This past weekend I had business at the airport, but having arrived there, I found myself reluctant to enter the terminal.
Instead, I lingered in the parking lot, watching the planes lift and soar, or else glide and settle like great graceful birds that seemed to tuck their wings on landing.
I thought of the lives lost on planes over the last decades: in the accidental crash of ValuJet’s Flight 592 and TWA’s Flight 800 and through terrorist acts, including Pan Am’s Flight 103 over Lockerbie and the four flights lost on September 11th: American Airline’s Flight 11, United’s Flight 175, American’s Flight 77 and United’s Flight 93.
It was as if I were afraid of all I might feel on entering the terminal.
But once inside that cool bubble of space, a comforting calm prevailed.
A kind of official host patrolled the long line of travelers, searching for the tardy few who would miss their flights if not found and brought forward.
A man on his phone made calls, dialing and barking his name, proposing figures, proposing dates.
Poker-faced, a toddler in a nearby stroller eyed him skeptically.
I saw that I would have a wait, and I’d eaten no breakfast, so I stepped from the line to find a sandwich.
In a jauntily-lit fake-saloon of a joint, I sat down and looked around at the stained-glass lamps and the polished bar. The place had an old-time feel to it, and so did the music being piped in. It was the song “Hey Jude” by the Beatles.
“And anytime you feel the pain, Hey Jude, refrain, don’t carry the world upon your shoulder,” is how the words go. “For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder…”
Thirty minutes later, in line once again, I inched my way toward the counter.
Just as I began my transaction, a baggage handler stepped between us.
“I need a word with my friend here,” he said, indicating the ticket agent. They solemnly shook hands.
“Hank, I want you to give me your phone number,” he said to the agent.
Careful as a schoolboy, Hank wrote it on a slip of paper and handed it over.
“I’ll be calling you,” said the baggage handler pleasantly, slipping the paper into his breast pocket.
There was no way to know, but it felt as if Hank needed help, which his friend was offering.
So friendship still works, I thought from my dark frame of mind.
And then I saw that much still works in this world. Every day millions of us get up and go about the business of living, thinking from time to time of our dear ones at home perhaps, or that lovely last hour of summer light as seen from a west-facing window.
Every day hundreds of thousands of us go aloft, trusting our lives to hold up beneath us.
It sears us to think of those for whom things went another way. In our minds we still hold the sight of their datebooks and backpacks salvaged from some wreckage. The sight of their innocent shoes.
We tell ourselves they don’t need shoes where they are now, or backpacks or datebooks either, and many of us believe that this is so. The assurance of things hoped for. The conviction of things unseen.
Leaving the airport that day, I thought again of that old song by Lennon and McCartney, and of the kindness one man showed to another, and suddenly I could once again look at those airplanes as the great graceful birds I have always imagined them to be.