One March, I thought it might be nice to take my family along for a site visit in the Bahamas. The kids had Spring Break and I could take a few
days to linger on the island and relax. It all started out nice enough, I
met my clients, walked the building site and retreated with my family
to a quaint cottage on the beach. We had our fill of fishing and eating
conch and readied ourselves to get back to the mainland life.
The afternoon before our departure our pilot called and said if we didn’t leave by five we would be grounded by an oncoming storm brewing
in the west. We scrambled to pack and raced to the landing strip just in
a nick of time. We calculated our best shot for making it to the
mainland was to head to the nearest island with a real airport and book a
commercial flight out in the morning. The Exumas were our closest bet.
Arriving at the small airport jammed with German tourist and a dark sky
looming, it was clear that we weren’t going anywhere, so we scrambled to
find a room.
The lobby of the Peace & Plenty Inn wore the bright colors of an ‘80’s remodel over the historic bones of an 18th century house. Businessmen searching for a non-existent wifi signal lit
from chair to chair like nervous flies. As the wind rose, I dropped our
bags and made for the Slave Kitchen Bar. I immediately felt at
home in a dark colonial hangover festooned with pictures of past
regattas and the movie star guests of the 60’s. The air hung with the
cologne of Hemingway- tobacco & whiskey. Eric Clapton tunes playing
in the background confused time. In the corner sat two old souls bent
over the bar like giant question marks, staring at the clear liquid with
a lemon twist in front of them. They were quiet, but looked content. We
sat through a couple of drinks before he finally said, “I used to be an
Architect”. As the palm fronds outside lashed at the shutters, he
slowly began recounting his time as a student at the Cranbrook
Institute, and working for Eero Saarinen for little to no pay. As a
young man he had labored night and day over the drawings for the TWA
Terminal at JFK , “it was hard; too hard”, he said. He had quit and
started building furniture in Pennsylvania. His daughter now runs the,
evidently successful, company. They had come to “paradise”, a place they
had remembered, for one last visit.
The next morning, the lines at the airport were impossible- all flights out were booked and I had to be in San Francisco the following day for a
project interview. Desperate, we finally found a private pilot that
would fly from FT. Lauderdale to rescue us. We were pleased with
ourselves as we pushed by the angry mob to board our small aircraft. We
were away. But after an hour in the air, my wife asked the pilot “do we
have enough fuel?”. One never to worry, I assured her while noticing a
ominously low needle. The pilot merely chuckled. As the turquoise water
turned ultramarine, indicating we were now over the Gulf Stream, I
privately tired to remember how the rosary went- there was no way we
were going to make land. Trying not to alarm the others, I finally broke
my silence, “are you sure we have enough fuel?”. The Pilot chuckled
again, waited just a few more moments before flipping
the switch to the reserve fuel tank. The needle quickly rose as he
laughed a hearty laugh. Pilot humor. Funny. The coast came into
view and as I spied the airstrip just as my daughter announced that she
was going to “pee in her purse”. I began to laugh until my wife shouted
“don’t you dare!” and I realized this wasn’t part of the joke.
We scattered as we hit the ground- my son and I with bags, my wife and daughter to the bathrooms. We raced to our flight at the main terminal
with only moments to spare. We were stopped cold. The weather had
grounded everything to a halt. Made worst by the hundreds of tourist
departing from their cruise ships simultaneously, the concourse was
standing room only. I was still calm, there was still time, our flight
was only delayed a couple of hours. But as departure timelines slipped, I
became more anxious- I could NOT miss this interview in San Francisco.
Worry turned to despair when we arrived into Houston after the
last flight out to San Antonio that evening. Not to be beaten, we rented
a car and drove the 3-1/2 hours home. We arrived at 3 am- weary souls
dropped their bags and shuffled off to bed. I set my alarm for 4:30 (am)
to wake for my morning flight; then, set it again for 4:45.
The next morning my flight lifted off on time at 6 am- bound for San Fran via Las Vegas. Yet, the Gods of the Air were not done with me. My
flight in Las Vegas was delayed for hours- having me arrive after my meeting. As I waited to board, I pondered the irony of my many Facebook friends “Liking” my play-by-play “adventure”.
Fortunately, the meeting had been delayed and I was only fashionably
late. The client and other consultants were gathered in the paddock of
the old stable as I arrived. Steven Gambrel was evidently already
somewhere in the meadow contemplating the view out of some imaginary
window. The meeting was a success and the client dropped me off back
home, exhausted, on his way back to Florida.
A few months later I flew into JFK, large plastic bags with tubes
hung from the ceiling of the old Pan-Am Worldport like a patient on life
support; the sweeping concrete ceiling that defined a new era in
architecture and travel had given way to Hurricane Sandy’s insults. The
next time I came through JFK I could see through the window of my plane
the old terminal being dismantled. The next time, it was gone.
At the same airport Saarinen’s TWA terminal remains buried in decades of additions, it’s demolition debated over and over, but one day certain
to meet the fate of its other famous neighbor.
One day, hopefully long from now, I will say “I used to be an architect”. I can only hope my buildings will be loved; not just now,
but for generations. Just please outlast me.
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