May 21, 2004

250 I shall keep singing!

by Emily Dickinson

FRIDAY, 21 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "I shall keep singing!" by Emily Dickinson. Reprinted with permission of the poet.

I shall keep singing!
Birds will pass me
On their way to Yellower Climes—
Each—with a Robin's expectation—
I—with my Redbreast—
And my Rhymes—
Late—when I take my place in summer—
But—I shall bring a fuller tune—
Vespers—are sweeter than Matins-Signor—
Morning—only the seed of Noon—

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1927 that Charles Lindbergh landed his plane in Paris, completing the first solo, non-stop transatlantic flight. Lindbergh grew up in Little Falls, Minnesota and first wanted to become a pilot when he saw planes passing over his town as a boy. He eventually got a job as an airmail pilot, flying between St. Louis and Chicago. It was an incredibly dangerous job at the time. Of the first forty pilots hired, thirty-one died in crashes. But in his first four years on the job, Lindbergh flew 7,189 flights without a single incident.

A man named Raymond Orteig was offering a 25,000-dollar award for anyone who could successfully fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Several pilots had tried to win the prize and died in their effort. Lindbergh decided that the way to win it was to fly alone, saving on weight. He got financial backing from St. Louis businessmen and bought a single engine plane with a large gas tank, which he called the Spirit of St. Louis.

In order to keep the plane as light as possible, he redesigned it himself. He didn't take a radio, a parachute or any navigational equipment. He tore unnecessary pages from his flight journal, trimmed the margins from his maps, and only brought five sandwiches for food. Bystanders on the airfield tried to offer him rabbits' feet, wishbones, horseshoes, and even a kitten, but Lindbergh only accepted one gift, which was a St. Christopher's medal. He started down the runway at 7:51 a.m. on May 20, 1927. The gasoline tank was so heavy that he had trouble getting the plane into the air, and only cleared the telephone lines by twenty feet.

From the take-off in New York, he flew north over Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, navigating by checking maps against the landmarks he could see on the ground. After three hours of flying he began his first stage of the journey over the ocean, with no landmarks to help him find his way. He had decided that if he didn't see Nova Scotia when he expected to, he would turn back.

He had not gotten much sleep the night before, because of nerves and the reporters who had wanted to interview him, and he was terrified to find himself getting sleepy within the first few hours of the flight. He began to keep himself awake by routinely making notations in his log and taking a sip of water every few minutes. He reached Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and then flew in toward the city of St. John's because he wanted people to know he'd gotten at least that far. People who saw his plane said they could almost read the serial number on the underside of the wing. It was the last land Lindbergh would see until he reached Ireland.

He turned east toward Europe just as night was falling. For the next fifteen hours, no one would know if he were alive or dead. People across America would later say that they stayed up thinking about Lindbergh that night, praying for his safety. The humorist Will Rogers wrote in his column, "No attempt at jokes today. A . . . slim, tall, bashful, smiling American boy is somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where no lone human being has ever ventured before. . . . If he is lost it will be the most universally regretted loss we ever had."

After reaching the halfway point of his journey, Lindbergh's exhaustion began to disorient him. He later wrote, "It [seemed] impossible to go on longer. All I [wanted] in life [was] to throw myself down flat, stretch out—and sleep." In order to keep himself awake, he flew close enough to the water to feel the spray on his face. He began to hallucinate, and even saw a coastline before his calculations said that he should. When he flew toward it, the coastline vanished.

After more than twenty-four hours, Lindbergh spotted fishing boats on the water. He flew in toward them and shouted, "Which way is Ireland!" They didn't answer, or he couldn't hear their answer, so he flew on. He reached Ireland a few hours later, and turned south toward Paris.

As he approached the airfield where he was supposed to land, around 10:00 p.m., he was confused by the strange array of lights. He had to circle around awhile before he realized that the strange lights were cars stuck in traffic, people trying to get to the airfield to see the landing.

Lindbergh touched down at 10:24 p.m. on this day in 1927, thirty-three and a half hours after he'd taken off. About 150,000 people mobbed the landing strip in Paris, shouting, "Vive Lindbergh!" When he got out of his plane, the crowd picked him up and passed him over their heads, before he even had a chance to step on the ground. The American ambassador to France got him medical attention and took him to a hotel, where he finally got to lie down in bed. That night the ambassador sent a telegram to Lindbergh's mother that said, "Warmest congratulations. Your incomparable son has honored me by being my guest. He is in fine condition and sleeping sweetly."

He became one of the most famous men in the world overnight. Radio and newsreels were both new mediums at the time, and this was one of the first big stories for both. His image was captured on an estimated 7.4 million feet of newsreel film in the next three weeks. People in movie theaters who saw the first newsreels announcing his success burst into applause.

His achievement helped spur the aviation industry, as people began to pour money into airline stocks. Several songs were written about him and a dance called "The Lindy" was named after him. New York City gave him the largest ticker tape parade of all time, and he received the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "In the late spring of 1927, something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan who seemed to have nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams."

Lindbergh went on to write two books about the flight, including We (1927) and The Spirit of St. Louis (1953), which won a Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

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