- Historic Sites
My Life With The Lone Eagle
The trouble with having (and being) a hero
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
One night my father came home from work carrying a book, a gift for me. It had a blue jacket with a drawing of a yellow airplane, and on the wing was the number N-X-211. I knew that this number had been assigned by the Department of Commerce to the Spirit of St. Louis just before the flight. In his speech at the hotel, Lindy had spoken of the plane and himself as “we.” And We was the title of the book. He had written it himself, the story of his life and the flight. It was the first book I ever read.
Inside the cover my father had written an inscription: “Son … this is a useful book. Try to look it over every once in a while. And try to hang on to it. Love … Dad.”
Months later the three Lindy photographs in my room were joined by another picture from the newspaper. The flier had given the Spirit of St. Louis to the Smithsonian, where it would later be put on display, suspended from the roof beams of an old sheet-metal World War I hangar that had been assembled on the Mall. The picture showed the fuselage being towed backward through the streets of Washington to the museum. The wing had been removed, the tail wheel was up on the bed of a truck, and the famous plane looked awkward and forlorn. After that my hero’s name faded from the headlines.
In 1932, though, it burst back in a way that could not have been more upsetting. The blaring news was that the one-year-old son of Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh had been kidnapped.
The Lindberghs apparently lived in a forest somewhere in New Jersey, and the kidnapper had stolen the child late at night by climbing a makeshift ladder to the second floor. The ladder had collapsed during the theft, and the news pictures showed the broken pieces lying at the side of the house. There was also a picture of the little boy, Charles, Jr., reaching for the single candle on his birthday cake.
The idea of kidnapping was entirely new to my sister and me. Fern and I were terrified, scared stiff that we might be kidnapped. Our folks sat down with us at the kitchen table to give us some reassurance. Mom explained that only the children of famous or rich people got stolen. The Lindbergh child would be returned after a lot of money, called “ransom,” had been paid. And our father pointed out that the Muheims could never afford to pay ransom, just as we could never afford the Packard Straight Eight touring car that he had wanted for years. My sister and I felt better. Apparently nobody kidnapped kids who rode in a Model T.
Once again Lindbergh was on the front page for months. Ransom notes were received, and the Lone Eagle had to crouch behind a tombstone in a Bronx cemetery, waiting to hand over the marked bills. It upset me to read about him performing such a sad and awful job. I had always seen Lindy as sort of floating above everyday life, but now it was clear that my hero was as vulnerable as any ordinary person.
Then Charles Lindbergh, Jr., was found dead in the forest, not too far from his home. And Lindy had to identify the nightclothes that the child had worn. A man named Hauptmann was arrested. Now it was Bruno Richard Hauptmann’s turn to become famous.
Somewhere in New Jersey the Hauptmann trial and all the appeals went on for a long time. I remember seeing pictures of Lindbergh on the witness stand. The fair-haired boy was gone now. Lindy looked much older. He slumped down, reluctant and uncomfortable, in a wooden chair on a little elevated platform. His long legs were crossed, and he was grim. Trapped in the cramped, crowded courtroom, he had been betrayed by fame. Though the whole sad mess was in no way his fault, the kidnapping dulled the luster of the man who had gleamed so brightly when I was seven.
In 1932, when I was twelve, another family hero appeared: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He started out as my father’s hero, but at twelve I became a New Dealer. I didn’t understand all the politics, of course, but I loved the fact that the President knew how to be funny.
So the stage was set for a clash between the two family heroes: the jaunty Roosevelt and the earnest Lindbergh. It would not come for seven years, and when it did, I was a junior at Stanford. In 1939 the Second World War exploded across Europe with Hitler’s attack on Poland. In the summer of 1940, with France knocked out of the war, the great German air blitz of England began. Roosevelt was using all his wily political skills to get the United States involved in the war. Dismissing criticism by the isolationists, he got around a law called the Neutrality Act. We actually started sending old American destroyers to Britain.
I talked things over with my father, trying to face up to the idea of actually being swept out of college and into the Army and into a war. He said that the whole country had to face the hard facts. Everybody. Because, as he put it, “If that son of a bitch Hitler knocks the British out of the war, the United States will be screwed. And dammit, we can’t let that happen!” It was, of course, just what Roosevelt was saying in more presidential language.