In the Beginning
The Origin Story
On a sticky summer day in 1861, Charles Lindbergh’s grandfather, August, accidentally cut off his left arm. It happened at the local sawmill. While guiding a log into the spinning blade, the young man slipped. Blood splattered across the room, and he saw both his arm and a slab of his back lopped off before he hurtled across the room. His neighbors wrapped him in a quilt, delivered him to his bed, then went for the preacher. They expected him to die.
Lying there, gripping his shoulder socket with his right hand to stanch the blood, he stared out his bedroom window at the farm he’d carved from the Minnesota wilderness. August would not permit himself to die. His wound, he knew, was bad, so deep it exposed his beating heart and part of his lung. But he believed dying was the lazy way out, and August Lindbergh was anything but lazy.
He’d come to America two years earlier to escape prison. Back in Sweden, where he’d been called Ola Månsson, he’d been a wealthy dairy farmer, as well as a member of the Swedish parliament and—through his government position—an officer of the state bank. But in 1858, political opponents accused him of embezzlement. Ola had responded to their claims with his typical irreverence. When prosecutors handed him a sheaf of legal documents in court, he’d ripped them in half, dropped his trousers, and used the pieces to wipe himself. The judges found him guilty.
Ola, however, was not in court to hear their verdict. To everyone’s shock—most especially his wife and children’s—Ola had run off. With him went a solid gold medal once given to him by his constituents as a token of their esteem, as well as his twenty-one-year-old mistress, Lovisa, and their seventeen-month-old son, Karl.
Ten weeks later, Ola resurfaced in another courtroom, this one in Minnesota’s Sixth District. Declaring his desire to become an American citizen (and “forgetting” to mention he was a fleeing felon), he gave officials his new name—August Lindbergh. His wife, he said, was Louisa Lindbergh. And their son was Charles August Lindbergh, called C.A. for short.
Thrilled to be in America rather than a Swedish jail, Ola-now-August settled into pioneer life. He traded his gold medal for a plow, built a log cabin, and began clearing trees. Lovisa-now-Louisa planted a garden, milked the cow, gave birth to a baby girl, and cried a lot. But to August’s mind, life was good—until the day of the accident.
For months afterward, August lay in bed, refusing to give in to either pain or death. Because he was poor and isolated, with no medical care beyond an unlicensed and itinerant doctor, nothing could be done for him. When he was finally able to stand, he demanded to see his lost limb. Four-year-old C.A. brought it to him. Entwining the healthy fingers of his right hand with the stiff, dead ones of his left, August said to his arm, “You have been a good friend to me for fifty years. But you can’t be with me anymore. So good-by. Good-by, my friend.”
After placing his arm in a blanket-lined box, he buried it in the garden.
Then the stubborn farmer rigged up a belt with pockets and rings into which he could fit the handles of his plow, and got on with harvesting his crop. Soon he was doing as much with one arm as he used to do with two.
Charles Lindbergh never knew his paternal grandfather. August died ten years before his grandson was born. But the story of the old man’s extraordinary gumption, told to Charles time and again by his father, made a deep impression on the boy. He never heard it without wonder. And as he grew, he came to develop a much clearer, broader understanding of the story’s importance. He saw himself as coming from exceptional stock, being shaped by the inherited traits of courage, physical toughness, stoicism in the face of adversity, and stubborn individualism. This “genetic composition,” he later said, explained his “individuality and extraordinariness.” It left him with an unwarranted belief in his superiority, as well as an exaggerated confidence in his own capabilities that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
In the Beginning
“I was born a child of man, in the city of Detroit, on February 4, 1902,” Charles Lindbergh wrote nearly seventy years after the event. “[H]orses still dominated the streets and Orville Wright had not yet made the first power-sustained airplane flight.”
His mother was Evangeline Land Lindbergh. Raised in Detroit by a science-minded family, Evangeline Land had been encouraged by her parents to attend the University of Michigan. It was rare in those days for a woman to go to college, even rarer to graduate with a degree in chemistry, but that was exactly what she’d done. Always unconventional, she’d then accepted a job teaching high school science in faraway Minnesota. Within months of her arrival, she married Charles August Lindbergh—still known as C.A. Yearning for independence and adventure, she’d found love instead.
Seventeen years older than Evangeline, C.A. had grown up to become a successful country lawyer and real estate investor—and one of the wealthiest men in Little Falls, Minnesota (population five thousand). He was also a widower with two daughters, fourteen-year-old Lillian and ten-year-old Eva, whom he rarely saw. Soon after his first wife’s death, grief-stricken and craving solitude, C.A. had packed the girls off to a boarding school in Minneapolis. The girls would return to Little Falls only for an occasional visit. (Years later, when Charles reminisced about his boyhood, he never mentioned his half sisters. As far as he was concerned, they hardly existed.)
It wasn’t long before Evangeline became pregnant. As soon as she was aware of her condition, she insisted on returning to her parents’ home in Detroit. She absolutely would not give birth anywhere else, she declared. And she would have no other doctor but her uncle Edwin Lodge at her bedside.
C.A. had no choice but to agree. Three months of marriage had taught him that there was no arguing. What Evangeline wanted, Evangeline got.
And so, in the ninth month of her pregnancy, in the bitter winter of 1902, the couple traveled by train to Detroit. Once there, Evangeline was tucked comfortably into the front bedroom of the family’s house on West Forest. Pampered and petted, the center of everyone’s excited attention, she settled in and waited.
Less than a week later, in the early-morning hours of February 4, her nine-and-a-half-pound baby was born.
“Is it a boy?” asked Evangeline, who, along with C.A., had been hoping for a son.
“It is,” Uncle Edwin replied.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Dead sure!” he exclaimed. “Just look at the size of those feet.”
The baby also had startling blue eyes, a fuzz of light hair that soon grew into golden curls, and the same dimpled chin as his father.
His mother named him Charles August, after his father. But Evangeline was determined he would have his own unique identity. And so she added an extra syllable to his middle name, so he would not be a “junior.” Then she bundled up her newborn and laid him on a chair beside an open window. After all, it was never too early to make a man out of a boy.
Charles Augustus Lindbergh took his first breaths of fresh winter air.
Up in Flames
Five weeks later, baby Charles—he was never called Charlie because Evangeline believed nicknames were demeaning—returned with his mother to the family’s big house in Minnesota.
Years earlier, his father had bought some land on the outskirts of Little Falls—120 acres of imposing bluff and thick woodland on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the months after their wedding, C.A. had built a grand three-story house on the very edge of the bluff, complete with a billiard room, servants’ quarters, and an impressive front hall with a curved staircase. His Minnesota neighbors gossiped about his sudden spending. Until then, C.A. had always lived simply. He wore the same suit day in and day out, ate the nickel lunch at the Buckman Hotel, and used country expressions like “begorry.” What could have caused such an about-face? they wondered. It had to be the fault of his young, college-educated wife. Full of airs, Evangeline Land was sure to lead C.A. into financial ruin.
C.A., however, could easily afford it. Both real estate and the business of law were generally booming, and his country lawyer practice provided a healthy income. Despite what his neighbors thought, the house was as much his dream as Evangeline’s.
Young Charles’s earliest memories were happy ones. He remembered sitting at the long dining room table set with gleaming silver and stemware while his father fed him raw carrots. He remembered his mother planting irises around the front of the house and playing sprightly songs on the piano in the living room. And he remembered watching from his bedroom on the second floor, the stars “curv[ing] upward in their courses . . . a flock of geese in westward flight—God’s arrow shooting through the sky.”
He also remembered the day it all came to an end.
On a Sunday morning in August 1905, three-year-old Charles was playing with his tin soldiers on the living room floor. Suddenly, he was jerked away from his toys by his mother and rushed out the back door.
Outside, everything was in chaos. Workmen raced across the grass with shovels and buckets while his father shouted orders and his mother sobbed into her hands. The air around him crackled and popped. When he took a deep breath, it tasted of soot.
His nurse grabbed his arm. “CHARLES!” she cried, and dragged him toward the safety of the barn. “Charles, you mustn’t watch!”
He wiggled free of her grip.
“CHARLES, COME BACK!”
A huge column of black smoke rose from the house, spreading out and blackening the sky. The boy stared, eyes wide. Now he understood why he’d been yanked from his play. His house was burning down.
Across the lawn, the house seemed to give a huge sigh. Then, in a shower of flames and ash, it collapsed.
The next day, Charles and his mother poked through the smoldering ruins of the only home he’d ever known. Twisted pipes. Melted glass. Everything covered with the gray snow of ash.
His mother tried to comfort him. No one had been injured or killed in the fire. Besides, “Father will build us a new house,” she said.
But my toys, thought Charles sadly, and the big stairs and my room above the river, are gone forever.