Sunday, August 25, 2019

Flashback 2003: Flying aboard Concorde a supersonic dream.

The Concorde
     "Satire doesn't belong in the newspaper," an editor I respect told me, after the following ran in 2003. 
     He's right, in the main. And to be honest, after I wrote this, I vowed never again to lead readers astray, even at the start of a column, because fellow reporters did come up to me the day this ran, expressing amazement that I had been aboard the Concorde. 
     I didn't feel badly that I had fooled them so much as because I had written a column that could be tossed away after a couple paragraphs.
     Unless, now that I think of it, they were merely pulling my leg. That's possible. I hope it's the case. I can be gullible myself that way.
     I should say, now, it was the product of pure envy. The paper sent Mary Mitchell on the last flight of the Concorde, leaving me tapping my chest, my lips opening and closing like a dying goldfish, mouthing, "Me! Me! Me!"
     Friday's visit to Greenland also fooled someone I know and respect, who asked me to send him a postcard from Greenland. Which again made me feel bad, for the above reason. A columnist who writes a column readers can abandon after a few paragraphs has failed. 
     Bottom line: the scrapings of the internet and my arid imagination are nothing compared to what I would certainly have found had the paper actually sent me there—although what is in Greenland is not the point of the news story this week. The point is how completely Donald Trump mangled the entire matter. 
    So a bit of fun, keeping in mind it is always, always, always better to go.
     ABOARD THE CONCORDE: The champagne flutes are plastic—even here, Safety First!— but the bubbly is a fine 1995 Veuve Clicquot, and does much to soothe the solemn sense of finality that accompanies this last flight of the needle-nosed, supersonic jet that once seemed to herald a new era of globe-gobbling speed. There was much noise and hoopla at Heathrow before the flight. But after British Airways officials handed us lucky few passengers our Concorde carry-ons jammed with luxury freebies and we climbed aboard, a certain quiet sadness set in.
     I must admit also feeling a bit nervous as we pulled back from the gate—I kept thinking of the film of that Air France Concorde engulfed in flame—but the steady stream of champagne helped, as did thinking of my deskbound colleagues and competitors back in Chicago, who'd give their eye teeth to have been plucked from . . .

Author bathed in swift luxury

     Sorry. Lies, all lies. But knowing full well the burst of envy that we reporters feel whenever an acquaintance draws a really plum assignment, I couldn't resist giving my circle a little frisson of shock and resentment along with their Friday morning coffee. Of course I wasn't on the last flight of the Concorde, or any of the previous 27 years' worth of flights. I was right here, mired in routine, shuffling aboard boring old Metra with the rest of the haggard, hollow-eyed commuters. But the people who quickly cast aside the paper with a sneer of disgust, thinking, "God I hate that lucky bastard," don't know that, do they?
     I do sincerely feel bad about missing the flights. The Concorde seems to me to be the capstone of all those 1950s Jetson dreams of what our future would be like. We'd all be in Spandex cat suits and weird cobalt sunglasses, drumming our fingernails against the oval supersonic jet windows, gazing at the curve of the Earth and hoping the market didn't change in the five hours it took to get from Chicago to Tokyo.
     So long as the Concorde was flying, I could kid myself that someday I'd be rich or lucky enough to snag a seat. I was just coming to grips with the slap of grim reality when it struck me that I didn't actually need to fly aboard Concorde; I could soften the disappointment of missing the trip by cutting right to the stock boastful rendition of the experience.
     Frankly, I think not going gives a person a clearer perspective. Reporters who actually find themselves aboard the Concorde are lulled by the swankness and excitement, and seem to think that the story is the little bowls of cashews they set out, when of course the important thing to observe is that the Concorde was the Irish Elk of airplanes, the step too far on the evolutionary scale, an enormous white elephant that the United States just barely kept itself from being gulled into. The Europeans tried vigorously for years to get us to shoulder the expense of Concorde with them, under the rubric of the "Super Sonic Transport." Congress argued over it forever, and seeing how routinely suckered they are by sinkholes like missile defense and the B-1 bomber, it's amazing that they actually took a pass, after years of debate (for a while, when dealing with a persistent annoyance, I'd say, "This is harder to kill than the SST," until I realized that nobody knew what I was talking about and I was dating myself).
      But just because a piece of transportation is a rococo relic doesn't mean you can like it. Speaking for myself, I find more ardor for strange technological dead-ends than for the sleek machines that work. My favorite plane is a monstrous flying milk bottle with stub wings called the Granville Gee Bee Super Sportster, an early 1930s racing plane that killed most of its pilots.
     You never know what is going to float somebody's boat, transportation-wise. I'm looking at an improbable book that showed up on my desk a few weeks ago, a beautiful large green volume called A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946 (Volume 1: The Mid-Atlantic States).
     The book is by a former colleague's dad, Richard C. Carpenter, and is exactly what you'd think it is: an elaborate, hand-drawn map of all the various train lines right after World War II.
     What possible use this book could be is a mystery to me. The introduction only gives a hint, offering "hope that, by producing a graphic record of this transportation network, present and future generations may learn valuable lessons from one of the most glorious episodes of our transportation history." I plan to hold onto mine, because it's so pretty, and you just never know.
     Whoops; lots of people jump from the start of a column straight to the end. So we should return to the fiction, just to keep up the ruse.

Flight could have been longer

     "You have lipstick on your cheek," Madonna laughed, dabbing at my face with a hankie she had removed from her decolletage and dipped in champagne.
     I admit that, under the circumstances, speed was a bad thing, and before I knew it the three hours had passed in pleasant conversation, consumption and reverie. We were landing in New York, and I sat back, closed my eyes and smiled, bidding a heartfelt and fond farewell to Concorde.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 24, 2003


  1. The Gee Bee and the Concorde, both too little advantage at too great a cost. One sleek and the other chubby in pursuit of higher speeds. I share your attraction to the racer, wondering why a knowledgeable pilot would go so fast in an aircraft so lacking in control surfaces. But the Bee Gees, like monster locomotives, are just interesting beasts. I also might be interested in the railroad maps, my ancestors having built a lot of railroad beds, but were there ever Volumes Two and beyond? The technology probably way more interesting than maps.

    1. No, monster locomotives are not just interesting beasts, they're gorgeous. They are a work of are in steel & iron. I went to see Big Boy in West Chicago & then see it run in Geneva. The sound of the whistle was as beautiful as that of the finest orchestra.
      As for the nuts who fly Gee Bees, there are also nuts who buy old P-51s & then cut the wings & make them shorter. Almost all have crashed & killed their nitwit pilots!

    2. All locomotives are interesting, the Monsters more impressive for their sheer size. The BeeGees, though small overall, are all engine like the brawny locomotives. Using the word "just" was a weak choice from an amateur, not a dismissal of the BigBoys.

  2. Journalistic standards weren't always what they are now. A Chicago journalistic precursor of Neil's, Ben Hecht, boasted in "A Child of the Century" of filing mostly made up reports in the early days of his employment.

    I enjoyed the brief intercourse with Madonna, although I would myself have chosen a different celebrity.



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