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from the September 2015 issue

Lindbergh

So it all boils down to this. A whole morning seeing my face and Paulo’s on the television screen. Ten reporters camped out at the entrance to the building. Three policemen on phone-tap duty, reading the soccer pages in the dining room. They might get in touch at any moment. Waiting is all that’s left for me. I’ve called Lucía to tell her that, obviously, I won’t be doing the program today. She started to cry. This can’t be happening to you, she said. Well, it is. I hung up. I can’t help but think of her as an enemy. Who isn’t your enemy when your son’s been kidnapped and you’re stuck in a room with an unmade bed, looking at photos on the news, listening to supposed friends, police officers and neighbors giving interviews? For example, how strange to see Felipe on the bulletin of the channel where I work, talking about me in the third person, saying that he hopes I don’t become a Peruvian Lindbergh.

I typed Lindbergh into the search engine and found out a few things. I learned, for example, that on January 29, 1928, he arrived in Maracay, Venezuela. In Caracas, he visited the National Pantheon, the house where the Liberator, Simón Bolívar, was born, the Elliptical Salon of the congress building, the Bolívar Museum. I learned that, along with Charles Darwin, Jules Verne, Mozart, Bécquer, Clark Gable, James Dean, and Giacomo Casanova, his star sign was Aquarius. His color is verdigris, his birthstones tourmaline and zirconium, and his lucky numbers 7, 14, and 20. I learned that while making his famous crossing of the North Atlantic, he had only chocolate bars to eat. I learned that in 1957, Billy Wilder made a movie based on his life, with James Stewart in the starring role. The music was by Franz Waxman, who also composed the score for Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In Spanish, the movie about Lindbergh is called El héroe solitario. I learned that if you want to reserve a room in the Holiday Inn Paris-Orly Airport, you should write to 4 Ave Charles-Lindbergh, Rungis 94656. I learned that a book by Bob Burleigh, illustrated by Mike Wimmer, based on Lindbergh’s diaries, was recommended for six-year-olds as being ideal for encouraging valor, self-respect, and sound judgment. I learned that Lindbergh had to enter the cockpit through a hatch in the top of the plane or through one of the side windows, and that the lack of forward visibility meant he had to put his head out of one of those windows every so often to correct his course. I learned that a certain Jimmie Angel, an American pilot born in Springfield, Missouri, in 1902, worked with him in his Flying Circus in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1921 in an act that consisted of parachuting from a plane and doing aerial stunts. And I also learned that when Charles Lindbergh made his single-handed crossing of the Atlantic, in a monoplane called “Spirit of St. Louis,” Calvin Coolidge—then president of the United States—celebrated the news given over the radio with: “I see nothing extraordinary about a man crossing the Atlantic. A man alone can do anything.” Not a very pleasant reaction.

I’ve had to go down to the living room to answer the questions of the police captain who, as he told me, is in charge of the case by express order of the Minister of the Interior. I had to go over, yet again, what I’d been saying since early morning. Graciela and I separated when Paulo was one; she went to live with her sister in Los Angeles. That week, Paulo had returned with his grandmother, for the first time in  five years, to spend a couple of weeks with me. I’d fitted out a child’s bedroom upstairs, bought toys, clothes, and hired a woman with experience in caring for children through an agency. I gave the number of the agency to the first policemen to arrive. I spent the whole day with Paulo, and later we fell asleep on my bed, watching a blockbuster movie. At three in the morning, I carried Paulo to his room and went back to my own. I fell asleep listening to his slow, gentle snores. It was me who closed the window in his bedroom. I woke at seven in the morning and went to look for Paulo and his child-minder. The window was open. There was a ladder I’d never seen before. I could smell ether. It seemed to me that there was blood on the window frame. Yes, the captain confirmed, when I’d already forgotten that he was there, it was blood, but not necessarily the child’s.

My mother called the house saying that Graciela was coming to Lima. She asked me to collect her from the airport. And no arguments, she added emphatically. Then, more kindly, she asked if I was sure I didn’t want her to come over to be with me. I’m sure, I said. I don’t know what else I can do now, she replied. I spent a long time looking at some fixed point in the void. Then I said that the police wanted me to keep the line free.

Back in my bedroom, looking for information about Lindbergh and the kidnapping of his son. He was called Charles Junior, and was kidnapped in March 1932, around nine at night. He was twenty months old. The kidnappers left a message stuck to the window that no one found until the next day. Despite Lindbergh paying the fifty thousand dollars ransom, the body of Junior was found ten weeks later, a few miles from his home. His face had been smashed, he had a cracked skull, and some of his extremities were never found. Two years later, a German carpenter called Bruno Richard Hauptmann was accused of the crime. Hauptmann’s handwriting and that of the ransom notes were chillingly identical. What’s more, at the height of the Depression, though unemployed, he was throwing money about, and even permitted himself the luxury of losing money on the stock market. He never confessed and was executed without his role in the affair being completely proven. It was media pressure that threw the switch of the electric chair. It’s said that Hauptmann was a scapegoat. Who was he taking the rap for? It’s also said that Junior’s death was a warning to Lindbergh, connected with his intention of running for the presidency of the United States. And they say too that, whatever the case, Hauptmann didn’t do it alone, that he was just a spare part, a gun, in a mechanism set in motion to make it clear to Lindbergh that crossing the Atlantic for the first time wasn’t something his enemies would forget easily.

Lucía called again. I told her everything I knew about Lindbergh. She listened to it all in what could be classified as stoical silence. Then she asked if there was any news about Paulo. I said no. She said that she loved me. We’d had sex a couple of times in her hotel and during a trip to promote the program, but it wasn’t love. I was sure of that. She asked if I’d heard what she said. It’s not the right moment, I replied. I think it’s the best moment, she insisted. Sorry, I’ve got to hang up. OK, she said, and then added: Can you explain what all that crazy stuff about Lindbergh has to do with anything?

I spent the rest of the afternoon printing out photographs of the Lindbergh baby. I put one of them next to a snapshot of Paulo. Lindbergh’s son was sitting on a child’s chair, holding a sand bucket. In his photo, Paulo was sitting on the shoulders of a Superman figure in a children’s toy store in the Bahamas. Graciela’s golden arm appeared at his side. I’d also printed out the front cover of Time, No. 18, Vol. XIX, with a charcoal drawing of Lindbergh’s son. I thought about enlarging it and having it framed for my study. A theatrical souvenir for my new life. Lately, my program had been going down the drain. I allowed the producer to convince me to make some demeaning alterations to the set design, and to sack my research team. I’d become a clown, a histrionic, uninhibited guy, something that didn’t surprise anyone in my family, who had always considered me to be an exhibitionist with a rather dark sense of humor. I was convinced that I could go back to being a serious, even dangerous journalist, like when I worked on a weekly magazine that only paid me every three months. And my life had gone down the drain, too. I traveled to Los Angeles at least once a month to spend the weekend with them. I’d even managed to get a clause put into the custody agreement allowing those regular visits. Graciela had come up with a kind of epic, slightly sentimental story to explain my appearances and disappearances to Paulo. Then, over the telephone, Paulo would recount the development of that fictitious story. I was surprised by Graciela’s imagination. There was something poetic but also cruel in it. Her stories changed in relation to what she was reading at any given moment. Last year, for example, she had clearly become a science fiction fan. Maybe for that reason, I always noted that Paulo seemed a bit disappointed when I turned up at his house.

In addition to Hauptmann, Isidor Fisch, Jacob Nosovitsky, Paul Wendel, Gaston Means, the Russian OGPU, the Deutsche Luft Hansa, his own mother, Anne Lindbergh Morrow, and Elizabeth Morrow, the grandmother, were also mentioned. Wahgoosh, a black fox terrier, the family pet, was there, too. And Charles Lindbergh himself. All those names, at some point, according to some theory, had been guilty of the death of the Lindbergh baby. Either the inept Hauptmann had let him fall from the ladder during the grab; or it was a government plot against a likely presidential candidate too close to European Fascism; or it was a conspiracy by a Jewish group seeking revenge because Lindbergh’s father—Junior’s grandfather—hadn’t allowed a consortium of Jewish investors to found a bank; or the child was hyperactive and had to be tied to the bed but, that night, had managed to get free and died falling from the ladder, and was then eaten by Wahgoosh; or Lindbergh himself, or any other member of the family, had killed him accidentally, or through some form of abuse, and had then covered up the fact with the story about the kidnapping so as not to damage the father’s public image and political ambitions. Each theory had its evidence and alibis. On the Internet, there were as many pages dedicated to Hauptmann as to Lindbergh, and dozens of forums asking who killed the baby and why. There were also some declassified FBI files related to Lindbergh. It occurred to me to print out a few of these pages to read in the airport while I was waiting for Graciela.

When she took off her dark glasses, I discovered that her eyelids were drooping, she was tired and scared stiff. In the car, on the way home, she berated me, naturally. She said that it was my fault for behaving like a clown on TV, for having hired some unknown woman from a crooked agency that was undoubtedly involved with the gang. I told her that the police agreed with her.  And that they also said the kidnapping had been organized from prison. And that there was an Identi-kit image of the kidnapper in every police car, and it appeared on television screens every ten minutes, next to Paulo’s face (I didn’t tell her that the Identi-kit image looked nothing like the woman I had hired). She eventually tired of berating me and asked what had happened. I told her everything, except for the blood. When we got back, my mother was standing at the door, lost among the reporters badgering me for a statement. Looking strangely joyful, she told me that the president himself had said in a TV interview that I had his support. My mother had organized a prayer group to hold a vigil at the entrance to the building, on which she had hung a yellow ribbon. Every time they kidnap someone, they put a yellow ribbon on the door, and some people wear them on their lapels. She was wearing one, as were the reporters who blocked our way.  My mother stayed outside, organizing the vigil.  When did you earn so much money? asked Graciela, looking at the décor of my apartment. I was pretty lucky, I said. She wanted to go to Paulo’s room. She turned on the television I’d placed on a chest of drawers and fell asleep on his bed, watching cartoons. The flickering light of the set fell on her face, making it somber, then cheerful, then somber once more.

I switched the computer on again. It felt very sad to read those FBI files on Lindbergh. Apparently, Edgar Hoover had been convinced that Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer. In a letter to President Roosevelt, he called him “The Nazi pet.” He was probably right. Lindbergh had received a medal from Hitler in 1938, just over a year before World War II. And when war broke out, he had opposed the United States attacking Germany on the grounds that the whole mess was a matter of domestic policy. But the most damning evidence was the language of the texts he published that year. He used words like “the Aryan race,” “virility,” “superiority” and “discipline” with the same conviction as Hitler. In 1939, he even published a Reader’s Digest article entitled “Aviation, Geography and Race.” I wrote down various formulas: Lindbergh + FBI, Lindbergh + Nazi, Lindbergh + war. I also wrote out the names of every one of the probable murderers. And suddenly, during one of my searches, the screen showed photographs of the body of the Lindbergh baby.

Then I understood it all. I understood that person who had crossed the Atlantic, had wanted to be president, was seduced by Nazism, and then traveled around the world on a philanthropic mission. And that other person: the hero who flew solo over the furious Atlantic, standing with half his body outside the hatch of an unstable airplane to keep on course. And most of all, I understood the other hero, Junior, trapped in some sort of journey that was longer and more definitive than his father’s, a twenty-month-old baby who had been left alone, without any means of checking his course through the clouds, a hero whose short journey ended in a landfill with a fractured skull and his extremities probably eaten by a spoiled fox terrier, or a wild dog, or a lunatic who thought that the arms of Lindbergh’s son could be worth a lot in a world of reporters and gossip magazines and madmen who search through the trash cans of their idols to extract their toilet paper. What went through Lindbergh’s mind as his airplane lost stability and threatened to descend at any moment, without the possibility of consulting anyone about what to do, having to make the decision completely alone? And what went through his son’s mind, what newly learned words, as they dragged him down the ladder, waking from a dream that shouldn’t have ended in that way, with a child completely alone in the middle of a strange sea like a rock or a landfill just a few miles from his house? And, for God’s sake, what, more importantly, could be going through Paulo’s mind, in that world of open windows, completely alone in his fragile monoplane, on a dark, solitary journey, without the possibility of either his mother or me accompanying him. Come on, baby Lindbergh, I prayed, you can do it, come home.

I went to Paulo’s room, switched off the television, and put my head out the open window. Outside, I could hear praying. In the room, Graciela’s gentle snores reminded me of my son’s. Those snores like a sleeping sea. Like a low tide. Like a wave breaking on the sand of a beach. A hidden beach onto which a monoplane descends, the ground carpeted with chocolate bars. A safe, firm beach. A beach that fits in the palm of my hand.

“Lindbergh” © Ivan Thays. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Christina MacSweeney. All rights reserved.

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