Friday, July 26, 2013

Forty Years On An Airplane

My First Flight

The first time I flew on an airplane in Summer 1973, my mother dressed us appropriately for a semi-cross continental excursion: long, pastel dresses for us girls, my Dad in a necktie and sports coat.  We climbed the exterior staircases, carrying a small token of a toy for entertainment during the 2.5 hour flight.  If we remained on our best behavior for the duration, the stewardesses would provide us with a small pin to remind us of our voyage.  We would have earned our wings.  Best behavior meant not asking for a complementary deck of cards, it meant not dropping food in our laps as we ate our meals, and it meant sitting in our seats and not getting up for any reason, even to use the on-board lavatories.

Flying in the early 1970s also meant departing from the old, brick terminal at Sky Harbor Airport.  We had only lived in the Grand Canyon State for about eighteen months, yet we had visited the terminal several times to pick up Dad from his business travels.  Sometimes we would arrive early and go out to the gate to meet him; sometimes we would change into our pajamas and just pull up curbside when he had late evening arrivals.  I remember driving down Interstate 17 and curving onto the Black Canyon Freeway, and I never remember there being any traffic.  Travel felt different then, even if I simply came along for the ride.  And when I finally boarded a plane, I felt like royalty.  And I dressed and acted accordingly.

Flash Forward

I am inflight now, and I see a completely different view.  Kicked under my seat are my flip flops.  On my tray table, a simple bag of peanuts, and I fork over the additional cost for a Corona.  The flight attendants – the majority of whom are men – wear shorts and polo shirts.   My son sits next to me, jeans and t-shirt, much like every other passenger.  Last time the two of us flew together, we sat astride on two aisle seats, but he got the better deal.  On the window beside me, a woman tucked her dog in a nylon tote under her seat, and between us her boyfriend used his soft drink can as a make-shift spittoon.  It’s a different caliber of passenger, with a different level of service, and a different in-flight experience.

But think about what else has changed.  This flight includes LED mood lighting to ease the transition from taxiway, to airborne, to landing.  I am Wi-Fi enabled and can play solitaire, not with the complimentary deck of cards, but on the in-flight gaming system.  The movie audio isn’t piped in through headset air tubes, but is electronically connected, along with a full selection of television channels and movies.  I communicate with the ground via email, or I can post a video of myself and the view out the window.  With GPS I can track my flight, see over what landmarks I am flying, and receive real-time speed and distance measurements.  This is a new era of air travel, less formal, but far more functional; planes are more snug, but letting go of the traditions of the past helps us move towards a better life and a more effective journey from Point A to Point B.  I recall a flight abroad in the early nineties where the back third of the plane contained the smoking section, as if the smoke confined itself to those rows.  I like the changes in the past forty years.  Now, if only we can get rid of the smokeless tobacco, too.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cornered On A Hilltop

Twisting My Arm

General George Custer got what was coming to him.  That’s what I always thought.  So when my Dad decided the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southeastern Montana should be a highlight of our travel, I acquiesced and blocked time in the itinerary to indulge his preference.  After all, Dad had tolerated my desire to see Devil’s Tower National Monument and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, plus I made him and Mom pose like the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail signs, so this would be a little something I would tolerate in exchange.

And had we simply visited the battlefield with a quick pop in at the visitor’s center, I would have not minded the excursion, but Dad found himself sucked in to a ranger program that was one part history, two parts storytelling and one part personal political commentary.  I opted out and climbed the fateful hill to see the actual sites rather than listen to one person’s opinion thereof.  I’m a visual learner.  Surprisingly, I relish in the rolling hills and autumn brush far more than I expect of the eastern Montana scenery.  And on the tallest of the small hills, overlooking the not-so-distant, tree-lined river valley, the core of one of America’s most historic battles overlooks the disputed territory where Manifest Destiny clashed with the livelihoods of hundreds of generations of Native Americans at the spot where Custer paid the piper.

A Sacrifice for History

The toe head from West Point, the lowest graduate of the class of 1861, definitely bit off more than he could chew and thought far more of himself than he should, but as I stood on the hillside, seeing random grave sites of warriors and soldiers alike, the frightful truth of a handful of defenders killing their own steeds for the sake of cover appears stark and frightening.  From all sides the military men faced attack, and they all perished, their resting places marked.  For the combatants on both sides, men lie where slain, the grasslands covered with the fallen fighters all committed to their ideals and their way of life.  I understand the dire consequences in which those who died here, without a peaceful moment but instead dying in desperation; men who gave their last breath to their respective causes.
Nearly a century and a half later, history contemplates the failed rationale of an expanding nation that clearly did not reflect the best of a fledgling democracy.  Nonetheless, the horrific ending met by those who died at Little Bighorn lie bare on this sunny hillside, kissed only in a subtle breeze, offering me a second thought about the nonchalant way in which I contemplated the valiance of the battle.  I bend down to take a photo of a marker showing where a soldier died and I imagined the vantage point he had with no defense, not even a boulder or tree to block his approaching death.  I finish my private exploration after giving each man who fell here the reflection they all deserve, regardless of right or wrong.  I finally depart the hillside finding Dad still engrossed in the lecture with Mom standing patiently at his side making a sacrifice of her own at Little Bighorn.