of ballooning. He takes us along as Anderson and Abruzzo learn the ins and outs of helium flying, consulting builders, meteorologists, navigators, communication experts. The most fascinating of these discussions is one on the fine art of ballasting-- sand, lead pellets or anything that has weight thrown overboard to halt descent. It is demonstrated that a spongeful of water squeezed over the side of the ship can cause a helium balloon to rise 20 feet.
But "Double Eagle" is finally more interesting as a character drama than a tale of technology or an adventure story. Here is a study of men's men, the competitive, tough-minded good guys-- a type one thought went out with Vince Lombardi or '40s war movie heroes: Anderson, the businessman who walked right up to men who held guns in their hands on disputed mining claims; Abruzzo, who on the first flight told Anderson to continue with the expedition although it would mean almost certain death for Ambruzzo; and Larry Newman, the boy-man who planned to leap out of the balloon in his hang glider on descent and fly to the earth as a spectacular coda.
For me, the most touching moment came not when the Double Eagle landed in Normandy ("where so many Americans had gone before"), the American flag whipping in the wind. It's right after the touch-down when thousands of people swarmed around, biting off pieces of the balloon for souvenirs, taking photos, as Abruzzo stood outside the ship, unnoticed and unappreciated. That moment has something that tales of manifest destiny and the like usually lack and always need: a sense of irony.