This post is part one in a three-part series. The story told here is decades old, but in many ways it mirrors conversations going on today about fake news, removing monuments, vindictive presidents, and the choices we make about who we support.
This past weekend I was going through some of my old writing and realized that the 80th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's visit to Dallas was this week so I decided to rush this into production so to speak. This post quite a bit different than my usual writing here, but I thought it would be fun to put out there. The writing from these three posts was an article written by me at least a decade ago. I have gone through and tweaked it, making additions and subtractions here and there. It was nearly 5,000 words long so I decided to make it 3 posts. In truth, I would have loved to have spent more time refining it, but with a wife, four kids, a full-time job, a new book coming out in three weeks, and work being done on another book proposal that wasn't exactly practical. At some point you just have to hit the "Publish" button and move on to the next thing. Still, I think it is an interesting story, even if the author wishes he had done more with the material.
Check back Wednesday and Thursday for the rest of the series.
“No hero is immortal until he dies,” W.H. Auden
Lone Star Heroes
Texans love a good hero. Maybe it is the state’s well-earned reputation for always wanting bigger and better. Maybe it is all of that Alamo lore that seeps its way into the collective conscious. Maybe it’s the heat, because in Texas the answer for everything is always the heat. Maybe it is because the state has had its fair share of bigger than life people and performances. Chester Nimitz and Dwight Eisenhower were born here. Davey Crockett died here. Audie Murphy was a Texan. Larry Hagman made his name in Texas. Earl Campbell, Nolan Ryan, Tom Landry, Sam Houston, and Roger Staubach all are figures whose exploits are so revered that you are almost surprised to realize that they none of them walked on water. Well, Staubach was in the Navy so maybe that counts. Texas’ obsession with its heroes is a well-documented historical phenomenon. Heck, for Texas to be obsessed with you, you don’t even have to be a Texan. Sometimes that state just decides that someone is a Texas kind of person.
Ninety years ago this week one of America’s greatest heroes made his way to “Big D.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that at the time of his visit his popularity was unmatched in the history of the United States, but in a little less than a decade everyone’s favorite fellow citizen, and the man that Texans adopted as a son, tumbled off of his new pedestal in a crash and burn almost as magnificent as his meteoric rise.
Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first manned flight on December 17, 1903, started a new American fascination with flying. Dallas, like the rest of the country, was utterly captivated by the idea of manned flight. By 1917 Dallas was officially a player in the new aviation game, and the new completed Love Field was designated as a World War I military training base.
Two years later the fascination with flying gained even more momentum when New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig, who was born in France, offered a prize of $25,000 to the first pilot to make a non-stop transatlantic flight between New York and Paris. Many ambitious pilots set their sights on obtaining the prize, and as technology continued to advance throughout the twenties it looked more and more like someone might be able to pull off the 3,600-mile flight. By 1927, however, every attempt had failed. Most pilots trying for the prize took off from Roosevelt Field in Garden City, New York, which had become the unofficial jumping-off point for attempts to reach Western Europe in one hop. Yet the $25,000 remained unclaimed.
In May of 1927 a relatively unknown former captain in the US Army Air Service showed up at Roosevelt Field with his single-engine aircraft. The son of Swedish immigrants, who had most recently been making his living as a mail delivery pilot, most assumed this tall, handsome man in his mid-twenties would fail, and a few even assumed he would die in the process. If the attempt claimed his life, he would not have been the first.
On May 20, just before 8 a.m., the wheels of Charles A. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane took to the air leaving New York behind. To save weight the plane had been stripped of anything that wasn’t necessary for the flight – including a parachute. He sat on a wicker chair, and aside from his body the plane carried four sandwiches, two containers of water, and over 450 gallons of gasoline.(1) On takeoff from Roosevelt Field it appeared to witnesses that the plane had barely cleared a set of power lines at the end of the field. Some concluded that the takeoff itself was a miracle, and they could have been forgiven for assuming the takeoff was a bad omen for this nobody’s attempt at such a brazen deed.
For thirty-three and a half precarious hours Lindbergh piloted his small plane over the Atlantic using a trusty pair of magnetic compasses to stay on course for the coast of France. Around twenty minutes after 10 p.m. on the night of May, 21, 1927 Lindbergh’s plane slowly descended to Le Bourget Field in Paris. The group awaiting the man who had conquered the Atlantic was so large that Lindbergh was at first worried that his propeller might kill some of the revelers who were crowding the plane’s landing area. The crowd stormed his plane some of them tearing pieces of fabric off the wings. He opened the door and stepped out onto the wing where he was suddenly pulled by dozens of hands. The French throngs carried him around the airfield on their shoulders so long that the story was later told that it was 30 minutes after he landed before his feet finally touched Paris soil.
When the wheels of the Spirit of St. Louis touched French soil Captain Lindbergh was instantly catapulted from an unknown pilot who delivered the mail to an international celebrity. The world’s first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris had shattered previous aviation records, and in the process the United States’ new favorite pilot became the story of the still-young twentieth century around the globe. Before the Spirit of St. Louis’ propeller had even stopped spinning in Paris presses were in motion and radios were warming up to take the news to the world.
This was also the first of many times that certain members of the media chose not to let the truth get in the way of a good story in satiating the appetite of the American people for all things Lindbergh. Lindbergh would be incensed to discover that after his landing in Paris a New York Times reporter had created a first-person account of the flight from New York to Paris, and the newspaper had published it on the front page under a byline that credited Lindbergh. The first shots had been fired in a war between America’s press, and its new favorite son.
The fervor for all things Lindbergh swept the nation, and North Texas was no different. Everyone wanted to do their part to celebrate such an amazing accomplishment. Prominent Dallasite William E. Esterwood, Jr. went so far as to cable Lindbergh while he was still in Paris with an offer to pay the income taxes on his $25,000 prize
Lindbergh participated in several days of celebration in Paris, and then he boarded a ship to return to the United States as the most famous American alive. The return trip across the Atlantic was less stressful than the first, and far less lonely. Aboard the ship, the Memphis, Lindbergh was greeted in American territorial waters by several planes flying overhead, bands playing, and throngs of dignitaries and his now admiring public. The fervor of the leadership of the country was such that authorization was given for Lindbergh to be greeted with a twenty-one gun salute, the first person who was not a President or the ruler of a foreign nation to receive such a greeting.
The national appetite for anything and everything about the man who had been nicknamed the “Lone Eagle” was fueled by the exploding technologies of mass communication. On June 11, Lindbergh made his way from Washington D.C. to New York. His reception in the big apple was broadcast on the radio. Thirty-five million people, one-third of the country at the time, tuned in to the address. Another 500,000 attended the reception in person. The National Geographic Society made Lindbergh the seventh person to receive its Hubbard Medal. A new type of swing dance, the “Lindy Hop”, was even named after the aviator and his “hop” across the Atlantic Ocean. By the end of June that year, a stamp was issued in his honor. He was awarded the congressional Medal of Honor, and was the first recipient of the nation’s first Distinguished Flying Cross, and he was promoted from captain to colonel in the Air Corps Reserve.
Later that summer, Lindbergh embarked on a three month long nationwide tour, sponsored by the multimillionaire Guggenheim family. The tour consisted of Lindbergh flying his airplane around the country to different stops. In those three months Lindbergh would touch down in 48 states, visit some ninety-two cities, give over a hundred and forty speeches, and ride almost 1,300 miles in parades. His fame was such on the tour that a game between the Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies on August 1, was postponed until the next day so that the city of Cincinnati could use Redland field to greet Lindbergh.
On September 27-28, 1927, the mighty conqueror of the Atlantic Ocean brought his tour to a stop in Dallas. Lindbergh’s plane landed at Love Field and was greeted by 10,000 people at the airport and some 75,000 to 100,000 (according to Dallas Morning News reports of the time) lined the parade route. Those numbers were quite a welcome for a city that had only recently topped a half a million residents. He was greeted by the Mayor Robert Eugene Burt and other local dignitaries, and gave a small speech urging the city to, “Keep Dallas and Texas on the air map of the United States.”
After his speech, Lindbergh was the guest of honor in a parade, this one going from Love Field to the Adolphus Hotel. The parade proceeded at fifteen miles an hour, rather brisk for a parade, due to problems other cities had experienced with overzealous female admirers of the young pilot. It was hoped that fifteen miles an hour would be fast enough to prevent any of the young ladies of Dallas from approaching Lindbergh’s car in an attempt to kiss the new All-American boy. Things were far from business as usual that day in Dallas as Judge William H. Atwell convened his courtroom by calling Lindbergh a “great, typical American hero.” Atwell’s court even adjourned for several minutes as the parade passed by.
At the Adolphus Lindbergh held a small reception for the local newspapers followed by a banquet of some six hundred and fifty people in his honor later in the evening. The next morning, Lindbergh boarded his plane and headed for Oklahoma City, the next stop on his tour. On the morning of September 28, 1927 Charles Lindbergh took off from Love Field headed north. On his flight out of North Texas Lindbergh circled the all women’s College of the Industrial Arts (now Texas Women’s University) several times and even dropped autographed letters. The Colonel it seems, wanted to pay respects to his many admirers of the opposite sex.
After the small detour over the college Lindbergh piloted the Spirit of St. Louis away from Dallas and toward Oklahoma. Lindbergh might have departed Dallas, but Dallas was nowhere near through honoring its new hero. A lasting tribute, something that would endure a few generations was planned. Almost two weeks before Lindbergh’s visit to Dallas a proposal had been put forth to the City Plan Commission that the newly begun Raitman Boulevard be named in honor of Col. Lindbergh and his accomplishments. Ticker-tape parades came and went, but a street name would be an honor not soon forgotten. On October 22, 1927 the City Commission officially changed Raitman Boulevard to Lindbergh Boulevard. Charles Lindbergh was America’s brightest star, and Dallas wanted everyone to know how much they admired the dashing young aviator.
What followed Lindbergh’s flight and subsequent tour of the country became known as the “Lindbergh Boom” as stocks related to the aircraft industry rose and the American public’s interest in flying exploded. By June of 1929 the boom had officially reached Dallas as the newly formed Delta Air Service initiated its first passenger carrying service from Dallas all the way to Jackson, Mississippi, via stops in Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana.
(1) There was one other piece of equipment in the plane which the King of England inquired about:
“When he reached the American embassy in London Lindbergh was informed that the king wanted to see him, and on the morning of May 31 he was driven to Buckingham Palace and presented to King George V. The U.S. ambassador was away and the chargé d’affaires was a ‘boiled shirt who was in rather a state because I was in an ordinary business suit and not a frock coat!’ Lindbergh said. As it turned out, it was just the two of them, Lindbergh and the king, who, Lindbergh said, showed a remarkable knowledge of aviation. Right off, the king leaned forward and said, ‘Now tell me, Captain Lindbergh, there is one thing I long to know. How did you pee?’ Lindbergh addressed this startling inquiry by explaining that he carried with him ‘a sort of aluminum container,’ which he said he threw out of the plane in France before landing at Le Bourget. The king seemed satisfied with this explanation and they moved on to other topics.”
Groom, Winston. The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight (Kindle Locations 4067-4075). National Geographic Society. Kindle Edition.