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Throughout the 60s to 80s and regardless of semi-permanent domicile, having carefully chosen after assiduous browsing Yuletide gifts I hoped might be appealing for friends and family, I boarded a then-commodious and pleasurably-attended airplane from cacaphonous LaGuardia or Kennedy, later Dulles or Reagan, Atlanta or Baltimore, for the annual holiday visit to Fort Lauderdale -- initially a small, somewhat disorganized and rural airport and now a sprawlingly multi-lingual international hub -- and another ten-day stay in the sun and ocean salt, sea breeze and poolside amenities, Intracoastal elegances and sandland eccentricities with my grandparents, who provided me with roundtrip tickets as long as they lived for that occasion and paid all my expenses while there also. So, it was a real vacation also paid for in part by my unusually beneficent employers. My major goal was to return with a golden tan that would last me until the warmth of springtime renewal "up East." "Nana" and "Grandpa" were inordinately attentive to mealtimes, as all retirees there seemed to be, and ours generally entailed "Early Bird Specials" at favored nearby restaurants in the evenings. Around lunchtime, my grandmother and I went shopping here and there and then stopped most often at her favorite cafe, a beautifully elegant waterside building with a white and glassed facade and interior, antique French furnishings throughout, and a gift store offering shining jewels for limbs and tables, which it also sold, and she bought me a set of three tiered gold inlaid ones on one visit there along with a set of six slender white china and sterling silver demitasse cups in their own tray, which I still have. But not the tables.
As I was growing up, my grandparents "wintered" each year in Miami, then Fort Lauderdale, for two or three months, staying in various hotels and motels along A1A by the Atlantic Ocean. My mother and I, or sometimes just myself, would fly down once to visit them each year, so I became used to and comfortable with airplanes at a very early age. Back then, coach seats were spacious with just two on each side of the aisle, hot meals were elegant and, along with two cocktails (not that I was old enough for them) and hors d'oevres, free. Stewardesses were just that, female, in blue skirts, white blouses, and wearing high heels and performed as waitresses as much as anything. There were, of course, no in-flight movies or television, and travelers read, talked and/or slept instead.
Years later, the large picture window of my spacious office for awhile on the third floor of a Roslyn building looked out over the taller Washington monuments, the Potomac River and two of its bridges as well as a small island. When an airplane from Florida crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, visible from my desk chair, and all but two of its passengers drowned, I was traveling pretty much weekly around the country by air to install original and upgrade software for clients, solve run-time problems, and teach classes or tutor individuals, mostly for DEC mini-computers. Along with others performing similar functions countrywide, we developed and shared a kind of gallows humor about flying, as crashes become more salient amongst frequent travelers. We figured the odds diminished the more often we got up there. The joys of driving strange cars on strange roads in strange cities (rental vehicles on superhighways in unfamiliar metropolises) also cannot be understated.
Once, flying back from a family visit in Fort Lauderdale, having worked in Naples on the Gulf Coast and driven a rental car across Alligator Alley to the widest thoroughfare I'd yet encountered from Miami north, I sat next to a young woman who had never flown before and was holding a small baby on her lap. As the plane swerved out over the Atlantic, it suddenly dropped around five hundred feet. We all caught our breaths and rearranged ourselves and our trays and belongings, as she become somewhat hysterical while clutching the baby closely to her breast. I assured her that I'd flown a lot by plane and everything was perfectly all right, that she shouldn't worry. The pilot's voice came over the intercom also sounding reassuring and eventually she relaxed somewhat. As the airplane struggled to regain its height and stay aloft, groaningly, I repeated Hail Mary's, my refuge over the years in times of extreme peril, silently, along with prayers that we would make it to Atlanta. When we arrived in that Delta hub, the airplane was ditched and those of us continuing on up north boarded another one for the next leg of the trip.
After moving to the Shenandoah Valley, I flew a few times on small commuter planes from Verona to Washington DC or Baltimore and back again on a leg in the chain to and from Fort Lauderdale. Shortly after my last trip, one of those planes crashed into the side of the Blue Ridge Mountains in fog and all aboard were killed. Rescuers who finally made their way to that remote site found bodies and body parts hanging from trees and the scene so grisly that they required psychiatric counseling afterwards. The next time I traveled to The Sunshine State, I took a bus from Harrisonburg, having lost my guts for flying totally for awhile -- until enticed again to our Pacific Coast a decade or so later.
Original material c. A Country Rag, Inc. and/or Jeannette Harris, Jonesborough Tennessee, April 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013. All rights reserved.