Quiet. Very, very quiet.
Stillness defined my first airplane trip since the September 11 Massacre. The walk through New York’s LaGuardia Airport, my flight to Chicago, the Red Carpet Club at O’Hare Airport, and the second leg to San Francisco were emptier than usual and almost totally devoid of the whines, wisecracks, cellular bombast, and laughter that roughly defined casual American banter until Black Tuesday.
I normally fly nonstops from coast to coast, but decided to heed the advice of my loving and worried parents. At least for now, it seems more prudent to avoid planes brimming with jet fuel. My cross-country trip Thursday included a transfer through the Midwest.
After airport security agents seized the disposable blade from my Gillette Mach 3 razor, I boarded United Airlines flight 697 to O’Hare. The ride was as silent as I can recall aboard an airliner.
Shortly after takeoff, I peered out a port-side window. The Empire State Building soared toward the scattered clouds, now rivaled downtown by mere plumes of smoke that still stubbornly emerge from the spot where the World Trade Center stood. That horrifying sight — ubiquitous in the global media for nearly two weeks now — is far more jarring when witnessed not on cable TV but with one’s own eyes.
I barely nibbled at my in-flight meal. The white plastic knife beside the shiny steel fork and spoon on my tray reminded me too painfully of how the horror began.
After landing, I walked through an O’Hare Airport far emptier than I’ve seen it. Reduced flight schedules, lengthy check-in procedures, and passenger jitters explained the thin crowds.
On the way to my connecting gate, feeling as glum as I’ve ever felt at an airport, I ran into a United pilot in an elevator.
“Is this as nerve wracking for you as it is for the rest of us?” I asked.
“We’re trying to get through this, too,” he replied.
“I just flew in from LaGuardia,” I told him. “I looked out the window. The skyline’s totally different.”
“Could you see it all from up there?” he wondered.
I paused and answered: “It’s what you can’t see.”
The scene at gate B17 was like scores I’ve seen before, but with the mute button engaged. Dozens of people stood around waiting to board a 747. While our 9:15 a.m. departure time already had slipped away, no one complained. No one said anything. I looked around and saw faces filled with frustration, fatigue, and fear. Only the American-flag T-shirts, red- and white-striped dress shirts, and star-filled ties offered any sense of hope or determination.
The homicidal terrorists who stole the lives of some 7,000 individuals robbed the joy from those of us lucky enough to remain alive. For all of this, those guilty of these acts of war should have the triumphant smiles severed from their faces as America and the civilized world vacuum the wind from their lungs.