Saturday, April 30, 2016

Upstate Gateway to the World

"Reading departure signs in some big airport, reminds me of the places I've been." Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, Jimmy Buffet (1977).

ROC, courtesy of Wiki
It's hardly a big airport. The first time I visited, to pick up Dad from a business trip in the early 70's, it was truly a glorified train station. Jet aircraft had been landing there for barely half a decade. One awaited the arrival of friends or family at the gate. Security, if it could be called that, was probably a retired cop who strolled through the terminal trying not to look bored.

Rochester was a vibrant, growing city with something of a singular focus. It is only a mild exaggeration to say that most of us grew up with parents who worked either for Xerox or Kodak. Both companies were in their prime, hogging huge market shares of monster industries. So many people passed through the little airport that it was expanded to accommodate the new 250 passenger DC-10.

Our family didn't fly much. I took advantage of student fares, flew every once in a while when the kids were babies and, in the 80's, caught military hops out of the side door of Concourse A when I served in the Naval Reserve.

You're waiting for a point.

I'm sitting in a concourse pub, watching the planes come and go. The rum drink is frosted over, the extremely loud, brassy city girl bartender telling a story about how she recently broke a stool over a patron's head. "I don't mind offending people" she shouted to the gruff biker ex-history teacher from Boston hitting on the pretty businesswoman. I assume it's practice, or habit, on the part of the biker dude. Or, he's an extrovert. He has given no indication he even knows the old man with the pad ten feet away from him actually exists. He isn't supposed to notice.

I've probably flown into, and out of, this airport fifty times since I returned to Colorado to resume my police career. Many of the flights were so ordinary that they have long been forgotten. But, not all.

One of the first, the result of a cheap fare offered in conjunction with American Express, was undertaken on an old Delta 727, just weeks before the type fell out of scheduled service. I had an exit row all the way in the tail - perhaps 6 feet to the seat in front of me. Across the aisle, the seal on the service door whistled loudly. Just outside the thin layer of aluminum, three engines turned jet fuel into noise. It was one of the most comfortable flights I ever had.

Daughter Katy and I took "advantage" of dirt cheap tickets from fledgling Vanguard Airlines, flying in an ancient 737, destination Buffalo. On the hour-ish drive to my parent's home we stopped for coffee. I bought my mom a latte - the first of perhaps a hundred over the course of the next 15 years. It became a refrain. "Buy me a latte," she would say when I called from the airport upon arrival. Our flight home was delayed by a thunderstorm from hell, with an arrival at Chicago Midway so ragged the guy next to me sighed with relief. "Good enough," he said as we splashed to a stop. Three weeks later, Vanguard ceased operations.

I was a regular at a small restaurant in Boston's Logan Airport during a period when I headed to Rochester three, four...five times a year. I had the same waiter, who was so used to my order - a bowl of lobster bisque and a small bottle of white wine - that he never gave me a menu. On one trip with a Boston connection I could clearly see the glorious Finger Lakes shimmering in the sunshine as we flew over my final destination, thirty thousand feet and, it turned out, almost eight hours away.

I sat next to several fearful fliers along the way. A "puddle jumper" Embraer 145 bobbed and weaved its way down final, while the nice woman next to me clutched the tray table in front of her. "Is this normal?" she asked. Having flown in small planes with the Navy, I could confidently answer...maybe.

Until the airlines discovered that people would pay a premium for...premium seats,  I was successful getting seat 1A on smaller American Airlines craft. I met several delightful flight attendants, whose seat was mere feet away. They were as bored as me, so striking up a conversation was easy. One, a young lady from the South, talked about how she had dreamed of being a crew member, sitting on her back porch every night until a plane flew over. She and I killed nearly two hours of a ramp hold talking about our jobs. When she pressed the button for the canned "Seat belt and life jacket" speech...Spanish. I laughed, she told me to shut up. She made it into an Amy Painter manuscript - I often wonder what became of her.

US Air cancelled more than a few hops, although I accidentally discovered the best wings in aviation when rerouted - a small joint in Pittsburgh, an airport that looks like a mall with runways.The best concourse margaritas are in a Mexican restaurant in Detroit. Hot dogs in Chicago Midway sit best over the long flight to Rochester if the jalapenos are kept to a minimum. 

Northwest Airlines pilots (absorbed by Delta in 2010) are humorless. We were halfway down the runway on landing at DIA, and still fifty feet above the ground, when the A320's crew decided to go around. Rather than extend gently to the north, they gunned the engines and stood the plane on its side. It rocked and rolled, roaring and climbing, as if the pilots needed to get back into line NOW! Out came the barf bags. There was a lot of screaming. Touching down, there was no mention of why the landing was abandoned, just "Welcome to Denver, where the local time is..."

I wrote to the airline, a brief observation that when the crew fly the airframe, not the cabin, a little bit of pilot humor might help soothe white knuckle fliers. "In honor of our go around, everyone gets ten additional frequent flier miles" or something like that. I was informed - tartly, I might add - that passenger safety is their most pressing concern. Roger that.

I don't have fifty more trips to Rochester in me. That's a shame. I have a million fond memories. That's a blessing.

At the conclusion of each trip I would drive away, my mom standing at her condo door, waving. Only after our kids had grown did I understand what it is like to watch your child drive to an airport to fly home.

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