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Across The Lake

Having just observed another Veterans Day, you may not have given much thought to it, but it's not a bad time to think about the ubiquitous ball point pen. It came along as Hitler was seizing the Sudetenland and later was a particular help to pilots since it enabled them to fill out reports even if they were writing upside down. And without leaking as fountain pens did. An American from Albert Lea, Minnesota, started making them. Ironically, he was Jewish and enjoyed helping fight the Nazis.

Milton Reynolds changed his name from Reinsberg to Reynolds, making and losing fortunes. He invested in pre-fabricated housing; invested in the development of Syntex, the first birth-control contraceptive; and used and improved the ball point. He had seen and purchased one on a visit to Argentina. Ladislas Biro had moved to Argentina from his native Czechoslovakia--he'd been a newspaper editor in Prague and tried to develop a pen that would work in a newspaper office without smudging and without leaking.

Reynolds brought the idea back to this country, soon had 300 employees using whatever aluminum was available and began selling them in October, 1945. He used a full page ad in New York newspapers saying they would go on sale at Gimbels department store. A crowd estimated at more than 5,000 quickly bought the 1,000 pens available, at $9.75 each. Reynolds used his claim that the pens would write under water by hiring swimmer, movie star Esther Williams to demonstrate that they would.

Reynolds next indulged his love of flying by circling the globe in a stripped-down World War II twin engine A-26 Avenger, with an engineer and a co-pilot. They made the flight, cutting more than 13 hours off the record Howard Hughes had just set. Reynolds named the plane the Reynolds Bombshell and next had his co-pilot from the earlier flight take off for the same round-the-world flight, solo.

Odom not only made the flight, but did so in even shorter time. The 19,645 miles, Chicago to Chicago, took Odom just 73 hours to set a new record. Crossing the Canadian Rockies, Odom said, he suddenly realized he had dozed off and saw there were mountain peaks not only ahead but beside him. He quickly gained altitude, but the experience kept him awake until he landed in Fargo.

He'd planned to land at Wold-Chamberlain in Minneapolis and take on fuel, but came down at Fargo's Hector Airport instead. As a ground crew added gas, Odom headed into the men's room where he was interrupted by a reporter who had been alerted by NBC to get whatever story Odom had to tell. It was the first anyone knew about the close call over the Rockies.

It was also an opportunity for Odom to hand out souvenir Reynolds ball point pens, but in earlier stops he'd been too generous. He apologized and had just started to sign autographs when the ground crew reported his plane was ready to go. Within minutes, the Reynolds Bombshell was back in the air with Chicago its next and final, stop for the flight.

The plane changed hands several times after that record-setting flight, eventually being used in Iran by an oil well servicing company. With the overthrow of the Shah in 1978, the plane was abandoned and is now still believed to be in the Aero History Museum in Tehran. Odom himself continued flying, taking part in a number of air races. In 1949, at Berea, Ohio in the Thompson Air Race, he crashed on a pylon turn, killing himself and a mother and child in a house on the ground.

Thoughts while drying the dishes... On that August day in 1947, Odom actually only took time to sign one autograph. It was right after our interview was done and he signed it on the back of his business card, but he didn't have a Reynolds ball point pen to do it. He used my Parker ball point instead.