- Historic Sites
My Life With The Lone Eagle
The trouble with having (and being) a hero
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
I stepped from the intense Hawaiian sunshine into the dim, cool interior. There were no tourists or worshippers. The interior walls were a chalky white, and the simple pews were of a shiny dark wood. I stood there alone, reflecting on the powerful impulses that had created this unadorned building in this out-of-the-way place. It had been placed there by Protestants—serious, hopeful men and women who had sailed across an ocean to explain the Real Truth about the Universe to the easygoing pagans on Maui. After the missionaries had delivered their powerful message—along with many other things—the Hawaiian Islands would never be the same again.
Back out in the sunshine I swung open the gate to the cemetery. Here, too, I was the only visitor. The gravestones were small, and the earth at each gravesite was elevated about eight inches above ground level—apparently a Hawaiian tradition—then held in place by a neat rectangle of boards.
There was no sign pointing to the location of the most famous individual, but it was easy to spot Lindbergh’s grave. The earth was not raised here, and the white stone plaque was much larger than the others, about three by four feet. It lay flat on the ground.
Born 1902, Michigan
Died 1974, Maui
CHARLES AUGUSTUS LINDBERGH
Standing there in the sunshine, reading the carved words, I began to cry. And it was not just a momentary tear running down the cheek. I had been plunged into some kind of deep sadness, actually crying aloud.
This powerful reaction was a complete surprise. And disconcerting too. At the age of seventy-seven, I have learned how to cry without embarrassment. But usually I understand what I’m crying about. At that moment I did not. Why did Charles Augustus Lindbergh, lying there beneath the soil of Maui, have such a clear and sudden impact on one who had come so casually to visit? Unlike the buff in the Royal Hawaiian bar, I was not here on a pilgrimage.
Wondering, I went back into the empty church, sat in the last pew, and dried my eyes. I had no clear answer to the question. But then I found myself putting together my memories of Lindbergh, remembering him down through my life. The moments were easy to recall. I had not forgotten any of them. But neither had I had ever strung them together before. I had never seen them as an array, a story.
Lindbergh was twenty-five when he flew to Paris. I was seven. Before Lindbergh, I had no idea at all of what a hero was. I’m not even sure I’d ever heard the word. But when the San Francisco Chronicle reported on his stupendous feat and when the crystal set on our back porch crackled the news into our headphones, the whole idea of heroism suddenly got to me. I now understood what a hero was. And I had one. Lindy. Lucky Lindy! The Lone Eagle.
I cut his picture out of the paper and put it up over my bed, where it could be conveniently admired. It was a close-up in which he is wearing his leather helmet, looking up toward the heavens, with goggles pushed up onto the forehead. Later two more pictures went up on the wall. In one, the newly famous flier is on a balcony of the American Embassy in Paris with the American ambassador. Smiling faintly, Lindbergh stands rather stiffly, holding an American flag and a French flag. He is wearing a blue suit, but I thought he looked better in his flying clothes (“togs,” they were called).
In the third picture Lindy is standing with his mother under the right wing of the airplane that was thrust to fame along with him, the Spirit of St. Louis . The caption said that it was taken two days before the great flight. Mrs. Lindbergh appeared to be, as was my mother, a substantial, no-nonsense woman; a big purse hung over her forearm. If she was worried about her son’s dangerous, lonely venture, she did not show it.
I did not have Lindy all to myself. He was everybody’s hero. My father and mother, my cousins, my friends—everybody up and down our block on Folsom Street in San Francisco—they all were carried away, and they talked about him constantly. The only one not swept up in the Lindbergh fever was my sister, Fern. Eight years old, she was a slim, skeptical person, rather private and not particularly interested in technology. Today, seventy years later, she remains exactly the same.
Having just learned to read, I could follow Lindy’s story in the Chronicle each morning. That’s how I became a regular newspaper reader. I can remember sitting at the breakfast table and reading out loud to my father that Lindbergh had carried a letter of introduction to the American ambassador in Paris, a man named Myron Herrick. But when a hundred thousand people turned out at Le Bourget Field to welcome the flier, the letter turned out to be superfluous. My father told me how to pronounce superfluous, then explained what it meant.