- Historic Sites
My Life With The Lone Eagle
The trouble with having (and being) a hero
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
A decade later I was engaged to write a one-hour PBS documentary that would tell the story of human flight by using planes and artifacts in the National Air and Space Museum, the brand-new monolithic Tennessee marble show place that stretched for two city blocks along Independence Avenue on the Mall.
I had never been inside until the day I went through the glass revolving doors to begin my research. I found myself standing in the Hall of Milestones of Flight, an immense, sundrenched room some four stories high. The Wright Brothers’ Flyer I—the first airplane to carry a human passenger—was hanging about twenty feet overhead, with a mannequin representing Orville at the controls. The room was full of airborne history. Also up there was Glamorous Glennis, the first plane to break the sound barrier—and the Spirit of St. Louis.
In fact, the spirit of Lindbergh’s flight suffused the building. The place contained many planes that had been built and flown by brave and lonely young individuals, trying to achieve something for the first time, people like Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes. Their dreams and their planes owed a great debt to the achievement of the Spirit of St. Louis. It was Lindy who had led the way.
We did the filming for our program at night—beginning at 5:00 P.M., when the museum closed and sometimes shooting until 9:00 A.M. when it opened again. Late one night Cliff Robertson, the film’s host, was on the second floor performing in a sequence in which he sat in a cutaway version of a Mitchell bomber. No script changes were needed, so I wandered away to take another look at the Spirit of St. Louis, which was suspended at the second-floor level nearby.
Glancing down over the glass-and-bronze balustrade, I noticed a tall A-frame ladder standing on the main floor below. I walked down the escalator—it had long since been shut down for the night—and slowly rolled the ladder over toward Lindbergh’s plane. Without really thinking about it at all, I had decided to climb up and touch a wing or a wheel. But when I got the ladder positioned beneath the wing where Lindy had stood for that photograph with his hopeful mother, I realized it was no good. Even with a ladder the Spirit of St. Louis was far beyond my reach, dim and distant in the nighttime museum.
Early in 1991—I was seventy-one by now—the image of the cranky, querulous Lindbergh returned. I was working on a ninety-minute ABC program marking the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor. The film researchers brought thousands of feet of film footage for review, and in the final cut of the program, we inserted the climax of the America First speech, with Lindbergh emphatically repeating his old argument, complaining that England was dragging us down and that the war was surely none of our business. After the program was broadcast, I do not remember seeing his image again or reading about him. When I heard about his grave at the Royal Hawaiian, I was surprised that I had not known of his death.
Standing there and looking down at Lindy’s gravestone, why had I cried? I’m still not entirely sure, but I have a tentative answer. Clearly Lindbergh had had a greater impact on my life than I suspected when I blithely decided to drive the fourteen and three-tenths miles beyond Hana. But I don’t think I cried because he was my fallen hero. He never had measured up to my grand boyhood dream of him, but who could gleam that brightly all the way? Who could reaffirm endlessly the worldwide worship that had deluged him at the age of twenty-five?
At the graveside, however, the power of the past rose to smite me in a new way. For some people that power fades with age, but for me somehow the past has become a vivid and unmanageable panorama, increasingly a source of wonder and revelation and anxiety.
I believe I cried from a sadness that flowed from the mystery and finality of this man’s death after a long life of achievement and glory and horror and embattlement. Lindy was a private man who had to dwell in the fishbowl of fame. And fame has been described as “nothing more than being known and possessed and mauled by a whole slew of people you have never met.”
Perhaps there was something else, a dawning sense of the comradeship of the aged, a sudden appreciation—for both Lindy and myself—of the vast amount of stuff a human being must deal with to get through a lifetime—of the million things we must perceive and judge and choose and accomplish and avoid and remember to survive at all in the great tangled vineyard of modern life.
I hadn’t thought about Lindbergh for years, hadn’t even known that he’d died. But at his graveside the power of the past rose to smite me in a new way.