Page 30 of Airport


Meanwhile, aircraft takeoffs were continuing over Meadowood, which was a hornet’s nest all its own. The airport switchboard, as well as air traffic control’s, was being swamped with bitterly complaining calls from Meadowood householders–those who were at home. A good many others, Mel had been informed, were at the protest meeting he had heard about earlier this evening; and now there was a rumor–which the tower chief had passed along a few minutes ago–that some kind of public demonstration was being planned, to take place at the airport tonight.

Mel thought glumly: a bunch of demonstrators underfoot was all he needed.

One good thing was that the category three emergency had just been declared concluded, the air force KC-135 which caused it, having landed safely. But one emergency ended was no assurance another would not begin. Mel had not forgotten the vague unease, the presentiment of danger he had felt while on the airfield an hour ago. The feeling, impossible to define or justify, still bothered him. Yet even without it, the other circumstances were enough to require his remaining here.

Cindy, of course–still waiting for him at her charity whingding–would raise all hell. But she was angry, anyway, because he was going to be late; he would have to brace himself to absorb the extra wrath as a result of not appearing at all. He supposed he might as well get Cindy’s first salvo over with. The slip of paper with the downtown number where he had reached his wife earlier was still in his pocket. He took it out, and dialed.

As before, it took several minutes for Cindy to come to the telephone, and when she did, surprisingly, there was none of the fire she had shown during their previous conversation, only an icy chill. She listened in silence to Mel’s explanation–why it was essential he should remain at the airport. Because of the lack of argument, which he had not expected, he found himself floundering, with labored excuses not wholly convincing to himself. He stopped abruptly.

There was a pause before Cindy inquired coldly, “Have you finished?”

“Yes.”

She sounded as if she were talking to someone distasteful and remote. “I’m not surprised, because I didn’t expect you to come. When you said you would, I assumed as usual you were lying.”

He said heatedly, “I wasn’t lying, and it isn’t as usual. I told you earlier tonight, how many times I’ve been…”

“I thought you said you’d finished.”

Mel stopped. What was the use? He conceded wearily, “Go on.”

“As I was trying to say when you interrupted–also as usual…”

“Cindy, for God’s sake!”

“…knowing you were lying, gave me the chance to do some thinking.” She paused. “You say you’re staying at the airport.”

“Considering that’s what this conversation is all about…”

“How long?”

“Until midnight; perhaps all night.”

“Then I’ll come out there. You can expect me.”

“Listen, Cindy, it’s no good. This isn’t the time or place.”

“Then we’ll make it the time. And for what I have to say to you, any place is good enough.”

“Cindy, please be reasonable. I agree there are things we have to discuss, but not…”

Mel stopped, realizing he was talking to himself. Cindy had hung up.

He replaced his own phone and sat in the silent office, meditatively. Then, not quite knowing why, he picked up the telephone again and, for the second time tonight, dialed home. Earlier, Roberta had answered. This time it was Mrs. Sebastiani, their regular babysitter.

“I was just calling to check,” Mel said. “Is everything all right? Are the girls in bed?”

“Roberta is, Mr. Bakersfeld. Libby’s just going.”

“May I speak to Libby?”

“Well… just for a moment, if you promise to be very quick.”

“I promise.”

Mrs. Sebastiani, Mel perceived, was her usual didactic self. When on duty she exacted obedience, not just from children, but from entire families. He sometimes wondered if the Sebastianis–there was a mousy husband who appeared occasionally–ever had emotional marriage problems. He suspected not. Mrs. Sebastiani would never permit it.

He heard the patter of Libby’s feet approach the phone.

“Daddy,” Libby said, “does our blood keep going round inside forever and ever?”

Libby’s questions were always intriguingly different. She opened new subjects as if they were presents under a Christmas tree.

“Not forever, dear; nothing’s forever. Just so long as you five. Your blood has been going around for seven years, ever since your heart started pumping.”

“I can feel my heart,” Libby said. “In my knee.”

He was on the point of explaining that hearts were not in knees, and about pulses and arteries and veins, then changed his mind. There was plenty of time for all that. As long as you could feel your heart–wherever it seemed to be–that was the important thing. Libby had an instinct for essentials; at times he had the impression that her little hands reached up and gathered stars of truth.

“Goodnight, Daddy.”

“Goodnight, my love.”

Mel was still not sure why be had called, but he felt better for having done so.

As to Cindy, when she determined to do something she usually did it, so it was entirely likely that she would arrive at the airport later tonight. And perhaps she was right. There were fundamental things they had to settle, notably whether their hollow shell of a marriage was to continue for the children’s sake, or not. At least they would have privacy here, out of hearing of Roberta and Libby, who had overheard too many of their fights before.

At the moment there was nothing specific for Mel to do, except be available. He went out from his office onto the executive mezzanine, looking down on the continued bustling activity of the main terminal concourse.

It would not be many years, Mel reflected, before airport concourses changed dramatically. Something would have to be done soon to revise the present inefficient way in which people boarded airplanes and got off them. Simply walking on and off, individually, was far too cumbersome and slow. As each year passed, individual airplanes cost more and more millions of dollars; at the same time, the cost of letting them stay idle on the ground grew greater. Aircraft designers, airline planners, were striving to arrange more flying hours, which produced revenue, and fewer ground hours, which produced none at all.

Already plans were afoot for “people-pods”–based on American Airline-type “igloos” now used for pre-loading air freight. Most other airlines had their own variants of the igloo system.

Freight igloos were self-contained compartments, shaped to fit tightly in a jet plane fuselage. Each igloo was pre-loaded with freight of associated shapes and sizes, and could be lifted to fuselage level, and stowed inside a jet, in minutes. Unlike conventional passenger planes, the inside of a jet freighter was usually a hollow shell. Nowadays when an all-cargo plane arrived at an airport freight terminal, igloos already in the airplane were off-loaded, and new ones put in. With a minimum of time and labor, an entire jet could be swiftly unloaded, reloaded, and be ready again for takeoff.

“People-pods” would be an adaptation of the same idea, and Mel had seen drawings of the type now contemplated. They would comprise small, comfortable cabin sections complete with seats, which passengers would step into at an airport check-in point. The pods would then be whisked on conveyor lines–similar to present baggage conveyor systems–to ramp positions. While their occupants remained seated, the people-pods would be slid into an aircraft which might have arrived only a few minutes earlier, but had already discharged other people-pods containing incoming passengers.

When the pods were loaded and in place, windows in them would correspond with windows in the aircraft fuselage. Doors at the end of each pod would fold back so that stewardesses and passengers could pass through to other sections. Galley compartments, complete with fresh food and fresh stewardesses, would be inserted as separate pods.

A refinement of the system might eventually allow boarding of people-pods downtown, or permit interline transfers by passengers without ever leaving their seats.

A related concept was a “sky lounge” already under development in Los Angeles. Each lounge, holding forty passengers, would be part-bus, part-helicopter. On local routes it could travel suburban or downtown streets under its own power, then, at a local heliport become a pod beneath an outsize helicopter–the entire unit whisked to and from an airport.

And these things would happen, Mel Bakersfeld reflected. Or if not those precisely, then something similar, and soon. A fascination, for those who worked in the aviation milieu, was the speed with which fantastic dreams came true.

A shout, abruptly, from the concourse below, broke into his thoughts.

“Hey, Bakersfeld! Hey up there!”

Mel searched with his eyes, seeking the source of the voice. Locating it was made more difficult by the fact that fifty or so faces, their owners curious about who was being called, had simultaneously swung up. A moment later he identified the caller. It was Egan Jeffers, a tall, lean Negro in light tan slacks and a short-sleeved shirt. One sinewy brown arm gestured urgently.

“You get down here, Bakersfeld. You hear me! You got troubles.”

Mel smiled. Jeffers, who held the terminal shoeshine concession, was an airport character. With a challenging, broad grin across his homely features, he could make the most outrageous statements and somehow get away with it.

“I hear you, Egan Jeffers. How about you coming up instead?”

The grin widened. “Nuts to that, Bakersfeld! I’m a lessee and don’t forget it.”

“If I do, I suppose you’ll read me the Civil Rights Act.”

“You said it, Bakersfeld. Now haul your ass down here.”

“And you watch your language in my airport.” Still amused, Mel turned away from the mezzanine rail and headed for the staff elevator. At the main concourse level, Egan Jeffers was waiting.

Jeffers operated four shoeshine parlors within the terminal. As concessions went, it was not a major one, and the airport’s parking, restaurant, and newsstand concessions produced revenues which were astronomical by comparison. But Egan Jeffers, a one-time curbside bootblack, blithely behaved as if he alone kept the airport solvent.

“We gotta contract, me and this airport. Check?”

“Check.”

“Down in all that fancy rig-y-marole it says I got the ex-clu-sive right to shine shoes in these here premises. Ex-clu-sive. Check?”

“Check.”

“Like I said, man, you got trouble. Follow me, Bakersfeld.”

They crossed the main concourse to a lower level escalator which Jeffers descended in long strides, two steps at a time. He waved genially to several people as they passed. Less athletically, favoring his weaker foot, Mel followed.

At the foot of the escalator, near the group of car-rental booths occupied by Hertz, Avis, and National, Egan Jeffers gestured. “There it is, Bakersfeld! Look at it! Taking the shoe polish outa the mouths of me and the boys who work for me.”

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