Lent Reflection 4: The Airport
Amos Disasa and his father Jerman shared essays inspired by our Lent 2012 theme “Reintroducing You” during our mid-week lunch gatherings at The Spot on Blanding. Each week Amos and his father, inspired by a common theme and connected by one very long journey, read one essay. The genesis of the project can be explored here. The archive of essays is here.
This week, my father could not join us to read his essay. In his absence, he made this video with the help of my younger brother Raaji. It was filmed in his office at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC. The video was my idea in response to his suggestion that Raaji, or my other brother Siega (we are legion), read it for him. If you’ve ever talked with the man, you’d agree that his words assume a certain meaning through his delivery, so video was the only solution.
His absence was a gift. The resulting video isn’t slick but the gravity of the story draws your attention towards it and will not let you go. Enjoy.
Amos’ essay on The Airport
Before 9/11 the observation deck at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport was open to the general public. The deck was accessible without a security check in or even a legitimate reason to be at the airport. As I remember it, the deck was perched above a glassy ocean of concrete that appeared cleaner than it should be considering all the motorized activity on its surface. It offered a birds eye view of an intricate dance between humongous planes and miniature people on tiny go carts pulling too many trailers and taking turns too tight. From the deck we could watch planes take off and land in defiance of gravity and rational thinking. The observation deck was protected around its perimeter by a decorative metal fence that was just high enough for a young child to perch his chin on while standing on his toes from the benches below. As each plane landed we imagined who the people were, where they were going, and why their families weren't on the observation deck with us. For us, plane travel was extraordinary and it seemed strange that one would miss an opportunity to see their relative experience it firsthand. But on most of our visits to the observation deck, we were alone and we didn't always have someone to greet on our visits to the airport. Frequently, we'd bypass the park or the basketball court on a saturday afternoon and instead journey to West Columbia for a few hours to watch the airport.
As each plane landed, my father would call out the name of the plane and identify the manufacturer. He was able to distinguish between a Boeing 737 and a Boeing 747 without pause or hesitation. He told us what each of the strange hand gestures by the men with the orange sticks communicated. His briefcase was marked with a Boeing sticker, left over from his work at Ethiopian Airlines, the last job he held before we emmigrated to the United States. I never bothered to ask what he did there and I'm not sure I want to know. The simple fact that my father once worked for an airline is enough to spark my imagination and I'm not prepared for my idealized image to be diminished by the possibility that he worked in customer service.
At the airport I always worried that one of the men driving go carts or carrying an orange stick in his back pocket would get run over by one of the planes. The dance lacked a clear leader, and the two front tires, no bigger than the goodyears on our subaru, used for steering the massive planes until they bumped against the expandable tunnels protruding from the terminal, increased my anxiety. I worried on the observation deck more than I should have. The only thing that eased my concern about the unsafe working conditions was the presence of my father, who I was certain had experience on dangerous tarmacs with bigger planes at busier airports.Once upon a time airlines gave away extra peanuts, cheap pens, notepads, stickers, and plastic pilots wings. When my father returned from a business trips, the unveiling of the paraphernalia was anticipated by us to a greater degree than his return. He made sure to bring something home for each of us. After we received our customary trinket, we asked him questions about the trip. It didn't matter where he went, that wasn't important, we wanted to know about the plane: was it loud, how was the takeoff, was it loud, did the landing scare you, was the airport big, did you get lost?
We were fascinated by plane travel and each time Ababa returned from a nameless conference or meeting he received a greeting worthy of a mythic hero returning from battle. Air travel was once reserved for important people or those that were rich enough to fly to see a relative. Now it is inexpensive enough for cross-continental trips on short notice. Airplanes made the world practically smaller by reducing oceans to puddles.We didn't travel together as a family on a plane until my junior year of high school. That year, we went to California to see our adopted grandparents. By this time there were six of us. We flew from Atlanta through Houston to San Diego. We fought for the window seats believing that we'd see the ground below for the entire trip. We were disappointed to find nothing but clouds staring back at us ten minutes after take off. But that didn't stop us from watching the wings and wondering aloud what resulted from each small movement of the delicate flaps tilting from their rear. We ate everything the stewardesses offered and read every page of the free on flight magazine. In San Diego we went to Sea World and Disney Land, but the miracle of that trip was the travel.
The airport is a reminder of what has passed: moving from one country to another, starting a new life and leaving another behind. It is a totem for the immigrant experience, a modern iteration of the Statue of Liberty. At the airport, a self-contained empire where you can eat, drink and sleep without leaving the terminal, everyone is an immigrant. Citizenship is fluid and open to anyone with a boarding pass. It's residents are connected by the humility that plane travel demands, and a shared, yet temporary, disconnection from anything resembling home.