Looking Back — Charles Lindbergh


Ninety years ago today, a 25-year-old man took off in a thin-skinned airplane from a field in New York, trying to do what nobody else had pulled off before — fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean from North America to the European mainland.  A $25,000 prize was at stake; this was the early days of aviation, and planes were still something of a novelty, not the convenience (and occasional torture to comfort) we regard them as today.  33½ hours later, the man’s world had changed forever — and so had the world around him.  The odds were against Charles Lindbergh; several others had tried, but none had succeeded, and one man had died in the attempt.  A pair of men had taken off from Paris three weeks earlier, attempting the crossing from east to west, and disappeared west of Ireland, never to be found.

Lindbergh almost crashed before getting legitimately into the air.  The runway was muddy and hampered getting up to airspeed, and he just cleared a set of telephone poles at the end of the field before his Spirit of St. Louis zoomed off toward the east.  Flying conditions were, bluntly, lousy almost every kilometer of the journey.  At one point, Lindbergh skimmed the wave tops at 10 feet to try and get his bearings, and he had to fly above the cloud tops to navigate by the stars.  But by the next night, groggy with fatigue, he landed at Le Bourget field in Paris, and was proclaimed the hero of the century.

Lindbergh wasn’t an unalloyed hero, and I suspect he came to curse the fame his flight brought him.  Intensely shy and private, he was uncomfortable in the spotlight.  The kidnapping and murder of his first child brought grief to him and his wife; his “America first” stand on US involvement in European frictions, and his eugenics-influenced anti-Semitism, tarnished the reputation of the clean-cut young man who had dared the impossible.  Lindbergh rehabilitated his reputation over the decades following the war, and espoused support for conservation causes, but remained intensely private to the extent the world allowed him.  He died on Maui island in Hawaii in 1974 — I remember seeing the report on the CBS Evening News of the time — and his grave is simple and marked by a very plain headstone, with a quote from the Psalms:

“…If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea….”

Photographed in St. Diabloux region

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