Posted by: trevormeers | June 25, 2010

Middle of NO’WHare

Dateline: Chicago, 9am, Friday

The Tunnel of Love’s moving floor gently carries me along on a slow ride through the most placeless portion of a nowhere place. Neither terminal B nor C at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, the tunnel conveys United Airlines passengers between the two terminals via a moving walkway lit by flashing neon tubes and filled with psychedelic renditions of the United theme song. When you reach either end of the tunnel, you’ve really arrived nowhere in particular. Just passed into another part of a place that’s purely transitional. Even “the United song” itself has been robbed of any roots to the greater world. I once heard the song—which was George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” until United licensed it for $500,000 in 1976—come on at a dinner party. I asked the hostess, “Oh, you like Gershwin?” She answered me softly so as to point out my mistake gently when she said, “Actually, that’s the United Song.”

So it’s fitting that the tunnel’s endless loop features the unofficial theme of O’Hare, which like most airports, seems to exist on some plane outside of geography. You can’t say you’ve been to Chicago if you’ve been there. O’Hare sits apart from the city, like Alcatraz in the bay, dangling a city’s pleasures before the inmates. If you’ve sat out O’Hare’s notorious delays, you know the angst of its prison sentences. It’s familiar to almost every flying American, since O’Hare is the world’s fourth-busiest airport and handled 64 million passengers last year. My low point was spending eight hours of my honeymoon watching icy rain slide down the big glass walls. The story given to us was that the plane slated to carry us to Honolulu had a cracked fuselage and that a replacement was on its way from Seattle. United made it up to us by handing us a voucher for a free lunch. In their accounting, swapping eight hours in paradise for a food-court hot dog constituted a fair trade.

But before I started seeing behind O’Hare’s curtain, it was a magical place to me. When you grow up in Lincoln, Nebraska, going almost anywhere via plane means stopping in O’Hare on the way, with a few exceptions in Denver. My first really memorable plane trip was to Washington, D.C., with my dad when I was about 10. On that journey, I started viewing O’Hare as the wardrobe that led to any Narnia you wanted to visit. When I got home, I set up my own airline route on the dirt road north of the house, with a donkey cart playing the role of a Boeing 727. I’d pull the cart north to O’Hare (the farm lane about 1/8 a mile away), turn around and come back to our drive, which had transformed into D.C. in the interim. On the return flight, the farm lane was still O’Hare, but our driveway would revert to Lincoln for the flight home. 
 

The airport would’ve shot even higher in my imagination if I’d known it was named for the Navy’s first flying ace: Butch O’Hare, who was shot down in 1942 over the Pacific with a whole row of Rising Suns painted under his cockpit.

It’s hard to get that excited about an airport as an adult who travels often for business. Train stations were romantic places in our past, but little of that charm has survived in our airports. Thanks to security restrictions, families saying hellos and goodbyes are out of sight, waiting somewhere beyond the TSA checkpoints. You can’t walk outside and taste a bit of the air in the town you’re passing through. In many airports, you can’t even look out the window and see anything but tarmac.

But if you listen, you’ll find a few folks on every trip who are still being enchanted like I was by O’Hare circa 1982. As our plane lifted off this morning from Des Moines, bound for O’Hare, a little kid in the back shouted, “We’re flying!” I wonder if he has a burro cart waiting when he gets home.

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Responses

  1. Wow. That tunnel is even more “trippy” than I remembered. Maybe I was too focused on getting out. Thanks for the memory jog.


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