Charles Lindbergh: Lone Eagle, Strange Bird

In 1927 Anno Deum, the twenty-five-year-old son of a Minnesotan Congressman landed a single-seat, single-engine plane at an airfield in Le Bourget, France—successfully accomplishing the first solo flight across the Atlantic, which six pilots had already died attempting to do. After he landed he got a cool $25,000, a ticker-tape parade, and a dance named after him. Charles Lindbergh—one of the most interesting, problematic figures of the twentieth century—died forty-two years ago this month.

Lindbergh’s a hometown hero where I come from, a small town in Minnesota with a population of about eight thousand smack dab in the center of the state, the Mississippi River cutting through the town like a great big worm through a decidedly small apple.

Lindbergh also must be cut some slack because he underwent unspeakable personal tragedy. His baby son was murdered—which has got to do things to a man’s mind.

Growing up you heard exclusively positive things about the man. Our local sports teams were named after him, as well as one of the elementary schools. I never did learn about his isolationist stance leading up to World War II, much less about his anti-Semitism. But more on that later.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to hero worship. Some say we’re currently living in an age without heroes—and they add that’s a bad thing. People, they say—especially young people—need someone to model themselves after, someone to inspire them. Others say that the over-idealization of real, live human beings only promulgates a fantasy-oriented way of looking at things and sets one up for eventual disillusionment.

I personally subscribe to the latter school of thought. Because, why lie to kids? And why base one’s life on fantasy? I prefer the ancient Greek stance, which considered heroes like Theseus and Hercules as capable of both noble feats of heroism and deeds of perplexing awfulness.

Lindbergh is just such a hero—although his awfulness was more in word than deed.

But first let’s focus on the positives. Lindbergh was, first and foremost, an aviator—and he was an aviator when it was an extremely risky venture. Started as a barnstormer, became an air mailman, joined the early Air Force—and, according to my count, he had at least five crashes before his historic flight. Undeterred, he faced the yawning, massive, watery gap of the Atlantic Ocean alone. True grit should be applauded when clearly exhibited.

Lindbergh was also a fine writer. In 1954 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Spirit of St. Louis, which described his historic flight in-depth. Haven’t read it—but I have read his posthumously-published Autobiography of Values, which really impressed me. Here’s a brief, beautiful glimpse of Lindbergh’s authorial talents from that book:

I grow aware of various forms of man and of myself. I am form and I am formless, I am life and I am matter, mortal and immortal. I am one and many—myself and humanity in flux… My aging body transmits an ageless life stream… After my death, the molecules of my being will return to the earth and sky. They came from the stars. I am of the stars.

As evidenced in the above, Autobiography of Values is a lyrical mixture of mysticism, science, and philosophy. If that’s your thing, the book will not disappoint.

Lindbergh also must be cut some slack because he underwent unspeakable personal tragedy. His baby son was murdered—which has got to do things to a man’s mind.

Five years after his flight across the ocean, Lindbergh was living in rural New Jersey with his wife and firstborn child, Charles Lindbergh, Jr., when, on March 1, 1932, somebody crept into the boy’s nursery and carried him away. Ransom was demanded, and ransom was paid: $50,000.

The money was eventually traced back to a man named Bruno Hauptmann. He was arrested, put on trial, and executed. The baby’s body, by the way, had been found just two months after the kidnapping in the woods not far from the Lindbergh home.

Lindbergh of course had already undergone intense media exposure after his triumphant crossing of the Atlantic—but this was media scrutiny of a most distasteful kind. Understandably paranoid about the safety of his family, Lindbergh fled to England, saying:

We Americans are a primitive people. We do not have discipline. Our moral standards are low. It shows up in the private lives of people we know—their drinking and ‘behavior with women.’ It shows in the newspapers, the morbid curiosity over crimes and murder trials. Americans seem to have little respect for law, or the rights of others.

This is about the time that you sense a certain bile entering Lindbergh’s worldview. His articles and interviews at that time betray an unhealthy preoccupation with race and nationality.

Which was part of the times he was living in. There were rumblings of war in Europe: the Nazis were mechanizing and arming, and the other Western powers were nervous. The U.S. military asked Lindbergh to use his fame as an aviator to scope out the capabilities of the Nazis—so he dutifully traveled to Germany to gather what info he could.

Lindbergh was feted and awarded by the Germans. There is no doubt that he provided useful intelligence to the United States and Britain—but what’s also true is that Lindbergh was very impressed by the Nazis and vehemently opposed war with them. He advised that the United States should sit the war out and instead let Germany and Russia duke it out. He later explained:

I was deeply concerned that the potentially gigantic power of America, guided by uninformed and impractical idealism, might crusade into Europe to destroy Hitler without realizing that Hitler’s destruction would lay Europe open to the rape, loot and barbarism of Soviet Russia’s forces, causing possibly the fatal wounding of western civilization.

Okay, so Lindbergh wound up on the wrong side of history. But what still troubles one today is the latent (and sometimes not-so-latent) anti-Semitism enmeshed in Lindbergh’s stance. He made a number of indiscreet (to say the least) remarks about the Jewish people during this time—but what’s perhaps most telling is this half-assed defense against charges of anti-Semitism: “A few Jews of the right type are, I believe, an asset to any country.

Once the war got underway, however, Lindbergh volunteered for combat—in the Pacific. He also later visited a concentration camp and said, “Here was a place where men and life and death had reached the lowest form of degradation. How could any reward in national progress even faintly justify the establishment and operation of such a place?” A tepid yet clear renunciation of his past views.

Later in life, Lindbergh wisely turned away from politics and took up the cause of the environment—his new mindset exemplified in his famous quote: “If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.

It’s this older, mellower, Nature-loving Lindbergh that I greatly prefer. A few years back I went to visit the renovated Lindbergh Interpretive Center in my hometown and saw the Volkswagen Beetle he used to take on road trips through America, Europe, Asia, and Africa:

I suppose that, over the years, I have spent more than a hundred nights in it… I found that I could take the right front seat out, take its back off, reverse its position in the slide grooves, and with the use of an air mattress, make a comfortable full length bed.

Maasai warriors hitched a ride with him once, their spears sticking out of the windows, making the Beetle look like, in Lindbergh’s words, “an armed knight as it rolled through the dust and sand.

In the end, it seems ridiculous to tally up the triumphs and tragedies of someone’s existence. A man’s life shouldn’t be a balance sheet. Charles Lindbergh exists for me in that middle area where most of us find ourselves: not quite a hero, not quite fallen.

  • August 28, 2016
  • Jon Eckblad
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