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That's the Way It Was in '27

May 22, 1977 By GEORGE VECSEY

Old Westbury -- This has been the busiest year of John Frogge's 76 years on this planet. At an age when most men are happy to be pushing a shuffleboard stick, Mr Frogge has been running all over the Island giving speeches about another year in his life - when he covered Charles A. Lindbergh for The New York Times.

He is a burly man with great vitality, and the twang of rural Kentucky is still in his voice. He was not in awe of Lindbergh then, and he doesn't try to deify him now. But as last Friday's 50th anniversary of the flight came closer and closer, Mr. Frogge found himself in demand by people who wanted to know: "What kind of man was Charles A. Lindbergh?"

Mr Frogge (rhymes with vogue) will give a reasoned answer, but is quite clear that his life neither began nor ended on the Plains of Hempstead on May 20, 1927. He has just as much enthusiasm when he recalls the tobacco farms of his native Mud River Valley, Ky., or how he once read his own obituary in The Brooklyn Eagle, or some of the other characters of the early days of aviation.

He was a kid from the sticks who got a clerical job at The Times in 1922, and lingered around the newsroom until somebody sent him out on a story. In those years, all newspapers posted extra reporters at Curtiss and Roosevelt airfields because of the celebrities and the daredevils and the poor souls who might nose-dive into the ground.

Mr. Frogge recalls watching Len Bonney make his last perpendicular landing, and how he filed his story first and then took Mr. Bonney's girlfriend out for a few drinks "to settle her nerves," Lindbergh did not invent the excitement on the Island - he migrated to it.

The Times had two regular aviation reporters, Deke Lyman and Russell Owens, but Mr. Frogge was sent out regularly in 1927, as more and more fliers prepared for the $25,000 Orteig prize for nonstop flight between Paris and New York.

Adm. Richard Byrd was the big name at Roosevelt Field, with one of the best crews in the world. He even installed a telephone off the waiting room in his hangar for reporters to use. Charles A. Levine, another airplane owner, hired Clarence Chamberlin to prepare to fly to Paris. The Times's top reporters covered those two camps; Mr. Frogge was assigned to the slim Midwesterner who flew in from nowhere in early May.

"You could not know him as an individual," Mr Frogge recalled. "I've hears so much about Lindbergh being a practical joker, but I never saw anything of this. He was supposed to be the great American boy, but I remember when his mother came to see him, they didn't exchange a word or a kiss. He kind of looked at her, and went back to work."

Even then, before the historic flight, Lindbergh had no use for the swarms of admirers or reporters. Mr. Frogge would toss a question whenever Lindbergh would appear, but often there was no answer at all.

On the night of May 19, when it appeared the rain would stop, Mr. Frogge camped in the lobby of the Garden City Hotel- "by the fireplace, right where the brides all had their pictures taken." Just about dawn, he heard the creaking of the old elevator, and he saw Lindbergh striding through the lobby. Mr. Frogge knew enough to rush to the field.

"I counted 17 people inside the rope near the plane," Mr. Frogge said, "I wrote all the names down on an envelope but wouldn't you know it, I had a fire in my house a few years ago, and it was burned."

the young reporter found time to ask three questions: Was the plane loadtested? How much gas did it have? Did it have a piece of aluminum in the gas tank to keep the gas from sloshing? Mr. Lindbergh liked those nuts-and-bolts questions. He prefered not to hear the questions about his feelings.

"One police officer told everybody for years that Lindbergh said he would feel as if he were in an electric chair from here to Paris. No truth to it. If you were going to make up a quote, Lindbergh was the last guy you'd choose."

Mr. Frogge watched the three agonizing bumps on the wet field, the slow takeoff at 7:52 A.M., before Mr. Lindbergh disappeared to the northeast. Mr Frogge rushed to the phone to call his office, but found nobody was there at that hour.

Then a strange thing happened. The phone in Admiral Byrd's shack rang and it was Admiral Byrd. The admiral had graciously given Lindbergh permission to use the longer Roosevelt Field, but Byrd had seen the bad weather report several days earlier and gone home to Virginia. Now he heard a rumor that Lindbergh was going to try to fly to Paris.

"I described the takeoff. told of the trouble getting down the field," Mr. Frogge said. "I was so astonished to get the call that i didn't even ask Dick how he felt. Dick was a swell fellow. I don't think he even expressed an opinion. If he had, it would've been in The Times."

Mr. Frogge passed his information to his newspaper - and received no byline in those historic editions, as the major story unfolded on the other side of the the Atlantic. but his involvement with aviation was just beginning. He was around for eventual crossings by the Byrd and Chamberlin planes and he covered some of the failures, too.

One of them came when Frances Grayson was setting up a crew so she could become a woman pioneer across the Atlantic. She invited Mr. Frogge to accompany her crew, but at the last moment, he said, "I thought about my wife, how my insurance probably did not cover flying with that crew of hers, and how if anything happened to me, I'd be disgraced, leaving my wife with nothing. So at the last minute, I didn't get on."

His instincts were correct. The plane disappeared over the Atlantic, but somebody had seen a manifest list with Mr. Frogge's name, and the story appeared in The Brooklyn Eagle about the reporter lost at sea. Even worse, this nonfact was picked up in a chronology of aviation deaths.

"For years, every time somebody died, they'd list all the people who had been killed in plane crashes, and my name would be right there," Mr. Frogge said with a chuckle.

By that time, he was no longer reporting for The Times. In 1928, the managing editor complained because Mr. Frogge had hired a car to cover an aviation story in Old Orchard, Me., and Mr. Frogge threatened to drop he editor out the window, which was not even open at the time.

"I had the presence of mind to add, 'By the way i quit.' Otherwise, I would of been fired.'

By that afternoon, Mr. Frogge had a job with The Herald Tribune, for which he worked until 1966. For the last decade, Mr. Frogge has been assistant to George Morton Levy, president of Roosevelt Raceway, telling clubs and groups about the marvels of harness racing.

"Here is Mr. Levy, 89 years old, the oldest active president of any multimillion-dollar corporation, putting in a busy day and sending me, at 76, all around to all these old people's clubs, saying 'Keep 'em happy.' The most vicious law ever passed is forced retirement age."

He brings to his job the verbal abilities of a Kentucky storyteller, and more often than not people ask him about Charles Lindbergh instead of trotters and pacers.

"It's my big claim to fame," he said. "Now the 50th anniversary is over, but I've got something else to talk about next year. Remember in the Bible when God took a rib from Adam and created Eve? I was there, too."

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