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The Aviator Getting There

By Richard Bock

IT USED TO BE that travelling home was a romantic act, a symbolic journey from the confines of college to an all-too-familiar house (memories of confinement). The two places were similar: they were both places you had to go to and stay awhile. Between them there was the voyage, a time when the people you met weren't the same people you've seen for the rest of your life. You'll probably never meet them anywhere but on the road. I remember a veteran stringing his war stories of twenty-five years between Washington and New York, a Texas minister who went out of his way to take me to Hyde Park because he had such fond memories of FDR, a light-haired blind girl in New Jersey talking about her act in a talent show while her dog stared out at the night.

On the highway I would look at people in other cars heading south and they'd look at me. Sometimes we exchanged smiles and waved, then one driver would speed up and they disappeared. I would sit back and listen to the radio outblast the highway wind, wondering who they were, where they were going and thinking that maybe they were listening to the same song, wondering about me.

There was a common weariness in the faces of travelling people. Someone was always sleeping on one of the train station benches but no one dared to wake him: no train could be more important than a few hours' sleep if you were tired enough to fall asleep on a hard wooden bench in a cold waiting room. Travelling the slow ways taught one that time was inconsequential. Getting there would take a long time, so you found value in what happened on the way.

The sights on the road were as memorable as the people; long strings of lights on the highways (America lives for its wheels); mock-cathedral train stations (the crowns of a railroad-crazed century); bus terminals with floors that could never be swept clean (twentieth century transportation, up front about itself). The sights told of a breathing, choking land that the books cannot describe, of lives that must be seen to be believed.

All of that is still there, but I haven't seen it since Youth Fare. The airlines took my money and added local color to their flights. I was reluctant to submit at first. One vacation I even shunned their offer and caught a train, but it was no use. Sooner or later all of us must go. Once the airlines showed me that travelling for just and hour felt better than the ordeal of bad air, sore knees, and a weary head. I was hooked, even if they did play Muzak in the odorless terminals. The romantic forms of travel are too disorienting. I told myself, save them for the summer.

Those first few flights appealed to my sense of wonder. The sight of shrinking cities, the whiteness of clouds against the windows, the thrust of the engines on take-off all took hold of my imagination. But when I looked around to see what was really there, I had to admit that airplanes were dull: businessmen stewardesses, students, all sealed in a cylinder, impatient to be rid of one another. The flights were so fast there wasn't the time to meet a girl and write down her telephone number between cities.

SO LAST weekend, when I boarded a flight for Philadelphia, I was resigned. The new Eastern terminal had greeted me with its spacious empty comfort. The plane was connected to the terminal by an umbilical apparatus and I didn't even feel the runway wind. I would be inside for an hour. I would sleep for awhile and watch the East Coast the rest of the time.

Just as I was setting down, a stewardess awakened me with the P. A. system. "Will the man with the black briefcase with the initials L. O. B. please identify himself," she said. They're onto something, I thought. They never say things like that unless they're onto something. I had it in a minute-Havana. It sounded unreal, but I was sure that if we only made it off the ground, we'd be there in a matter of hours. After two years of selling out by air I would be in the tropics, among a whole new breed of people, in the home of the real revolution.

The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. We waved good-bye to Key West and landed under armed guard in Havana. All the way down, the pilot reassured us that transportation back to the States would be provided as soon as possible. The stewardess apologized for the inconvenience. I imagined businessmen bitching about Castro and Yankee matrons trembling in mortal fear of the Enemy. Someone would ask the customs man which way to the casinos.

Although I wanted to share my knowledge, I couldn't. My immediate neighbors, two business school students, were talking about their new dean. They had pale complexions, three-piece suits, and glasses. I didn't want to let anyone play hero and warn the pilot, so I just sat back and listened to the engines. I still felt Havana in my veins but I wanted my man to hurry.

Just about the time I had him rising from his seat on the way to the cockpit, the no smoking - seat belt sign started flashing and a bell chimed. I held my breath as the engine slowed and the pilot came on the P. A. system to announce that we would be landing shortly in Philadelphia, Philadelphia? Who the hell did the pilot think he was landing in Philadelphia? What about the man with the black briefcase? What were the airlines doing making such suggestive announcements when they couldn't deliver the goods? Just another gimmick, I told myself. They'll do anything to keep us distracted.

The plane circled in slow and easy over the Delaware and a few dozen destroyers in mothballs, past an old army base, its barracks down to black skeletons. The wheels touched down and a stewardess told us to stay in our seats.

When I entered the terminal, there were cops all over the place, big Philadelphia cops with black leather jackets like the Panthers, and big nightsticks. I thought for a moment that my man was still on the plane, waiting to spring his trap on the next leg of the flight, down to Houston. Hijacking a plane on its way to Houston made more terrorist sense than hijacking it over New Jersey.

The cops didn't seem too apprehensive. They stood in small groups as if they were waiting for relatives to arrive and talked to each other about football. I asked a woman in the snack bar what the cops were doing there. "Didn't you read about it in the paper?" she said. "The moon racks are arriving here today." Moon rocks, I thought to myself, moon rocks.

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