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“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
This time the glider came down on its nose and was completely washed out. But about this time Popular Mechanics came out with a picture of Alberto Santos-Dumont’s monoplane, the Demoiselle. So I gathered up the pieces of my glider and built a monoplane. I saved up my money and bought a secondhand motorcycle engine to power it. Probably the luckiest thing that happened was that a storm came along and blew my airplane a block away and completely wrecked it. It would have been a very dangerous craft to fly, I am quite sure.
Did that put an end to your early career as an aviator?
Until I got into World War I, in 1917, yes. You know, there is an organization called the Early Birds, which is made up of people who before that war built their own planes and learned to fly them. Recently they invited me to join, but I had to decline their invitation, because by no stretch of the human imagination can I claim that I ever achieved controlled flight in my boyhood experiments.
Did you have any other boyhood hobbies?
That same year I built the monoplane—I was fifteen—I was the amateur flyweight boxing champion of the Pacific coast. My mother was very, very opposed to my boxing, so I boxed under the name Jimmy Pierce so she wouldn’t be distressed. Later, when I was a student at the University of California, I was practicing tumbling in the gymnasium one day. These two middleweights were boxing, and they didn’t seem to be doing very good. Well, I made some remark to the instructor, Marcus Freed, and he said, do you think you can do better, and I said, I know I can. So—even though I only weighed 135 and the middleweight class was 168—I put on the gloves and knocked them both out. The next day I knocked out the school’s third middleweight, and the following week I was the university’s middleweight contender against Stanford in the West Coast intercollegiate championships. My opponent was a chap named Eric Pedley, who later became a great polo player. Pedley was a fine boxer, but when he came out against me in the ring, he must have wondered what in the world to do with this little bitty fellow. I guess he was afraid to slug me for fear he’d kill me. So he just put his left hand out tentatively, and I slipped under it and knocked him out with one punch.
Did you continue with your boxing?
Marcus Freed, my instructor, encouraged me to box professionally in San Francisco under the name Jimmy Pierce. Freed thought he might have a potential champion, and I was interested primarily in making a few bucks to augment my skimpy income. I won a series of preliminaries against poor opposition, and then Freed got me a bout with a chap named Spider Kelly, an old pro who couldn’t hit but was a fine boxer. Spider was too adroit. He made a monkey out of me, and that was the end of my professional boxing career.
Were the things that attracted you to boxing—the risks and skills and personal courage involved—at all similar to the attraction of aviation?
Well, I have always been highly competitive, and that is useful no matter what sport you go into. And in those days flying was to a considerable degree a sport, yes. But what really helped me in aviation was to have fast reactions and a good sense of balance. I think I got those from my tumbling, not my boxing.
Actually you started out to become an engineer, didn’t you?
From the time I was a very young fellow, I knew I wanted to do two things. I wanted to build things, and I wanted to see the world. It seemed to me that the best way to build things was to be an engineer, and the best way to see the world was to be the kind of engineer that went to different parts of the world. In those days that meant either a civil or a mining engineer. I decided to become a mining engineer.
Were you influenced in this by your father, Frank H. Doolittle?
My father was a carpenter by trade and an adventurer by inclination. He was even more foot-free than I. Before the turn of the century he sailed around the Horn from Massachusetts to California. There he met my mother. They were married, and when I was six months old, the first gold rush broke out in Alaska, and he was off. My mother and I joined him in Nome in the spring of 1900. I lived there for eight years, until my mother decided that there were severe limitations on a boy’s education in Alaska, and she brought me back to Los Angeles.
Did you ever see your father again?
I visited him in Alaska the summer of 1914. He did some prospecting, and he did a great deal of grubstaking. In those days many people wanted to prospect, but they didn’t have the finances necessary to buy an outfit and food and so forth. So my father would grubstake these fellows. It was then the common practice for the grubstaker and the grubstakee to share whatever the chap found. My father grubstaked a great number of people, and although some of them were successful, none of them returned even what he had given them. He died in 1917, rather a frustrated individual.
That was the year you first got into aviation.