By lex, on Sat – April 23, 2005
I have a love/hate relationship with traveling. Airport security is a bother, and the planes are always beastly crowded these days, what with the majors trying to eke out every last passenger mile. Don’t like living out of suitcases, either. And of course, I end up missing my peeps.
But on the other hand, it does broaden your horizons. You see new things and new places. You see new people.
Traveling to the airport, I see a young woman, perhaps 20 years old with that unmistakable quality of youth. Not really beautiful, she was still arresting to look at, with long, dark blond hair that clearly was her pride and joy. I try to see without appearing to stare, and as for her, she had already learned that way a pretty woman has to learn of seeing no one, making no eye contact, drawing no stranger into awkward conversations. They learn to look past a stranger if they can or through them if they must. I believe this is a survival skill.
Later in Dallas/Ft. Worth, I see her greet her beau on the sidewalk. The look on her face of radiant joy transformed her healthy-looking but plainly pretty face into one of transcendent beauty. Twenty or so years ago I would have looked upon her boyfriend with envy, but now, with a slightly furrowed brow, I hope that he is kind to her, deserving of such affection. Guys can be so hard to trust.
The difference between now and twenty years ago? Fatherhood, pure and simple. Daughters are proof that God has both a sense of humor, and that he delights in His revenge.
The sunshine in her smile reminded me of the baby I had seen looking back from his carriage to his mother’s face, as we all waited for the customary indignities (shoes, please) at airport security. His way of looking at her was so adoring (“Isn’t she beautiful?”) and so enraptured (“Just look at her!”) that it made my heart ache. Fathers may well be loved, but never was a father so adored.
I’ve never been to Corpus Christi before, and yet it felt somehow familiar. Long strips of highway with single-story, roadside establishments running into depressing infinity down both sides. Ford dealerships and crab shacks, pit BBQ and TGI Fridays. It occurred to me then that the feeling was most like Pensacola, where I’d started flight school all those many years ago. Something about the hard, flat sunlight and the moist, fervid gulf breezes, which ran hot over my skin and pulled at my shirt worryingly, like the breath of some fever-sickened lover.
Texas seems to be pretty full of itself. There was the Texas Gun Store, right next to the oldest car dealership in Texas, Texas-sized portions at the Texas Tom Restaurant. You’d have thought they’d be used to it by now, that the marque might have, over the years, lost its ability to seize the Texan imagination.
You’d be wrong.
This is hurricane country, and lowlands to boot. Permanence seems to be disfavored. In the daytime, everything has a temporary look, low, mean and huddled. The only thing that breaks the skyline until you get right to the city center are the cellular towers. Downtown had a familiar ring as well, something once well-known but not much used to recollection: Boarded up windows and empty storefronts, broad, empty avenues, rough bars a stranger would do well not to attempt. I had forgotten the look of a dying city. I had forgotten the hard south.
There were the familiar sights of every American suburb and city – the chain stores and gas stations. But like a Steven King novel of an alternate reality, there were other chain stores I’d never heard of which sat there nevertheless with a stolid placidity, having every right to exist even without my knowledge of them: H.E.B. Market – “Everyday low prices!”
At night the strip to and from the base took on a happier look, as the darkness brought everything up close into an intimate familiarity, neon signs making up in enthusiasm what the shops themselves lacked in organic virtue, the empty and uninviting distance suppressed by the evening shadows. If those in the suburbs are aware of the death throes at the core, they do not seem to resent it.
I had never been to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi before, but it too was somehow familiar. There was a Lexington Boulevard, and a Buckeye Street, names with resonance in naval aviation. There was the Wings Auditorium, a building I had never seen, far less been inside, but whose interior jumped in to sharp focus in my imagination, right down to the smell of the dusty air, and the sound two hundred spring backed chairs would make when a senior officer entered the room to the shout of “Attention on deck!” There were the aircraft hangars I had never seen, but somehow knew. The orange and white training aircraft, T-34s in particular, gave me a little nervous shudder as I struggled against reason to recall emergency procedures and preflight checklists for an aircraft I hadn’t flown in over 20 years. Old habits die hard.
I realized what it was about the base, at least: It represented an alternate past, one that did not happen to me. This is where the prop pilots went to train. Jet guys went to Kingsville, or Beeville or Meridian. A lucky few stayed in Pensacola. Later on I went into the Officer’s Club – it too seemed to be wheezing its last dying breaths. Large ballrooms empty of the scraping chairs and orchestras – no one had brought in platters of food for the officers and their brides in many, many years. No more than its own, mildewed relic, a shell of former glory.
I found the bar, half a dozen half-drunk civilians and a fully-soused retiree were served by a surly bartender, who told them all he was closing at 10 PM. O’Clubs used to be a big part of our lives, in my younger days – but the world moves on, and sometimes I think these archaisms are only kept up at all to remind the ancients of their misspent youths. On the walls are pictures of my peers, men who commanded squadrons when I had my command, men I do not know and never met. They flew prop planes – they were in a different Navy.
And after the retirement, I enjoyed an evening out with the Master Chief and his family, wonderful people. His son made a very moving speech, very sincere – reading from the page in a low, embarrassed murmur, but determined to see it through. Any father’s heart would crush with pride and love to be addressed this way. Later, as I’m preparing to make my exit, and leave the rest of this time to them, he tells me that it’s hard to believe that we may never see one another again. I tell him that, well, we never do know. One day he might find himself in San Diego.
But he knows, as I do, that that’s not true. Meeting, greeting and leaving is as much a part of our DNA as is anything our parents gave to us. We leave, move on, start fresh. That’s what we do. It’s who we are.
Heading home to hearth and family, the world is once again on display for me, in all its human splendor. There is the 50ish airport employee striding down the hallways at Dallas, heels ringing on the tile, mouth pursed, head making small, repeated shakes of negation. She’s either having a bad day or the beginnings of a nervous breakdown, but I will never learn which. She is gone, replaced by the young woman, maybe 30, with the haunted, hunted eyes. They dart here and there as though looking for threats, as though accustomed to seeing them, and then she too is gone, leaving me to wonder.
In the plane and seated, my eyes fall on the fetching flight attendant. She has also learned that skill of not seeing, at least, not when she doesn’t have to. She is blond, and leggy tall, with piercing blue eyes and a brittle smile. She seems the kind of woman that might seduce a man, just to stay in practice. Later, after we’re airborne, she brushes past my shoulder in the narrow passageway, and I am surprised at the startling firmness of her flank. This is not what I know – she seems hard, carved of oak, a different kind of warrior. Her gaze is in turns cool, evaluative, and dismissive. As a happily married man, I am blithely unconcerned.
As a male, I am of course devastated.
You: Were there no male voyagers on your journey, Lex?
Me: There may have been, gentle reader. I cannot precisely recollect.
And now I am home, and the world is once again spinning in its proper orbit. Son Number One gave me a ride from the airport, and we shared that half hour of camaraderie before he headed back to school. Leaving, because this is what we do.
And leaving his laundry too, because, the Hobbit being absent for a girl scout encampment?
Well, that is apparently what I do, too.
by William Butler Yeats
‘In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.’ -Thomas Mann
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.