Every Day Is a Brand-New Day
Coming back from Denver a few weeks ago, something happened that seems to recur fairly frequently in my life.
I am waiting in the e-ticket line at Denver’s airport (DIA). I always find myself standing in the longest queue in the noisiest, most unfriendly terminal when this happens—DCA, BWI, DFW, ORD, LGA, something cavernous and always unquiet—and want nothing more than to get out. So, nonchalantly I slip on a tattered navy sock hat with the Eastern Airlines logo stitched on it that is a permanent travel companion. A man in an airline uniform—it is always a man—in his late 50s or 60s—though they are getting older these days—approaches me and says without explanation that I can move over to one of those empty stations that are endlessly unused in this age of electronic ticketing. He takes his time, checking me in, printing my boarding pass, and putting ID tags on my carry-on luggage, a ratty duffle he handles strangely gently, as if it contained his own treasured items. He says it, off-handedly, while bending over to pull some papers out of the printer. He does not make eye contact.
“Haven’t seen one of those in a while.”
He doesn’t say this in a chipper or optimistic way, certainly not how you might hear people mention a Cubs victory or some bird that wings into town once a year for the season. He says it sadly, wistfully, almost like he doesn’t want a response, as if he immediately regrets mentioning anything at all. I’m a little sad, too, even though this happens all the time.
“It was my dad’s.” I always say the same thing.
His expression does not change, but I know the information he desperately wants to know: Where? “In Evansville. He was the youngest station manager in the system when it happened.”
The old man—he looks even older now, truly aged—is gritting his teeth. He even looks like he has the hint of a tear creeping around the corner of his eye. Sometimes I do too. He stares almost through me as we meet eye-to-eye. He tells me where he was: STL, ORL, MIA. These men will never say the name, only the code. They might even give you a string of them, a chronicle or tour of duty. As a result of these meetings, just like this time, I always walk away with free first-class upgrades, drink coupons, whatever he can find behind that counter that isn’t nailed down. The thing he gives me last, however, means the most and will be free to the airline I happen to be flying that day.
“You have a good flight, son.”
People say—perhaps too often these days, and especially if they’re being interviewed for the news—that “everything changed” after 9/11. They’ll always be right (how could they not be?) despite the fact that I don’t understand what they mean precisely. Most often, now that the rhetoric of war has died down in the face of combat for the foreseeable future, this phrase has something to do with air travel. When shoes had to come off at security checkpoints, it was because everything had changed. No liquids? “Everything changed,” the TSA tells people having to chug breast milk.
So far as I’m concerned, in my own little world, The Airlines have been changing for years, almost ceaselessly for my entire lifetime. Before I was born, my father began his professional life—after years spent listing through college taking only classes that interested him—as a flight attendant based out of Boston-Logan (BOS) or Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta (ATL) for Eastern Airlines. My mother would ferry herself back and forth from Indiana to meet him, as tickets then were free and easy to get. You could even, in those carefree salad days of air travel, get free first-class tickets, no questions or fees asked, as an employee. Or wife. Or mother. Or anybody who knew an employee, really. The Airlines wanted you to travel, to see the world. These were the final days of those exotic, art deco posters with images of the true getaway, unsmudged by the realities of the world now brought to us each and every second via the Internet, cable news, and text-message updates. (Nothing bad ever happened if you never heard about it.) Back before ads covered every square inch of wall space in airports, these posters would beckon you to Monaco, the Bahamas, Sao Paolo. Many times the names were enough to set off a spark—I wasn’t even sure, as a child, that these places existed. They were geographically vacant, door-sized images with a title, an Eiffel Tower, a tropical umbrella set against the sunset. You could almost step through them as Alice had through the looking glass. You could stop and wonder at them all day, still conjure up the possibility of ditching the flight on your boarding pass, and go somewhere else entirely.
Eastern was the gold standard by which all airlines were judged (though Pan Am brats might disagree). Every flight had something to eat. Not the crap you get these days, mind you—garbage they have the nerve to charge you for—but actual food served on real, reusable dishes, themed for the destination. Clam chowder to Boston, peppers and beans to Santa Fe (SAF), a Denver omelet to . . . well, you know. Food people would talk about after their trip. In fucking coach. (I would tell you about first-class, but you might punch your next flight attendant when she hits your arm with the drink cart, and she doesn’t deserve that, really. But here’s a hint: complimentary champagne—for the kids, too.) Passengers chatted back then, the crowd a flurry of Where ya headed? and You’re from Ft. Wayne, too? and My husband’s the same way. Real questions with sincere answers, the kind you won’t get from frightened, tired, overcharged, excessively burdened zombie-passengers these days. The atmosphere hummed like an upscale bar at happy hour. (Maybe this was just because people still dressed to travel then, in blazers and ties and crisp summer dresses.) Whatever it was, people knew they were going somewhere and, unlike today, you weren’t punished in the process. Most people, even casual fliers, will tell you that after Eastern, nobody gave a damn, as if to say ‘If they can’t make it, why bother?’ If you’ve flown lately, perhaps you too have noticed.
I suppose you might not believe me. Imagine this, then:
When I was eight, I smuggled a gun on a plane. Not a real gun, mind you, but a real-enough one nonetheless: a chromed, die-cast steel, roll-fed cap gun. My piece had a wood grip, and a working hammer, and had you seen it, you would have thought it was the real deal. Well before the days of day-glow orange tips for the muzzle—not enough kids had been shot accidentally by the police—I had a pair of these I carried around everywhere in a cowboy double holster.
On the way back from Boston once I put my bag on the conveyor as I had been trained. The gun, concealed within, slipped in right before we had left Evansville, slowly made its way into the x-ray box. At this point in American history, despite the fact that planes seemed to be hijacked by terrorists left and right, nothing of note had happened domestically. National Guardsmen did not stalk the security checkpoints; no guns or dogs threatened the passengers; there were no worries to speak of. When the operator saw the gun on her screen—it must have looked like a real gun—she calmly called the supervisor over, who then pulled my bag and had a civil chat with my father right there in line.
During this entire ordeal, sirens did not ring out, no cops were called, the bustle around the checkpoint did not cease. They even had travelers continue around us, moving through the line in a slight detour, as if we were construction cones and this was the freeway. My mother was abhorred, embarrassed. One security person said my sisters were adorable.
I was oblivious. I saw my father’s face scrunch up as if he had suddenly gotten a massive headache—which he had. The supervisor didn’t seem terribly upset, and handed my gun back to my father. I watched my father wander away from the checkpoint to put it in a box at the ticket counter so he could check it, more annoyed that my toy—which I hadn’t even bothered to take out the entire trip—was being carried away. When he returned, he handed me a Tootsie Roll. Apparently, though I didn’t quite understand at the time, I was supposed to have felt bad for something, and this was to make me feel better. No one had explained this to me—all I knew was that I hated Tootsie Rolls, and felt punished.
When we got home, EVV’s security guards were happy to see me. I was something of a mascot.
“So why didn’t you tell me before we left that Tom had packed a gun in his bag?”
The trio nearly fell on the floor, looked like they were having heart attacks, they were laughing so hard. Between gasps, they tried to answer.
“But it’s Tom!”
No one had even bothered to scan my backpack. Because they knew me, they had simply let me walk with it on through the metal detector, ignoring the beeping as I passed by. Neither my parents nor I were sent to Gitmo. A year or so had to pass before I was allowed to pack my own bag again.
Of course things must change. By the time I was ten, Eastern had been stripped apart by new, painfully unprepared management—the infamous, at least in Eastern circles, Two Franks: Lorenzo and Borman—who ended up bankrupting the company within two years of their taking over, ultimately selling off the assets to Continental at absurd (some alleged illegal) discounts. For their hard work, that airline gave both of them lifetime passes.
I cannot begin to relate some of the unspeakable horrors done to these two men by former Eastern employees who were furloughed to Continental as new hires without seniority, their years of service vaporized. Do not misunderstand: Airline employees hold grudges, and some of those grudges involve bodily fluids and deceased animals. I have also been told, on good authority, that Lorenzo and Borman traveled under assumed names—at least until everything changed.
But these things happen, and businesses are always in flux. Somehow, though, The Airlines seem to do it faster. After Eastern went under, Pan Am soon followed. My own father went to Piedmont—literally the next ticket counter over at Evansville Dress Regional (EVV). Meanwhile, USAir bought Allegheny, changed their colors to red, white, and blue, and then ate Piedmont. He had to move to Washington (now Reagan) National (DCA) to find an open job, what with all the people shifting around the system. In order to be closer to home, he finagled a transfer to Lexington (LEX), and finally Indianapolis International (IND). During this same period, the stress of living apart pushed my parents to divorce, and my father married another desk agent whom he had met in DCA. She herself was the product of a miserable past of broken airline dreams, having been sacked by Britt at the end of their run, and actually flew on the final flight that carrier ever served under that name, from Indianapolis to Terra Haute (HUF), Britt’s base of operations. These intersections and missed connections must surely not be without meaning. Nowadays airlines come and go like fashions—Where are Kiwi and Skybus? Gone with gauchos and dress shorts. Does Northwest still exist? They seem to come and go in Reno, but with different regional carrier names. What about ATA—or was it AirTran that disappeared? So many carriers, lost to the amnesia of the times.
The experiences afforded me by The Airlines are almost inexpressible—a list only hints at specific moments. On the way to my grandparents’ house in Florida, I once sat next to the entire roster of the Pittsburgh Pirates (in uniform! in coach!) on their way to spring training in Bradenton, Florida, via Tampa (TPA). I got Muhammad Ali’s shaky and hauntingly beautiful autograph waiting for a connection in Dayton (DAY), a major Piedmont hub, Ali hiding with only a single travel companion in a corner of the terminal. In third grade, I became a minor celebrity because my father decided one day that he would take my grandmother and me to London (into LGW, not LHR like in Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown!) and I brought back single-pence pieces for everyone. Up until I was thirteen my entire family spent the first week of December at Disney World to see the lights and the almost nonexistent crowds. People thought we were rich—one summer vacation, between camping and flying, I was home only ten days—but really we were using a loophole in the blue-collar life of working Airline folks: travel used to be almost free when you worked in the business. Carriers were generous with their time off and well-connected to a universe of cheap vacation options. My mother was (and still is) a school teacher with summers off, and my father was always happy to go “networking”—a term just in its infancy then—at other stations. How could we not have gotten away every chance we could? We would have been downright irresponsible not to. Even after my father finally left The Airlines for good in 1992, my step-mother hung on by transferring to reservations. Even after she was inevitably laid-off—so often the case in the modern-day Airlines story—I could, throughout my undergraduate years, get a flight anywhere for nothing. Of course I took advantage, repeatedly sweeping myself and friends or girlfriends off to Toronto (YYZ) for a weekend, BOS to help a friend move, wherever seemed like a more entertaining alternative to my studies. We always had time on the plane for reading, anyway—presuming one had bothered to remember his books.
As an adult it’s easy to look back on all this and miss out on all the problems that The Airlines (air travel, really) cause, that in childhood were simply absent from that mindset. Flying is carbon-intensive and fraught with financial troubles; it’s hard not to see segments on the news, in this green and frugal age, that advocate putting the kibosh on the whole operation. But what cannot be denied is what air travel does to you—and this isn’t about speed. Air travel literally picks you up and puts you back down somewhere else. And, if you’re traveling by plane, you’re probably going somewhere far away, far enough to make the transition apparent and jarring, like being ripped out of space and time. You leave in the velvety dark, and arrive in the unforgiving brightness of day. Of late, having moved to the Great Basin, I have literally felt flattened under the weight of the wet and oppressive air in the Midwest when I go home to visit. To deplane and walk—slog, really—down the jetway at IND is an exercise in re-associating myself with my body, to feel all the gruff nastiness of clothes, damp and upset from sitting on vinyl seats for four hours, sticking and staying stuck to my parts, sweat dripping onto my glasses. I itch, the terrible tingling of all that salt and travel grime finding its way into my desiccated desert skin. Each time I must renew myself by experiencing this place in this body, but all the reorientation will be for naught. As soon as I acclimate, at the exact moment I become my Midwestern self again, oily and impermeable, I will be under those tiny directional blowers, preferably in the exit row, headed back the way I came. I will hope that I have remembered my chapstick, long-forgotten after a trip to where the humidity never drops below forty percent. This is magic, the only true and real magic we humans have.
Whether or not it is evil magic, though—that I wonder. Height of the kind one gets while flying is something humans simply cannot achieve without the aid of machinery (or drugs). In the most primordial sense, human flight is truly unnatural. There is something terrifying in this: being able to see things through God’s eyes, simply because you want to go to some water park across the continent, or to some song-and-dance routine in an eastern city. Knowledge exists as mere reflection in the clouds. Above it all, without a cell phone or any of the other electronic gadgets you couldn’t carry on-board, there isn’t much to do except sulk or think. This is why I often find myself writing letters, deep, anxious epistles about whatever happens to float around in my head. I commune with myself, at least until someone shoves peanuts and a soda in front of me. This time to think, though, can prove deeply conflicting.
On that trip a couple of weeks ago, I was returning from Boulder for a conference: DEN to RNO via LAS, as absurd a route as one could imagine, but necessary since it was not only the cheapest ticket that week, but also not the worst option I had seen on Southwest’s website. (Could you imagine three stops? Through Texas?)
On the way there I had connected through Phoenix (PHX), and had in many ways expected a repeat of the despairing sort of flat and angry sprawl of Phoenix-from-the-sky to reappear in the guise of Las Vegas. At some point I realized, though, that I had no reference, no memory of Las Vegas from the air, because the only other time I had been there was ten years before, on a bus trip returning to Indiana from Yosemite via the Grand Canyon—a site I had pleasantly seen en route to DEN and the conference a few days prior. It was also night on that long-ago bus ride, the view a different beast altogether than this 3 PM sun.
Southwest and their brilliant open-seating policy had scored all 6-foot-3 of me an emergency exit row seat, a true treasure. Not only this, but it was the window seat, and not a single other person had dared to impinge on my bulk. (A confession: I puff myself up on boarding, and find that, unless the flight is completely full, I can intimidate people away from sitting next to me. I am dangerous, cutthroat.) The row was mine, and therefore too, the view from two full windows. So, when I felt the familiar shudder of the final-descent airfoil adjustment, I sprang over. Where I expected desert, I saw a fetid blue-green. Some strange irrigation project, no doubt.
Wrong. It was the irrigation project. Somehow, having finished my book in the first twenty minutes of the flight and spent the other hour and a half flipping through the utter horrors of the SkyMall catalog (Monogrammed dog shit retriever? But it’s chromed!), I had forgotten that there would be sights—most notably Lake Mead and Hoover (formerly Boulder) Dam—before we hit The Strip. Below I saw the river’s traffic jam, mistakenly called a lake, filling every crevice of canyon behind the dam, which had still not yet come into sight.
Mead itself runs for miles and miles—over a hundred, according to the Bureau of Reclamation—and passing over it took several minutes. Finally, finally, I saw the dam itself, a slim fingernail arc holding back the entire flow of the great majority of all the snow and rainfall of the American West, literally billions of tons of water, a wall strong enough to stop the flow altogether—to turn the river off like a tap—if the dam managers so desired. Beyond the dam was rock and talus. In two places, though, I could still see the pockmarks of trickle from the Colorado shine like signal mirrors. And beyond this, over the ridge, was Las Vegas itself, terrifying and green with acres of golf courses and driving ranges, swimming pools, and fountains, and row upon row of tract homes built to house the tens of thousands of people needed to keep the machine running—the gyms, and title loan huts, and strip clubs, and buffets and pirate ships and all the other things that screamed out, Goddammit, we did it. We won.
Let me be clear. My father had always said that The Airlines were a great job—if you were just out of college and it was the 1970s. These days they still have the free tickets, but with the fear of losing your job in a merger or bankruptcy lurking just behind the luggage carousel, there isn’t much point. Plus, given the time-at-work requirements that result from so many fewer people working in The Airlines, there isn’t much of a chance to use the promise of all those free tickets. You simply become your parents’ free travel agent—a noble purpose in life, to be sure, but certainly not the end of all existence—stopping just long enough between driving baggage transfer trolleys to grab a phone call to hear how great Tucson is and, gosh, how they wish you could have traded your shifts to come along.
So, to avoid that sort of disappointment, I followed my folly, and ended up wanting to be an English professor, one that studies nature writing and environmental policy papers. And let me tell you, after you’ve read enough of that, you will find little room in your life for good feelings toward Hoover Dam. Where Marc Reisner, the late chronicler of the West’s water, said he could at least pause and genuflect in front of it for the sheer spectacle of its engineering accomplishment, I could, above, in that moment, only recall everything that is wrong with Hoover, all the evil and shame and mismanagement that the dam stands for—like the hundreds who died because it simply wasn’t being built fast enough.
It’s not about these people, mind you. I have no problem with the citizens of Las Vegas, and I cannot be upset with folks who want to make better lives for themselves and their families. I can’t fault the desire for a swimming pool or golf, even—these desires are central to keeping ourselves going, to stop us from offing ourselves on particularly dark nights of the soul. But I can hate the town as an idea, as the compulsion to think that this sort of thing was necessary. And it’s not all this fancy book learning that did this to me; academic training simply confirmed something distressing I had heard and seen, always just over the horizon. Here, now, I was above the horizon and the implications were all too plain.
And worst, I saw, so very clearly from this altitude, the bathtub ring. Years of drought had evaporated hundreds of thousands, millions even, of acre-feet of water—enough evaporates each year to supply all of Los Angeles, the ultimate destination of much of this water anyway—from the reservoir. As a result, Mead is surrounded by a perpetually-shining white band where higher waters have washed the desert clean. Above the ring the brown, dusty rock lies there enduring in the sun and aridity; below that line glows an insistent testament to Lady Bird Johnson’s dedication of another dam farther upstream—Glen Canyon—that “forever…man was here.” Thank God, thank God!
What of it? Listen: The weight of seeing Mead, the golf courses, the trees—all the green—was unbearable, and I began to cry. Not heaving sobs or gushes of mucus and tears, but wet, tell-tale eyes and the tightness of throat that reminded me of, in childhood, when I didn’t get my way, the kind of hiccupping and weeping that comes from frustration and disappointment.
Through my tears I had to keep facing the window. I somehow recalled in blurry streaks an article I had seen just a week or so before the trip, about how a man on a domestic flight was wrestled to the ground by other passengers after he began crying hysterically. To be fair, he had been pacing and insisting that he was going to throw open the cabin door. But I also know that contemporary airline passengers, these patriots—everything had changed, you know—are by their natures panicky and reactive. I was flying home a few years ago through Pittsburgh (PIT) to my grandmother’s funeral and, just before take-off, a woman a row ahead of me began shrieking and pointing that a passenger a row or two ahead of her had a knife, when, really, all he had were some (impossibly small) contraband nail clippers. That man was taken off the plane at gunpoint (M-16s) by other men in camouflage. They didn’t even question any of us, despite the fact that on that particular Embraer Regional Jet, none of us had been more than ten feet from this guy, some literally touching him during the alleged manicural threat. Who knows what happened to him? This much is true: he did not make our departure.
In the McCarran terminal, concourse C, things did not get better. I sent a text message to my girlfriend: I saw the dam and it was awful. She called within a minute and her voice told me that she already knew it was bad.
I didn’t want to talk about it, and told her so. I wanted to be home, in Reno where, to be honest, we had our own water problems, but it wasn’t here at least. The only way out, according to my ticket, was up and over. I would have to remember to shut the window shade. Because she is caring and honest in ways I am not, she said she understood and would see me in a couple hours.
Forty-five minutes later, I was queuing and eyeing the exit row again. View be damned, I wanted the leg room. After heaving my bag into the overhead to maximize my comfort, I laid almost completely across the row as if to dare people to ask me to move. The flight, the stewardess had said, wasn’t anywhere near full.
Some good ole boys were filing in, and, by God, they were excited to be goin’ ta Reno. Their group kept coming, separated in places by a few people who plainly weren’t with them, at least judging by the rolling eyes and pursed lips. The one who seemed to be the ringleader, tall, middle-aged, and boot-shod, scrambled into the row in front of me, into the window seat. Soon he was calling back in his bandsaw twang about gettin’ a beer and gettin’ the show on the road and Goddammit this and Goddammit that. He hailed each traveler in their group, now scattered across the plane, some fifteen rows or more behind us. Whoops and whistles shot from all around, and because this was Southwest Airlines, nobody had much of a problem with it.
I sank into my seat, averted my eyes, hoping in vain they’d all suddenly turn into Valium fliers, knocking off right after take off.
And then one sat next to me.
“Howdy.” She did not ask if the seat was taken, and instead simply plopped down. In the middle seat, almost in my lap. No one ever came by and sat on the aisle, and she did not move over once we were underway. She was short, topped with a bob, didn’t have a carry-on, and was young enough that I imagined she was one of the older men’s daughters, probably the ringleader’s given that she sat as close to him as possible without actually sitting on my lap. All I could figure was that I would be inundated by their screaming banter the entire flight.
I nodded, swung my head back out the window. Across the tarmac, I could see a sleek, black pyramid, and decided that in order to get to Reno without becoming my own amusing AP newswire story, I ought to begin flipping valiantly through the in-flight magazine.
She waited until after the drink service to start talking to me. She had only gotten a couple of pages into an antique, yellow-paged Harlequin romance novel—Anthony Arduous in Africa (not kidding)—that she told me she had picked up in Tennessee. She asked why I was headed to Reno, sounding as if no one actually lived there, that you only came to visit. I, somewhat brusquely, told her I was getting my Ph.D. in a fancy literature and environment program. I am sure I sounded like a prick, as if she had never met anyone so damned smart in the world. I paused for response, wanting something like, Wow, a real live doctor of liter’ture? Them’s fancy talkins, Mister. She did, at least, have the accent.
But she was off like a shot. I didn’t have to do anything but nod politely throughout. At some point, I found out she was exactly my age and already the head of a rural water authority in Arkansas. She and this gang of Ozark miscreants were headed to RNO for the National Rural Water Conservationist’s Annual Meeting. She’d been last year, liked Reno, and was happy to go back, even though she didn’t drink or gamble or go to strip clubs. She holds a master’s degree in environmental toxicology, had a husband who was “an African,” and a cold sore lounging ominously on her upper lip. I wondered if the book had just been a trick that I hadn’t fallen for so she had to be more direct.
Except by the end, I was nodding out of interest. Sure, it could have been the eleven dollar beer I’d had at the “Irish Pub” in Las Vegas—admittedly a not-so-cheap ploy to dull the pain of the previous flight. But I don’t think so. The way she talked about rural water conservation made it seem like she might actually care about what she does. Every time she said the name of some run-off toxin or metallic effluent or carcinogen, there would be this jump in pitch in her voice—dioxin, magnesium, manure—as if she were both repulsed and awed by the power of the things she was in charge of filtering out of people’s water. She was expressive, popping upright with her changes in pitch, hunkering down into her seat when she talked about the future needs.
In front of us, the ringleader and his seatmates were into Heinekin number two, toasting God-knows-what every two or three sips. And I didn’t hate them anymore. They were just some people trying to get to work, whose trip was a way to escape from the office and the bureaucratic mess in which I’d been told they were trapped, and maybe, just maybe, in the process, they might do some good. I needed this, hungered to be told someone was doing something, and here was a whole group of them. Christ, all I do is read books, and here’s a woman who actually treks out to into the boonies and talks people into spending money on making good choices about resource management, often with no tangible benefit to themselves. This convention was, I’d been told, the one thing a year they look forward to.
This experience reminded me why, of course, I must forgive Las Vegas and air travel—and maybe myself—for this bad day, why I have to remind myself that sitting in the window seat is a little like looking behind the wizard’s curtain: being above and seeing change as it happens forces you to remember that the plane is a great hunk of metal hurtling over the landscape at speeds probably no one should travel. In the clouds—even barreling along the ground in cars—we see the reasons that modern, motorized movement like this makes some Australian aborigines mentally ill, literally sick in the head when they’re forced into cars and planes. In machines, there is no place, no you traveling. You are no longer your own body here, part of this world, but instead a part of this goliath, the plane’s innards, one of its organs, floppy, sweaty, and palpitating as the plane churns me and it relentlessly along. I will disembark—be excreted—at some point, having traveled through time and space, and will be a different person. Flying, then, is true change, a spaceless space of transformation. No wonder it takes so much fire and iron to work: it is alchemy.
And, while I cannot forgive absolutely everything outside the plane—the misguided attempts at raising civilization from the dust of the desert; all the confusion and hate and misanthropy that must also be carried, like a disease, within this vessel; all the waste and greed and plain stupidity, not to mention the need for better war machines, that put this beast in the air in the first place—I can be happy now to be home. Because beyond the wing—it is impossible to miss—I can see the Silver Legacy Casino’s bulbous replica mine, and Mt. Rose, and across the aisle out the right, I can see the Grand Sierra and Rattlesnake Butte, and I cannot stop being physically excited, shaking, the only time in my life I ever fidget with anticipation.
I remember, if only for a moment, a jingle lodged in the back of my mind, one we’d sing, oddly enough, in the camper as we tooled around the Smoky Mountains. Every day is a brand-new day, every night is a brand-new night. A showtune, up-tempo, and brimming with possibility. One of Eastern’s jingles from the 1980s. I remember singing this song and heading to Cumberland Gap, stopping at a gas station—a Minit Mart, the only one in miles and miles that had leaded gas for our antique bastard of a camper—and staring out the open window. But this time I am not singing, and my father looks at me as he pumps the gas, no doubt seeing my skin trying to squeeze through the metal screen, pressing the weave into a pattern of redness and dirt on my face.
“What’s up, bud?”
“I wish we had flown,” I huff.
He nods, serious now. He knows—just as I know—about the magic of the skies, has spent my entire life until that point working for that magic. He says we’ll be back up there in no time, and I believe him. He and I will travel together much in the coming years, especially after the divorce, when it wouldn’t be odd for him to leave ten year-old me at PIT to await a connection to EVV as he had to make a fast transfer to a different plane to IND. He’ll always give me five bucks and tell me not to spend it all at the arcade. I will always wonder whether or not I could make it to Paris, London, anywhere out of the country. I was always smart enough, after all, to claim that I was just some dumb kid.
Back on the ground in Reno, there are not too many flights outbound on a Saturday afternoon. A few people are milling around a gate waiting for a San Jose flight in an hour or so. The Arkansas contingent has almost broken out in a run. The car has been arranged, I have been told, and there are people to meet.
I find myself absent-mindedly humming the jingle as I look—yes, I must admit it—longingly at the gate. I have never been to San Jose, but I am sure it is lovely. I contemplate queuing, hoping that, even in this day and age, I could skip past the gate agent. You could do this years ago, you know—no one ever checked your ticket, for God’s sake. Once my mother and grandmother ended up in Melbourne (MLB) while my dad and I were in ORL because they were having a good time and didn’t bother to check the signs, and nobody bothered with checking their tickets. I wonder for a moment if the magic would hold.
Cassie’s call rings in my pocket. As usual, she is just leaving the house, and it will be a bit. For the time being, I realize I am just glad to be home, feet on the ground. I will be leaving again in three weeks anyway, to Chicago (MDW, not ORD) for another conference. I may have to fly United, an entirely different type of adventure.
I pass the point of no return at the end of the concourse. A sullen TSA official stares at the carpet, looks as if he wants to nod off. I coast down the escalator. I drop a dollar in the penny slots near the door, come out ahead—I was sure of it—and then go outside, past the construction, quiet because it is the weekend. It is just before dusk, the sun sliding past the edge of the Sierra, and the air has already snapped from the warm midday breeze to the sharper edge of night. I notice that while I’ve been gone the season has changed from summer to fall, and that the aspens that sporadically dot the city have begun to yellow, and I am happy that I haven’t checked a bag so that I can stand outside watching the cars, unable to wait curbside anymore, circle the parking area like sad, tired gulls.
Tom Hertweck is currently a Ph.D. student in the University of Nevada, Reno’s program in Literature & Environment, where he is dangerously close to preparing a dissertation about 20th-century American literature and food politics. Despite living 2000+ miles from his family in the Midwest, he doesn’t fly nearly as much as he used to.