Magazine | October 15, 2018, Issue

Point of Departure

A plane takes off at an airport in Valencia, Spain, July 24, 2018. (Heino Kalis/Reuters)

There’s a scout troop short a child, Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild.

This couplet from the theme song of an early-Sixties comic cop show references two things now lost — a long-gone Soviet leader, and the name of one of the city’s airports. But the airport, renamed for the assassinated president, is still there, little improved since the days of the cop show — or so we are told.

America has fallen behind. Look at our airports. Compare them with the airports of the wily Chinese, and with their state-of-art highways and cities. The highways watch you for infractions like jaywalking, and a number of the new cities sit untenanted, but these are details. The Yellow Peril is eating our lunch.

The last Yellow Peril was Japan, whose will to power was expressed by the smallness of its capital’s international airport. The wily Japanese, we were told, did not want their worker bees spending capital on vacations abroad, so they deliberately made it difficult to leave home. The money reinvested there would enable them to eat our lunch.

The rise and fall of empires and scare stories aside, the way to the airport is long. Years ago you could board a special subway from a stop in the Village beneath the pick-up basketball courts and take it to a stop in the wetlands, where you boarded a bus to the airport. Two additional forms of transportation per voyage was really too many, and the special subway stopped running. Now the only realistic way to the airport is by cab (for youngsters: by this I also include Uber). It is best to leave at dawn.

After the tunnel between the two islands, the highway sweeps along in elevation — the road to the future, they must have thought when they built it. Old factories and cemeteries give way to a ganglion of high-rises. The hero of Take Five lived in an 18th-century farmhouse surrounded by these behemoths. The scenery becomes small-scale: attached houses, law offices, Evangelical churches in converted houses, worshiping in languages other than English. Finally you make the long ride through the airport’s suburbs, past sign after sign giving directions to the world’s airlines.

There was a beaver dam upstate that the highway department demolished be­cause it risked flooding a road. Every night the beavers built it back, every day the highway department tore it down again. Work like that goes on at the airport. Temporary roads and new permanent roads slip and slither like pasta. On one trip to the airport traffic simply stopped, blocked, short of the terminal. I paid, bolted, and scrambled, bag in tow to my destination. There was talk of tearing down the only beautiful terminal, a mid-century classic, too small to be used now, built to look like a gull, looking now like a very small and delicate one. They saved it for some purpose.

Wingers like to mock airport security: the shoeless dance, the Medal of Honor confiscated because its points could be used as weapons. My wife and I once had shampoo confiscated though we carried a set of cutlery on board undetected. Things have improved. If you fly a lot or pay extra, you can stay shod. These qualifications also entitle you to shorter lines. It is a very American solution: Effort = character, so does $. Altogether things run smoothly, at least at dawn.

About the time of day. Mindful of snafus, airlines advise you to arrive hours in advance. Those last minutes of rapid-eye-movement sleep, in which you finally do get the girl, are sacrificed to the alarm, the quick shower and shave, and the dash outside for the cab. But since snafus are relatively rare, most times you arrive at the airport with all the time in the world. The airport has provided you with distractions. There is actually a newsstand: the four dailies, glossy starlets, Ten Lessons I Learned on My Trip to the Underworld, the latest Trumpsposé. Clothes stores, some surprisingly high-end. Clocks showing different time zones (for youngsters: clocks are schematics of digital displays). Since you have forgone breakfast to make your dawn arrival, there are restaurants.

Pros: Some of them, anyway, are large. You can sit at a wooden table and give your order from a menu to a fellow man. The music is not terribly loud, and there are only a few wide-screen televisions seeking your gaze. The helpings are copious: vitally important now that airlines have stopped feeding their coach passengers. What an image of capitalism for young socialists: The 99 percent starve, while the 1 percent eat. Minuses: The food is depressing. Heavy, recently frozen, confected: eggs that never knew a chicken, orange juice so far from a tree. A plus to the minus: The coffee is okay. Not coffee-house okay of course, but okay enough to get on with the day.

A word more about the music: One song I recognized was “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” I remember when that was new: It was 1967. In 1967, I do not remember anyone playing songs from 1916. Why was it given to the Baby Boomers, and those who catered to them, to discover the secret of eternal life, and why have they been allowed to monopolize it? Those dead record-industry execs, now we learn all rapists (though given their product what else could they have been), are raping us still.

Boarding is the dance that will never end: How to park yourself and your carry-on bag so that you may be near the head of the line when your group is called? Will that wheelchair-bound lady block you? Run interference for you? Mid-century man, my boarding passes are still printouts, not marks of the Beast on my device. Then four-plus hours in the floating tube to different sunlight, and rivers flowing into a different ocean. After two days and four more hours, you will arrive back at the airport.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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