A front page headline in the May 3, 1935, issue of the Des Moines Register set the stage for a great aerial derring-do, declaring: “How Human Will Fly Like a Bat Today.” Thousands of Iowans cheered as the daredevil Clem Sohn stepped from a plane and soared like a bat above the crowd.
Only two months had passed since the 23-year-old aviator and daredevil from Fowler, Michigan, made his first free-fall jump using handcrafted bat wings that allowed him to soar — doing gymnastic-like loops before opening his parachute.
Within months of that first free fall using retractable wings attached with a harness to his muscular frame, the handsome daredevil was the featured act at many national airshows and was nicknamed the “Batwing Man.”
However, like Icarus, the mythical Greek airman who flew too close to the sun, Sohn would spiral to his death. He died April 25, 1937, while performing his act before a massive group of spectators at an air show in France.
Sohn, who had brought a depression weary country to their toes, was mourned and buried in his childhood home of Fowler.
Inspired by a handwritten entry in a family scrapbook, Fowler author Dean Feldpausch has penned an intriguing account of Sohn’s short life, “The Batman and the Ballerina.” Feldpausch has livened it up with a fictionalized account of a shipboard romance with the world-famous English ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
Feldpausch said the scrapbook entry recorded that Sohn had sent flowers to the ballerina shortly before his death. An entry in Fonteyn’s autobiography verifies the flower story. In the book, Feldpausch takes those flowers and turns them into a love story for the ages.
“The idea they knew each other fascinated me. I’d fallen in love with them and needed to put the two together,” he said.
Feldpausch spent several months researching their lives and settled on a serendipitous meeting aboard the steamship Queen Mary, as Sohn sails to Paris for the fateful airshow and Fonteyn returns home.
The first-time author, whose spouse is the second cousin of Sohn, also fictionalizes some small town hijinks when Sohn returns to his hometown to visit friends and regale them with stories.
“He didn’t forget who he was. He would go to Miller’s Tavern — still open on Main St. in downtown Fowler — and tell his friends of his exploits,” he said.
Sohn grew up in Fowler, but when his mother died, he and his brother were separated and sent off to foster parents. Later, when his father remarried, Sohn would join him in Lansing, where his father was a policeman. Clem Sohn would graduate from Lansing Eastern High School and his yearbook shows he was a member of the Aviation Club and his classmates called him “Our Lindy.”
Feldpausch also writes about how Sohn got his start in aviation from local pilot and aviator Art Davis, owner of Michigan Airways and a daredevil pilot in his own right.
Davis hired Sohn to work around the airport and, in his free time, Davis taught Sohn to fly. By the time he graduated from high school in 1929, Sohn was an experienced pilot.
After spending a post-high school summer in the Upper Peninsula, Sohn returned to Lansing and went to work for Davis. It didn’t take long for Sohn to start jumping from an airplane, according to Feldpausch.
In 1932 he began static line-jumping where the chute is opened by a line after leaving the airplane. The author tells how, one year later, Sohn did his first free fall jump at the Ionia Free Fair in August of that year.
Feldpausch writes how Sohn and other parachutists would take more and more risks as their proficiency increased. In one segment, the author describes a terrible accident by a fellow parachutist. He and Sohn were playing the game of “chicken” to see who could wait the longest to pull the ripcord on his chute.
Feldpausch writes: “Clem was deeply shaken by this accident, but performed his 212th solo free fall from fifteen thousand feet the very next day, confident in his ability to avoid danger.”
The author said the hardest part of writing his first book of fiction was changing his writing style. He had been a computer technical writer previously, and he described his writing as “terse.”
Feldpausch said there is still a local fascination with the saga of Clem Sohn. He has six book signings scheduled, including one in St. Johns Nov. 20 at the Briggs District Library.
Feldpausch, using photographs of an original set of batwings in the Michigan History Museum, is crafting a replica of the batwings, which he can use in presentations. Another set is on display at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum.
Following Sohn’s death, Lansing Eastern High School erected a plaque in his honor. Lost to time, its whereabouts today are unknown.
Dean Feldpausch Author Appearance
Free Tuesday, Nov. 20 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. St. Johns Briggs District Library 108 E. Railroad St., St. Johns (989) 224-4702 www.briggsdistrictlibrary.org