tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Lindbergh and aviation made the world smaller

Flying to Florida and back last week got me to thinking about the best book I read in 2007, which was a biography of Charles Lindbergh. Born in 1902, Lindbergh was 25 when he flew nonstop to Paris from New York in May of 1927. A. Scott Berg in his 1998 book, "Lindbergh," offers a very detailed account of the aviator's 72-year life. I also really enjoy the insight the author provides into 20th century America. A lot changed between the time of that trans-atlantic flight and Lindbergh's death in 1974.

The book gives you a sense of a country growing up. Far-away places became accessible in the course of those decades. In the beginning of the century, it seemed inpossible that things going on in Europe and Asia could have much to do with the United States, but World War II changed all that. Aviation made the world smaller and suddenly we were living in a global community, enjoying the world's blessings but also entangled in its problems.

In the early 20th century, aviation was a curiosity. It took a daredevil to fly in an airplane, let alone pilot one. But aviation quickly developed, initially proving particulary useful for mail delivery. Those mail routes paved the way for passanger service. Lindbergh did a lot of work to scout out the best routes and make recommendations about landing systems and airport design.

Aviation was a tremendous development in the history of humanity, but Lindbrergh ultimately lamented the progress. He said that during his lifetime the world changed from when "men flew airplanes to when airplanes flew men." Lindbergh was clearly a controlling personality and he wanted to control the machinery, he didn't enjoy being controlled by the machine. It's a tough trade-off for an adventurer but it was a necessary trade-off for bringing aviation to the masses.

The book offers a detailed account of the abduction and murder of the Lindbergh's first baby. We also get the story of Lindbergh's political thinking during the late 1930s and early 1940s. He desparately opposed U.S. intervention into the "war in Europe." Lindbergh made a lot of speeches urging the country to stay out of the war, a position similar to the one his father, a congressmen from Minnesota, took during the first world war.

Charles Lindbergh traveled to Germany several times during those pre-war years and people began to call him a Nazi. The book paints those allegations as being unfair. After the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh completely changed his sentiments regarding U.S. involvement in the war.

One of the most interesting parts of the book was the description of his relationship with his wife, Anne Morrow, the daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico who became a U.S. senator. They met shortly after Lindbergh's historic flight to Paris. She was stary-eyed and worshipped him. They married quickly and initially she traveled with Charles all over the world. As the children came, she traveled less, although Charles continued to travel frequently. He was gone for long stretches. As time passed, Anne wanted to make her own name. She was a writer who wanted to be recognized for her own skill rather than simply for being the wife of the aviator. The tension is well-described by Berg.

One of the things that is a little difficult to comprehend for a 21st century American, is the world-wide celebrity status Lindbergh gained completing that 33-hour flight to Paris. It was a celebrity status that lasted the rest of his life. Others who completed longer, more dangerous flights never knew such fame. There was something about Lindbergh that the whole world latched onto.

We have it so good in 21st century America. It is easy to forget it wasn't always like this. It wasn't always easy to get to Florida and back from Minnesota. Most Minnesotans throughout history never had a chance to fly to India. A book like Berg's "Lindbergh" helps a reader maintain some measure of perspective. And the natural result of that perspective for me is a certain measure of gratitude.

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