May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
The trouble with having (and being) a hero
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.
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.
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.
My father was almost as enthusiastic about Lindy as I. He was a mildly profane civil engineer, and whenever he would see a photo of the Spirit of St. Louis in the newspaper, he would be amazed all over again that “that damned little crate could make it across that whole goddamned ocean.” And he often referred to Lindbergh as “that kid.” “How the hell could that kid have so damned much nerve?”
Our mother was a fine ragtime pianist, and her contribution to our family Lindbergh craze was musical. One day she came in with the sheet music of a new song, “Lucky Lindy.” On many nights after dinner we would gather at the piano to sing about him:
My sister did not join in these revels.
President Coolidge sent the USS Memphis across the Atlantic to bring the flier and his plane home. All of us, including my reluctant sister, went to the Majestic Theater up on Mission Street to see the newsreel of Lindbergh’s triumphant return. It was a splendid moment as he came down the gangplank at the naval yard in Washington, D.C., to be greeted by many high government officials and cabinet members and his mother. But he was wearing the dark blue suit from the balcony in Paris, and I had been hoping for the togs.
Then one day later in the year-sometime in the fall of 1927—came the biggest thrill of all. The Chronicle reported that Lindbergh would be flying into San Francisco in the Spirit of St. Louis. He was on a tour of the nation, planning to land at least once in each state. There would be a parade and a big celebration in his honor at each stop. No airplane had ever before landed in all forty-eight states.
Lindy arrived on a windy, chilly, San Francisco afternoon, a typical autumn day. The entire city was covered with a high fog bank. Fern and I sat in the back seat of our Model T Ford, and our father drove us down to the Embarcadero, the wide street that runs in a big curve along the bay. He found a parking place out on Pier 3, where he knew a longshoreman boss, and then the three of us walked up Market Street, pushing through the crowds, trying to find a good place from which to see the parade.
At third and market, in front of the Hearst Building, we found our spot. Our father stood behind us, as Fern and I sat on the high curbstone with our feet in the gutter. Mom had dressed us warmly—she disliked fog herself—but Fern grew chilled during the long wait. I held her hands in mine to keep her from complaining.
I thought that it was a pretty skimpy parade for such a big occasion. It consisted of an Army band from San Francisco’s Presidio, a couple of black Fierce-Arrow limousines filled with politicians and Army brass, and then, sitting upon the back seat of a big open touring car, the Lone Eagle.
There he was—at Third and Market! In my hometown! I’d seen his picture a thousand times by then. But in life itself, in the blue suit, he seemed even younger and skinnier than in the photographs. I felt a twinge of disappointment. He looked like an ordinary tall boy.
Yet as the big car moved slowly up the wide street, I stood up and cheered. Lindy acknowledged the crowd with an occasional wave, and he had a kind of fixed smile on his face. I asked my father if Lindy was having a good time, and he replied, “Hell, son, I don’t know. He’s probably tired. The paper said this was the forty-seventh city on his tour.”
That night the city and county of San Francisco gave a banquet to honor the young hero. My father, who was a middle-level civil servant in the city engineer’s office, did not have enough clout to get invited. But he and I went down to the hotel where the dinner was being held, and we found a cop who let us into the back of the hall to hear Lindbergh’s speech.
When the meal was over and cigar smoke began to cloud the room, Mayor Rolph introduced the nation’s hero. James P. Rolph was a handsome silver-haired man, and he had just the right kind of deep, sentimental Irish voice for a moment like this. After a standing ovation Lindbergh began to speak. His voice was high-pitched, almost squeaky, and after the mayor’s graceful words he seemed ill at ease.
I had expected the speech to be all about the grand challenge and great excitement of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in that little plane, but Lindy mentioned his flight only briefly. The speech was quiet, and there was nothing exciting about it. It was, rather, an earnest message about the importance of civil aviation to the American future. My hero explained the need for every town to build a municipal airport as soon as possible. As we drove home, my father said that “the kid” had some pretty good ideas. I saw then that it was a speech for politicians and civil engineers, not for me.
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.
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.
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.
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.