Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lucky Lindy

That's what they were calling Charles Lindbergh 83 years ago today, when Lindbergh departed on what became the world's first transatlantic flight — although, actually, I guess they didn't start calling him that until late the next day when he landed in Paris, more than 33 hours after his departure.

Transatlantic flights are commonplace today, but, in 1927, the best and most daring aviators were vying to be the first to accomplish the feat — and, in the process, claim a $25,000 prize that was being offered by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig to the pilot who could fly nonstop between New York and Paris in either direction.

Transatlantic travel raises no eyebrows in 2010, but, when Lindbergh left on his historic journey, six others already had died attempting to cover the New York–to–Paris route that was called for in the conditions of the Orteig Prize.

What Lindbergh did in May 1927 was not entirely unique — the first transatlantic flight in a heavier–than–air aircraft was accomplished with several stops and took more than three weeks to complete in May 1919 and the first truly nonstop transatlantic flight (which followed a route that was more than 1,700 miles shorter than Lindbergh's) occurred a couple of months later.

Lindbergh gets the credit for it in the history books, and perhaps deservedly so. He captured the public's imagination and inspired the next era in flight, building on what the Wright brothers began nearly a quarter of a century earlier.

At some point, I suppose, the historic achievements that have kept mankind moving in the right direction are largely forgotten and replaced in the public memory by something more recent, and perhaps that is the way it should be.

But, as routine as the early discoveries may seem, they are the building blocks of civilization.

We live in a time when jets can fly at speeds Lindbergh probably never imagined, but the security hoops through which one must leap can seem to take as much time as the flight itself.

Lindy really was lucky, I suppose. I guess he had to be, flying high over storm clouds and barely over ocean waves, pressing on through fog, contending with ice, at times navigating by the stars. He received a hero's welcome in Paris and upon his return to New York. Fame was his. And so was that $25,000 prize, which probably played a larger role in Lindbergh's accomplishment than any desire he may have had to be a pioneer and to contribute to the evolution of aviation.

But I'm guessing he didn't feel lucky very long. A few years later, his infant namesake was kidnapped and murdered in what was called the "crime of the century," and the glare of the media spotlight of the 1930s led Lindbergh and his wife to fear for the safety of their second son.

Perhaps that was an inevitable consequence of the tragedy they had endured, but, in effect, they were driven from the country, choosing to take refuge in a village in southeast England.

Although the Lindberghs eventually returned to America, following a period during which they lived on the coast of France, Lindbergh said the years he lived in England were "among the happiest days of my life." Eventually, he and his wife had five children who lived to adulthood.

There was a time when Lindbergh was an unknown mail carrier. When the young, boyish–looking fellow who also was known as "Slim" and "The Lone Eagle" began his flight to Paris, his days of being unknown were over.

Nevertheless, he fathered seven more children in three extramarital relationships and kept them all secret for the rest of his life. For the world–famous Col. Lindbergh, the center of attention in the "crime of the century," those couldn't have been easy things to conceal. He was fortunate that he didn't live in the true paparazzi era.

But, even though the celebrity spotlight didn't shine on him with the intensity that Princess Diana and Michael Jackson knew, I can't help feeling that, at times, he must have longed for the days when he was anonymous.

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