I confess that I adore bold people. (with the exception of people who get too bold on the Jersey Turnpike) I get a tingling sensation down to the end of my toes anytime I read about people pursuing what they believe in, and that feeling becomes inflamed when the pursuit is “against all odds.” Maybe what I’m feeling is inspiration or love, or perhaps I am just suffering from acute Sciatica. Who can say.
Today I decided to celebrate the birthday of a real adventurer, Charles Lindbergh, who was born on February 4th, 1902. The triumphs and the tragedies of his life were succulent fodder for the media of his day, and despite the fact that he was really rather shy, he had been thrust into the spotlight. Though fame and fortune followed him on his passage through the skies, they were fickle friends and would prove most devastating.
Ok, so I’m making Lindbergh’s life sound like a Shakespearean Tragedy, but his life doesn’t play out like Hamlet…I promise! Charles Lindbergh was born in Detroit Michigan when the twentieth-century was brand-spankin’ new and the airplane was still just a novelty toy in the hands of the Wright Brothers (They wouldn’t technically “fly” until 1903.) Lindbergh’s talent and timing were perfect for a pioneering aviator. By the time he was 18 years old he was already showing the signs of a brilliant mechanic and he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin to study engineering.
However exceptional his mind might have been, Lindy’s heart had been stolen by the fast and seductive airplane, and after two years in college, he dropped out to become a professional barn-stormer. Now, if you know nothing of barn-storming, this was a job that required that one possess lots of skill and harbored a secret death wish. Lindbergh performed devil-may-care feats in the air for pittance pay, and for the enjoyment of the peanut-eating spectators back down on terra-firma.
Now, that Lindbergh and aviation were “going steady”, it was time for him to make a major commitment to his love of flight. In 1924, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and graduated as the best in his class from the Army’s flight training school. Although he was a “cautious and capable” pilot, and had a steady job ferrying mail between St. Louis and Chicago, soon Lindbergh’s heart for adventure began to pine for more action.
The remedy to his venture-lust was to take a stab at the elusive Orteig Prize. Ever since 1919, aviation enthusiast and NYC hotel owner, Raymond Orteig, had been dangling a $25,000 carrot for anyone who could complete a non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. Many had attempted the flight, but fell short….literally. Countless trans-Atlantic hopefuls had ended up injured or dead or swallowed up by the ocean.
Lindbergh was no dummy; he wasn’t going to rely on luck to land him Paris. He used the finances of nine local business men (of St. Louis) and his talent for engineering to co-design (along with the Ryan Aeronautical Company of San Diego) a plane which would go the distance. It was appropriately named “The Spirit of St. Louis.”
On May 20th, 1927, Lindbergh and his trusty plane took off from Roosevelt field, in New York, and landed thirty-three and a half hours later, at le Bourget Field near Paris…alive. Lindbergh became an international sensation. He was young, handsome and courageous. Public opinion of him was so high that even teenagers thought he was the bee’s knees, and danced “The Lindy-Hop” in his honor. Come on, you have to be super cool if grandma Dorothea with her knitting needles and Milly the jazz baby with her powdered knees BOTH find admiration for you.
So, why the big fuss over a guy who crossed the Atlantic? People these days cross the ocean in a plane with the same gravity that one places on going through the Drive-through window at Wendy’s. With nearly a century sandwiched between “now” and “then”, it can be difficult for a twenty-first century boy or girl to trudge through the sands of time and arrive at an understanding for the Lindbergh craze of yester-year.
To put this in perspective, imagine that only twenty years ago, someone had invented a machine that could achieve time travel (Morlock-free time travel!), and that people were able to travel a few years forward or backward in time. However, no one had ever survived traveling one hundred years in the past or future. Then, some young hot-shot comes out of the middle of farm land and SAYS that he can travel a century into the future and come back from his journey alive….and then he DOES it!!!
(Or just pretend that it’s the first time that you’re watching Back to the Future circa 1985 and you’ll get the idea )
Anyhow, what Lindbergh did was phenomenal, and for a time things were going great for our hero. He had achieved the impossible, he had a happy little family made up of a wife and two kids, and people just loved old Lindy. But, as in any heroes’ tale…from Achilles to Nancy Kerrigan….there is always the fall. Tragedy tripped up Lindbergh’s happy stride on March 1st, 1932.
On this date, a carpenter, named Bruno Hauptmann, had rigged up a ladder and had crawled through the second-story window of the Lindbergh’s home. He then kidnapped Lindbergh’s twenty month old son and posted a $50,000 ransom note. After months of investigation, the case (which had been taken up by the FBI and assistance was offered from every corner….even the likes of Al Capone from prison) seemed like it was going nowhere.
A break came in the investigation, ten weeks after the kidnapping, when the decomposed body of baby Charles Jr. was found on a road side. Eventually, Hauptmann was caught and sentenced to death, but Lindbergh had been devastated by death and broken by fame. For whatever good fame attracts, evil follows after. While the Lindbergh’s attempted to mourn in the wake of such devastation, swarms of photographers, reporters and nosy crowds hounded the family. The Lindbergh’s moved to Europe for a few years to escape the center ring of the circus.
Lindbergh never again welcomed the companionship of fame. He was still well known, but he avoided the bleaching glow of the limelight. Because he opposed the voluntary involvement of the U.S. in WWII, his heroic image slipped in the minds of some people (despite the fact that he flew in over 50 overseas assignments as a civilian).
Now, don’t exit the screen and eat a bunch of truffles because the story is getting so sad. I did promise you, oh, patient audience, Lindbergh’s tale does not end in tragedy. Perhaps it was the triumph of the human spirit, or the triumph of the St. Louis’ spirit, but Lindbergh went on to live a fulfilling life.
In 1954, President Ike appointed him a brigadier general in the Air Force, and Lindbergh worked as a consultant with several airlines… helping to design the Boeing 747 jet. In the same year, his book, The Spirit of St. Louis, won a Pulitzer Prize. Then, in the late 1960’s Lindbergh turned his ceaseless energy to natural conservation and even jumped on the “save the Whales” wagon.
Here is the account of a man who had buoyantly glided over land, sea and air and endured the horrors of homicide, but the story is coming to an end. It is at this point of Lindbergh’s biography which I wonder, what last words can I write to sum it all up? Utterly stumped and crippled by writer’s block, I’ll let the words Lindbergh composed for his gravestone speak for him:
“Charles A. Lindbergh Born: Michigan, 1902. Died: Maui, 1974. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea. – CAL”