April 24, 2010 9:56:00 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
"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."
The humorist was writing about Charles Lindbergh, and it was May, 1927. As Rogers was writing his column, the "slim, tall, bashful, smiling American boy" was somewhere between New York and Paris on his epic 33-1/2-hour solo flight, a feat that would make him the toast of Paris, if not the planet.
Four years earlier the famous Lindbergh -- who was not then famous -- landed in Maben, a tiny community in the northwest corner of Oktibbeha County. Then 21, Lindbergh was just another barnstorming aviator. He had just bought his first plane a few days earlier in Americus, Ga., at a government auction of World War I "Jennys."
According to an item in The Maben News Press recalling the event more than 50 years later, Lindbergh paid $500 for his plane, and from Georgia headed west toward Texas. He spent his first night in a pasture near Meridian.
After leaving Meridian, Lindbergh became disoriented and flew north. It was a blustery day and the pilot decided to land, take on fuel and figure out where he was. He chose a pasture about a mile south of Maben just off Highway 15. A storm was approaching and as Lindbergh taxied to the edge of the field, he hit a ditch and damaged his propeller. A group of townspeople, excited by the rare sight of a plane, had rushed to the site, and they helped the aviator push the plane out of the ditch and secure it next to a stand of pine trees.
Lindbergh ordered another propeller from Americus and, though broke, took a room at Mattie Sanders'' boarding house, the closest thing this community of 500 had to a hotel. According to a newspaper account, most of the people who stayed with Mrs. Sanders were traveling salesmen who came in on the train one day and left the next. She was said to have routinely set "one of the biggest tables you ever saw."
During his two-week wait for another propeller, Lindbergh spent most of his time tending to his plane. Locals described him as a "sweet boy" too shy for girls. One resident remembered him as a "tall, nice-looking boy in khaki clothes." According to one account, young men of the town, black and white, gathered around him wherever he went.
Once the propeller arrived, Lindbergh raised $300 by giving locals $5 rides. Stanley Harpole, who lived in Maben until his freshman in high school, said his mother, 13 at the time, was one of those who flew with "The Lone Eagle."
Some time later, after the famous flight to Paris, Lindy is said to have returned to Maben, except this time he didn''t land. The plane circled the town low enough that people could read "The Spirit of St. Louis" on its side. The pilot seemed to zero in on the boarding house whose proprietor had been so accommodating to the penniless pilot. Mattie Sanders, who was preparing dinner at the time, ran out into the yard waving a towel at the plane. Lindbergh dropped his benefactor a small present.
Terry Harpole, a cousin of Stanley''s, said his mother, as secretary of the Maben-Matheston Chamber of Commerce, organized a 1987 dedication of a historic marker commemorating Lindbergh''s Maben stopover. The event took place a couple days before the 60th anniversary of the New York-Paris flight.
Lindbergh''s widow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, sent a letter saying how much she appreciated the gesture.
"I wish I could find that letter," Terry Harpole said Saturday morning. "I''m still finding old things my mother stuck away."
Pat Harpole bought Mattie Sanders'' house in 1977. At the time, she didn''t know its history.
"I just wanted an old house to fix up," she said.
Harpole, who has been a town alderman for more than 20 years, has renovated the house, but she''s left unaltered the room Lindbergh is thought to have slept in.
"We just say that it is (Lindbergh''s room). Everybody that would know is gone," she said. "It''s a big ole house."
Harpole says The Mississippi Department of Archives and History denied her request for a historic marker, saying Lindbergh stayed there before he was famous.
"They said if I ever got in a tight (and was going to have to sell the house) to let them know," she said. "But I haven''t yet."
Charles Lindbergh went on to lead a full life as an author, inventor and, until Pearl Harbor, an antiwar activist. Perhaps his most profound influence was the role he played in the widespread acceptance of commercial aviation.
Elinor Smith Sullivan, a famous woman aviatrix who died earlier this year, said years later that before Lindbergh''s flight, "people seemed to think we [aviators] were from outer space or something. But after Charles Lindbergh''s flight, we could do no wrong. It''s hard to describe the impact Lindbergh had on people. Even the first walk on the moon doesn''t come close. The 20s was such an innocent time, and people were still so religious -I think they felt like this man was sent by God to do this. After Lindbergh, suddenly everyone wanted to fly."
Perhaps that is how the people of Maben felt on that spring afternoon during that innocent time, when a tall, smiling, bashful American boy descended from the skies, and bestowed on that community a small piece of aviation history.
E-mail Birney Imes at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.