I WAS BORN too late for Lindbergh, and the idea of heros seems oddly old-fashioned now. Old-fashioned isn't right. Naive. Silly. Impossible. You name it. We know they don't exist, and the ones we believed in have proven to be fallen, or false, idols.
Mine, from childhood, were a strong, silent, uncomplaining, courageous cast, demigods from the sports world: Lou Gehrig, the selfish stoic, dying by inches and knowing it, and yet murmuring that he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Lou, it turns out, was something of a skinflint, jealous, a holder of sullen grudges. Joe DiMaggio, noble, classic, proud, pure, a portrait of easy grace, performing best while bent with pain and facing the most relentless competitive pressures. I read Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" recently, and was struck anew at the simple belief that sustained that gnarled old fisherman as he fought that shark for hours after tortuous hour:
"Have faith in the Yankees, my son, Think of the Great DiMaggio . . . I think the Great DiMaggio would be proud of me today. I had no bone spurs. But the hand and the back hurt truly." Joe now hawks coffee in a squeaky voice on TV commercials and sells himself in the papers by promoting a savings and loan.
Lindbergh is something else. By the time I first was aware of him, his luster had dimmed and his name had become a term of opprobruim in my household. Lindbergh, that quintessential American hero of the innocent Twenties, was a Nazy sympathizer, it seemed. Besides, all he had done was fly across the ocean in a plane. Even in those pre-Pearl Harbor days that wasn't a feat, I myself already had been taken on a New York-to-Atlanta flight that ended, in midcourse, with a forced landing in a Virginia field. By the age of 5 I knew all about the adventures of flying, or thought so anyway.
My first job, as a teen-age copyboy on an old New York newspaper steeped in tradition, brought me, briefly, up against Lindbergh again. One of my tasks was to collect messages from the aging receptionist, a gentle, pink-cheeked, soft-spoken man named Chandler who was then approaching 90. He sat in solitary splendor in a paneled anteroom of the paper under mementoes of journalistic glories past. One of the bronze plaques mounted on the wall behind him contained the text of celebrated editorial written during Lindbergh's flight to France. It was titled, "Alone?" began: "Alone? Is he alone who rides the airwaves with courage in the cockpit? . . ." Supposedly, New Yorkers read those words aloud with choked emotion on subways and buses in that spring of 1927. But I found them, years later, to be stuffy, pretentious nonsense. Youth often lends a harsh judgement.
Now the anniversary is upon us. It's 50 years after the Spirit of St. Louis lumbered off that muddy runway at Roosevelt Field, on Long Island, scarcely cleared the telephone wires and trees beyond, and headed out across the Atlantic en route to Le Bourget airport, near Paris. As a rule, anniversary stories leave me cold; they are, usually, devices for us in the news business to fill our columns with factous remembrances and photographs evoking nostalgia, faded curious from the half-forgotten past. So with Lindbergh - or so I thought.
Lindbergh's story, after all, is hardly unknown. He has been picked over, and plucked apart, for decades - the tragic hero, the case study of the American price of fame, the first instant celebrity devoured, if not destroyed, by mass adulation, the bright new captivating star who confronts, succumbs to, and is repelled by, the sordid merchants of commercialization.
Thus much remains constant, but I was wrong in almost every other personal perception of Lindbergh. To my surprise, if not shock, Lindbergh emerges in today's perspective as a much fascinating figure. Far from being some relic from an antique age, he comes forth as a prototype, if you will, for these cynical Seventies, and what's wrong with them.
To read Lindbergh's own account of his flight is to understand why millions around the world identified with him so completely. His journey had all the trappings of universal drama - man alone against the elements, testing himself in crisis after crisis, facing hardships and fear and numbling fatigue, experiencing what no one before had felt, seeing what no one before had witnessed, charting territory where no one before had ventured.Like Huckleberry Finn, who got on that raft and floated into all our imaginations, Lindbergh provided the perfect vehicle for vicariously sharing in adventure and danger and the opening of a new age.
It was Lindbergh's modesty and sense of personal wonder that continues to give his flight such comtemporary power.
As he skims along, those waves, often only 5 to 10 feet above the breakers, or plunges into sudden storms, or encounters dedly ice forming on the wings, or finds himself falling into perilous periods of ssleep, or believes himself hopelessly off course, or tries to plan how he will act if he crashes on the ice floes below, or hears imaginary voices sounding through his stupor, or berates himself for not taking a parachute, or struggles endlessly to exert mind over body, will over matter, his flight takes on an epic human quality.
We today, particularly, can identify with him. In today's mechanical age, it's the machine that flies the man, the computer that commands the brain. We are numbed by technological advances. We fly to the moon, and no one remembers who first go off there. We hurl over over vessels deep into the universe, circle and land on Mars and Venus, and hardly anyone notices. The human element has been virtually removed.
BUT THERE'S ANOTHER side to Lindbergh that makes his story compelling. Today's hero, transistory though that figure may be, comes fully prepackaged and conditioned.Ane we know it. No one expected him to think, or speak, for himself. Not really.
We live in a time of media consultants and PR flacks and market research analysts and ghost-writers who can prepare the perfect strategy for selling us soap, or Presidents. We suspect the words that come out of the mouths of our public figures, and for good reason. The first astronaut steps out on the moon and carries with him - and then utters - the words written for him by government PR advisers. Even if the words are his own, they come over as technological jargon: "A-OK." "In this time frame." The computer speaks, not the human.
Whatever else Lindbergh was, he was a writer. itwas essential to him, for the rest of his life, to try to express what he saw and felt and thought. His account of his flight is stunning in this respect. He writes with power, and with poetry, of his fragile relationship to air, sea, land and spirit.
"The Spirit of St. Louis is like a butterfly blown out to sea," he said. "How often I used to watch them, as a child, on the banks of the Mississippi, dancing up and down above the water as I am dancing now: up and down with their own fancy and the currents of air. But a touch of wing to water, and they were down forever, just as my plane would be. I saw dozens of them floating, broken and lifeless, in eddying currents near our shore. Why, I used to wonder, did they ever leave the safety of the land? But why have I? How similar my position has become."
He writes of "the granduer of the world outside, the nearness of death, the longness of life," of "a love of the air and sky and flying, the lure of adventure, the appreciation of beauty," and says:
"It lay beyond the descriptive words of men - where immortality is touched through danger, where life meets death on equal plane; where man is more than man, and existence both supreme and valueless at the same instant."
These can be put aside, perhaps, as romantic musings. Some have suggested, cynically, that Lindbergh himself was not even the author of such passages. His wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, is a writer of long standing and public acceptance. But the evidence cleary shows otherwise. In the collections at Yale are Lindbergh's diaries drafts, outlines, notes, letters and other literary fragments. "Life is like a landscape," he wrote in one unpublished passage. "You live in the midst of it, but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance."
DISTANCE DOES HELP, for a perspective on life and on Lindbergh. His evolution as a writer came slowly, painfully. In the blush of his fame, he returned to the roar of the crowds and endless commercial opportunities. It had been announced that a book about the flight would be forthcoming. A ghost-writer delivered the manuscript to the 25-year-old pilot. Lindbergh was outraged. He would write it himself, or not at all. Laboriously, and yet in haste, he wrote out his account in three weeks' time. The book, subsequently published that same year of 1927 as "We," was a personal embarrassment to him, but not to the public. He would not even read over those sentences. Twenty-six years later, his final account of the flight, "The Spirit of St. Louis," won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. And Lindbergh kept writing until the last days of his life three years ago. Thousands of pages, handwritten and typed, of his unfinished "Autobiography of Values" have been turned over to his publisher.
"Values" is perhaps the important word about Lindbergh. He had opportunities to amass, quickly and easily, millions upon millions, and shunned nearly all of them. William Randolph Hearst, the original, found him especially intriguing in this regard.
Hearst, then at the peak of his power and wealth, invited Lindbergh to his opulent New York apartment, and offered a fabulous sum for a movie about the pilot's life. Lindbergh demurred. Hearst told him to take his time, think it over. The next night Lindbergh returned. Again, the contract was proferred, Lindbergh quietly tore it up, threw it into the fireplace and politely excused himself.
Today, with million-dollar contracts multiplying for the latest in the long line of entertainment, sports and media celebrities, such behavior would be unthinkable.
BUT NONE OF THESE aspects of his character holds as much interest, or carries major power, as the central irony in his life. Unlike the major and minor figures of our times, Lindbergh's story never really ended. He had won fame, justifiably, as the superb pilot, the skilled technician, the careful planner. For years after, he played a leading role in the development of the technology we now take for granted. Indeed, it can be said that Lindbergh along paved the way for many of the advances in flight and space. He was instrumental in another critical role in our lives.
As Brendan Gill, The New Yorker critic, the latest to take a long look at Lindbergh, points out, for years Lindbergh served as a consultant to the Secretary of the Air Force. He also helped to reorganize the Strategic Air Command.
Yet in his later days, as Gill notes, Lindbergh increasingly found himself the role of the technocrat and the arms expert. In a passage from his unpublished autobiography, Gill quotes Lindbergh as writing:
"Although I could find no wise alternatives, each year that I worked on weapons development left me more concerned about our future. It appeared to me that our civilization involved a negative evolution for life, and the security we were building for today and tomorrow led toward eventual catastrophe . . . I came to accept that even a catastrophic war was probably not the greatest danger confronting modern man. Civil technology vied with military technology in breaking down human heredity and the natural environment. Every day, increasing numbers of bulldozers and trucks tore into mountains, slashed through forests having far greater scars on the earth's surface than those created by bombs."
Charles A. Lindbergh, the forerunner of our future, had turned against the technology he had helped to create. Even his beloved flying became a source of discomfort. He saw, as he said, civil aircraft laying every sport on earth open to the ravages of commerce. In the end, he also began to turn against aviation, or at least its capacity for abuses.
"It was the combination of an undeveloped science with an art, resulting in adventure for the mind and body that brought stimulation to the spirit," he said.
But as the science developed, and technology took over, the art and adventure declined. Given a choice between inhabiting the air with birds or planes, he would unhesitatingly take the birds.
He became one of the earliest, and most ardent, among those in today's environmental movement, taking an active part in population control campaigns and in efforts to limit the production of cars and weapons. Only weeks before his death, he wrote: "I do not want to be a member of the generation that through blindness and indifference destroys the quality of life on our planet."
Lindbergh, in his sense, was still serving a cause, still engaged in a lonely human struggle. That may not be the act of a hero. I'll grant they don't exist. But I prefer it over the inhuman, dehumanizing forces of the present, a present where popular characters must be more than life itself. Today, what passes for our heroes come equipped with bionic arms and legs and eyes. Tomorrow, they will have bionic hearts and souls.