The world is grounded and the birds are making hay in the sky

The world’s airlines have been put to rest, at least for the time being. Deanne Stillman reflects on her relationship with flight and finds as much joy gazing up at the sky as she did looking down from it

Wednesday 09 December 2020 11:11
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‘I can’t think of a time when I have heard so much birdsong’
‘I can’t think of a time when I have heard so much birdsong’

When I saw the images of jets parked at the aircraft boneyard near Phoenix, I burst into tears. They had been flown there in the aftershock of news about the coronavirus outbreak, and now they were all lined up in the drylands, where so many of our dreams and vehicles are preserved forever. Seeing the planes in that regard was the first time I fully realised the plague was upon us. The nation that had invented flight, gone to the moon, broken the sound barrier, was now grounded. Our planes were mostly empty; there would be no reprised late-night jokes about who did or did not press the cabin crew call button, no singing flight attendants on Southwest Airlines to brighten our time on crowded flights; no pilots suggesting that we look out the windows on the left side of the plane if we wanted to see the Grand Canyon, or letting us know that we were coming in for an approach and we might encounter some headwinds, or that our estimated arrival time was in 10 minutes, right on schedule, maybe even a little ahead of it, and thanking us for flying on that airline. For the first time, our great American dream of escape was foreclosed.

But my sadness was tied up with something else. I had a strange riches-to-rags upbringing, and airports were a significant part of it. I was a little girl when my parents got divorced, and my mother, sister and I moved from a well-to-do part of town to a neighbourhood where people eked out a living at blue-collar jobs and were considered pariahs by those in our previous zip code. Suddenly, we couldn’t afford vacations – although we were fortunate to have relatives in New York who provided us with car trips and plane travel to the east coast during the summer or for special occasions. But we liked having our own getaways too, and it became a tradition for us to spend a long weekend every summer at the airport hotel. This was because we liked watching the planes take off, signifying the places we would go and the things we would do when we got there. We never said it like this, but the underlying theme was will we ever get out of Dodge? The reference is to Cleveland, Ohio, where my mother had become a “divorcee” (as in slut; as in Barbara Stanwyck movies), and I was heading for college to get an “MRS degree”.

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