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Being second is great, but most don't remember

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By Brian Walker

Do the best, no matter the cost. Work hard to get ahead. Quitters never win. Stop crying, I didn’t mean to hit you in the eye with a baseball. These are things my father said to me as a kid. They’re as true now as back then.

But one thing he never said that I learned on my own is when you’re first or best, everything else doesn’t matter. He used to call those who weren’t on top a “second-place winner.” I now look at it as being the first-place loser.

Many incredible people in history were the first to do a task or reach a goal. Often the second person to do the same thing —

possibly even better than the originator —

is forgotten or treated as a footnote.

The purpose in this column isn’t to vilify those who didn’t achieve something first. It is to point out as a society we don’t care how many people do something. It’s who did it first that counts.

• Dec. 17, 1903, Kitty Hawk, N.C., the “Wright Flyer” became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard. With Orville Wright in the pilot seat, it was in the air 12 seconds and flew about 120 feet. The craft flew three more times that day. Orville’s brother, Wilbur Wright, achieved a new record — 852 feet for 59 seconds.

Although Wilbur flew longer and further on the same day, he is not the first man to achieve flight. Wilbur is mentioned second in stories and history books after Orville.

• March 16, 1926, Auburn, Mass., Robert H. Goddard’s first liquid-propellant rocket to achieve flight was launched. The rocket reached an altitude of 41 feet in 2.5 seconds, and covered a horizontal distance of 184 feet.

There is a great deal of speculation, rumor, myth and confusion about just who did what after Goddard’s experiments. Numerous scientists, military experts and government agencies throughout the world were feverishly working on rockets for years.

While Goddard isn’t universally credited with inventing much to further rocketry as a whole, he did get off the ground first. As for who was second, that’s an argument for experts much smarter than me.

• May 21, 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh completed the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight in history, flying his Ryan NYP “Spirit of St. Louis” 3,610 miles from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, N.Y. to Paris, France. It took 33 hours, 30 minutes. With this flight, Lindbergh won international acclaim and a $25,000 prize.

Numerous other pilots soon flew longer and faster, but none ever became a household name. Lindbergh’s plane is still on display at the Smithsonian and that one trip solidified him as an aviation pioneer.

• Oct. 14, 1947, Charles “Chuck” Yeager, while piloting a Bell X-1 rocket plane broke the sound barrier with broken ribs at the time.

This is one of the guys who helped get the U.S. space program off the ground despite the fact he was never an astronaut. He was a spokesman for an automotive parts company for years and made a cameo in the movie “The Right Stuff” which depicted him and others who helped get the space race going.

As for the second guy to do the same thing, well that honor goes to James T. Fitzgerald, Jr. He created a sonic boom of his own Feb. 24, 1948. Yea, I never heard of him either until I wrote this column.

• May 29, 1953 Edmund Hillary and his guide, Tenzing Norgay, were the first and second persons to reach the summit of Mount Everest. I guess since Hillary was English and the one who financed the trip, he gets the credit. Without Norgay as a guide, I maintain he’d have been killed and never made it.

• Who was the first man to step onto the moon’s surface? Why it was Neil Alden Armstrong on July 21, 1969. Now class, quickly, without looking, who did it second on the same trip? Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin. I knew this because I’m a space nut, but many don’t.

Now for bonus points, what did Armstrong say when he touched the moon’s soft, loose dirt? “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Again, many know that quote and have seen it on TV.

Now, for extra, extra points, what did Aldrin say? His rarely mentioned quote was, “Beautiful, beautiful, magnificent desolation.”

It was beautiful for him to be on the moon, but it sure is desolate to be second place.