beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

A Gift from Captain Lehmann of the Graf Zeppelin

(I wrote this comment to kajafoglio, who had pointed out some antique airship-shaped harmonicas, and decided that this would make a good entry in my own blog.)

I recently read a memoir called Wizard of the Winds, by Ward T. van Orman, a Goodyear engineer and champion balloon racer, and a real storyteller. In 1925, swept out to sea during a race, he managed to land his balloon on the deck of a ship.

Anyway, van Orman was a chain smoker. Returning to the U.S. after a big race, he found himself embarking on LZ-127, the mighty Graf Zeppelin, buoyed by hydrogen. As a fellow lighter-than-air pilot, he was given every courtesy. Luxurious accommodations, but Rauchen Verboten.

Van Orman got fidgety. The kindly captain Zeppelin officer, Ernst Lehmann, gave him a small package wrapped in brown paper.

van Orman unwrapped the gift.

It was a harmonica.

Capt. Lehmann explained that when smokers on his crew got the urge to smoke, they would put the harmonica in their mouths instead.

So that's how van Orman got through the voyage: learning to play the harmonica. And he played it ever after. He got pretty good.

The book has a photo of him as an old man in the 1970s, playing harmonica on a barstool in his basement in Akron, Ohio, surrounded by ballooning memorabilia.

(I read the book because van Orman designed a pressure suit in 1941 that was tested at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia, where Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp had an opportunity to see it. It probably influenced Heinlein's imagined space suits in his postwar fiction, including Have Space Suit, Will Travel, which is, of course, the Great American Space Suit Novel.)

Van Orman and Goodyear XH-3 Pressure Suit

Edited to add: Rick Dunn, grandson of Ward van Orman, informs me that Ernst Lehmann was not the captain of the Graf Zeppelin on that particular voyage, but second officer. He did command LZ127 on other occasions, and also commanded 10 flights of LZ129 Hindenburg. Unfortunately, he did not survive the 1937 fire that destroyed the Hindenburg.
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