Come Fly the Friendly Skies! – slogan for United Airways, 1989.
This is an American airport. I mean, it is a particular airport in the United States. It has its own name – Logan, or Bates Field, or William B. Hartsfield, or Sky Harbor, or O’Hare – but in my fear of flying I’ve forgotten what it’s called. As for where it is, anyone can see that it is just here; a place with a character more powerfully redolent and oppressive than any of the cities to which the airport might be nominally attached.
Entering here, you must abandon almost everything you have. The cheerful Spirit was dumped long ago at one of the place’s eggbox-concrete outposts; the black zippered bag containing my travelling life went off on a journey of its own down some long dark tunnel at check-in; my groin and armpits have been immodestly fingered in a search for firearms; my sponge bag has been X-rayed, and a uniformed woman here now knows (if she cares) that I’m down to my last two Ativans. Maybe she read a few lines of my manuscript too, when it went past, and gave it a derisory thumbs-down. She had the face of a New York Magazine book-strangler.
At every point, I have managed to meet reproof. At the car-rental office, I tried to amuse a man called Wayne with the story of how the driver’s-side seat belt had been eaten by a jealous dog. He fined me a hundred dollars, told me the incident would be reported as an act of malicious damage and said his company kept a blacklist of customers like me.
Checking in, I said, ‘Window seat in Smoking, if there is one, please.’ A woman called Marsha sniffed and made a face. Now I’d confessed, she could smell my habit on me, and intended to make me feel the stink of my own polluted clothes in her nostrils. ‘There is no smoking on domestic flights,’ she said, her expression warming sharply into a vindictive smile.
The phrase had kept on coming back to me during these last two hours. A cat is a domestic animal. A saucepan is a domestic utensil. To Marsha, jetting across a continent in a 747 was just pottering tamely about the house. I marvelled at the size of Marsha’s house.
Ticketed, disencumbered, searched and cleared for boarding, we are babyishly dependent on the controllers of the place. Sometimes they tell us to do things; mostly they leave us to fret. Every ten minutes I go and stare morosely at the nearest VDU display. An hour ago we were due to board half an hour ago at Gate B6; now we’re due to board in forty minutes at Gate C14. As I watch, one of the invisible controllers adds an extra twenty minutes for luck.
An hour and a half later we’re getting somewhere – at least I thought so fifty minutes ago when I buckled in to 38F and began looking out through the lozenge of scratched, multiplex plastic at the men in earmuffs and storm-gear on the ground below. Since then we haven’t budged. We’ve suffered faint, pastiche imitations of Scott Joplin, Count Basie and Glenn Miller on the muzak system. My neighbour in 38E, who is careless of the usual rules of body space, has worked her way slowly through four pages of the National Inquirer, moving her lips as she reads. In the seats ahead, there has been a good deal of scuffing and refolding of copies of Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. Still no one seems much disconcerted except me. The inside of the plane is hot and getting hotter. The stewards, flirting routinely among themselves, are proof against any damn-fool questions from me.
The muzak clicks off. A voice clicks on.
‘Hi!’– and that seems to be it for a good long time. Then, ‘I’m, uh, Billy Whitman, and I’m going to be your pilot on this flight here to…’ I think I can hear Mr Whitman consulting his clipboard, ‘…uh, Sea-Tac this morning. Well – it was meant to be this morning, but it looks to me now to be getting pretty damn close to afternoon…’
He’s read The Right Stuff, and he’s doing it – the entire cowlicked, gum-shifting country boy performance.
‘I guess some of you folks back there may be getting a little antsy ‘bout this delay we’re having now in getting airborne…Well, we did run into a bit of a glitch with Control up there, getting our flight-plan sorted…’
We haven’t got a flight-plan? Is Mr Whitman waiting for someone to bring him a map?
‘But they got that fixed pretty good now, and in, uh, oh, a couple or three minutes, we should be closing the doors, and I’m planning on getting up into the blue yonder round about ten minutes after that. So if you all sit tight now, we’ll be getting this show right on the road. Looks pretty nice up there today…no weather problems that I can see so far…at least, once we get atop this little local overcast…and I’m looking for a real easy trip today. Have a good one, now, and I’ll be right back to you just as soon as we go past something worth looking out the window for. OK?’
After the video and the stewards’ dumb show about what to do in ‘the unlikely event’ of our landing on water (where? the Mississippi?), Captain Whitman takes us on a slow ramble round the perimeter of the airport. We appear to be returning to the main terminal again when the jet takes a sudden deep breath, lets out a bull roar, and charges down the runway, its huge frame shuddering fit to bust. Its wings are actually flapping now, trying to tear themselves out at their roots in the effort to achieve lift-off. It bumps and grinds. The plastic bulkheads are shivering like gongs. Rain streams past the window, in shreds and gobbets, at 200 miles an hour.
This is the bit I hate. We’re not going fast enough. We’re far too heavy to bring off this insanely dangerous trick. We’re breaking up. To take this flight was tempting fate one time too many. We’re definitely goners this time.
But the domestic fliers remain stupidly oblivious to our date with death. They go on reading. They’re lost in the stock-market prices. They’re learning that the human soul has been proved to exist and weighs exactly three quarters of an ounce; that Elvis Presley never died and has been living as a recluse in Dayton, Ohio. These things engage them. These guys are – bored. The fact, clear enough to me, that they are at this moment rocketing into eternity is an insufficiently diverting one to make them even raise their eyes from their columns of idiot print.
As a European child I used to think that Americans were somehow possessed of a lower specific gravity than we were. I envied them for it – for the way they seemed to be able to detach themselves from the ground with so much more ease than anyone I knew. Distant members of my family had occasionally been known to travel by aeroplane; and each of these ascents was spoken of for weeks beforehand, remembered for years after. ‘That was the year that Uncle Peter flew to Geneva.’ Americans were different. They took to the sky with hardly more forethought or apprehension than swallows launching themselves from a telegraph wire. ‘Going up in an aeroplane’, in British English, was quite a different kind of venture from ‘taking an airplane’ in American. Aero- retained the Greek dignity of the word, gave it a dash of Icarian daring and danger. To my eyes, airplane always looked impertinently casual on the page; it robbed the amazing machine of its proper mystery.
Flying did mean something different to Americans – even though the aviation industry was at least as much a European as an American creation. It was Louis Blériot who first crossed the Channel by plane in 1909; it was two Englishmen, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who first crossed the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Ireland, in 1919. In the design and manufacture of aircraft, Germany, France and Britain were as active as the United States, and in the early days of passenger-flying it was a British firm, Imperial Airways, which commanded the longest and richest routes in the world.
Yet none of our nations learned to fly – not with the insouciance of these Americans who had managed to absorb the whole alarming business of airports, flight numbers, take-offs and landings into the ordinary fabric of their daily culture. In 38F, and hardly a novice in the scary tedium of long-distance air travel, I feel leadenly European in the company of these natural fliers.
38E’s elbow is in my ribs. She is shouting into my deafened left ear. ‘She says you want a cocktail?’
The steel bulk of the mobile ice-and-drinks canteen has always bothered me. Suppose we hit an unexpected pocket of turbulence…suppose that thing takes wing from the aisle and hits the ceiling of the fuselage? Suppose a sharp-angled hundredweight truck of miniatures of Jack Daniels, London Gin, Stolichnaya, Californian Cabernet and Chablis, plus ice, tonic, soda, etcetera slams into the roof of this elongated eggshell..?
But the steward’s waiting, and not conspicuously patiently. I settle, sadly, for a mineral water. I’ve learned the hard way about high-altitude dehydration. Trying to work out the controls of a strange car at the entrance to a strange city, with a fox-fur mouth and a blinding headache cured me of my old game of trying to see just how many empty twenty-five-centilitre champagne bottles it was possible to secrete behind the airline magazine and the Emergency Procedure card in the netting pocket on the back of the seat in front of you. Eight was my record. Now it’s mineral water all the way. Plus, there’s no smoking on domestic flights. I have to make do with the consolations of history.
When Charles Lindbergh scooped the Orteig Prize of 25,000 dollars for the first non-stop flight between Paris and New York on 21 May 1927, he did something that would, almost certainly, have been done by someone else within the next few days – or hours. Two rival planes, the Columbia and America, were waiting in their hangars on Roosevelt Field when Lindbergh took off in The Spirit of St Louis. A fortnight before, a French contender, L’Oiseau Blanc, had been lost somewhere over the Atlantic; and in September 1926 a big three-engine Sikorsky piloted by René Fonck with a crew of three had crashed on take-off at the end of the Roosevelt Field runway.
Despite the crashes, the technology of aviation in 1927 was clearly up to the challenge set by Raymond Orteig, a French national who owned two New York hotels. Alcock and Brown had flown the Atlantic (by a much shorter route) eight years before; America had been crossed coast to coast; planes with a cruising speed of around 130 miles per hour and a fuel capacity for forty hours of flying were being built on both sides of the Atlantic. Someone was going to do the thing, and it happened to be Lindbergh.
It was the aftermath of the flight, not the flight itself, that was extraordinary – the transformation of Lindy, the Lone Eagle, the Flying Fool into the American hero who, for a few years, would shine in the popular imagination as the greatest American hero in history. His fame was majestically out of proportion to his actual achievement; and it is that disproportion which makes Lindbergh so fascinating a figure.
Here one has to forget about the facts and read the newspapers. By the time that Lindbergh arrived back in New York on 13 June, to be showered (they said) with 1,800 tons of ticker tape, all the essential ingredients of the Lindbergh Story were in place. He was ‘the lanky demon of the skies from the wide open spaces’; a solitary country boy (forget that he was born in Detroit) from Little Falls, Minnesota, on the banks of the Mississippi. He was a child of nature, raised in woods by Fenimore Cooper on water by Mark Twain.
Like Huck, Lindy ran away from school (correct: he flunked out of the University of Wisconsin, Madison); but he never smoked a corn-cob pipe or touched a drop of liquor. In bootleg America, Lindy was incorruptibly teetotal and (like this damned plane) smoke-free. He was also chaste. Mother was his only girl.
Even the most admiring of Lindbergh’s later biographers have left a picture of a priggish and sexually backward young man with a questionable taste in male rough-housing and practical jokes (he is supposed to have placed a live poisonous snake in the bed of a room-mate who’d been dating a girl). In 1927, this sort of thing may, I suppose, have passed for cleaner fun than it does now. Certainly Lindbergh the Virgin Boy was the Lindbergh that America then wanted, and his irritable shrugging-off of the girls who tried to cling to him at parades was a famous part of his charm.
The skies had been billed as ‘the new frontier’ and Lindbergh was groomed by his image-makers into the most perfect of old-fashioned, literary-sentimental frontiersmen. His truest ancestor was Natty Bumppo, wise in the woods, innocent in towns. Natty’s aliases – Hawkeye, Pathfinder – fitted Lindbergh beautifully; and the best-known alias of all – Leatherstocking – has a spooky aptness when one looks at photographs of Lindbergh in his triumphal year. In flying gear, Lindy is Leatherstocking, from the coonskin hat of his undone airman’s helmet down through the trapper’s leather coveralls to the fur-lined boots. Leatherstocking’s sole concession to technology is his trusty musket; Lindy’s is The Spirit of St Louis, in front of which he stands, one hand behind his back resting gently on the plane’s propeller.
In the spirit of Leatherstocking, Lindy, in the Lindbergh Story at least, walked alone. Not only was his flight a single-handed one, in contrast to the two- and four-man crews of most of the rival planes, but he represented the unaided individual talent, battling against the syndicate and the corporation. He was the barnstormer, employed to take folks up for a spin at five dollars a ride at country fairs; the lone pilot, flying the night mail to Chicago for a tinpot outfit in St Louis. As the house poet of the New York Sun put it:
…no kingly plane for him;
No endless data, comrades, moneyed chums;
N boards, no councils, no directors grim –
He plans ALONE…and takes luck as it comes.
This was to forget rather a lot, including the backing of the St Louis Globe-Democrat, and several individual members of its board, a St Louis bank, a St Louis insurance company and a St Louis aviation business, along with the services of an enterprising PR man called Dick Blythe, who was assigned to promote Lindbergh by the mammoth Wright Aeronautical Corporation. In fact, Lindbergh was impressively efficient at persuading the various boards, councils and directors of St Louis that his attempt on the Orteig Prize would bring glory to the city, and managed to raise 15,000 dollars before commissioning a plane from the Ryan Aircraft Company in San Diego at a price of 10,580 dollars. But it’s true that these sums were small compared with the 100,000 dollars spent on the America by Admiral Byrd, and Lindbergh’s corporate loneliness rang with at least metaphorical conviction.
Alone (or rather ALONE, Sun-style), tall, young, pure, a creature of the Heartland and the wide open spaces, the very incarnation of the folk-hero of the frontier, Lindbergh made flying an airplane into something that America had been doing all through the sweetest and best years of its own history. It wasn’t something new, like driving an automobile or dancing the black bottom; it was something old, and Lindbergh was teaching America to remember it.
The Atlantic flight established the myth, but it was later in the summer of 1927 that Lindbergh drove America wild with the domestic flight of all time. He took The Spirit of St Louis on a 22,350-mile tour of all forty-eight states, and led grand parades in eighty-two cities. Leonard Mosley, in Lindbergh, writes:
He was paid 50,000 dollars for making the tour, but he did it less for the money than because he earnestly believed that showing himself and the Spirit to the people, and always arriving on time no matter what the weather, would prove to them that the air age had arrived and they should become part of it.
Showing himself and the Spirit to the people… These were the manifestations of a god making himself flesh. His robe was touched, as souvenir hunters snipped away fragments of the sacred fabric from the fuselage.
In that summer, Lindbergh knitted the land mass of North America together in a great web of intercity air routes. Until now, flying had been a sport, a method of warfare, a means of carrying mail. There were a few passenger services – the earliest had been started in 1914, when the Benoist Company set up regular flights between Tampa and St Petersburg in Florida. Even in the middling-late 1920s, though, passengers, insofar as there were any passengers, were usually expected to fit themselves between the mailbags and muddle in as best they could. Lindbergh’s second, domestic flight articulated a vision of the whole of the United States seen from the air. He connected up a mass of scattered dots and made a thrilling picture of them.
Here, resting in its moulded beige niche, under a silky veil of polythene, is something that the airline, in a shaft of facetious wit, calls breast of chicken. 38E has already wolfed hers down and has started in on the red Jello. My bit of bird yields to the prodding of a baby plastic knife and fork with unbecoming cowardice. It goes to pieces. It seems to be as bad at air travel as I am myself. I lunch like an anchorite on a sprig of cold broccoli and a salteena. Face pressed against the chilly perspex of the window, I count the disintegrating jet trails in the sky; four of them, shredding to bits like tufts of wet cotton wool. Below them lie some thin, violet streaks of cirrus, and below the clouds, a land too witchy-dark to make much sense of. Is that a mountain or a city? I’m not sure. The occasional fuse-wire glints are rivers, I think. From six miles up, in hazy visibility, the earth unspools without incident, without much interest, like an underexposed home movie.
After Lindbergh, the big money poured into American aviation. In 1928, C. M. Keys, the asset-stripping, merger-making president of Transcontinental Air Transport, paid the flying god 250,000 dollars for – being the flying god, having the ear of President Hoover, and allowing his name to be associated, if vaguely, with TAT. The terms of the agreement between Keys and Lindbergh were made public in 1934 when, under Roosevelt, the Black Committee was investigating graft in the allocation of government mail contracts to the airlines. It appeared that Keys was mainly interested in explaining to Lindbergh what he need not do in return for his quarter-million down and 10,000 dollars a year.
You will not, until you express a desire to do so, become a director of the company. It is not my desire or intention, nor is it yours, that this work shall prevent you from carrying on other activities for the general advancement of aviation in which you have so deep an interest. Nor will it prevent you from carrying on other business activities not competitive with those of Transcontinental Air Transport Inc…
What the money essentially represented was the price set, in June 1928, by a tough businessman, on the picture painted a year before by the Leatherstocking of the skies. Keys’s advertising men set out to educate America into calling TAT ‘The Lindbergh Line’.
The speed of events from then on can be measured by the advance order books for the Boeing 247D, which came into production in 1933. The 247 was the first twin-engined, all-metal airliner. It carried ten passengers, a pilot, co-pilot and one flight attendant. It flew at 200 miles an hour and had a range of a little over 600 miles. Before the mock-up stage of the aircraft had been completed, sixty orders had been placed for it by US airlines. It went coast to coast (with refuelling stops) and shuttled between cities like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles and San Francisco.
It is, I imagine, a Boeing 247 in which the first chapter of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon is set, and in which two distinctively new types of American make their appearance. One is Monroe Stahr, the movie producer closely based on Irving Thalberg. The other is Cecilia Brady, the novel’s narrator and a rather self-consciously precocious junior at Bennington College in Vermont. Her newness resides in the fact that she is going back to her parents’ Hollywood home at the end of a semester, and she is flying.
‘The world from an airplane I knew,’ she says, and the grammatical inversion is a nice Bennington-girlism, just this side of arch.
Father always had us travel back and forth that way from school and college. After my sister died when I was a junior, I travelled to and fro alone, and the journey always made me think of her, made me somewhat solemn and subdued. Sometimes there were picture people I knew on board the plane, and occasionally there was an attractive college boy – but not often during the depression. I seldom really fell asleep during the trip, what with thoughts of Eleanor and the sense of that sharp rip between coast and coast – at least not till we had left those lonely little airports in Tennessee.
This is post-Lindbergh geography, beautifully phrased: the mere ‘sharp rip’ between coast and coast, a black and lonely canyon, barely inhabited between the two bright points of American civilization. Here is flyoverland – that region of disregarded spaces where the lesser mortals live.
In the novel, a brewing storm in the Mississippi valley forces the plane to make an unscheduled landing at Nashville. (‘Nashville!’ says Wylie White, a Hollywood scriptwriter and fellow passenger; ‘My God! I was born in Nashville.’) During the descent(‘…going down, down, down, like Alice in the rabbit hole…’), Cecilia looks out of the window at the distant city and meditates on airports and on her own grandeur as an airborne American:
I suppose there has been nothing like the airports since the days of the stage-stops–nothing quite as lonely, as sombre-silent. The old red-brick depots were built right into the towns they marked – people didn’t get off at those isolated stations unless they lived there. But airports lead you way back into history like oases, like the stops on the great trade routes. The sight of air travelers strolling in ones and twos into midnight airports will draw a small crowd any night up to two. The young people look at the planes, the older ones look at the passengers with a watchful incredulity. In the big trans-continental planes we were the coastal rich, who casually alighted from our cloud in mid-America.
Grounded in the small hours, the Californians might as well have been suddenly tipped into Thailand or Tuscany. They are innocent tourists in their own country. A railroad line, a highway, would have prepared them for Tennessee, but the high night sky has equipped them with no clues or presentiments. They commission a taxi driver to take them to the Andrew Jackson home, the Hermitage; a drive that takes longer in the book (two hours, or thereabouts) than it looks on the map (eleven miles). On the way, they see a Negro driving three cows (the South!); Cecilia is impressed, even in the darkness, by the lush green of the Tennessee woods. They reach the Hermitage at dawn, when, not surprisingly, it turns out to be closed to the public. They go back to the airport, leaving one of their number behind to take the Andrew Jackson tour. Within six pages of dialogue, and back into darkness again, they are landing at Glendale Airport, returned to the real, important, coastal world.
The Cecilia Brady approach to Nashville is a prophetic model of a new kind of relationship between Americans and their landscape. Casually to alight from a cloud, to taste a city in a spirit of lofty and alienated connoisseurship, was to become the American way of travelling, and it was to have enormous consequences for the social and family life of the nation.
As the planes got bigger and ticket prices went down, air travel stopped being the prerogative of the coastal rich. One of the perks of the job for almost every middle-class corporate employee was to fly, several times a year, to the trade fair, the sales conference, the professional convention (Funeral Directors of America…The American Society of Anaesthesiologists). The airport-cities built Convention & Trade Centers in their mouldering downtowns and leafleted the country with extravagant advertisements for themselves. Lifeless dumps rechristened themselves with the names of precious stones (The Ruby City, The Emerald City, The Sapphire City) or proclaimed that they were the Gateway to The Great Lakes. The West, The Orient, The Sunbelt. Colour photographs of a recently cleaned-up slum showed gas-lamps, cobbles, a gallery, an open-air café (‘Shoppers take a needed break to enjoy Blandville’s world-famous croissants and capuccino’).
In corporate offices high over New York and Chicago, marketing directors and their assistants went into conference. ‘We gave the beach people Miami back in January; now we owe the golfers one. How about Phoenix? You got anything on golf in Phoenix?’
For the corporate tourists, the nature of cities abruptly changed. Now they swam up to meet you from below the cloud-ceiling; out of context, exotic, phenomenal. Their only hinterland was the pale speedway that linked them to their airport. They had no reason for being. Whatever had originally created them was hidden from the visitor from the air. They had no human geography.
In the crowded programme of the conventioneer there was no time to find out the why of here. Cities had to make themselves instantly memorable by means of some totem or icon. St Louis was that place where the Arch was. Philadelphia was the Liberty Bell. In the one-hour guided tour, you needed a single novelty or monument to put the city on your private map of the United States. We went to sales conference there – that was the Alamo; that was the Paul Revere House; that was the Space Needle; that was the Grand Ole Opry; that was Astroworld; that was Preservation Hall.
Touting for custom, the cities were marvellously resourceful at dreaming up ways to imprint themselves on the memories of these jaded and blasé air travellers. In Chambers of Commerce, fiction writers were set to construct local-colour ‘regional cuisine’ recipes. Who could forget, say, a traditional dish of succulent North Dakotan grasshoppers in a tangy blueberry sauce? Where no ready-made icons existed, the city fathers raised money to build them – constructions so tall and bizarre that (like Portland, Oregon’s Public Service Building) they would figure in the subsequent nightmares of even the most absent-minded of short-stay visitors.
This constant jetting about between convention centres had created an extraordinary body of misleading knowledge. Almost every American I knew who worked for a large company seemed to have visited almost every American city I could name for a period of, on average, about thirty-six hours. Wherever I was going, they knew it.
‘Oh, but you have to try those tiny oysters there, more flavour than food…you have to go to the Pike Place Market…you have to take the elevator up to the top of the Space Needle for the view…and there’s a hotel there (I didn’t stay in it myself) where you can fish right out your window…’
‘But what’s the place like?’
That was the trouble. They hadn’t been to a place. There hadn’t been time for that. They had dropped out of the sky in order to be shown a tight cluster of artfully manufactured symbols.
Yet there was something very different in all this from the usual tourists’ whirl through the Great Cities of Europe. These were domestic flights, and these were domestic fliers, beating the bounds of their enormous home patch. If you flew coast to coast and Lakes to Gulf as often, and as indifferently, as these people, the experience would eventually give you a landowner’s sense of possession. All the cities you have nibbled at, as if each one was an eclair, they are yours. Maybe one day, when you’re shown the swing door, or the kids are in college, you’ll come back and take up your inheritance for a while, in the Topaz City or the Gateway to the Rockies.
It is a thought that comes easily, and comfortingly, at six miles up. You are not really half so heavy as you feel. You think of the house and garden, the neighbours (you never liked their cats, or their children) – that brick albatross with its leaky roof and unmended fence. On the ground, home is a word like fate; it’s what you’ve got, what you probably deserved. In the air, it has a different ring. It’s a disposable asset. I quit the office, sold my home and my car, and took the plane…
My seat-back’s on full tilt. I’m indulging myself in American thoughts, looking sleepily out over my great estate. The land below has brightened up since the last time I inspected it. It’s agribusiness territory, in some Midwestern state; a flat checkerboard, the colours burned out of it by the sun. We’re flying over the close cross-hatching of a town, and I can pick out its water tower, a silver button-mushroom, and the heliographic wink of what I take to be the herded pickups on the lot of the local auto-dealership.
We’re sustaining the right height. There’s a war on down there – silos full of unsold corn, debt, foreclosures, repo men moving in on family farms. From here, the unhappy heartland still looks orderly and fat, but the news is bad. I remember (in this detached, Cecilia Bradyish way) the story of a respectable Iowa farmer who got out his old Remington shotgun one morning, blew his wife’s heart clean out of her body, drove down to the bank and shot his personal banker, killed a neighbouring farmer with whom he was in dispute, then, sitting in his pickup, pointed the gun barrel at his own chest and pulled the trigger. This story, so it was said at the time, fairly represented the despair in the farming communities of the Midwest in the 1980s. Dale Burr of Lone Tree had only done what thousands of farmers like him were on the brink of doing now.
I search the landscape for signs, but find none. I think of the farmers’ sons and daughters, booking their flights out.