The night I dined with Lindbergh

A smile, astonishingly, appeared on Lindbergh's face, and he started to murmur a tale. All forks were set down.

I had a friend, and she had a friend named Barbara. My friend introduced me to Barbara one day in Big Sur, Calif., where I lived for 20 years. I soon met Barbara's husband, Jon, and one night they invited me to their tiny cabin for dinner.

I remember Barbara. She kept that cottage standing up and the plumbing and electricity working. She made the meals, cared for her kids (six, I think), and radiated warmth to one and all. She possessed one of the world's great smiles.

As I sat in the living room, waiting for dinner, Barbara stuck her head out of the kitchen and said, "Oh, by the way, Jon's father is coming to dinner."

Surprise, surprise. Guess who's coming to dinner? I knew the answer: Charles Lindbergh - Jon's father, and arguably one of the most famous figures of the 20th century.

He arrived, tall and slim and silent. Not much had changed since his solo flight to Paris 40 years earlier. He and I sat silently on a pair of couches, each studying the other. Well, I was studying him, anyway.

He seemed much too shy to be caught glancing at me, but I noticed his natural curiosity checking out the stranger. It was clear he felt obliged to make conversation.

Charles Lindbergh, delivered to me on the half-shell, and so shy he could hardly speak? I cast about for something to say, something to put him more at ease. I noticed his shirtsleeves, which he'd rolled up inside-out rather than outside-in.

"Why do you fold your sleeves that way?" I asked him. He immediately became defensive, as if I had caught him doing something wrong. Swell, just what I didn't want.

"Well, I don't know," he said. "It just seems easier for me to fold them that way. Does it seem...?" I stopped him from finishing his sentence with lots of Nos and a lot of laughing, which he finally joined in on, and the ice felt broken.

We launched into easy family conversation, I avoided asking questions, and soon everyone was relaxed. Jon had arrived, on a motorcycle with the parsley or something, and dinner was ready.

When it came to conversation, Jon and Barbara - bearing the weight of being related to an American icon - were no help. In truth, Lucky Lindy was no giggle himself. Or so I thought.But I kept trying.

There were some stiff moments again, with the four of us inescapably around a table. Barbara fell silent before her father-in-law. She seemed in awe of his presence, his history, perhaps. She never called him by his name. He was always "Jon's father."

Jon was silent before his father as well. He also seemed to have a strong sense of awe, and perhaps fear as well. Jon had described his father to me as a distant, isolated figure.

"Well," I thought, "We're not going to talk about American isolationism in the 1930s. Nor will we touch on international Jewish bankers or Lindbergh's ill-advised meetings with Nazi leaders in Berlin."

I'd been warned not to mention the more than 50 (illegal) flights Charles Lindbergh flew against the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II.

What shall we talk about, then?

I mentioned meeting Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Jon's mother, and I praised her. More silence.

How about discussing flight? No, he's talked about it all his life. We continued to eat in silence.

But then I heard Jon say something - a throwaway line, at best - about a dinner party with the Sikorskys in Connecticut. He asked Charles to tell me the story.

More silence. Only this time, I wasn't going to let go. Tell us the story, I begged him.

A smile, astonishingly, appeared on Lindbergh's face, and he started to murmur a tale. All forks were set down, and we leaned forward.

He and Anne were at a formal dinner party at the home of the man who essentially invented the first commercially successful helicopter.

They were at the Sikorsky mansion in Darien. A distinguished woman asked Lindbergh a question, and he answered her in a slightly saucy way, I gathered, so she stuck her fingers into her water glass and sprinkled him with a few drops of water, in contempt for his answer.

Lindbergh returned the compliment, sticking his fingers into his water glass, and letting her have it. Immediately, he said, the following happened: The guests saw Lindbergh draw his chair back, and the black-tied men and gowned women did the same.

They all stood up. Sikorsky announced ground rules and team leaders, and the two groups became opposing forces in a water fight to end all water fights. Buckets, hoses - in the house, in the garden. Strategies, attacks, retreats, screams of laughter.

The party ended around a huge fireplace - towels and blankets courtesy of the hosts - with hot drinks and terrible lies about who hit whom first with a bucket of water, until the wee hours.

Then everyone hugged everyone and drove home happy.

Charles Lindbergh was now laughing at the memory of it. He was laughing so hard that tears came to his eyes. We were laughing together. The shared story unified us all, and the goodbyes were grand as I left to drive home.

Some of my own family with susceptible memories would have recoiled if they'd heard I'd met Charles Lindbergh - and liked him a lot. But that's the way it always is.

The reality about people is always good, I've learned. We never talked airplanes. We talked water fights, and that's what brought us together that night. That lovely night when I met Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris took place 74 years ago on May 20-21, 1927.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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