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DAY 19

I went to college in North Carolina. I wanted to get as far away from Mississippi as possible. That turned out to be Hickory, NC. I didn't want college to be High School, Part 2, going to school with the same group of people who hadn't been all that friendly. I doubted a change in geography would make either of us more friendly. (BTW...some of you have turned out to be terrific adults, but we all had to grow up first.)

But this post isn't about the joys of going to college and reinventing myself.

It's about coming home.

Unless you've been living under a rock this week, you know that Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport suffered a system meltdown of epic proportions. This my hometown airport, and it's no picnic on an ordinary day. Add holiday traffic, the beginning of a work week, stir in no power whatsoever...and you have Living Hell.

Which got me to reminiscing. I've spent more hours in that place than I care to contemplate. I was even snowed in there once, and couldn't get the thirty miles home. But what I was really thinking about was all the times I came through Hartsfield (pre-hyphenated name) on my way home from college.

Good times. Not being snarky. I have happy memories of the airport (and flying in general) in the 70's.

When I flew home from college, sometimes I left from Hickory Municipal Airport, which had one gate, and the luggage pickup was a hole in the runway fence. Only Piedmont flew from there; I might as well have taken the bus. Between Hickory and Atlanta, those tiny planes landed at two other airports. Piedmont, the Flying Greyhound of the Skies.

If I was lucky and caught a ride to Charlotte, I had a direct Delta flight to Atlanta. Piedmont, Delta...either way, all routes went though Atlanta. (The joke was If you're going to Hell, you'll have a layover in Atlanta first.)

I adored flying. Remember when flying was fun? (This was the early 70's.) Lots of leg room, half empty planes, sometimes a sandwich snack...loved it! You could check two bags big enough to smuggle a small child and not be charged. Oh yeah, and people, even college students, halfway dressed up to fly.

Atlanta was not the biggest airport in the world in 1972. By the time I went to college, I'd already negotiated the two biggest, Chicago's O'Hare and JFK by myself. In comparison, Hartsfield felt downright homey. If you were on Delta, you flew in and out of the same terminal. Maybe you had to walk a few gates, but no Plane Train. No shoving through masses of people moving at snail speed so you wouldn't miss your connection (and if you did...there was always another plane to Jackson in an hour or two.)

I loved the space-age design of the Delta concourse, with high ceilinged, arched rotunda's at the ends of the U-shaped area Walking up the gangway always made me think of The Jetson's theme song..."Meet George Jetson..." I always hoped we'd land at one of the rotundas, but even if we didn't, one of them was always a short hike away. That's where I would spend my layover.

Why? Because they had the most cushiony window seats, with cathedral-like windows (see picture). I would curl up on a cushion (they were backless, so I usually had them all to myself) with my carryon full of magazines, and read. I felt SO mature, even though I was sitting with one foot tucked under me like a ten-year-old.

But sooner or later, it was time to make my way to the Jackson plane gate. It was usually a tiny penned-in area, windowless, with seating for 30. If you didn't get there early, you'd be leaning against a wall during loading.

Even though I was still in the Atlanta airport, that Jackson-bound gate was the Beginning of Home.

I almost always knew someone also taking that flight. Someone from high school (thanks to ever shifting desegregation plans, I went to school with everyone in North Jackson at one time or another.) A girl who was also a student of my piano teacher, coming home from boarding school in Virginia. Parents of friends. Friends of my parents. Always somebody. We'd nod and say "hi", and went back to our reading...or if it was the end of a semester...sleeping.

Once on the plane, again, your seat mate (no middle seat, just double rows of double seats) wouldn't hesitate to start a conversation. On these late night flights, everyone was coming home. From school. Vacation. A business trip. Metro Jackson may have had a population of a quarter of a million, but it was Mayberry in attitude.

You and your seat mate would talk for the less-than-an-hour flight. You'd know where each other lived. If they also happened to be from North Jackson, you'd compare schools. Chances were more than good that you had mutual friends/acquaintances. We'd catch up on Jackson political gossip. If nothing else, Mississippi had (and still does) its share of "colorful" politicians who were always up to something strange. We never talked political parties because back then, everybody was a Democrat. Mississippi was still "recovering" from Reconstruction and all those Carpetbagger Republicans who ruined their state. wedding wears with affordable price

The trip was so brief that the plane never gained much altitude. If the skies were clear, you could see the bright lights of Birmingham, and guess at smaller towns along the way. Tuscaloosa? Meridian? Laurel? Then nothing but dark with an occasional house bathed in a single security light, a pickup truck or tractor in the drive.

Then suddenly you were flying over water, the Reservoir. The Jackson Airport (aka Allen C Thompson Field) lay ahead at the far side of the Reservoir. The plane dipped lower, and there was the Reservoir spillway.

Almost home.

With a bump-bump-bump, the plane landed, coasting up to the gate. In those pre-security check days, you could see if your loved ones were waiting at the window. There was Mom, in a jacket and headscarf, even though it was probably 65 degrees outside. Dad, in a plaid shirt. They'd wave even they couldn't see me. I waved back.

My fellow passengers and I would gather our belongings. I would jiggle impatiently, waiting politely (sort of) for others to pass me. Then I'd shoot down the jetway and emerge into the strangely yellow light of the airport, and the arms of my parents.
Aside from the chatter of those around me, the place was oddly quiet. Oh right. Everyone except the baggage people went home at nine.

I was home. Really home. I came home a hundred times through those gates and it was always the same. Somehow, I imagine that when I go "home" for good, it will be a lot like that. Quiet, a golden light and the loving arms of those who have gone before me.

The picture (which I also used last year) was me at Christmas, 1972. And of course the other, is the late, lamented Delta rotunda.