Once upon a time every mother lied to her kid and told him he, too, could become president. But did he dream of Herbert Hoover or Calvin Coolidge? If he dreamt at all then it would have been about Sgt. York or Babe Ruth. To follow a star is a natural thing for a kid. It inspires him to launch out on his own, even if it's only to be a busboy in a fancy restaurant. He could eventually own it if he worked hard enough, and eat all the fried smelt he wanted.

   Leon Bannerman was an early developer but a late dreamer. At twelve he was a schlep at baseball and weak in history. His thing was making model airplanes and flying pigeons. His best friend was his cousin David in Berlin, his pen pal, a year older and a pianist, whose hero was Wagner. Leon was a sort of Berliner, too, an Irving Berliner, whose records he used to send to his cousin. David always wrote back that when his parents heard them they would shriek, "Ach der Lieber!"

   Leon and David grew up together, distance notwithstanding. Whenever Leon had the funds, he would telephone Berlin but have to pay his father for it. They exchanged hundreds of letters, David writing in a scrambled English that sent Leon into fits of laughter, like, "Vat is this New York shimmy dance?"

   On Davidšs thirteenth birthday, Leon sent him a tie clasp with a Star of David surrounded by glinting bits at the center for which he paid a dollar, assured by the fat storekeeper they were tiny diamond chips. "When they cut the big diamonds," the man explained, "little pieces fly off. Instead of throwing them away they sell them to the tie clip manufacturers. You heard of a chip off the old block? This is a chip off the new diamond. They stopped making them altogether yesterday so youšre lucky to get it."

   Tall and skinny, Leon was a loner, except for his cousin three thousand miles away. Then one day, while fooling around with his radio down in his cellar, Leon's life was changed in a flash by a world-shaking event. He heard a strained, excited voice shouting from the tiny speaker, "He made it! He made it! He landed! Charles A. Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Airport outside Paris, crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a single-engine airplane from New York in thirty-three and a half hours with only a ham sandwich!" Leon rushed stumbling up the stairs to tell his mother, who said they must be joking. She had seen a picture of the airplane. "It was made from paper and peanut butter and the engine was like a wrist watch," she said. But Leon abandoned everything to listen to the reports and by the time the flyer returned to America, Leon's room, stripped of all else including photos of his swiftest homing pigeon, was decorated by the largest pictures he could find of Lindbergh and his airplane. Not an inch of space was left until Leon was obliged to use the ceiling as well, from which he could see them as he fell asleep. And as if the pictures in the newsreels weren't enough, who should appear but The Lone Eagle himself. The minute he returned, his promoters decided that all citizens had the constitutional right to a look, and a series of parades across America took place. The day of the parade in Brooklyn, every schoolchild was marched into the street lining practically the whole city, together with flags, teachers, principals, janitors, and even the truants came. Hours passed before the main attraction rolled through Leonšs neighborhood sitting on the tonneau of a huge limousine accompanied in the seats below him by the local Tammany mafia. Pale and exhausted, a Hamlet-like weariness on his face, his eyes stared blankly as he tried to toss an occasional wave of the fingers to the screaming children but to seem to want nothing more than his airplane and the half a ham sandwich he had left behind on it. From that day Leon devoted all his spare time to his adoration of The Lone Eagle, collecting each bit of information and photograph to be inserted into handsome scrapbooks or hung on the walls. As the years went by he never stopped adding to his collection and pasting it up.

   "You are becoming a total nut, Leon," his father advised him, but did nothing to halt it since Lindbergh was the one and the only greatest American, side-by-side with Washington, Lincoln, and Jimmy Walker, the Mayor of New York. His mother bought Leon a terrific plastic statue of The Spirit of St. Louis, a second model of which Leon had made of balsa wood. It was ten feet long with twelve feet of wing span and it hung from his ceiling and it took him three months to remember not to get hit in the head by it whenever he entered his room. He shared all this joy with David who responded in kind. "I give you a motto for The Lonesome Eagle," wrote David. "Lindbergh Uber Alles!" Such words from David and Leon put the last cent of his allowance into a three minute call to thank him and share the excitement.

   Leon was prepared to go wherever possible to see the super hero, and then, like the rest of the country from the farms to the towns, was shattered when his first born son was kidnapped and murdered. There were times when Leon, alone, cried when he heard the ongoing news. He wanted to try to get into the trial at least once, but when the moment came to leave the house, he couldnšt face it. That year soon became a bad memory and when Leon was ready for college he decided without hesitation to become an aeronautical engineer.

   "Leon, I forbid you to go up in a single one of those cheeseboxes, you hear me?" his mother warned him. She didnšt know he had already been in the air twice. Brooklyn's Floyd Bennet Airfield had flights for five dollars a shot, and nothing could have kept him down. Not even his mother.

   One night when Leon returned from a late class, he found his mother and father in a turmoil. At first they refused to tell him anything, but could finally not keep it back. David and David's family had disappeared. Leon didnšt know what they were talking about. He fought with his father for the telephone to call his cousin but his father wrenched it from his grasp. "What is this disappeared business?" Leon shouted. He thought they were all coming to Brooklyn, the lot of them.

   "Something happened there! Didn't you read in the papers, you fool? Kristallnacht! Tens of thousands of them were dragged off to prison or killed. Their houses, their stores were burned down! Where are your brains? David's father warned me. Get out, get out I told him. But it was too late, too late!" And before his eyes Leon witnessed the collapse of his world. He wanted to go to Berlin to look for David. He wanted to quit college to go to Washington to find important people to get him into Germany. "You speak German?" his father demanded. "You got a pot to piss in, you fool!" his father screamed at him, overcome by the terrible loss. It enraged Leon that although there had been rumblings around the dinner table about the increasingly frightening news, they never did anything about it. It was time to do something, to find David. He didn't care about anybody else. And then the final blow began to fall. A spate of vague rumors had begun in the press and he picked up a newspaper and saw the headline: "Lindbergh Accepts Nazi Medal from Goering with Proclamation of Praise by Hitler." Lindbergh saw him as the man of the future.

   Before Leon left the house next morning he tore his room apart. He cleaned it out until the only things left were the peeling bare walls and a ceiling half without plaster. That's how it remained since he refused to let anyone in to put it right again. The only piece he left standing was a small framed photograph of David at eighteen. Leon's desperate though fruitless efforts to locate his cousin only came to an end when Leon was picked up on Normandy beach and shipped home in a body bag.

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Copyright Š August 3, 2000-


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