Desert Companion

The Promise of Arrival


Illustration of two people at an airport watching a plane land

Recalling the romance of air travel before body scans, COVID anxiety, and (ugh) ‘Sky Bites’

His name was Luther Tubbs. Bright lime-green uniform with brighter yellow piping, like the Wizard of Oz in partial disguise — and an even greener green cap with crisp gold braid. He offered a chauffeur service at the Oakland Airport in a green 1958 Lincoln Continental (he was proud that the cabbies hated him). As a kid, I loved to go to the airport with my parents to pick up friends and relatives just to maybe see him, so in business on his own.

I loved even more to be hauled out across the Bay to San Francisco International Airport where the kerosene rush of the jet fuel was stronger, and there in the main terminal was a giant wooden jigsaw mosaic with Polynesian and Asian themes, outrigger canoes and Chinatown dragons, Gold Rush pickaxes, sea lions, cable cars, and California missions — a gorgeous, mingled mass welcome to the new American West and Pacific Rim Exotica.

I thrilled to watch the clacking names of cities rotate on the big black signs … Hong Kong, Honolulu, Athens, Oslo, Karachi. Even domestic destinations like Detroit and Milwaukee took on an air of enigma and wonder. (The idea that I might one day go to Cincinnati was then a source of awe and not dismay. Imagine that.)

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Everything about airports electrified me, from the first moment I could go to a public restroom unchaperoned. I savored the different psychic auras of departure and arrival surrounding all the strangers I somehow felt I knew. Sorrow. Longing. Hope. Solitary excitement. Communal celebration. Uncertainty. Necessity. And that mysteriously intuited but still foreign adult relief of those glad to be departing with just a Bloody Mary at a lounge bar to see them off. At age 8, I wrote down in a small Carnival notebook the first overheard line of my writing life: “We’re only here to say goodbye to people.”

My first actual air travel experience found me wiggling in polyester ecstasy. It was far too short a flight to Burbank, California — but I hit that never-forgotten high of First Stewardess Adoration. I spiraled like a chain of suitcases out of a DC-10 for Jackie. Even prettier than my third-grade teacher, she wore a uniform like I’d never seen before. Her tight blue waist-cut jacket and skirt (and that hat) truly suited her (maybe the first moment I can remember where such symbolic authority seemed purely reassuring and not intimidating — and genuine, as in deserved). I held my breath as she took me by my right hand and led me to the cockpit to meet the pilot and crew. She pinned silver wings to my striped shirt and gave me extra pretzels and a Fanta grape drink (my favorite then). I wanted to live with her forever, in our own airplane, where she’d be served, and we’d never land.

Thousands of air miles later, memorable moments and crises: an engine catching fire out of Heathrow; landing in Shanghai after midnight on the first day of Chinese New Year; getting a ride on the mobile stair unit to the closed door of a running plane in Reykjavik (what a learning experience); the sheer design intensity of Vancouver and Kuala Lumpur’s airports; just the thought of Cairo or Mexico City’s bazaar cacophony; witnessing a sleek-suited man from Delhi buying a Nigerian woman a $150,000 Cartier watch in Dubai at dawn; LAX and Kennedy over and over (how can anyone not delight in Jamaicans landing in Queens in tropical regalia despite the sleet?). Oh, yes, mate. Something special about Qantas passengers upchucking for hours across the blind Pacific … or taking off in a black-eye cyclone from the Isle of Pines while sending up a huge rooster tail of rain down the runway lined with rebel forces, the wind-shear shudder like the end of the world. And, of course, the little matter of a twin-engine emergency crash landing in a remote part of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Hard to forget when the rescue team carries black palmwood spears.

But there’s also that first fabulous time flying into Vegas at night. Sooo worth a window seat: The sheer symphonic transition from utter high desert mountain dark to the sudden shapeshifting mirage of the ultimate Boom Town — night-blooming oasis of impossible possibility. (And they call Paris the City of Light!)

In my personal flight log, I’d place that right up there with the Cathay Pacific upgrade to first class from the Philippines to Singapore, sipping a real Bordeaux and listening to Yo-Yo Ma on custom headphones, dining on stir-fry beef and mushrooms in oyster sauce, the jungles of Vietnam almost innocent below. For those of a certain vintage, even defunct airlines hold a special fondness. Who in the know doesn’t miss Pan-Am, PSA, and TWA? Hughes Airwest and People Express? Of all the lost airlines, though, Western Airlines wins the prize for memorable campaign lines: “The ohhhnly way to fly.”

I don’t think the infamous skyjackings of the ’70s, the tragedy of 9/11 and its consequences, the ghostly conundrum of MH370, increasingly extreme weather, or the on-going COVID obstacles of recent times — or any one event or development — is the root of the lost glamour and charm of commercial airline flight. There’s a pattern that follows the cost-cutting mandates of free-market efficiency: Less legroom, thinner blankets, no blankets. Carry-on luggage rules, plastic cutlery, plastic food. And let’s not forget problems at the hard metal and industrial end, with accelerated airplane production times, union stresses, training and skills shortages. Maybe air travel is simply more magic than we can economically, culturally, and environmentally sustain. As a pilot friend of mine says somewhat cryptically, “Only so many pigs can fly.”

But while some of us may justifiably lament a vanishing era of at least potentially democratic air travel (with a modicum of convenience and basic corporate goodwill), I keep two things in mind as a tonic to the pining nostalgia. One, I check out Greyhound Bus depots in U.S. cities I visit. I spent a lot of time in Greyhound stations growing up. They have plenty of cultural mystique and heritage — just not easily romanticized — and they speak to class and racial divides Americans aren’t keen to dwell on. Secondly, I consider the history of aviation, and how so many of the aeronautical and engineering innovations emerged from military applications. War.

Still, even when I do my best to put the realities of air travel today into a larger perspective, I get frustrated fumbling with the chintzy bags of Sky Bites (“a savory mix”), wide-body bodies in increasingly narrow seats, and people trying to ram elephant-sized suitcases into the overhead compartments. I drift back in my mind to Jackie and those silver wings. We will soon be arriving … the local time is …

Remind me what the time is? We all hope for the promise of arrival, not merely the fact of departure. Φ

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