My Life With The Lone Eagle

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Charles A. Lindbergh, who vaulted to international fame seventy years ago this May by taking off alone one night and flying from New York to Paris in his single-engine monoplane, is buried in a small churchyard on the eastern end of the island of Maui in Hawaii. I learned this a few years ago in a conversation with a couple of tourists in the bar of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Oahu.

 

The husband, a retired airline pilot, said with pride that he was a Lindbergh buff, and that was why they’d driven all the way out beyond the town of Hana to visit the flier’s grave. His wife was not so enthralled. She thought the Hana trip had been an interruption of their vacation. She also could not understand why such a famous person would choose such a remote burial ground. So few people would come to visit.

“Lindy wouldn’t care about that,” he said to her. “He was never designed to be well known.” The tone of his voice suggested that this was something he’d already explained to his wife. Then, without missing a beat, he turned the rest of the explanation to me.

“Lindbergh was this very shy kid from a farm in Minnesota. When he was only twenty-five, that solo flight across the Atlantic turned him into the most famous man in the world. Overnight! Things were never the same again for Lindy, but he was always uncomfortable with the crowds and the commotion. No wonder he’s buried way out there in the woods. It’s … peaceful.”

 

Three days later I found myself on Maui, driving toward Hana. The sixty-mile road that winds along the north coast of the island has been described as the crookedest highway in the world. It is. Many of the bridges are ancient one-way structures of eroded concrete. In several places the road has been carved into the sheer black face of a volcanic cliff several hundred feet above the Pacific. With the shimmering light blue ocean to the left and the black cliffs alternating with stretches of bright green tropical landscape on the right, it is a drive of stunning beauty. Hana, perched up above the beach, is a little community that still lives in the spirit of long-ago Hawaii.

“The worst road in Hawaii,” she told me. I paused, wondering if I really wanted to see Lindbergh’s grave that much.

I had not come as a tourist. The lieutenant governor of Hawaii, Ben Cayetano, was running for governor, and I, a screenwriter, was in Hana to do some interviews for a half-hour campaign film about his life. Toward the end of the second day, my work was finished, and I wondered if there’d be time to go see the Lindbergh grave.

“I’ve been told that it’s just a short distance beyond Hana,” I said to the woman at the Exxon station.

“I wouldn’t describe it that way,” she said, smiling the rich, easy smile of the native Hawaiian. “It’s exactly fourteen and three-tenths miles.”

“How’s the road?”

“The worst road in Hawaii. The pavement ends just down the block here, and from there on it’s dusty and steep and narrow—all the way.”

I paused, wondering if I really wanted to see Lindbergh’s grave that much. She didn’t recommend it.

“It’d be dark by the time you got there,” she pointed out. “For that matter, it’s even pretty late for you to drive all the way back to Lahaina. Let us rent you a little cabin here and tell you where you can get a good dinner.”

It sounded like a fine idea.

The next morning, as I sat in the coffee shop, she arrived with more suggestions, telling me to be sure to set my odometer for the fourteen and three-tenths miles. Otherwise I might miss the little sign that identified the church and the graveyard. Both were some distance off the road down toward the ocean, and it was a very small sign. People missed it all the time. Also, I should take a bottle of water or a can of Coke and maybe a candy bar. There was nothing along the way. Nothing.

I asked her if she had ever visited the grave, and she said that she hadn’t. Oh, she might get down there someday, but she wasn’t too sure.

“I hear that Mr. Lindbergh was very famous in his day,” she said. “But he was way before my time.”

About two hours later I parked the rental car at a small sign tacked to a fence post. HOOMAU PALAPALA CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH. Walking down a long, sloping dirt road through a dry swale, I was surrounded by exotic trees and bushes. There are more shades of green in Hawaiian vegetation than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. The sky through the trees was clear, and the weather, as usual in these handsome islands, was benign, with just a touch of the trade winds from the north.

After about a quarter-mile the ocean came into sight ahead, and then I saw the church, off to the left. I approached the simple building of whitewashed stone. A reddish corrugated iron roof was topped with a stubby steeple. Fitting gracefully into the landscape, the Hoomau Palapala Congregational Church had a weathered, lonesome look. Clearly it had been standing here for a long time.