Airborne America

Posted May 1st, 2009 at 2:13 pm (UTC-4)
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I’m writing from crisp, clear, cool San Francisco, after a day’s slog by air ─ yes, as you’ll see, it is possible to slog via airplane ─ from muggy, cloudy, hot Washington, D.C. Once I’ve poked around a bit and reacquainted myself with the distinctive “City by the Bay,” I’ll give you a report and some history in my next posting.

In the meantime, I suggest a name change for the blog ─ this time only ─ from “Ted Landphair’s America” to “10D’s America.”

To you, this is a jet airplane or “big bird.” To me, a high-flying, fast-moving stress machine

Humans with names are reduced to alphanumeric characters in today’s world of air travel. Carol was 10A, and I was 10D, not just at the airport and on the jumbo flying shoebox into which we were stuffed for more than five hours in the air from Washington to Los Angeles, but also from the moment we booked the flight and got our “seat assignments.” (Carol wanted a window; I wanted an aisle, and I ended up across the aisle in the same row.)

From the moment the reservations and seats were confirmed until we landed in San Francisco, we lost a good chunk of control of our lives.

What took over that control, for me more than Carol, was STRE$$.

(The $$ of air travel accrues from the cost of tickets, transportation to the airport, a growing array of booking and baggage fees, various gratuities, meals that used to be free, headset rental charges, and more.)

My stress level elevates according to the air travelers’ axiom, borrowed from “Murphy’s Law”: “What can go wrong, will.”

Carol, bless her, is possessed of an annoyingly sunny outlook best summarized with another cliché. Unfailingly she “makes the best of a bad situation.”

At least she agrees with me about the “bad” part.

What’s so tough, you ask, about waking one day on America’s right coast and drifting off to dreamland that same night in a comfortable hotel bed on the left one?

Everything in between, that’s what. Let me count some of the ways:

• The up-and-at-‘em-at-4 a.m. routine for a 9 o’clock departure. Why so ungodly early? Because paranoia about missing the flight strikes deep. There are pets and self to be fed; final packing and last-minute computer work that you meant to finish the night before but didn’t because, gracious, it was midnight already. And since one always “wants to come home to a clean place,” time must be found for light laundry and dishwashing and pick-up-around-the-house duty before the taxi or kind friend is tooting the horn in the driveway in “plenty of time” to get you to the airport.

My preferred plenty of time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Carol’s: 30 minutes.

So you have to catch a flight? No hurry, no worry. Take your sweet time

• The knuckle-gnawing ride to the airport, sure to be in rush hour, when a single closure or fender-bumper or drop of rain (Washingtonians drive like sniveling cowards in the rain and severe catatonics in snow) sends the blood pressure to alarm-bell levels.

Why not take trusty public transit?

Because there’s nothing “trusty” about it when you’re in a hurry. Repeat after me: What can go wrong . . .

This fellow is obviously watching one of Carol’s smaller bags for our next trip

• Packing. You have not traveled with Ms. Highsmith, whose photo endeavors require a safari-worthy assortment of steamer-sized trunks. Luckily, she’s an all-digital “photog” these days. Oh, how I remember the days when we’d set off with 13 elephantine cases bulging with lenses, tripods, battery packs, cords, filters, special umbrellas and backdrop cloths, 200 or so packs of 4”x5” large-format film, 300 boxes of Polaroid film, plus whatever clothes and cosmetics and mosquito repellent could be stuffed in between.

In the years since, the parsimonious airlines have whittled their world down to one permitted checked bag per person, and it had better be a little featherweight thing or EL$E.

Do you think all these bags can fit in the overhead luggage bin? Of course they can, with a little ingenuity and the ruthless scrunching of every purse and hat and backpacks that get in their way

That has prompted the flying public, otherwise known as sardines with boarding passes, to cram three lifetimes’ worth of possessions into the “one carry-on item” and one additional backpack, purse, or briefcase permitted on board. Thus, passengers lining up to board resemble stevedores tugging freight containers that onboard, they are repeatedly warned, “must “fit securely in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you.”

Bag limits, bag sizes, bag bins. Bag stress, as I’ll explain.

Yeah, getting through security may take you a few extra minutes (or days). And yes, those folks up on the walkway are in line. But be patient, and you’ll be just fine

• “Clearing security” at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, or is it Washington National Ronald Reagan Airport? Since its name was changed from just plain Washington National over a decade ago to honor the late president, I can never get it straight. Sometimes I call it “Washington Ronald National Reagan Airport,” just to be ornery.

Imagine the confusion up the road at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport. And I didn’t even scramble that one.

I won’t belabor the security ordeal ─ the shoeless, belt-less, have-your-boarding-pass-ready-for-inspection, hands-out-in-front-like-an-undead-zombie pass through the magnetometer under the watchful eye of Mr. or Ms. Uniformed Personality. It’s the same in any large airport. Sometimes the scowls and reproaches for packing a shampoo container larger than a thimble are surlier, sometimes they’re not. Depends on how long the security agents have been on their feet and how many people with belt buckles the size of Rhode Island have set off the scanner that day.

• Arrival at the departure gate. Naturally, in our case, approximately half of the passengers at Washington Ronald National Reagan had booked a single departing flight ─ ours, to Los Angeles. It was the usual assortment of grumpy “night people” who are grouchy any time before noon, plus what must have been 800 teenagers, chattering to each other or into their cell phones about J Lo and Brangelina, and a little bit about their big trip to SoCal.

(Don’t know from J Lo and Brangelina and SoCal? Like, you’re totally unclutch.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be boarding Flight 6787 in just a moment. I’m sure we’ll get most of you on. The rest of you can meet your luggage in Oshkosh if we can fit you on our next flight

• Getting aboard first. Even though everyone has an assigned seat, it’s important to elbow one’s way to the front of the line to be sure you’re a winner in battle for space in the overhead bin. One doesn’t want to have that maniacally packed carry-on bag banished to the cargo hold. Least of all Carol, who, you’ll recall, had crammed a small fortune in camera equipment, plus one-fourth of our other worldly possessions, into one unpleasantly plump bag.

Recognizing the likelihood of seating stampedes, airline computers now herd passengers into “groups” ─ numbered 1, 2, 3, sometimes up to 8 ─ so that the airplane can be boarded back to front. This makes some sense, since without such a plan, the stampeders would clog the aisles while trying to lift their overstuffed luggage into the bins.

First class
In case you had any doubts, this is not the “back of the airplane” in coach

But the smooth boarding system never works, because the airline also sets aside early, “priority” boarding for a variety of people with potentate status, including the rich and famous in first class, plus “gold-medallion members,” “super-plus” frequent fliers, those who’ve earned points from the airline’s “travel partners,” people “needing assistance” or traveling with families, undercover security agents, and deadheading pilots and flight attendants.

For our flight, by the time all of these special folks had boarded, only those 800 chattering teenagers, Carol, and I were left to straggle onboard.

Making that Carol-like best of a bad situation, I was able to wedge 10A’s bag into the bin. Telling you how I did it would earn me a place on the airline’s “watch list” for future lights. 10A settled into her seat next to an empty middle seat, leaned her head against one of those brick-like airline pillows, and fell fast asleep. I, old 10D, could have moved over to 10B. But come on! Only contortionists, racetrack jockeys, and those who forget to get seat assignments take a middle seat for a five-hour flight.

• Traveling “neighbors” in the sky. You can guess who ended up in 10E and 10F to my right: two of those teen chatterboxes ─ hand-holding boyfriend and girlfriend who, it too quickly became clear, had given adorable pet names to each other. Pookie and Boo, or something. Hour after hour, save for the half-dozen times I “stretched my legs” in the slit they call an aisle or in the phone-booth-sized lavatory at the rear of the plane, I was regaled with sagas of teenage loves lost, found, and dreamed of; loyal and disloyal friends; good parents, bad parents, wicked stepparents, bratty brothers, sisters who get all the attention, and stepbrothers who, you know, are like weird; teenagers who are dorks and teachers who are hunks; and spring break binges and barfs. All this before the lovebirds opened a laptop computer and began aiming the built-in camera at themselves and at me. This produced an hour of giggles, possibly at my expense.

• Reading material. I had brought, but mistakenly stuck in a checked bag, an old-fashioned reading instrument called a book. So I bought one copy of each newspaper that the concourse kiosk offered for sale, save for one in what looked like Yiddish.

This is the kind of place the in-flight magazines want to send you. Right. I’ll pack my flip-flops and snorkel and be right over

The only onboard alternative would be the “in-flight magazine,” which obsesses on exotic or adventuresome destinations on the airline’s route. That would be engrossing if I were into touring lush villas in lusher rain forests or scuba-diving with piranha. I’m not, though, so I was left to read about airport gate alignments, the selection of cocktails and snacks for purchase, and advertisements for zirconium jewelry, golf clubs, and vibrating chairs.

Still, after the six papers, zirconium ads, emergency landing instructions, and T-shirt on the back of an enormous man in 8B, there was nothing left but further adventures of my traveling companions, Pookie and Boo. And this was just to Los Angeles. The dreaded “change of planes” lay ahead there before we could even aim for San Francisco.

Catch a nap like my wife, 10A? Not when the seat reclines only about seven centimeters, the hours are punctured with turbulence and seat-belt warnings from “the cockpit,” note is made on the speaker system of every location “on the right (or left) of the aircraft” of every natural wonder and community larger than Sheboygan, and Pookie and Boo are taking turns stretching their legs.

Fortunately, the layover in Los Angeles and flight up to San Francisco were nearly unremarkable.


The exception was the number of people on the flight whom we observed wearing surgical masks. We counted 20, compared with just 1 on the cross-country flight. Californians, already sensitive to airborne pollution and more attuned than easterners to good health, have been quick to note the recent spread of swine flu; as of this writing, 12 confirmed or suspected cases have been reported in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. Perhaps it was my imagination, but when a man several rows to our rear erupted into a coughing fit, the normal buzz of conversation dipped to an uncomfortable murmur.

Flu fear: one more stressor in the air.

All of this mitigates in favor of nice, sanely paced, drives across America, any time we have a choice. We’ll be driving, not flying, all the way back home over ten days, nabbing stories and photographs. No 10A and 10D going east. No Pookie and Boo, either.

‘Hello, Curly? This is 04582”

The front page of my San Francisco Chronicle shows the surprising fruits of recent searches of inmate cells in California’s biggest state prison in Vacaville.

Not guns or homemade knives, called “shanks,” fashioned from bedsprings or sharpened spoons. Not drugs or girlie magazines. Not contraband cigarettes or booze.

No, something thoroughly modern: cell phones! 1,800 of them confiscated since 2006. Plus another thousand discovered in the cells or on the grounds of California’s other prisons.

Cell phones in more ways than one.

Needless to say, easy contact with the outside world is not the ideal “perk” for incarcerated bad guys and gals. Not only can they merrily continue their criminal enterprises, such as ordering “hits” on the judges, jurors, prosecutors, and witnesses who put them away, but they can also use their cell minutes to plan such recreational activities as jail breaks.

You’d think it was girlfriends, boyfriends, gang pals, or shady lawyers who smuggled in most of these mobile phones. Naw. In more than half the cases, it was the prison staff ─ cooks, medical personnel, even guards, if you can call them that ─ who sold the phones to “cons” for $100 to $400 apiece.

This raises a question: How many cigarettes or extra bars of soap does a convict have to sell to earn $400 to spend on a cell phone? Apparently cash, as well as electronics, is finding its way behind bars.

Right now, the penalty imposed on a prisoner found hiding a cellular phone in California is the loss of 30 days’ credit for “good behavior.” That’s not exactly throwing them in “the hole” for a month like the good-old days. (Just kidding, prison reformers.)

Seeing the photo of the cell phone pile, the California legislature is springing to action. Bills have been introduced to make the smuggling, sale, or possession of a mobile phone in a state prison illegal.

That’ll put the fear of the law in those cons.

Boys in the Hoods

On my last trip, to Ohio and Indiana, I visited and wrote a VOA story about the small Indiana city of Kokomo, an industrial place that is battling economic gremlins. Kokomo’s largest employer is Chrysler Motors, which, after teetering for months on the edge of collapse, filed this week for bankruptcy protection. The gist of my story was that while Kokomoans are worried, naturally, they’re also in the early stages of re-inventing themselves as a model “green” city of biodiesel reactors, algae ponds, rooftop wind turbines and the like.

While there, I came across a fascinating historical oddity that I did not report because it has no relevance to the economic crisis or, that I can see, to the city today.

Kokomo sits in the northern part of a northern state ─ a good 270 kilometers (170 miles) from Kentucky, which was a “border state” between North and South in the American Civil War of the 1860s, and 850 kilometers (525 miles) from former slaveholding, Deep South states like Mississippi.

But it was not in Mississippi or Georgia or Kentucky but in Kokomo, Indiana, in 1923, where history’s largest gathering of the Ku Klux Klan took place. Klansmen were white bigots who paraded in white robes and conical white masks when they were not terrorizing, and sometimes lynching, African Americans, Jews, and other minorities. More than 200,000 Klansmen marched in that record-setting rally in Kokomo that year.

Ku Klux Klan
Ku Klux Klansmen couldn’t have been too proud of what they were doing, considering the lengths they went to hide their identities

An itinerant salesman named David Curtis Stephenson who had settled in Indiana also happened to be the Klan’s “grand dragon.” He spread hate while making a fortune for himself, selling Klan robes and hoods. Stephenson organized the big Kokomo rally at the apex of the Klan’s power. Two years later, he was off to prison for life after a conviction on a rape charge. And subsequent prosecutions of other Klansmen sapped the Klan’s appeal. Estimated membership in Indiana fell from 350,000 to 15,000 in a single year.

I asked the county historian, Fred Odiet, about all this, and he noted that Klan membership was a not-so-secret secret in many northern towns in the early 20th Century. Business leaders in Kokomo and elsewhere were not virulent “night riders,” he says. But they hired some, and they collaborated to keep Catholics, more than the few blacks in the area, in their place. Just about everybody knew who was Klan and who wasn’t, Odiet says, but nobody talked much about it. Some townspeople identified Klansmen by carefully observing their shoes, unhidden by the white robes, then matching the footwear against what “reputable” businessmen would wear to work or civic gatherings.

Kokomo today is still a “white bread” place ─ 87 percent white and just 10 percent African American. But there are countless signs of racial harmony in town, and nobody pays much attention to other people’s shoes any longer.

White Light
Grand Central Station
There are no chandeliers in this section of the massive, refurbished Grand Central Terminal, but there are still plenty of light bulbs to change

A quick thought about a clever New York Times story pegged to the old jokes about how many people of one sort or another it takes to change a light bulb. Six, it turns out, at the city’s Grand Central train terminal. There, just 10 gilt chandeliers alone carry almost 700 incandescent bulbs, and officials are replacing them and thousands of others with compact, screw-in fluorescents that, together, are expected to save the terminal $200,000 a year in energy costs.

Carol and I are sad to see this latest example of the switch away from incandescent lighting. She, as a photographer, because of the beauty of many traditional light bulbs and the sheer ugliness and sickening patina of fluorescent bulbs. And I because, in one motel and restaurant and streetlight after another, the warm glow of Thomas Edison’s invention is being replaced by an institutional, cool-blue sheen better suited to outer-space movies or those mobile-phone-equipped cells at Vacaville.

True enough, money and energy will be saved in the brave new, paler, sickly-looking fluorescent world. And one day, the warm glow of an old-fashioned light bulb will have gone the way of the floppy disk.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Gremlin. A mischievous fairy. The word also has a more modern application to electronic and mechanical devices that develop inexplicable glitches, blamed on mysterious gremlins or “bugs.”

The hole. Prison jargon for cells to which convicts are sentenced to solitary confinement.

Parsimonious. Not just frugal but downright cheap. Tight with a dollar and not inclined to part with one.

Sniveling. Whining and tearful. Another vocabulary-building word, obsequious, also fits someone who snivels.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


May 2009
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