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Elon Musk Risking it All by Michael Vlismas Book

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Overview: 'How did a bullied, introverted Pretoria schoolboy become the world's richest person and arguably humanity's greatest change agent? Vlismas's extensively researched biography does a great job of unwrapping Elon Musk's remarkable life story.'– TOBY SHAPSHAK.

Often in the news for his entrepreneurial exploits and his controversial tweets, Elon Musk is one of the richest and best-known people on earth. In 2022 he made headlines worldwide with his bid to buy Twitter. Who is this boundary-pushing billionaire with grand plans of inhabiting Mars, and what lies at the heart of his vision? Why is he so utterly unafraid of risk?

As an awkward Pretoria schoolboy who loved comics and science fiction, Musk's early years and singular family background were crucial in forming his stellar ambitions. Journalist and author Michael Vlismas, who attended the same high school as Musk, knows well the environment that shaped him and offers new insights into Musk's development, including his troubled relationship with his father.

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Elon Musk Risking it All by Michael Vlismas Book

Elon Musk Risking it All by Michael Vlismas Book Read Online Chapter One

A Family of Pioneers

ON the Monday of Musk’s birth, in the leafy eastern suburbs of Pretoria, Prime Minister John Vorster addressed the official opening of the congress of the Afrikaanse Studentebond at the Aula of the University of Pretoria. At the end of his speech, he left the students with this challenge: ‘You will have to find solutions that cannot be found today.’1 Vorster was referring to questions of race and the rising political tension at South African universities, and the role the country’s white youth would play in this.

A continent away, in the United States, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had launched a solution to its own question: is there life on other planets? This question would captivate Musk far more than the prevailing issues of race in South Africa at the time.

Exactly one month before Musk’s birth, NASA launched the Mariner 9 spacecraft. And they pointed it at Mars. When Musk was about five months old, Mariner 9 made history by becoming the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, beating its rival, the Soviet Union’s Mars 2, and sending back the first global mapping of the surface of Mars and valuable images of the Red Planet.

In every sense, Musk was born at a time when humanity was grappling with one of its oldest questions: are we alone? And he was born into a South African society that was asking another question: how do we live together?

Much like these questions, Musk’s birth was not an easy one.

‘It started with three days of false labor, which means contractions all day that disappear at night,’2 his mother recalls in her memoir A Woman Makes a Plan. ‘The birth was hard, as he had a large head and was a big boy, eight pounds, eight ounces. I wanted a natural birth without painkillers … All the agony was forgotten when he arrived. I was so happy. He was this beautiful little cherub. I couldn’t believe anything was so beautiful. He would lie next to me and I would just stare at him. It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened.’3

It wasn’t long before Maye also realised her first born was different: ‘From the age of three he just reasoned with me so well and I didn’t know how he could figure out things. I sent him to school early because I told them he needed more stimulation.’4

After his own realisation at the age of five that his world was not the world of most five-year-olds, Musk says he was 11 when he’d already started forming in his mind what he now calls ‘The essence of my philosophy’: ‘I had sort of an existential crisis when I was 11 – just trying to figure out what it’s all about. And I came to the conclusion that we don’t really know the answer, but if we increase the scope and scale of civilisation then we have a much better chance of understanding the meaning of life and why we’re here or even what are the right questions to ask. So, therefore, we should strive to expand the scope and scale of consciousness to better understand the questions to ask about the answer that is the universe.’5

Musk was starting to formulate his philosophy in relation to the world around him. In the prevailing political context of South Africa at the time, issues of race and freedom would have dominated. But Musk’s mind was drifting further than this. And for him, it was first a search for the right questions to ask.

As a boy, the questions abounded in his head. To start answering these questions, it was first to science-fiction comics and novels that he turned. Then it was his father’s set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he devoured to such an extent that his family nicknamed him ‘Encyclopaedia’. And then, most significantly, it was sitting in front of a blinking green cursor on a computer screen for the first time. Ideas and questions flooded his childhood brain.

‘My conclusion was that I’m strange,’ he said.

But, considering his eccentric family, he was hardly strange at all.

In 1950, a red Bellanca aircraft flew over Pretoria. In the cockpit sat Dr Joshua Norman Haldeman, the son of John Elon Haldeman – after whom Elon Musk is named – and one of Canada’s most respected chiropractors. He was also an accomplished aviator and avid explorer, a man who flew to far-off places and loved searching for lost worlds, and who would no doubt pass these qualities on to a grandson who would do the same.

It was Haldeman’s penchant for exploration that took him to Pretoria, where he put down the family’s roots in Africa.

Musk’s maternal grandfather was born in a humble log cabin on the prairie of Minnesota in 1902. It was a hard life, perhaps not too dissimilar to the veld around Pretoria in the early 1900s – except for the bitter, freezing winters. And in the late 1800s, the prairie farmers of Minnesota endured devastating hail storms and plagues of grasshoppers.6 The journalist Eugene Virgil Smalley, writing in 1893, described prairie life: ‘The silence of death rests on the vast landscape, save when it is swept by cruel winds that search out every chink and cranny of the buildings, and drive through each unguarded aperture the dry, powdery snow.’7

The early death of children in these harsh conditions was all too common. But in the home of young Joshua Haldeman, it was to his father, John, that death came calling. When Joshua was two, his father was diagnosed with diabetes and given only six months to live.8 His mother, Almeda Jane Haldeman, a nurse and schoolteacher, was not one to simply resign herself to the challenges of life. She took them head-on. This was a woman who had come into the world prematurely and had had to be incubated in a warm oven.9 She had an inquiring mind despite her father’s refusal to send her to school because she was a girl. She would go on to live through the Great Depression and the uncompromising life of a homesteader. So when her husband was given no hope of a cure for his diabetes from any of the traditional medical interventions of the time, Almeda Jane decided to look into a field of medicine known as chiropractic care, then in its infancy. After travelling with her husband to Minneapolis to visit a chiropractor, she decided to pursue this new field herself in the hope of being better able to treat him. Even in this simple act, Almeda Jane showed herself to be a pioneer and a woman of courage, for in those early days anybody practising chiropractic was liable to be imprisoned, as the medical fraternity baulked at these new practitioners who lacked a doctor’s licence. In 1932 in the US, there were 450 cases of chiropractors being imprisoned, and often the same chiropractors were jailed on multiple occasions.10

Almeda Jane found that her treatments improved her husband’s condition and extended his life expectancy by several years. With a degree from EW Lynch’s Chiropractic School and Cure in Minneapolis in 1905, and having been advised to move her husband to a cold and dry climate, Almeda Jane Haldeman relocated the family to the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. She became the first chiropractor to officially practise there, and one of the first female chiropractors in the world.

John Elon Haldeman eventually passed away in 1909. Almeda remarried in 1915 and focused more on teaching. But her chiropractic interests were passed on to her son (and Elon’s grandfather), Joshua, who in his own life had also witnessed the seemingly miraculous health benefits of the technique.

During an informal game of ice hockey at school, Joshua was hit on the head. The injury affected his eyesight, but after chiropractic treatment, his vision slowly returned. So it was hardly surprising that he should decide to follow in his mother’s footsteps and also study to become a chiropractor. Already, the Musk family trait of looking beyond the obvious and finding new solutions to old problems – whether it be alternative medicine or alternative energy – was evident.

Before he settled on a career as a chiropractor, Joshua was a farmer. But the advent of the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 until the late 1930s, was not good for farmers. Crop prices dropped so low that it became cheaper for farmers to burn corn rather than coal in their stoves. From 1930 to 1939, 37 814 farm bankruptcies were recorded by the United States Department of Agriculture.11 Other sources put the figure closer to 400 000 in terms of foreclosures. Joshua Haldeman suffered the same fate as these. The worst economic disaster in history claimed his land and his first marriage. Decades later, in 2008, his grandson Elon would fall into a similar vortex of trying to turn the key on a new car company – a revolutionary electric car company – in the midst of a global recession and while going through a divorce.

An estimated 15 million Americans were left jobless, penniless and hopeless by the Great Depression. In Canada, Haldeman was in a similar position. He moved around the country like a footloose adventurer, taking odd jobs as a construction worker, cowboy and rodeo performer. He and hundreds of thousands of men did the same. This was the era of the hoboes, the unemployed men who rode the railways in search of opportunity. And it birthed a new genre in American literature, described by Jack London, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac and many others.

Even when he did settle down and open his first chiropractic practice, Joshua never forgot his hobo days. His secretary, Vivian Doan, recalls how ‘On occasion, he loved to put on his cowboy boots and entertain with his lasso or lariat. He would twirl the lariat and hop in and out and do various movements and steps as he continuously twirled the lariat.’12

Dr Joshua Haldeman rose to become a highly respected practitioner. He is credited with drafting Saskatchewan’s 1943 Chiropractic Act, representing Canada on the Board of Control of the International Chiropractors’ Association and campaigning to allow chiropractors to be commissioned as officers during World War II, and for his role as a political leader who was briefly imprisoned for his alternative views. Joshua was a follower of, and the leader of, the Canadian branch of Technocracy, a movement that proposed a system of government in which officials are selected based on their expertise or skill within a particular field. His political views led to clashes with local authorities on various occasions.

Joshua’s life was a busy one as he juggled his interests in politics and economics with his chiropractic practice. He was so busy, in fact, that he didn’t even have time for a proper home and lived at the local YMCA. Once again, this echoes the experience of his grandson, who, while focused on building his first US business, Zip2, would hire office space because it was cheaper than renting an apartment, and would shower at the local YMCA.

But Joshua, feeling that his life was a little one-dimensional, decided to take up dance lessons as a distraction. His instructor was Winnifred Josephine Fletcher, or ‘Wyn’ as she preferred to be called. And she, rather than dancing, proved to be his greatest distraction of all. As Joshua recalled, ‘Six months passed and in a weak moment I happened to say, “When will you marry me?” Without hesitation, “Tomorrow,” she said.’13 That sense of impulsiveness in love has also marked Elon’s life. He proposed to his second wife, Talulah Riley, only ten days after meeting her.

The newly married Joshua and Winnifred lived in a trailer in Regina, Saskatchewan. Their first son, Scott, who was born in 1943, had an apple crate for a bed. Edith was born in 1945, then came the twins, Maye and Kaye, born in 1948, and finally another son, Angkor Lee, born in 1955. The children grew up in a happy home as Joshua’s practice grew, and felt the love of parents who adored each other and their children. As Vivian Doan recalled of Joshua’s lucky encounter with Wyn, ‘The result was an especially happy marriage and five precious children.’

But Joshua’s adventurous spirit could not be contained for long, and he was fortunate in having a wife with a similar bent for exploration. In 1947, Dr Haldeman took his first flying lesson. This was certainly proof of the Haldeman spirit of adventure. But there was also a decidedly practical motivation. The demands of his profession took him around the country on regular business trips, and so it made sense for him to learn to fly. He had his first flying lesson on 16 July 1947. Seventy years later, his grandson – infuriated by the endless delays caused by Los Angeles traffic – announced his own plans to finally solve the world’s traffic problems by launching a tunnelling company with the vision of literally digging tunnels under major cities to ease congestion on the roads. More on that later.

But for Joshua, what started as a convenience soon became a passion. In 1948, at the age of 45, he qualified as a pilot. That’s when he bought his beloved red Bellanca aircraft. And so began another chapter as the family soon gained fame as ‘The Flying Haldemans’, with Kaye and Maye affectionately known as ‘The Flying Twins’. As Joshua recalled in a book of his flying exploits, The Flying Haldemans: Pity the Poor Private Pilot – co-authored with Wyn – ‘Pictures of “The Flying Twins” were in the Edmonton (Alberta) papers and in Davenport, Iowa, papers in the one week … At a year old “The Flying Twins” were certainly cute and attracted a lot of attention. They had their first radio appearance in Davenport over WHO-WOC.’14

It was this love of flying and adventure, combined with a growing disillusionment with the political system in Canada, that saw Haldeman turn his gaze towards South Africa. He had been corresponding with a Cape Town chiropractor by the name of Dr John Blackbourn, a New Zealander who had purchased what is thought to be the first chiropractic practice in South Africa – in Adderley Street – from Henry Otterholt, an American graduate of the Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, from where Joshua had graduated in 1926. Joshua had also reached out to missionary friends to get their views of the country, and they spoke highly of its opportunities.

So, in 1950, Joshua Haldeman packed up his family and his plane, and they boarded a ship for Cape Town. The twins were two at the time of the voyage.

Upon docking in Cape Town harbour, Haldeman uncrated the Bellanca and reassembled it. Then he took off for his first flight in South Africa, happy to just follow his own instincts. Vivian Doan made an astute observation when she declared, ‘Nothing was impossible or unreasonable to Dr Haldeman.’15 And this desire to talk less and do more is a trait that lives on in Elon.

Joshua’s original plan was to settle the family in Johannesburg. But after flying over Pretoria, he was so captivated by the beauty of the jacaranda trees in bloom that he decided to settle the family there.

On 21 November 1950, the Haldeman Chiropractic Clinic opened in the family’s sprawling new home in Soutpansberg Road, in the suburb of Rietondale, behind the Pretoria Zoo and the Union Buildings, and just outside what was then the central business district of the city. It was a magnificent home with a beautiful garden and date palm trees, located in one of Pretoria’s youngest suburbs. The Haldemans were certainly an intriguing new oddity in the largely Afrikaans city, even more so as they brought a new medical practice to a city whose residents were largely ignorant of chiropractic. In a letter to the International Chiropractors’ Association dated 6 March 1951, Joshua described their new home and the opportunities for chiropractic practitioners:

We have been busy getting settled in our new home here in Pretoria. This country is a wide open field for good chiropractors, although most people have not heard of chiropractic as there has been no advertising. I was unable to get an office downtown, so bought a place 2.5 miles from the business district. We moved in on the first of December and started to practice that day. Had good success with the first patients so the practice built up to twenty-five appointments by the 15th of January and thirty-seven by the 5th of February, without any newspaper announcements or advertising other than personal contact and booklets. We did put up two small signs on our gatepost, one in English and one in Africaans [sic]. The Africaans-English dictionary did not give chiropractic, so I went to Dr Bosman, who is in charge of making official translations for the Government, and had chiropractic and chiropractor translated officially into Africaans. These words will appear in the next edition of the dictionary. Of course, everyone can speak English, except in possibly some of the outlying districts. Africaans is interesting and it is the only modern language, so we are learning it. Many good sized towns have no chiropractors at all. In Pretoria, a city of two hundred and seventy thousand, there are two others besides myself, a Carver and a Los Angeles graduate. South Africa is a most pleasant and interesting place to live. The warmest we have experienced during the hot spell is 86 degrees [Fahrenheit]. They have never had snow in Pretoria and only an occasional light frost in cold weather. Within driving and flying distance (we brought our plane with us) are innumerable interesting spots to visit … We have found it most pleasant and interesting.16

It was on the front lawn of their new home in Pretoria that Maye recalls watching people walk back and forth, and back and forth, under her parents’ gaze. As a child she believed these to be walking competitions. They were in fact what Joshua called ‘good posture contests’. Her eccentric parents would hold garden tea parties and invite people to enter these contests, which used to attract up to 180 contestants to their home.

The family were close, and Joshua even enlisted his children in the business. Maye and her twin sister would help to post the monthly chiropractic bulletin that he sent out to his clients (they were paid five cents an hour), and after school they would work as receptionists in the practice (for 25 cents an hour).

Dr Joshua Haldeman made an indelible mark on the growth of chiropractic in Pretoria, and throughout South Africa. He served as the president of the South African Chiropractors’ Association, and was later elected an honorary life member of the association. He also left deep roots as the cofounder of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots’ Association of South Africa, as a representative on the Civil Aviation Advisory Council and the Air Navigation Regulations Committee of South Africa, a cofounder of the Pretoria Pistol Club and the first president of the South African Pistol Association.

Scott Haldeman, who as a baby would be taken on Joshua’s flying trips – wrapped up in a blanket and placed on the back shelf of the cockpit – recalls a father with a pioneering spirit, an inquiring mind, a lust for life in all its fullness and a somewhat rebellious streak:

His personal and family life were a reflection of his political beliefs and chiropractic philosophy. He believed in the innate ability of the body to heal itself given a natural environment and chiropractic adjustments. He would not permit smoking, insisted on regular exercise, and served only unrefined flour and sugar and natural foods. He would not permit the family to drink Coca-Cola, which at one time contained cocaine as an additive. He did not swear or allow swearing in the house and insisted the family at all times enjoy life. Haldemans were not permitted to have headaches or other symptoms, be unhappy or pessimistic, or to be dishonest. Chiropractic adjustments were given to the family for any symptom and at least once a month.17

But arguably his great impact was in moving his family to Pretoria, which would in time lead to the birth of Elon Musk.

By a fortunate twist of fate, when seen from a small red aircraft’s cockpit, Pretoria would become the birthplace of a man who would take his grandfather’s pioneering spirit to the greatest heights imaginable

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