In 1929 Germany announced that the mighty new dirigible Graf Zeppelin would fly around the world. This stirred a great deal of excitement in the United States, not only because such gigantic airships were thought to be the future of aviation but also because the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst had put up two hundred thousand dollars to finance part of the Zeppelin’s flight and was promoting it aggressively.
Hearst had insisted that the journey begin not in Germany but in America, with the Statue of Liberty as the starting point. The Germans agreed, and on August 7, 1929, the Graf Zeppelin left Lakehurst, New Jersey, passed over the Statue of Liberty, and headed east—across the Atlantic and on to Poland, Russia, and Japan. Finally, on August 25, it was spotted just west of San Francisco approaching the Golden Gate.
By now the trip had become a major event. People all over the United States hoped to catch a glimpse of the great dirigible as it crossed the country to New York. The Hearst papers published an itinerary: The Graf Zeppelin would attempt to fly over as many towns and cities as possible.
There had not been so much excitement around the country since the news of Charles Lindbergh’s landing in France. I was eight years old and already an avid reader. I followed all the accounts of the Graf Zeppelin and did my best to build a model out of small branches covered with newspaper.
For some time my father had wanted to own a radio. Now, inspired by the Zeppelin, he went out and bought one on credit. It didn’t have a speaker. We listened to it, one at a time, through earphones, as stations in Chicago trumpeted news of the Zeppelin’s progress. The nine inhabitants of our little farmhouse five miles from Tampico and fifteen miles south of Sterling, Illinois, had never before experienced such a high level of sustained excitement.
I listened to my father and Henie Schauff, our hired man, discuss the ship’s dimensions. “It’s nearly eight hundred feet long,” my father said. ‘That’s almost a sixth of a mile.”
“Almost as long as the pasture is wide,” said Henie.
“A hundred feet in diameter,” Father said. “That’s two windmills stacked on top of each other.” It was hard to imagine that anything so large could get off the ground.
The phone rang. Only a few people in the neighborhood had a telephone, but since my father was chairman of the board of directors for our one-room school, he had reasoned that the expensive device was necessary.
The caller was Uncle John. He had just returned from Sterling, where he’d heard that at ten the next morning the Graf Zeppelin would fly directly over. The town was wild with excitement, and the word was spreading. Everyone from town, township, and county for miles around would be heading to Sterling. It was harvest time in northern Illinois, time for wheat and oats to be cut and shocked, but no one dreamed of working on that red-letter day.
“We’ll all get up at five, get the milking done, and head for town,” my father said. “We want to get there at no later than nine. We can stand near the bridge along the riverbank and get a great view.”
“I’ll stay home,” Grandma said. She was seventy-eight years old, and although she was healthy and spry, she no longer liked to leave home.
“You don’t want to stay here alone,” Aunt Kee said.
“I do,” Grandma said.
“You’ll miss all the excitement,” my father said.
“I’ll manage,” she said.
“Someone will have to stay with you then,” he said.
“I’ll stay,” I volunteered.
The words were a reflex. My grandmother and I were the best of pals. The family said that I was her favorite, and often, when the others went off to town, I stayed at home to keep her company. When we were alone, she would tell me stories of growing up on a prairie farm in the Midwest, of the great celebration at the end of the Civil War, of Indians—she thought they were Illini—looking in the windows of their house one winter night. And when she and I were home together, she always served the same main dish: bread and milk and afterward apple dumplings and strawberry pie.
But this time I really did want to go with the others. I had committed myself to stay before I had stopped to think. My heart sank.
“I don’t want to see the Zeppelin anyway,” I said. There was nothing in the world I wanted more to see.
And so we remained behind next morning while the whole neighborhood left for Sterling. Father and Mother, Aunt Kee and Henie, my older sister, Maxine, my younger brother, Howard, and baby Margie drove off in the Model T right after morning chores. A little later Grandma and I waved at the McGraths as they went by—and the Christensens, who lived just half a mile down the road. And last, always last, Homer Burns and his wife, arguing furiously, sped by on the dirt road at twenty miles an hour.
After the Burnses had driven by and there was no more activity to expect on the narrow road, Grandma went into the kitchen to prepare our double dessert.
I stayed in the yard for an hour or so, building sand castles and trying to forget about the Zeppelin. Time drifted slowly by. In addition to my disappointment, I was a little uneasy. Something wasn’t quite right. Suddenly I realized why. We were alone, absolutely alone, and surrounded by a profound silence. That whole land, usually so full of sound and action, was empty and still. Even the animals were quiet. There was no wind, not the slightest breeze.
Into that remarkable silence there came from far away the smallest possible purring, strange and repetitive, gradually approaching, becoming louder—the unmistakable beating of powerful engines. I looked to the west and at first saw nothing. Then it was there, nosing down out of the clouds a half-mile away, a gigantic, wondrous apparition moving slowly through the sky.
“Grandma!” I screamed.
She was out the kitchen door in an instant. I pointed to the sky. The great dirigible was very low, perhaps because the captain was trying to find some landmark.
There is a wonderful opening scene in the movie Star Wars. A great starship is passing very low and directly overhead so that one sees only the underside. That underside moves deliberately and interminably on and on and on until at last it is gone. The Graf Zeppelin, moving ever so slowly above us, was like that. We saw every crease and contour from nose to fins. It was so low that we could see, or imagined we could see, people waving at us from the slanted windows of its passenger gondola.
We stood entranced. Slowly, slowly the ship moved over us, beyond us, and at last was gone.
We looked at each other, my grandmother and I, then silently walked to the front porch and let ourselves down on the steps. And we gazed at each other in triumph.
Now we were suddenly aware that barnyard, pasture, and field were filled with alarm. The dogs were barking madly, the horses galloped in the pasture, cows mooed, pigs squealed, guineas screamed, chickens cackled, flocks of birds swept wildly by.
“They’ll settle down soon,” Grandma said.
I was speechless with excitement, but I was already constructing the triumphant tale I would tell anyone who would listen. Grandma rose, went into the kitchen, and came back with two glasses of milk and two chunks of strawberry pie. I could neither eat nor drink. Seeing the Zeppelin was wonderful. Telling the world would be wonderful times ten.
My grandmother stirred a little beside me.
“John,” she said. I looked up. Just for a second she was a young, smiling woman, filled with excitement and anticipation. Then she sighed and was Grandma again. “We have to keep it a secret. We mustn’t tell the others what we saw.”
I was astonished. “But why not tell?”
“Because they’ll be disappointed enough that they missed it. We don’t want to hurt them more.”
She shook her head. “It will be much more fun if we keep it a secret, just you and I. No one else will ever know. We’ll just keep the Zeppelin to ourselves forever and a day. We’ll never tell.”
I loved her. “I’ll never tell,” I promised, and I never have until now.