When Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris in May 1927, nobody computed his flight path, nobody ignited takeoff rockets, and weightlessness hadn't been discovered yet. When he reached the English Channel, he yelled to fishing boats in bad French, "Where's Paris?"
Yet there is a bond between the Spirit of St. Louis and today's space shuttle Columbia: They lift the hearts of a nation at a time of disillusionment.
In Lindbergh's day it was postwar isolationism, materialism, and a press dominated by hyphenated murder cases --the Hall-Mills case, the Snyder-Gray case.
Today, the nation shudders over an attempted presidential assassination and the tragedy of Atlanta's murders. And now, as half a century ago, bold adventure in the sky lifts hearts for a moment at a time of spiritual thirst.
Since 1919 a prize of $25,000 had been offered for the first New York to Paris nonstop flight.
Two rival crews were preparing to go after the prize when a lone flier arrived from the Pacific coast in a small plane. He was an attractive, modest pilot who said he would make the flight alone.
So in the drizzle of a Long Island morning around 8 a.m., Lindbergh climbed into the cockpit, waved goodbye, and took to the sky. There was no instant contact by radio and television; people couldn't watch in their living rooms. Lindbergh vanished.
Rarely, if ever, has the thought of a nation been so concentrated on a single event. In New York's Yankee Stadium, where an outdoor prize fight was in preparation, 40,000 tough boxing fans rose together and stood in silence when the announcer asked them to pray for the young pilot . . . what was his name? Lindbergh.
Tension rose as the world waited. Lindbergh was reported over the Irish coast. Then he had crossed England and had been seen asking directions from fishing boats.
On the morning of May 22 the sedate New York Times exploded into a three-bank , eight-column spread -- with every story on the front page telling of Lindbergh and his flight. Correspondent Edwin L. James described the arrival:
One hundred thousand people were massed on the east side of Le Bourget Airport. Big arc lights turned on and off following reports that he would land: but it was always somebody else. Seven-thirty, the hour announced for his arrival, had come and gone, and then eight, and nine, and no Lindbergh. Suddenly, the rumor spread that he had been seen over Calais. The crowd was skeptical.
"Suddenly the field lights flooded their glare over the landing ground," wrote Mr. James, "and there came the roar of an airplane's motor. . . ." But it wasn't Lindbergh. "Stamping their feet in the cold, the crowd waited patiently. It seemed quite apparent that nearly everyone was willing to wait all night, hoping against hope.
"And then occurred a scene that almost surpassed description. Two companies of soldiers with fixed bayonets and the Le Bourget field police, reenforced by Paris agents, held the crowd in order."
Then "lines of soldiers, ranks of policemen, and stout steel fences went down before a mad rush as irresistible as the tides of the ocean."
"Well, I made it!" exclaimed Lindbergh with a smile as he was lifted out of the cockpit.
When Americans heard about it, they exploded with joy and relief. And when reports of Lindbergh's first few days in Paris showed that he was behaving with charming modesty and courtesy, millions of his countrymen took him to their hearts.
He got a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan, of course. And this reporter watched Calvin Coolidge, in Washington, give him a crabbily cordial welcome.
Why was he a national hero?Historian Frederick Lewis Allen, in his book "Only Yesterday," says:
"A disillusioned nation, fed on cheap heroics and scandal and crime was revolting against the low estimate of human nature which it had allowed itself to entertain. For years the American people had been spiritually starved."
Then, says Allen, came a man who conducted himself with unerring taste. Half a century later the nation responds again to bravery and modesty.