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6 minute read
Reeve Lindbergh

I was the youngest of four brothers and two sisters and grew up during the second half of my father’s life, when the early years of triumph, tragedy and controversy were over. I felt no personal familiarity with the famous 1927 flight, and if I asked my father about that accomplishment, he would say only, “Read my book!”

He wrote this passage on the flight: “Now I’ve burned the last bridge behind me. All through the storm and darkest night, my instincts were anchored to the continent of North America, as though an invisible cord still tied me to its coasts. In an emergency–if the ice-filled clouds had merged, if oil pressure had begun to drop, if a cylinder had started missing–I would have turned back toward America and home. Now, my anchor is in Europe: on a continent I’ve never seen… Now, I’ll never think of turning back.”

Sometimes, though, I wonder whether he would have turned back if he’d known the life he was headed for.

My father Charles Lindbergh became an American hero when he was 25 years old. After he made the first nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927, in a tiny silver monoplane called Spirit of St. Louis, his very existence took on the quality of myth. Overwhelming, overnight celebrity followed him home from Paris to the U.S. and around the nation on his tour promoting aviation. Fame followed him on his goodwill tour to Mexico late in 1927, where he met the U.S. ambassador’s daughter Anne Morrow, who married him in 1929. They traveled all over the world as pioneer aviator-explorers, mapping air routes for the fledgling airline industry. Together they navigated by the stars and watched the great surfaces of the earth revealed beneath their wings: desert and forest and jungle and tundra, wild rivers and wide-open oceans. Land, sea and air: all of it seemed to be endless; all of it seemed to be theirs.

On the ground, my parents were dogged by the media, and they believed the excesses of the press were responsible for the kidnapping and death of their first son Charles in 1932. They withdrew to Europe to protect the children born after the tragedy, and returned to the U.S. just before World War II. My father then joined the isolationist America First movement, becoming a leader in the effort to keep the U.S. from entering what was seen by many Americans as a European war.

At odds with President Roosevelt and the interventionists, my father was branded a traitor, a Copperhead and even a Nazi. When he traveled to Germany to review German air power at the request of the American military attache in Berlin, he was given a medal by his Nazi hosts and later ignored public appeals to repudiate and return it. (He had in fact sent it to a museum, as he did other awards he received throughout his life.) Finally, and disastrously, my father made a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1941, identifying as the three groups unwisely advocating U.S. entry into the war “the British, the Roosevelt Administration and the Jews.”

I was virtually unaware of my father’s prewar isolationism until I went to college and was shocked to learn that he was considered anti-Semitic. I had never thought of him this way. He never spoke with hatred or resentment against any groups or individuals, and in social discourse he was unfailingly courteous, compassionate and fair. In the 1941 speech, however, I could read a chilling distinction in his mind between Jews and other Americans. This was something I did not recognize in the father I knew, something I had been taught to condemn under the heading “discrimination,” something from another time.

The U.S. entered the war, and one hero’s tarnished reputation did not mean much in the context of the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust or the wartime destruction visited upon the world. My father released a statement saying “Now [war] has come and we must meet it as united Americans.” He was denied an Army commission, but found work as an adviser to Henry Ford, building warplanes at Willow Run, and a civilian consultant to fighter pilots in the Pacific. By 1945, the year I was born, my parents were trying to leave the past behind them, and they bought a house in Connecticut to raise their family in peace and privacy. I never knew my brother Charles, but I felt the effect of his loss in the studied privacy and anonymity of our Connecticut suburb, with its shaded streets and unmarked mailboxes.

I am touched by the enormity of my father’s accomplishment in its effect upon both those who witnessed it and those whom it inspired. People still tell me exactly where they were standing when they heard the news of his landing in Paris. Generations of pilots still talk of his influence upon their careers. I am moved again by people who remember the kidnapping and death of my brother, recalling their own fears as children or their compassion for my parents’ loss. I have talked to prewar isolationists too, who defend my father’s political position as an honorable one, even while feeling the distress I have felt about some of his speeches and writings.

He almost never talked to me about the past, because he lived so intensely in the present, never turning back. He did talk a great deal about newer concerns, chief among them the urgent need for balance between technological advancement and environmental preservation. When I knew him best, late in his life, he was flying around the world again, as he had done in the early days, but this time on behalf of endangered species, wild places and vanishing tribal peoples. He believed the aviation technology he loved was partly responsible for the devastation of modern warfare and the degradation of the natural environment. “If I had to choose,” he said, “I would rather have birds than airplanes,” and he worked to promote an ethic in which birds and planes could continue to coexist.

My father was born with this century, grew up with it and experienced both its adventures and its excesses as few other human beings have done. He came of age with his country and his era and reflected both in many ways–not all of them, perhaps, entirely heroic. Yet my father, through intense public and private struggle, acquired over time a kind of reflective wisdom that took him far beyond his early fame. His journey through this century may have made him a greater hero in his quiet final years than he was in the tumultuous, triumphant days of 1927.

Reeve Lindbergh’s memoir of her family, Under a Wing, was published last year

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