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"We saw him land!"
In a long-lost letter an American woman describes Lindbergh’s tumultuous touchdown in Paris
Julia Richards of Groton, Massachusetts
The astonishing flight would transform aviation and travel, shape history, even launch the age of celebrity, with the 25-year-old pilot becoming the most famous person in the worlda world he made forever smaller. Lindbergh remained a public figure all his life, which encompassed marriage to author Anne Morrow; the kidnap killing of their first child and the ensuing "trial of the century"; a disastrous 1941 speech that urged the nation to stay out of World War II and included remarks perceived as anti-Semitic, and his advocacy of environmental causes. He died in 1974.
It’s precisely because Lindbergh’s historic arrival in France is so well known that Julia Richards’ account of it is such a delight. Writing to her older brother in Massachusetts days after the event, she helps us see it fresh. She was 38 and a homemaker. She loved to travel and was very interested in aviation, having had a brother who was a flier in World War I. She died in an automobile accident in 1961. Dicky, a schoolteacher, died in 1968.
Their son Tudor, now 87, was a forester, wildlife biologist and Audubon Society official. He lives in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, and says he recently came across his mother’s letter, which describes the family’s encounter with, as his mother put it, "a young upstart named Lindbergh":
Julia Richards letter about Lindbergh's Landing:
It must have been about quarter past ten when the roar of an aeroplane overhead was distinctly heard above the answering roar of the mob below. It passed, but people all about us had distinctly seen the outline of a plane. A few minutes more and we heard it again; it grew in volume, and then suddenly, out of the black darkness, there flew a great silver mothit seemed to mewhich glided down the path of light in the middle of the field and was as suddenly swallowed up again in the seething, howling mass of humanity that surged towards it from every direction of the compass. One second I was gazing transfixed at that unbelievable phantom ship drifting softly down its lighted way; the next I was gazing at a sheer black wall of humanity trying to fight its way up and over a six-foot iron fence.
Two seconds later the fence gave way, and the black wave broke and swept forward like the Mississippi floods. It was Homeric. We meant to escape then and there, but when we emerged from our protected corner, the fever took possession of us too, and we longed for just one nearer glimpse before we should go. So we all took hands and trotted out onto the field, stepping across the poor, flattened iron fence and tripping over the mangled remains of several deserted bicycles.
We saw the plane all right; as a matter of fact it came near being the end of us. It was moving slowly across the fieldbeing pushed to its hangar we supposedand we ranged ourselves up in close formation, well at one side, to see it as it went past. It was almost abreast of us when to our horror it suddenly turned at right angles and charged straight down upon us! It was a nasty moment; everybody was running in every direction and every third person was trundling a bicycle. I was thrown almost into a baby carriage, and the baby who belonged there was almost thrown out. We finally got free and by a miracle kept together.... As you know, before it was finally rescued, ardent souvenir hunters had succeeded in cutting good-size pieces of cloth out of the wings....
My poor dear, I have written a journal! But....I have been so carried away by the magnificence of this exploit. I only hope they don’t spoil the boy before they’re done with himhe seems such a decent, modest sort now.
Permission granted to reprint:
This article originally appeared in May 2002 SMITHSONIAN ("We Saw Him Land!" May 2002, pp. 96-99.)".
Text of letter from:
112 Old Henniker Road
Hopkinton, NH 03229