My Life With The Lone Eagle

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Charles Lindbergh, it turned out, was one of the nation’s most prominent opponents of FDR’s policy. After all the tabloid hell of the kidnapping and the trial and the execution of Hauptmann, the flier had moved his wife and children to Europe to find a little peace. But now he had returned, a vehement isolationist, to play a prominent role in an organization called the America First Committee. America First was the handiwork of a cadre of powerful and conservative businessmen, and Col. Charles Lindbergh was their brightest star.

We gathered around the Spartan radio one night to hear a major address by Lindy. He spoke at a huge America First convocation in Chicago. He was explaining how the war in Europe was none of our business, that we had gone to war in 1914 in Europe and accomplished nothing, that our task was to create Fortress America. Having done that, we could then let Europe fight its own wars.

The next week, he appeared in the newsreel at the Majestic Theater, still speaking in the high voice, still uncomfortable on the speaker’s platform, still sounding the same emphatic themes. The isolationists, led by the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, roared their approval.

Then came a piece of bitterly disappointing news: I learned that Lindbergh had accepted a medal from Hitler. Not from der Führer personally but from Hermann Göring, the chief of the Luftwaffe. The ceremony had taken place sometime before Göring’s planes had attacked Poland. When I heard this, the four Lone Eagle pictures, yellowed now, came down from my bedroom wall. The terrible kidnapping had been thrust upon Lindy, but not the medal. He had accepted it. My old hero became tarnished by Nazi Germany. That would be my disappointed image of him for more than a quarter of a century.

In 1968, when I was forty-eight, I got a job writing a screenplay based loosely on a comic short story by James Thurber. Part of the research was a trip to Cape Kennedy to watch the launch of Apollo 8—the first of the Apollo flights actually to circle the moon. Our film story would contain a fictional and comic flight to the moon, but the producer wanted to make sure that I knew what a real launch looked like. He fixed me up with press credentials for the shot.

On the vast, flat coastal land of Cape Kennedy, the VIP bleachers had been set up about two miles from the Saturn Five launch vehicle. I sat at this viewing site with the press and with about five hundred other people—generals, CEOs, senators, movie stars. It was the kind of gathering at which you recognize the face even when you can’t remember the name.

Standing thirty-five stories tall, the Saturn Five was easily visible across the landscape. As the countdown came to zero, the launch was literally earthshaking, with the blazing fireball emerging bright as the sun. The sedate crowd was now on its feet cheering, and the great white cylinder soon disappeared into the blue.

I saw two groups of people. One had gathered around Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. The other surrounded a tall man with a deep tan. It was Lindy.

As we walked back to the NASA buses that had carried us here, I noticed knots of people congregating around two tall figures. One group had gathered around the Vice President of the United States, Spiro T. Agnew. The other surrounded a man with tousled hair, a deep tan, and an engaging smile. It was Lindy. There was no doubt about it.

He was chatting easily with the people, apparently enjoying the moment. Though he was now in his fifties, the smile was an echo of the very first days of his fame. He could have been wearing the leather helmet! The grim face of the Hauptmann trial and the cranky face of the America First days had vanished.

I approached slowly and hung back until everyone had spoken to him, so we were alone as I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I said I simply couldn’t pass by without saying hello.

His handshake was solid. He said, in a quiet, surprisingly low-pitched voice, that he was pleased to meet me, and he smiled, waiting for me to go on. I told him that the Paris flight was the great public landmark event of my childhood, and then, almost without thinking, I added that I hadn’t always agreed with him. He smiled. The reply was cordial.

“Well… many have felt that way. It was easier to fly the Atlantic than to get involved in the world of politics.”

Then I remembered the book.

“I have to tell you that your book We was the first book I ever read. My father bought it for me. And I still have the copy.”

“It’s too bad you didn’t bring it,” he said amiably. “I could have autographed it for you.”

That was the end of our chat. We shook hands good-bye. Standing there in the hot sun and watching him walk away, I found myself touched by my original feelings about Lindy. The old, simple hero worship. Our short chat could not turn him back into the Lone Eagle, of course, but I liked the rekindling of something that had been long gone. The America First Committee and the Göring medal seemed at that moment far away—beyond the horizon of time. I kept watching him until his tall frame swung gracefully up through the door of the NASA bus.